Over The Fence: Muling The Grand Canyon
I have a cap that makes me smile. It says, "I Muled the Grand Canyon." If you can say that you "muled" something, then it stands to reason that you could also go muling, or that you are perhaps better able to "mule" than you are to "horse." Regardless of the questionable grammar, my cap is a treasured possession, because I did indeed "mule the Grand Canyon."
My husband and I had never seen this scenic wonder, so we embarked on a road trip to Arizona and arrived at the Canyon at sunset. We decided to book a trail ride for the next day, and I remember thinking that a nice two-hour trek would be about right. When we got to the head of the line, we were told that there had just been a cancellation for a mule ride to the bottom of The Canyon. When I inquired as to the particulars, I was told that the ride would take six hours going down, followed by an overnight stay on the canyon floor and then an additional five hours coming back up. That's eleven hours on the back of a mule! My nether regions were already hurting. Nonetheless, this felt like serendipity, so we signed on.
Before embarking the next day, we were addressed by our guide. He did not mince words. He told us that this would be a difficult and challenging ride, that it would test our mettle, both physically and psychologically. We were told that if we wanted to back out, he wouldn't blame us. However, once we started down the trail, we would be committed for the duration. Facing the humiliation of walking away outweighed our trepidation, so off we went.
What followed was a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. I soon found myself on a three-foot wide, incredibly steep path traversing the ridge in a series of hairpin turns. Before each turn my mule would go to the very edge and then turn sharply at the last possible moment before heading the other direction. At the end of a turn, we were so close to the rim that it seemed like we would surely tumble over into the abyss. I found myself actually closing my eyes to avoid looking down. I must not have been alone, because our guide suddenly called out "Keep your eyes open, everyone. Closing them won't make it go away!"
Maybe not, but the alternative was terrifying. And that's the way the day went.
I was alternately terrified and awestruck. What I was seeing was horrifying on a visceral level and utterly awesome on an emotional one. It's hard to convey what it is like to be on the side of a canyon, exactly one mile up, staring down at a tiny ribbon that is the Colorado River winding along the canyon floor— wondering all the while if you will live to tell the tale.
After six hours of riding, we arrived safely at the bottom. However, just as I was able to breathe again, we were confronted with a tunneled suspension bridge which we needed to navigate in order to cross the river. The tunnel was pitch black and narrow. Just
one more little heartrate spike for good measure.
Finally we rode into Phantom Ranch, which is situated at the bottom of the Canyon. We had a cabin to ourselves and were served a passably good steak dinner (packed in by mule, naturally). Have I mentioned how I was feeling about now? Sort of like a tractor trailer had rolled over the bottom half of my body. And tomorrow would bring another five hours on the mule!
Going back up, the ascent was steep, so the mules needed rest every 15 minutes and were required to stand facing into the canyon with their heads hanging over the abyss. Believe me when I say that this is a sensation you never forget. I also found, to my great consternation, that my mule was experiencing a bout of colic. Colic causes mules to prance around as they attempt to relieve intestinal discomfort. So there I was, with my mule prancing around on the edge of a cliff in the Grand Canyon, praying that we wouldn't prance right off it! I experienced several cliff-prancing episodes before we caught up to a pack train and I was able to change mounts.
It's not an experience I want to revisit, but the lady just ahead of me in line arguably had a worse one. During one of our breaks her mule decided that a bush growing out into the ether looked tasty. He therefore stretched out to reach it and began a slow slide that would inevitably take him over the edge. Our guide was frantically shouting "Pull back on the reins! Pull back!" Unfortunately, the elderly rider didn't have the strength to control her mule, so we all braced for the worst. Thankfully, at the last moment, the guide was able to leap off her mule and physically wrestle the animal back from the edge. A collective sigh of relief went through our little band and the trip to the top proceeded without further incident.
As you may have gathered, "muling" the Grand Canyon is not for the faint of heart, but if you're brave enough to try it, I doubt you will find a more breathtaking, inspiring and spiritual experience anywhere in the world.
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