If you’re just joining the Arizona story, start here!
A couple of hours later I woke gently, shortly before my 530am alarm went off. On East Coast time, it was around 8am, still early for me. I pulled the clothes I’d wear for the ride into my sleeping bag to warm them up and changed as quickly as possible. It was about 24*F according to my phone and the sun was rising, so it probably got close to the teens in the dark. I reviewed what I’d packed to take to the bottom of the canyon: swimsuit, journal, a copy of “Desert Solitaire,” towel, toothbrush, sunscreen, hiking sandals. I got out of the tent and put the overnight bag in the passenger seat of the Mustang and then set to work taking down the tent. Again, I was glad I’d done this all before. I was also glad I had the car and could just toss everything in it for the night. I packed the entire tent and sleeping bag into my backpack easily and locked them in the trunk. I rolled the sleeping pad and tossed it in the backseat. If anyone felt like destroying my soft top for a defective sleeping pad while I was gone, they could be my guest. It was too early to think.
I had a Clif bar and the other banana on the seat next to me and drove over to the Bright Angel Lodge, where I’d had to register last night. They’d given me the overnight bag, a raincoat, and the water bag. There was a restaurant in the lodge and I hoped to get a bowl of oatmeal or some other type of hot breakfast but once I got inside I saw the restaurant wasn’t open yet. I took my water bag to the fountain to fill it and walked out the door, but I felt something against my leg. I looked down and my water bag was leaking profusely. I sighed and turned around. Things not working properly the first time was becoming a bit of a theme on this trip. I held the water bag up to show the lady at the desk and she handed me a new one and sent me on my way. I asked if I could leave my car in their lot for the night and she said of course, so I grabbed my Clif bar, banana, overnight bag, and walked over to the corral at which I had been told to wait.
I was behind a family of three and saw another group of twenty-somethings with mule trip raincoats walking ahead of them, but everyone seemed rather lost. The corral was not marked and the lady at the desk had given only vague directions to all parties. We all came to a large stone circle with a fence on top and deduced it must be the corral, due to the lack of any other corral-like fixtures anywhere else, but there were no mules in sight. There was, however, a seemingly vast view of the rim of the Grand Canyon in sight.
“I got in late last night so this is the first time I’m actually seeing the canyon,” I told the trio of twenty-somethings as we stood on the rim, watching the sun slowly chase away the residual gray.
“Same here! We came in so late it was dark!” the blond girl replied. Picture-taking of all involved ensued. I didn’t have to settle for taking a selfie – my new acquaintances were happy to hold my camera after I took a photo of the three of them.
“I hear horseshoes!” We saw a mule train cross the street and ride up but they didn’t stop – they walked past the presumed corral and right down the Bright Angel Trail, five feet to the right. At that point we figured we must be at the right place or the mule driver would have told us otherwise. Another echo of horseshoes clattered across the early-morning stillness and more mules were led into the corral, placed nose-out to the hitching rail topping the stone circle. The wranglers didn’t seem to want to talk to us too much yet and I didn’t want to annoy my new friends so I instead approached the mules.
The first mule I met was not interested so moving down the line I found a mostly black one with more of a horse-like appearance and a friendly demeanor. She leaned into my ear scratches and nosed my shoulder. “That’s Vegas. She’s from Tennessee, been here ’bout four months now.” a wrangler drawled.
“An East Coaster, like me.” I mused.
“Where are you from?”
“New York City.” It was a lot easier to say that than to explain I lived 30 miles east on Long Island.
“Been there once. I stayed in my hotel room and watched the World Cup. Too many people for me.” He grinned.
“I know what you mean.”
“Good morning!! All here for the mule trip, please gather ’round!” A booming voice came out of a portly older gentleman in a cowboy hat sitting on the hitching rail. “I have to go over some safety information with you. Any questions, let me know. Your safety is of our UTMOST concern on this trip….” he launched into his thirty-minute introductory speech, with the most important rules being “STAY ON YOUR MULE” and “DO NOT GET OFF YOUR MULE.” We had a few horse people in our group of ten, and everyone had been on a horse at least once before, so he seemed confident we had a good group. During his speech the wranglers packed our overnight bags onto the backs of the mules.
“Okay everyone, line up with your parties on this line,” the first wrangler drawled. “Who are you with?” he looked at me.
“You can be with us,” the white-haired man next to me leaned in. “What’s your name?”
“I can remember that. That’s my wife’s name too.”
I hoped I’d get to ride sweet Vegas, but instead I was told I’d be riding a bay mule named Maude. As everyone lined up I realized the wrangler himself was riding Vegas and I figured she was his personal mule and that’s why she was so friendly. I’d later learn this was not the case.
Another wrangler came over with a mounting block and helped us all up, one by one, and handed us our mule motivators – small, flexible braided crops with leather ends to help keep the mules together on the trail. He tucked my sunscreen in the pack on Maude so I could reach it easily – our overnight bags were all mixed so we weren’t riding with our own belongings – and we lined up to follow them down the trail. Ed – the one riding Vegas – led us out of the corral. John, a lanky cowboy with a brilliant mustache and sparkling eyes, completed the group.