Muling Down The Grand Canyon

Muling Down The Grand Canyon
For the past 39 years I’ve wanted to ride a mule into the Grand Canyon, ever since I visited there when I was 11 and found out you could do that. At the time I was too young, or so my parents told me, and it’s been bugging me ever since. Before I got too old, I thought I’d better hop to it. (This mid-life crisis thing can be really fun.)

So, I met Marsha McCloskey in Las Vegas where she was wrapping up with the local guild, and we drove five hours to the southern rim of the Grand Canyon.

The next day we joined a bunch of other lunatics, got a stern safety lecture from Sean, the head wrangler, who demonstrated the proper way to “motivate” our mule— he’s holding it in his hands. Then we climbed on.

Lest you think the animals we rode were puny little burros, think again. That wrangler who helped Marsha into the saddle was pretty tall. At least 6 feet. (Maybe 7.)

With the third movement of Ferde Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite playing in our heads, and imbecilic smiles across our faces, we set off down the Bright Angel Trail. (See that little squiggle by the mule’s right ear? We went all the way down there!) The Grand Canyon is awe-inspiring at the rim, but being surrounded by the majesty of the high canyon walls as you go down defies description.

My mule, Seemore, does not defy description. Although Seemore was pretty small, it still felt like I was straddling the roof of a compact car. Put stirrups where the door handles are and you’ve got the picture. His saddle, leather over marble, was pre-molded to somebody else’s tush, not mine. He could also use a good set of shock absorbers. No gentle rocking here. My rear flew up out of the saddle (and then came crashing back down again) with every step. And that’s when he walked. Running to catch up to the mule in front was a new experience in pain as my butt thumped along double time. Still the views were spectacular.

Once I stopped focusing on the mule butt in front of me, and loosened my death grip on the saddle horn, I was able to turn my head and enjoy the drop off.

Seemore likes to live on the edge. To my dismay, he also liked to WALK there. (“You SEE MORE when you ride Seemore,” is what they told me.) Mules supposedly can see all four of their feet at the same time and have strong survival tendencies, so even if it looks like they’re going to step off the path into the great beyond, they just like to hear the tourists suck in air really fast. Maybe it makes us a little lighter for a few seconds.

Whenever the mule train stops, you have to point your mule toward the canyon. This gives him a chance to entertain himself by eating things he’s not supposed to eat, and to remember that the only escape from the rock slide or falling hiker behind him is straight ahead into the abyss. Gordon, our wrangler and guide, said some plants in the canyon might be hallucinogenic making the mules think they can fly. Therefore, it’s best to eat whatever the mule eats at these impromptu pit stops so that if he IS spooked you won’t care either and you can both fly to the other side. (I am just kidding. Facing the canyon will remind the mules where they are so they WON’T dive off the edge if they get frightened. Yeah. Sure.)

It took us seven bone-jarring hours to wind our way down some 3,200 feet to Plateau Point (where I am impersonating Black Bart) and then back up again. Let me say that I now know why cowboys don’t jump off their horses to run and hug their sweethearts after a long day on the trail. The human body cannot recover from trauma that quickly. Don’t take my word for it, take a look at Marsha’s ”Mule Walk”.

I’m only looking this happy because most of my lower body is numb.

Down at Plateau Point we had lunch, rested the mules, and tried really hard not to fall into the Colorado River some 1200 feet below.

I learned so many things about “muling.” First and foremost, it’s probably not a good idea to eat a whole bag of dried apricots the day before you mule into the canyon.

Second, wearing lots of clothes isn’t a good thing either. (Neither is peeling most of them off when the hot flashes become continuous and then getting sunburned because you never thought that part of you would see the light of day when you dressed for a blizzard that morning.) Temperatures go from 30 at the rim to 90 about 500 feet down. (I dressed for the rim and got warm really fast.)

Third, give yourself time to adjust to a three-hour time change AND the high altitude.

Fourth, you really have to drink a lot of water. Dry heat is so interesting. You don’t even realize you’re sweating. That’s what the paramedics told me. Yes, sometimes one’s purpose in life is to serve as an example to others of what not to do. We figured out all the things I did wrong on the 80-mile ambulance ride to the hospital in Flagstaff, the closest medical facility: dried fruit, over-dressing (all in black), sunburn, altitude, jet lag, not drinking enough water... Since acute dehydration shares a lot of symptoms with heart attacks in females, it was suggested that I not take any chances. I decided to be adult about it and get checked out.

Anyway, long story short, I’m just fine. A few hours on a saline drip did me a world of good. Marsha, however, has a few new gray hairs. She waved good-bye as the ambulance doors closed behind me, grabbed the keys to the rental car from our room, and actually beat us to the hospital where she was abundantly helpful. I feel so blessed to have had someone to share the mulies with, and just as blessed to have my very own ambulance chaser. Would I do it again? In a hot minute—except for the medical excursion. I’ll get it right next time.

Would you like to MULE the canyon? How about just looking at old pictures of other people muling?

There is a wonderful 40 minute DVD narrated by Wilford Brimley called “Grand Canyon Mule Ride: Is There a Dining Car on the Mule Train?” Order from Xanterra Mule Trip Videos/ P.O. Box 97/Grand Canyon, AZ 86023.