Tuesday, October 4, 2005

The Ride Back

The ride back from Phantom Ranch is on a different trail.  It's shorter and, consequently, steeper.  It also has no drinking water.  The trail is hard on hikers, and it isn't all that easy on mules either.  Riding the mules back up the trail requires frequent breaks for the mules to catch their breath.  Maybe every fifteen or twenty minutes or so, we'd pull over, line up our mules sideways across the trail, and let them rest (without dismounting).  This provided numerous photo ops, although most of the pictures ended up with a mule ear in them.  Like these:

The frequent rest stops also gave me a better opportunity to document the trail itself.  Here you can see a part of the trail as it wends on down into the canyon.

Here's a shot where you can see the bridge we crossed (over the Colorado).

In addition to the short breaks to rest the mules, we also had a couple stops where we dismounted and let the mules get a nice long break without people sitting on top of them.

At the first such break, Mark (the wrangler) lined us all up and offered to take pictures before we dismounted.  So here's me and Kathy on our mules:

....on the ride back, we had reorganized ourselves somewhat, and I rode behind Kathy in the line.  The problem with this was that Happy, Kathy's mule, ate everything.  We'd been told not to let our mules graze, but Happy was pretty insistent and Kathy finally gave up on pulling back his reins, so Happy just munched at anything remotely edible whenever we were stopped (and even when we weren't).  This led to a problem with, er, mule poo.

I kept count.  In the five or so hours it took us to get to the top of the canyon, Happy pooped eleven times.  Twice, it was right in front of hikers.  Given this circumstance, I sorta loosened up on the whole "keep my mule real close to the mule in front of me" thing, 'cause my poor mule damn near got pooped on more than once.

So.  First real rest stop, we get off the mules.  My knees had started to hurt from maybe a half hour in, and it had gotten to the point of serious discomfort by the time we stopped.  So I was very happy to dismount and walk around for a little while.  When we got back on the mules, my knees were back to a manageable dull ache.

We rode for another hour or so, by which time my knees were screaming for a rest (and my mule was breathing pretty heavy, too).  We went around a bend and saw a hitching post coming up -- Cracker and I both breathed a sigh of relief -- and Mark led us right past it.  (I thought I overheard him say something about "usually stopping here," and I thought, why the hell aren't we stopping here now?)

But we continued on.  At the next mini-rest, Mark asked how we were doing.  I said something like, "I could use a real rest stop."  He replied, "Well, too bad.  We don't have another one for about an hour."

This was not good.  My knees were pretty bad by now, and another hour on muleback didn't promise anything in the way of recovery.  We got the mules moving again and I let my mind wander to all sorts of different topics.  Like that Mark isn't going to get no damn tip.  Or that $3500 for a rescue helicopter seems like a reasonable expense around now.  Or how nice a hot shower will feel once I'm back at the top of the canyon.  Actually, I got so caught up in that last one, I totally zoned out, and the rider behind me had to call my name for me to come back to reality and notice I'd let Cracker drop back about 30 feet behind Kathy's mule.

We finally got to the rest stop and I couldn't wait for Mark to help me off my mule.  He came over, I took my right foot out of the stirrup and tried to swing over--

--and couldn't.  This part of the process involves bending your left knee (while your foot remains in the stirrup) and putting all your weight on that leg, and my left knee was having none of that.

Insert mini-meltdown here.  Caused by pain, sure, but also frustration.  Mark was saying things like, "You'll feel a lot better once you get down," and I knew that.  Hell, I'd wanted off the mule an hour ago.  But by now, my knee hurt too much to take my weight, and I felt trapped on the mule.  Mark was pretty calm about the whole thing, and said, "If it's really bad, just take your foot out of the stirrup and slide off."  This I could do, and did, with Mark helping me to the ground.

One of the other ladies figured out which saddle bag contained her stuff, and she dug out some Nuprin or Advil or some such other painkiller which I tossed back gratefully.  I also felt oddly comforted by Mark's take-foot-out-of-the-stirrup-and-slide-off thing.  Not so much because it worked, but because it meant that riders having knee pain so bad they can't get off the mule was a common enough occurrence that they knew how to deal with it.  (At this point, I reconsidered Mark's tip.)

We had a long enough rest that I was able to get back on the mule and handle the last leg of the trip without any problem (although, when the stable hands came around to help us dismount at the end, I looked the dude right in the eye and said, "I'm going to need a lot of help.")

Mark gave us all certificates noting our accomplishments (" ... having faced the precipices, descended and ascended the perpendicular walls at and in the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, endured the vicissitudes of this magnificent journey, and borne the whims and caprices of her gentle, faithful, educated, individualistic, long-eared mount -- part horse, part jackass and all mule ..."), everyone in our party shook his hand (and slipped him a twenty), and we were returned to our hotel.

I took over 100 pictures on the mule ride.  This one is my absolute favorite.

Kathy, who does yoga regularly, was the only person on the trip who wasn't achy in some way.  She bought me ice cream.  :)


mom23nca said...

They achy knees sounds like no fun.  Mine ache a lot and I have never ridden a mule.  I'm trying to figure out why riding a mule makes your knees ache though, were you clinging onto it with your knees?  How about your rear? That's what I think would be sore.

shermeen0621 said...

(smiles) those pictures are amazing. i'm gonna have to go to the first entry and read about this adventure of yours. (laughs) it might have made for an interesting pic if your mule had gotten pooped on. but then you might have had to clean it up!