Sunday, October 2, 2005

The ride down (with pics!)

Ah, finally back at home.  Hot water works; pictures have been uploaded; cat is fascinated by my canteen -- I guess she's never smelled anything mule-scented before.

Our pal mom23nca has requested a photo of me wearing the ugly yellow spray jacket.  There would be such a photo, excepting I refused to put mine on.  I give you, however, Kathy, modelling her spray jacket in front of the Bright Angel Lodge.


So.  Bright and early Sunday morning, we go out to the corral at the top of the Bright Angel Trail, ready to meet our mules and get this show on the road.  Trail.  Whatever.

We meet the other people going down to Phantom Ranch, as well as the people taking day rides.  (You can spot the overnighters -- we're all clutching small kitchen-sized storage bags with one night's worth of belongings.)  Most riders are wearing their yellow jackets as a wind-breaker; it's pretty cold this early.  I am not wearing the jacket.  I'd rather freeze.

The one thing we're missing is MULES.  We stand around the empty corral for probably a half-hour, and then, all of sudden, mules appear from around the corner.  They're driven in a few trains -- there's one person riding the front mule, and all the rest are attached to the mule in front of them by a rope.  The muleteers start untying the mules from each other while we get our instructions.

Our instructions are pretty simple.  We have one task -- keep your mule within two and five feet of the mule in front of you.  We are to do this by using an item euphemistically known as a "motivator," although it could also be described as a "whip," "switch," or "stick."  It is necessary to keep the mules together, it seems, because if a mule gets too far behind, it will run to keep up.  And if each mule is some 20 or 30 feet behind the mule in front of it, the guy at the end will ultimate be tearing around a switchback at a pretty speedy run as his mule tries to make up the distance of a football field. 

Got it.  Keep mules close.  The guy goes on and on about this -- apparently, they are used to having people who have trouble hitting their mules.  We're told that if you can't hear the motivator whooshing through the air, you're not hitting it hard enough.  We're told that you can't really hurt 1100 pounds of mule with this itty bitty motivator.  We're told that some mules will go just at the sound, while others like it so much you'll have to keep on "motivating" them all up and down this canyon.  Most important, we're told the mules will "have you figured out" within the first five minutes -- so it's extra important not to let the mule get the upper hand from the start.

I take this seriously.  It's kinda like when I'm white-water rafting -- I understand that my first duty is to safely and efficiently paddle that raft according to our guide's directions.  Same with the mule -- my first (and only) duty is to keep my mule within two and five feet of the mule in front of me.  All the rest is gravy.

They mount up the day riders and send them off.  There are about 16 of us left -- the overnighters.  We'll be separated into two groups and sent off.  Kathy and I end up in a group with two groups of three.  One group is three adults -- two women and a man -- they're nice folks, but I never really got how they were related to each other.  The other group is two parents and their adult son, Patrick.  Patrick is 35 (he was coming on this trip for his birthday) and developmentally disabled. 

Traditionally, they put the wrangler in front -- then kids, then women, then men.  In our group, the wrangler (Mark) made an exception -- he put Patrick immediately behind himself, then Patrick's dad, then me and the rest of the women, with the other man bringing up the rear.  More than that, Mark had a rope attached to Patrick's mule, which he held all the way down the canyon (and all the way back).  I was really impressed with how easily the wrangler accomodated Patrick's limitations.  With Mark leading Patrick's mule, and Patrick's dad right behind him being real encouraging, Patrick had a great trip down into the canyon. 

Patrick's dad, however, was not real big on "motivator" use, and, from the start, was about 10 or more feet behind Patrick's mule.  Every so often, Mark would yell back for Patrick's dad to keep up, and Patrick's dad would "motivate" his mule (about half the time, he'd whack the saddle bag rather than the mule -- once or twice I commented that "that saddle bag is getting real motivated" -- until I did the same thing myself).  ANYWAY, when Patrick's dad got 'round to motivating his mule, it wouldn't take much for me to get my mule to step on the gas, and we'd trot right on up.

I got ahead of myself there.  First, I met my mule.  My mule's name was "Cracker."  See if you can pick him out from our little line of mules all lined up at a hitching post.

Correct!  The white one.  Yes, I was assigned the racially-insensitively named mule.  I decided to have a sense of humor about this.  Kathy's mule was named "Happy."

Mules are tall.  (You get a mule by mating an itty bitty boy donkey with a great big female horse.)  You get on a mule the same way you mount a horse -- left foot in left stirrup, then jump right on up and swing your right leg over the mule.  Excepting that, this time, there's a wrangler helping to boost you up over this critter.  I mean, I couldn't even reach Cracker's saddle horn from the ground, to get a good a grip.  But the wranglers are real good at this, and I got on Cracker, got my last minute instructions, and we were soon off down the trail.

It looked a lot like that.  (Actually, it looked exactly like that.)  Bunch of mules going along the trail, with big beautiful vistas all around.

... at the end of the ride, you're given comment cards to fill out.  Mark told us that the "funniest" comment they'd ever received was one that said they didn't have enough "scenic stops" along the way down.  Mark said they all laughed like crazy over that one, because, hey, there's scenery at every turn.  I understood what the commenter had meant, though.  On the way down the canyon, there's no actual "photo stops."  You just keep riding, aim your camera in the general direction of something pretty, and hope it turns out.  I kinda liked this shot -- for the sheer scope of it -- even though it wasn't entirely in focus.

Cracker was a very good mule.  Well, I don't know if it was Cracker just being the bestest mule out there, or me taking my job seriously, or some combination thereof -- but I didn't have to hit Cracker that much.  By the end of the ride, I'd just talk encouragingly, tap him with the tip of the motivator (or just make the wooshing sound in the air) and Cracker would be keeping right behind the mule in front.  (It wasn't till we got to Phantom Ranch that I found out Cracker was a male mule.  All the way down, I'd kept calling him "Good Mule," because I didn't know if he was a boy or girl.)

There was only one stop on the way down, at Indian Gardens.  There's potable water there, so it's a good stop for refilling canteens.  There's also toilets there.  We dismounted the mules and had lunches that the wranglers had pre-packed for us.

As soon as I got offa Cracker, my legs hurt.  I immediately tried to walk up the steps to the toilets, and could barely accomplish this without using my hands for balance.  A couple hikers sitting there laughed, although not without sympathy.  (We passed a lot of hikers on the trail.  Near the trail head, the hikers we met were either just getting started or just finishing -- either way, they seemed pretty happy.  There was a point somewhere further along where the looks we got from hikers were downright jealous.  But everyone was friendly, and we exchanged lots of "good mornings" as the hikers stepped aside waiting for the mules to pass.)

After the half-hour rest, my legs felt fine, and I was all ready to get back on Cracker and back on the trail.  We continued through the "inner canyon" -- ultimately crossing the Colorado river (on a suspension bridge) and ending at Phantom Ranch.  Here's some other random shot I took from muleback.

When it was all said and done, we'd ridden some 10.5 miles down the Bright Angel Trail (and a touch on the River Trail and South Kaibob) into the canyon.  We'd lost about 4500 feet in elevation and gone through a 30 degree increase in temperature (due to the change in elevation and the fact we'd started out so early), all in about five and a half hours.  It was beautiful and I loved it -- but by the time I got off of the mule, I was hoping for my legs to do their same half-hour-off-the-mule-and-I'm-good-to-go recovery routine.


annalisa135 said...

LOL!  I want to see you walking after you got off of Cracker!  I bet it was hilarious!!

You did a total of 10.5 miles.  Could you imagine the old days when people rode to get around?  I mean they rode miles and miles and miles.   My back, hips, thighs, heck!  my TEETH would be hurting after all that!

(((hugs to you, chick))))  you are so very cool.  the things you've seen and done are awesome.  

mom23nca said...

What beautiful scenery!  This sounds like an awesome trip.