An Arduous Adventure

Post Date: September 30th, 2015



As the Grand Canyon weigh-in deadline loomed, I realized even stronger action was required, so I began one-mile morning walks in addition to the 2+ miles in the evening, and resolved to eat even less. I admit feeling on edge at the check-in desk as the moment to step on the scale arrived. Victory: five pounds under the limit fully clothed! This achievement was so sweet I cried.

Getting Started

A mule is sired by a donkey, the ancient Middle Eastern pack animal. It is birthed by a horse which gives the mule its height. We first gazed upon 12 of these tall, sturdy, 1000-pound animals at 6:45 on a cool Saturday morning as they were led into a small stone corral at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. We were dressed as required: long-sleeved cotton shirts, long pants and wide-brimmed hats. Each of the ten riders was assigned a mule. Mine was named Truman, who, it turned out, breathed new life into the term “stubborn mule.”

We were each given a small leather riding crop that the head wrangler called a “mule motivator.” The goal was to keep our mule nose-to-tail with the mule in front of it because if it lagged behind, as Truman was wont to do, it would eventually catch up by running, a startling event for the rider as well as riders on the mules behind who would follow suit. The remedy? Motivate a dawdling mule by hitting its rear flank with the crop. It wouldn’t hurt the mule, we were assured. They didn’t mention that it might hurt us. The animals were so large that trying to turn to give a good motivational whack sometimes resulted instead in self-flagellation.

The lead wrangler told us they would stop the mule train after ten minutes and give a full refund to any rider who felt she couldn’t continue. This relieved the abject terror of some of my travel companions. I wasn’t afraid before the ride or when I mounted, but starting down the nearly eight-mile trail replete with switchbacks aroused my anxiety. The trail was rockier than I anticipated. I expected dusty, but the trail had gravel in some spots, rocks the size you could pick up and throw in other spots, still larger rocks that you’d use in a fire pit, and sometimes slabs of rock. Mule hoofs on rock is not a reassuring sound.

The Downward Ride

The wranglers said that going down the canyon would be the hardest for the riders, but we never imagined the degree of mental and physical stress of a five-hour down-trail mule ride. Two of our mules liked to graze on the flora. Pulling a mule up from the forbidden act of bending over to eat vegetation required the muscles of a blacksmith.

We were constantly vigilant as the mules picked their way on narrow paths, walking within an inch or two of the outer edge as they turned on the switchbacks. One of the two wranglers told us, “You can talk, you know.” “About what?” was our communal thought. We were concentrating so hard on the process and also afraid to turn our heads to communicate with one another. We were told not to lean, so we focused on sitting upright, faced forward, heels down in the stirrups, leaning back in the saddle for the benefit of the mules traveling downward, and pathetically trying to motivate wayward mules.

We encountered hikers on the trail who were plastered against the inner wall to let the mule train pass. One of them asked if we were having fun. Fun? Not the first word that leapt into our minds. “Um, kind of.” But we began engaging with the hikers, greeting them, introducing our mules to them, wishing them well on their hikes, and thereby enjoyed ourselves more.

When we stopped on a couple of occasions to dismount and use restrooms, we had to get our “land legs” back. We could barely walk. We read before coming to Arizona that one of the wranglers tells his groups that in two hours they’ll be “crippled.” We understood that now.

Other times we merely stopped on the trail and turned our mules sideways on the pathway to face the canyon. If they were turned inward toward the rock wall, they might accidentally step backwards and fall down the canyon, but mules have a strong self-preservation instinct and will not go headfirst into the canyon.

We slowly began to appreciate the sites: vast canyon vistas; tiny yellow angelita daisies and red firecracker flowers; rock formations like The Guardian; pictograms on an overhanging ledge; the remainder of a granary where Natives stored beans, squash and corn (the “three sisters”); and, unexpectedly, butterflies.

While there was a fair amount of September shade on the top portion of the trail, we endured The Furnace for two hours on the bottom part. We were encouraged to keep hydrated with water from our wine skins which they refilled with iced water carried down on the mules. We braved a particularly difficult part of the trail which culminated in the Jesus Corner, so named because “a lot of holy words are uttered at this place.”

Then there was the mighty, muddy Colorado River bisecting the canyon, and the black suspension bridge across it preceded by a cool, dark tunnel with a low ceiling. Fifteen minutes later we arrived at Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon.

Some riders make it this far and then collapse upon dismounting, so demanding is the ride down. The ranch therefore provides plenty of ice-cold, electrolyte-filled water for rejuvenation as soon as riders can walk on their land legs to the shaded picnic tables. This was fortunate for one of my traveling companions who was nearly done in. She drank gobs of that water before crumpling onto a bunk in our cabin for the better part of the next 15 hours.

That evening we were treated to a steak dinner which we chowed down. Then a hot but peaceful time until we turned into our bunks for the night.

Back to the Rim

Because of Truman’s penchant for eating on the trail he was muzzled for the ride back up. We took a shorter trail back, but because climbing is harder on the mules than descending, we stopped on the trail, facing the mules toward the canyon, every ten minutes to rest them.

Truman didn’t just lag behind now; at times he came to a complete standstill. Initially I was able to get him going again by hitting into his belly with the soft but firm heels of my walking shoes and saying “Come on, Truman, let’s go.” When this didn’t work the back wrangler yelled up, “Step up, Truman, step up.” He did. But the stalling continued as did his heavy sweating and stentorian breathing.

During one stop the back wrangler came up and loosened the muzzle to allow him to breathe freely. The stalling continued, though, and one of my travel mates called up from the rear in a clear, authoritative voice, “Step up, Truman!” He obeyed! She did that on several more occasions. Teamwork.

A few stops later the wrangler removed the muzzle completely, a relief to both Truman and me as his breathing immediately eased. The wrangler took this opportunity to demonstrate how to properly motivate a mule: cross your dominant arm over your other arm and reach all the way up, around and back in a half-moon gesture, landing the crop on the hind flank. The gesture builds momentum for a good thwack, and because a mule can see on both sides and to the back, it is motivated just by seeing the swinging crop coming from one side up and over to its destination. The thwacking sounds also helps. Straightaway I became an expert motivator, much to my shoulder’s eventual distress. But Truman responded well, and I only wished the demonstration had come the day before when Truman, with a mind of his own, often straggled and several times launched into a running trot to catch up.

The ride up was indeed easier on the riders. We were more confident and able to appreciate fantastic vistas in the canyon on both sides of the trail. “Grand and grander,” commented one of my travel mates. We appreciated seeing prickly pear cactuses as well as sacred Datura which reminded us of the moonflowers one of us grows. The higher we climbed the more we looked back on what appeared to be moss on the lower canyon structures. We saw Heaven’s Eye as well as Heaven’s Gate. We also passed Poison Peak – “one drop and you’re dead.” We were happier and more talkative.


We were awarded muleskinner certificates for having completed the trip. Some of us had muleskinner tans – brown hands from exposure to the sun but white arms since they were covered by long sleeves. All of us suffered significant soreness to our knees, hips and sitting bones, and a degree of trauma from the brutality of the experience. But we also were exhilarated as a group of 62-70 year-olds at having conquered such a harrowing challenge.

And the awe of great, ageless matter (Mater) that is canyon carved from mountain will linger with us. For “what are men to rocks and mountains?” -Jane Austen