Just before a section of the trail down into the Grand Canyon called Jacob’s Ladder, Simon, our lead wrangler, stopped the mule train and said a Navajo prayer. I don’t speak Navajo, so I said my own prayer instead.
Lord, please don’t let any of us die by:
a) falling off a cliff
b) being kicked or stepped on by one of these enormous mules
c) bursting into flames
d) some other way
The Navajo prayer sounded more poetic, but mine was to the point. Either way, the top of Jacob’s Ladder was a good place to pray. The bible story says that Jacob’s Ladder was a stairway to Heaven, but the name is deceiving. The one in the Grand Canyon is a slippery rock path straight to hell.
On that Monday last week it was over a hundred degrees by eight in the morning. At the TOP of the canyon. It only got hotter as we went down. It was one hundred and twenty degrees in the shade at the bottom. My mother-in-law lives in Morro Bay, California, an idyllic little beach community where it never gets above seventy-two degrees. For the whole ride, sitting atop her mule Sassy, she looked like she’d just drank an entire bottle of Tabasco sauce. The wranglers kept pouring ice water on her head and down her back whenever we stopped, presumably in an attempt to stave off spontaneous combustion.
Prior to the ride, Scott, the lead wrangler with the most kick-ass western mustache you ever saw, attempted to scare us into not going. He listed every conceivable way we could die in the Grand Canyon, which took him a half hour since it’s such a long list. Since I was planning on taking pictures with my cell phone, he told me to put it into airplane mode. Apparently a ringing phone can spook the mules. And if your mule gets spooked on a skinny trail carved into the side of a cliff, there’s a good chance you’ll be flying, so either way, airplane mode is a good idea.
Down we went into the furnace. Literally, we rode down into a place called The Devil’s Furnace. It was so hot, the devil himself would have probably said, “No thanks. I’ll stay here in the hotel.” That was just after we all somehow avoided plunging thousands of feet to our deaths off of a section of trail – and I’m using the term ‘trail’ loosely, just like how its rocks were attached – called The Devil’s Backbone. I’m guessing most of the places in the Grand Canyon were named in July by someone with no water.
Each time we stopped, after forcing water into us in an increasingly desperate attempt to keep at least most of us alive, Simon would tell us about what we were seeing. This is where so-in-so died. Here’s where they found more human bones. These rocks are only about a billion years old. The rocks kept getting older and older as we descended. Based on some very rough math, taking into account that we were breathing trail dust from many different sections of the ride, differing by thousands of feet in elevation, I calculated that my boogers were at a minimum, eighty-five million years old. I have kept them to sell to a museum.
When we stopped for lunch my son asked Simon what his Navajo name was. He said something unpronounceable, and when we asked him what it meant, he said, “Walks into trouble.”
Hmm... Halfway down the canyon isn’t the best place to learn that. Maybe if Scott had mentioned that little tidbit, some of us would have backed out. All of a sudden following you doesn’t seem like the best idea. On the other hand, all of us will surely die right here in this spot if you leave us... OK, we’ll stay with you.
Back up on Lucy – which was no small feat because neither of my legs were working at that point – it occurred to me that while we were drinking nine gallons of water a minute to stay alive, the mules hadn’t had a drop of water all day. It was right then and there that I understood why they use mules for this ride.
They say they use them instead of horses because of the mule’s sense of self-preservation. They won’t do dumb things like a horse will if they get spooked. I really appreciated that about Lucy, especially when looking down the side of her neck at drop-offs that made me really wish I was wearing a parachute. But up until halfway through the ride down I hadn’t appreciated how tough they are. No wonder the Army loves them. Mules are the toughest animals on the planet. They make the honey badger look like a pillow pet.
Down to the bottom of “The Big Ditch” we went. Just in case all the cliffs on the way down weren’t exciting enough, the ride ended with a leisurely mule stroll across a four hundred fifty-foot-long suspension bridge, about a Lucy and a half wide, hanging in the air seventy feet above the deepest part of the Colorado River. I’m almost positive my mother-in-law had her eyes closed. Back on solid ground we rode into a place called Phantom Ranch.
Throughout the day we had occasionally caught a glimpse of a single power line, making its way from the top of the canyon down to some unknown destination at the bottom. Mercifully, Phantom Ranch turned out to be its termination point, and it was powering an A/C unit in our cabin, along with at least one refrigerator that was doing the most important thing it could ever do – keeping beer and wine cold. There is a God after all amidst all this hell.
The manager of Phantom Ranch told us that only one percent of the people who visit the Grand Canyon actually make it down to the bottom. I asked, but she didn’t have a figure for how many of the ninety-nine percent didn’t make it because they burst into flames.
Being in the elite one percent group made the beer taste even better. She never did tell us what percentage actually make it back up to the top, but luckily for us, Lucy and her mule buddies have a one hundred percent success rate.
Thanks for the ride, girl!
See you soon,
Copyright © 2016 Marc Schmatjen
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