Wednesday, June 29, 2016

I Love Lucy - Part II

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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Also visit Marc’s Author Page  for all his books. Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

I Love Lucy - Part I

I had a mild heart attack when Lucy stumbled on the Devil's Backbone. That was shortly after I had a full-fledged aneurism at a place called Oh Jesus Corner, where Lucy hung me and most of herself out over a 1900-foot drop-off as she made a casual right turn.

By the grace of the aforementioned savior, I survived, and I would love to tell you all about my trip to the bottom of the Grand Canyon on a mule, but I’m much too sore to type. Everything hurts.

When I weighed in at the Bright Angel Lodge on Sunday afternoon, I was thrilled to discover that I’d made the cutoff by four pounds. At one hundred and ninety-six pounds, I was cleared to ride the mules. Hooray! I thought to myself. Looking back on that now, I’m thinking I might have been smarter to hit the bacon cheeseburgers a little harder and bring it in at two hundred and five. Then I would have been forced to walk down and I wouldn’t be as sore as I am right now.

I can’t sit at my computer to type this, because my butt hurts too much. Actually, technically I should say the bones at the tops of my legs where my butt should be hurt. Tragically, I was born without a butt. A butt would have surely helped with all the bouncing on that pile of pointy iron bars the wranglers had cleverly disguised as a leather saddle.

I can’t stand up to type this, because my thighs hurt too much, and my knees simply don’t work anymore. Apparently I have tendons or ligaments or nerves or something on the outsides of my knees. I had no idea they were even there, but it turns out they are incredibly allergic to riding a large animal down a steep hill for more than six minutes. Unfortunately, there was still a lot of riding left after the first six minutes, and the wranglers are very strict about their “don’t get off your mule and lay down on the ground” rule.

During our orientation, before the mule torture began, Scott, the bowlegged lead wrangler, told us that the mule rides have been operating in the Grand Canyon for one hundred and seventeen years. After about twenty minutes of riding I began to wonder why someone one hundred and sixteen years ago didn’t say, “You know what, this is silly. Let’s just walk.” I began to wonder that because nineteen minutes into the ride, a rock about the size of a basketball rolled down the cliff directly at one of the mules in the middle of the line. This caused four mules behind Lucy to try to hurl themselves over her, and consequently, over me.

Lucy was the tallest and widest mule in the group, likely due to my just barely clearing the weight limit. Presumably because it’s a pain to get cowboy boots on and off, they measure horses and mules by the “hand,” which equals four inches. Based on my public school math, and the fact that my stirrups were two or three feet above eye-level when I was standing next to Lucy, I’d estimate she was about two thousand hands tall.

Lucy was big and wide, but unfortunately, the trail we were on was anything but. When the rock came down, we were on a section of trail, carved into the cliff, about a half a Lucy wide. The four mules that needed to pass us - at two hundred miles per hour - each decided to take a different route. Lucy, not knowing what the problem was, but not caring either, was not about to be left behind. Just like children on a playground, if one of them starts to run, they all run. They don’t ask questions. The mule that was climbing over Lucy and the one that was under her legs were both left in the dust when she exploded away from the scene of the crime. The two mules that had managed to squeeze past her were understandably surprised when she just used her brute size to shove both of them up the trail into the five mules that were in front of us before all the excitement began.

The end result was ten mules all piled up at the next turn in the trail, kind of like a giant game of equestrian Jenga, all occupying a space you would be very hard-pressed to fit a mid-sized sedan into. Amazingly, no one was hurt in the melee, and we were able to extricate ourselves and our mules back out into a straight line again, albeit in a very different order than we had started.

The trip just kept getting more exciting after that.

Anyway, I’ll tell you all about the rest of it next week, provided my butt bones heal up enough for me to sit for any length of time. For now, about the only way I can be comfortable - and I’m using that term very loosely - is if I lay on my back while shoveling Advil into my mouth and washing them down with beer. As you can imagine, it’s hard to do that and type at the same time.

See you soon,


Copyright © 2016 Marc Schmatjen

Check out The Smidge Page on Facebook. We like you, now like us back!

Also visit Marc’s Author Page  for all his books. Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Arizona Mule Sweat

Son Number One and I are in Arizona, getting ready to ride mules down a skinny little trail on the wall of the Grand Canyon. It was only 99 degrees a few days ago when we arrived, but that “nice weather,” as the Phoenix meteorologist called it, is over. Now it’s about 200 degrees in the shade. I’m not 100% sure why people live in Arizona. Or how. Everything here is designed to kill you. The weather, the plants, the hot sauce at that burrito place. Everything.

The heat wave may be a good thing, though, because I think I need to sweat off about ten pounds in the next four days. The mule ride company has a very strict policy of no rider over 200 pounds, which unfortunately conflicted with my very strict policy of drinking beer and eating bratwurst when summer starts. Or winter. Any season, really. When it comes to me on a mule, I’m afraid the trail is the only skinny thing in the equation.

I arrived at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport a little over the weight limit, I’m sure. Actually, I’m not really sure, because I have no way of weighing myself accurately. The only scale that matters regarding how much I weigh is the one at the mule ride company’s headquarters on the south rim of the Grand Canyon. I won’t be near that scale until the night before we’re supposed to ride.

I have no idea if they have one of those good doctor’s office/gym scales with the sliding weights, or if they have a bathroom scale like I do. Bathroom scales are crap. No two home scales will give you the same number when you weigh yourself. Our scale at home is three pounds light, I think. I’m basing that on some really scientific comparison weighing of myself in other people’s bathrooms, and then trying to do math based on if I peed before getting home, how much water I may have drank on the car ride home, and whether or not I was holding a beer when I weighed myself.

But can I trust that I’m really three pounds heavier than what my scale is telling me? No. Because I step on it and get a number. I step off, step back on, get a different number. I try a third time and get the first number again. How much do I really weigh? I have no idea.

What if the mule company has a crappy scale like mine? What if theirs is three pounds heavy? I’m going to weigh in six pounds heavier than at home, and I’m quite sure they won’t just accept my argument that “my scale at home says everything is OK, so let’s mount up.”

I thought about mailing something to them so they could weigh it and I could compare the numbers, but it really needed to be something close to 200 pounds to be accurate, and that postage would have cost me as much as the mule ride itself. When I called them to ask if they would go weigh themselves in someone else’s bathroom, they hung up on me.

And what time of day this weighing takes place is a huge factor. In the morning, wearing my boxer shorts, I’m much lighter than I am at three in the afternoon with all my clothes on. None of this would really be a problem if I wasn’t going to be so close to the limit, but like I said, beer and bratwurst. Policies are policies.

I always figured that I would give it my best shot to lose the weight and be mule-approved, but then if the beer and brats won the battle, I could always walk down behind the mule train. Besides the obvious dust and mule-pie landmine considerations, it shouldn’t be all that bad, since the mules aren’t going to go any faster than a crawl anyway. (Please, God!)

But I’m a lot more worried about my backup plan after talking with a mule expert the other day. We had a fun day trip out to a family friend’s farm, and one of the horse and mule owners was excited to hear about our trip, because she’d just read a book about all the different ways people have died at the Grand Canyon.

Oh, great! said my wife’s grimace.

“No, no, no, they’re going to be fine,” she backpedaled.

She assured us that we were going to be totally safe, because hundreds and hundreds of hikers have expired over the years, but no one has ever died on a mule.

Well, that’s just fantastic news! I’m safe if I’m on a mule, but if I’m just another fat-ass, beer and bratwurst-sucking hiker, I’m screwed.

I mean, I sincerely hope I’m not the first guy in history to die on a mule, but if I was, at least I could blame the mule. And I’d be marginally famous for a little while until mule death number two occurred. If I hike down behind the mules, the odds are infinitely higher that I’ll die somehow, and if I do, there’ll be no one to blame but me and Safeway.

So, I’m more determined than ever to make it under the weight limit now, and I have four days left to lose an undetermined amount of weight. I think I’ll go for a nice jog, followed by a nice cold glass of nothing.

If I can keep my shoes from melting.

If I avoid ending up as another Arizona jogging statistic and I can manage to pull it off, I have a feeling I’ll be squeaking it in just under the wire. So, I still might make history.

Clothes are heavy, so I might be the first guy to ever ride a mule down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon wearing only boxer shorts and a gallon of sunscreen.

Or maybe only a half-gallon. That stuff’s pretty heavy, you know.

Stay thirsty, my friends,


Copyright © 2016 Marc Schmatjen

Check out The Smidge Page on Facebook. We like you, now like us back!

Also visit Marc’s Author Page  for all his books. Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

My Main Man Chowhurdy

This week I’d like to take a moment and give a big shout out and a huge thank you to my new best buddy, Teodoro Chowhurdy.

I don’t actually know Chowhurdy personally, but he sent me an email the other day from his totally legitimate-sounding email address of It was a very helpful email alerting me to some recent account activity in one of my many accounts.

Mr. Chowhurdy,

The subject of your helpful email was “Operational Expense.” I want to thank you, Teodoro, for alerting me to the fact that an operational expense of 7,109,91 USD has been credited from my account. I do have a few questions, though.

Here in America we generally put the first comma between the hundredth and the thousandth place, so I’m not totally sure if you’re telling me that just over seven hundred thousand dollars has been credited from my account, or just over seven million. Either way it’s rather alarming. I sincerely wish I had an account with a large enough balance that either one of those scenarios would be possible, but unfortunately for both of us, I do not.

Secondly, you’re using the word ‘credited,’ but then saying that this comma-undetermined amount of money was “credited from” my account. We usually use the word ‘credited’ as an indication of an addition to someone’s account.

You might have meant to say “withdrawn from your account,” but I’m hopeful that you misused the word ‘from’ and you really meant to tell me that a large sum of USD was credited to my account. That would be sweet. Either way, my accounts all seem to be at their normal, depressing balances. Please advise.

You also invited me to view the details of this comma and directionally-confusing transaction by referring to the report that you so helpfully attached to the email. The report, however, was inexplicably named “”

Now, Mr. Chowhurdy, I’m certainly no expert in what they call ‘spam’ or ‘phishing,’ but I have heard that many not-so-legitimate emails contain viruses meant to steal my passwords, hijack my email, or lock me out of my computer in some nefarious fashion. You wouldn’t do something like that, would you, Teodoro?

Not that I don’t trust you, it’s just that I’ve heard those viruses usually show up in a .zip file, and the one you sent me starts with the word ‘caution,’ like some sort of subtle, covert warning...

Could it be that you are really trying to warn me that this isn’t on the up and up?

That’s it, isn’t it, Mr. Chowhurdy? You really are my friend. That’s why you put the comma in the wrong place. That’s why you misused the word ‘credited.’ That’s why I haven’t seen any unusually large activity, either coming or going, on any of my accounts. That’s why the file name on the attachment is so foreboding. You’re warning me, aren’t you?

Are you being held against your will and forced to attempt to scam people out of their money by bad guys who don’t speak or write English? Is that how you were able to sneak that ridiculously incomprehensible amount of USD and that utterly preposterous file name past them? That’s it, isn’t it? You are a genius, Chowhurdy!

How can I help you? They must have you chained to a desk somewhere, or maybe they threatened your family if you didn’t cooperate. I’d hate to think that Mrs. Chowhurdy and the little Chowhurdys are in danger. What can I do? You’ve been so kind to me, I need to help you out of this horrible situation.

Maybe if you were to actually credit my account with some actual USD I could use the money to hire a mercenary group to find you, neutralize the bad guys, and set you and the Chowhurdy family free.

Hit me back and I’ll get you my PayPal info. Thanks, man. Stay strong.

See you soon,


Copyright © 2016 Marc Schmatjen

Check out The Smidge Page on Facebook. We like you, now like us back!

Also visit Marc’s Author Page  for all his books. Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Hazard Pay

This weekend I met the man with the most dangerous job in America. Actually he was a high school kid, I think. He looked to be about thirty to forty years younger than me, and approximately ninety to a hundred years younger than I feel, so that would put him around high school age.

He was obviously too young to fully grasp the gravity of his situation, so to speak. No experienced adult male would have ever signed up for the job this kid had.

We met him on a magical day. We got season passes to our local water slide park this year, and Saturday was opening day of the season. We arrived early and staked out our chaise lounges, and then the boys and I rushed off to The Riptide. It's the park’s brand new ride, and the boys and I have been salivating over it all winter.

It’s an enormous water slide - easily the tallest in the park - with four-person “quad tubes” so you can experience near-death with three of your closest friends, much like the time you let Steve drive the car on spring break.

You are in charge of getting your own quad tube to the top of the stairs, and they are apparently made out of equal parts ballistic rubber, lead weights and more lead weights. I can envision a system where two adults would be able to carry the massive tubes up the stairs together, but unfortunately, the boys weren’t much help. After a few minutes of tripping over each other and almost crushing Son Number Three with it, I reluctantly told the boys that I needed to carry the tube up the stairs myself.

The Riptide is a very high water slide, so we needed to climb up a lot of steps to reach the top. I lost count when I came close to blacking out, but it was probably about three thousand stairs. I didn’t have my Fitbit on, but I’m pretty sure I burned an entire HomeTown Buffet’s dinner rush worth of calories on that one climb.

The slide takes you down a steep tube and then rockets your terrified party of four up a gigantic vertical wall, where you hang motionless at the top for just a split second before your stomach catches up to you. Then, through a miracle of engineering (or a nightmarish trial and error period), you slide back down, directly into another cavernous tube that takes you around a 360-degree turn and into a huge pool of water, where lifeguards await to accept your deepest gratitude for being alive. It is awesome!

We finally reached the top of the stairs and made it onto the platform high above the park. After I had managed to get my heart rate back under four hundred and my blurry vision cleared up, I saw him. The man with the most dangerous job in America. Just a scrawny kid with a whistle around his neck and zinc oxide on his nose. He wasn’t the one who was directing traffic at the entrance to the slide, so it wasn’t immediately clear what purpose he served.

He welcomed us to The Riptide and then asked me and the boys to all step up onto the four-foot-square industrial scale located on the corner of the platform.

Apparently, in order to keep groups of fun-loving patrons from shooting straight up off the top of the vertical wall and into orbit, or missing the exit tube and dying a horrible death under a nine hundred-pound quad tube, The Riptide has a weight range. Your group's total weight has to be between two hundred and seven hundred pounds in order to ride. This kid’s job was to enforce the minimum and maximum weight limits.

Let me get this straight, kid. They've got you stationed up here on a platform, seventy feet off the ground, with no safety harness or anything, and your job is to ask groups of women in bathing suits to step on a scale so you can weigh them?

I’m not sure $8.50 an hour constitutes hazard pay. Good luck, kid. You’re a braver man than me.

See you soon,


Copyright © 2016 Marc Schmatjen

Check out The Smidge Page on Facebook. We like you, now like us back!

Also visit Marc’s Author Page  for all his books. Enjoy!