We’ve been almost two days away from civilization, with only mules for company. Two words describe the last two days: wow and ow!

Two days ago we met at the corral at 8:00 a.m. to receive instructions on the mule ride. It was a blustery morning at the top of the Angel Trail. Rob had to go buy gloves and I borrowed some from the mule manager.

The day started with the manager lecturing the whole group (the six overnighters and a larger group of day trippers). He must have said it 10 different ways, so it stuck with me. When you’re riding, the mule’s ass ahead of you should be lined up between your mule’s ears. If you can see its legs or worse the ground, you’re too far apart. This is essential because mountain sheep and deer love to thread the needle if there’s too much of a gap. If that happens, the mules freak and start to gallop. At the time of the lecture I didn’t know what that would feel like….

The mule rides have been going on for 101 years, and they’ve never had a fatality. The manager wanted us to promise to listen to our guides so that it would continue to be that way. Once we were in our group of six overnighters, we were each assigned a mule. Rob got hoo-doo and I got Charlie. Before mounting Charlie, I was asked to be the mail carrier. It meant getting sworn in and promising to deliver the mail, regardless of snow, wind, rain, sleet, hail, retrieving it from the Colorado River if necessary, etc. It also meant that chickening out was no longer an option.

So we started off down the trail. I knew what to expect for the first couple of 100 metres from the day before. I also knew that I wasn’t going to be able to look down for the first five minutes. After that, I was okay. In fact it actually seemed better on the mule because I knew Charlie was sure footed and didn’t want to go over the edge.

Our group of six included two retired couples, one from Montana, the other from Alaska. The two men knew each other as children, didn’t see each other for a while, but get together now from time to time. We had an early lunch at Indian Gardens around 10:30. In 20 minutes, we were treated to a box lunch of peanuts, chips, carrots and dip, cheese, beef jerky, a bun, an apple, cookies and juice. What you didn’t start you could put in a box for the ranger to eat. Other started but not finished food was carted off with the mules. This is probably a good time to explain that everything, and I mean everything, gets brought down and up by mule. The only exception was the cable for the new bridge. Indians brought that down on their backs (not on the spool).

The scenery was spectacular, a postcard view with every turn, particularly the one called “Oh Jesus”. I think I let out a “Oh my God” and “Holy Shit” or two as well. After that was the Devil’s corkscrew, which I’m sure you can picture with that name. We continued on, stopping every now and then to let the mules rest. Going down on a mule is harder than you might think. You have to keep balanced, and lean back all at the same time. Each time we took a break and dismounted, Rob would complain about his groin.

In case you didn’t know, Rob isn’t the most flexible guy, and rarely stretches after exercising, except when he played rugby (and those days are long gone). And remember he’s 40 now, so that makes it worse. Okay, back to our ride. Just when you think you can see the bridge and the ranch, our guide, Anslam, bellows out “That down there is the hiker’s bridge, we’re takin the far one.” And it does really echo in the canyon. Anslam is half Hopi and half Navajo. And down here they’re called Indians, not First Nations. He wasn’t too talkative on the way down, and we felt we weren’t getting the full experience.

Between the two bridges, there was an incident. At the time it didn’t bother me, but when we talked about it with the ranchers from Montana, it did bug me a bit. Dexter, Anslam’s mule, decided to be stubborn. I was right behind him on Charlie. Dexter decided to come back towards Charlie, who had nowhere to go because Hoo-doo was behind him. He also had his ass turned to the ledge. That’s the part that was scary because he doesn’t know where it is then. Of course for me at the time, I thought it was fine. Dexter kept coming down the hill, and eventually my leg got pinned between Dexter and Charlie. In the meantime, Anslam is telling Rob and Judy to “motivate” Dexter to get him to move. Eventually he did, and all was well.

I should have explained the mule motivator earlier. Outside the canyon it’s known as a whip. With tourists, it’s known as the mule motivator. It has a wrist strap, and hangs down loosely from your wrist when not in use. When needed, you grip it like a tennis racket and give your mule a good hard serve. Too light and he’ll think you’re a marshmallow and then you have no control. Let’s just say Charlie was old, fat and stubborn, and my shoulder got a good workout on the way down.

At the bottom, I handed over the mail to the camp manager, and we set off to our rustic cabin in the desert. It’s a bit more lush because of the water from the creek and river. But the lovely surroundings couldn’t help Rob’s predicament (see video below).

Once settled in, we met up with our group for beers. The joke was that the beer run hadn’t arrived today and there weren’t too many left. As it turned out, they were almost out by the end of the night. Dinner was a honkin big steak, mashed potatoes, corn, peas and corn bread. It’s served family style by one person, who gets four tables with 14 people at each table all served in less than an hour. Dessert was chocolate cake. Our server has actually lived at the ranch for the past year and a half. How cool is that on your driver’s licence? One other thing I should mention. The mail bag I brought down became the post box on the wall for everyone sending postcards. How proud I felt to be doing such an important job.

Did I mention that we had a little nap between after ride beers and dinner? Well what can you do when there’s no TV? no Internet? We did take a walk around the ranch and walked over to the corral, the Angel Trail bridge, down to the boat beach, and by the ranger’s camp. But then a snooze was in order. At 7:30 p.m. the ranger was going to give a talk about the mules. What a decision, you’ve spent you’re whole day on the mules, and you need to decide whether to hear about mules again. We opted for another snooze, then Rob went over to pay our drink tab for dinner. Our cabin had a bed, table, chair, bedside table, sink, and a small room for the toilet. There was no running hot water, but showers were available, towels included. But since I didn’t have a hair dryer or a change of clothes, we both opted not to have showers. No fires are allowed in the canyon, and it gets quite dark and quiet once dinner has been served.

It was an early night to say the least. Surprisingly we both slept through until breakfast, which included pancakes, bacon, scrambled eggs, jarred pears, juice and coffee. Departure time was 7:30, and Anslam was waiting for us. Remember how I said Rob’s not the most flexible? I had laughed at him the night before as he applied Bengay to his groin. Well in the morning I woke up with a very sore back (from “motivating” Charlie, I’m sure). so Rob rubbed Bengay on my back, and we set off with our clear plastic travel bag to get loaded up again. Surprisingly I got on better than I thought. Rob just looked plain awkward.

The return trip was slightly different, but involved going over the bridge again. I forget to mention that there’s a tunnel just before you go into the bridge when you’re coming down to the ranch. The entrance (or now the exit as we were leaving) has a low ceiling. Oh, and mules don’t like dark spaces after bright light, so you really have to keep them nose to tail so they don’t freak out. Well Charlie is old and was huffing and puffing, and I lost sight of Dexter ahead of me. Please, I thought, don’t let him freak out on me in the tunnel. But we made it through okay.

Charlie kept falling behind, and forcing extra breaks. Eventually Anslam tied him onto Dexter for a bit of a pull up the hill. We passed so many hikers who were coming down, and politely smiled for all their photos and movies. I’ll have to check Youtube to see if we’re there. Here are a couple of pics:

And now we’re back in Tusayan, taking a rest before we head to Flagstaff tomorrow. The laundry is all in the dryer. It really stunk. And we’re squeaky clean.

And the lesson from all of this is as follows: It doesn’t matter if you don’t like big animals and have a bit of a fear of heights. What matters most to truly enjoy the mule ride is to have the flexibility to lift your leg into the left stirrup and move your other leg over the mule. Lesson learned for Rob! Watch cowboy Rob strut around on day 2 at the rest stop:


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