If you’re just joining the Arizona story, start here.
During the ride down there wasn’t much talking. The ride was jarring at times and I absorbed the shock in my knees. The mule ahead of me, ridden by Larry, the white-haired man from earlier, didn’t want to keep up with his wife’s mule, so we often had to “motivate” our mules. This resulted in Maude trotting to catch up on a few occasions. I was fine with this since I rode as a child, but at lunch John asked me to not let her trot anymore for the safety of everyone else. Mules have a herd mentality and have been known to run too far, too fast to keep up.
We stopped at Indian Gardens, 3.5 miles down – 1/3rd of the distance we were to travel, for lunch. We each had a roll, a cheese stick, carrots, apples, Oreos, and Powerade. There were sausages and the two girls I’d met earlier were also vegetarians, so we all gave our sausages to their friend Eric. The sisters were Marie and Maryann and all three of them lived in the MD/VA area. Larry and Sara lived in Oregon. Steve, a short, muscular, older man was John’s father-in-law, a rancher from the High Sierras in Northern California. The family of three rode up at the front of the line close to Ed and somewhat kept to themselves at lunch. There were bathrooms and fresh water available so we filled our water bags before we got back up to finish the journey. We had been warned today would be rough riding and tomorrow would be the easy day.
As we began to mount up to ride again I noticed Sara didn’t have long sleeves on anymore and I offered her my sunscreen. I would have baked if I’d gone down the side of the canyon without long sleeves on. We all had hats and now that the sun was out in full force I was thankful I’d kept my sunscreen nearby. The temperature had risen to over 70*F by the time we stopped for lunch.
We approached an area Ed affectionally referred to as “Oh Jesus Corner” and stopped the mules for a safety brief. Ed again stated the importance of keeping the mules together, especially on this tight corner, and led us down. That was the only time on the descent at which I felt slightly crazy for doing this – I didn’t feel quite “Oh Jesus!”-y, but I did feel my stomach flip. The switchback was tight and Maude walked right on the edge so when I looked down past my left knee there was nothing but the top of a cottonwood tree about one hundred feet below me. I decided to keep looking between her ears instead of off the edge for a little while.
At this point we were well below the rim and the inner rim. John had explained earlier that there was a canyon within a canyon and I finally understood what he’d meant. Standing at the South Rim you see nothing of how immense the canyon is. You can only see to the top of the inner rim. But down below Oh Jesus Corner I could look up and not even see the South Rim – and we still had miles of trail to go before we’d reach Phantom Ranch. I don’t quite remember but I’m not sure whether I could see the Colorado River at this point. I don’t think so. We came across a few small creeks that got closer together the lower we got, and I think that’s all the water we saw until we crossed the last creek. There was a small shelter and bathroom area across the creek that they didn’t use in the winter. Since we had just come through a section of trail called The Furnace and it was approaching 90* Ed said he would take us over to rest and to follow him. Vegas wasn’t thrilled about having to ford the creek and it took Ed a couple of tries to turn her onto this unfamiliar part of the trail. One by one we followed without incident, until Marie, behind me, had trouble getting Berta across. Berta was hellbent on continuing on the path she knew and Marie had to try a few times to get her over, but she did, and looked quite graceful doing it.
I was grateful for a bit of shade and some more water. I’ve learned how to do better in the heat and sun so I don’t get heatstroke and I knew if I didn’t drink a lot of water I’d be feeling it soon.
“Hey New York, what brought you here?” Steve, the old rancher, asked me in a thick Southern accent. I would get used to being called New York over the next 36 hours anytime someone wanted my attention.
“This is my 30th birthday present to myself. I made a list of 30 things to do before I turned 30 and this was the last one.”
“What else did you do?” I had debated talking about the list because I didn’t want to talk on this trip. I wanted to listen, to learn, but I’d already said it.
“I went to Israel, London, Colombia, Peru, Brasil. I ran a half-marathon. I spent an entire day in Manhattan walking from cupcake shop to cupcake shop and ate my way downtown. I went camping alone. I think those are the highlights.” I couldn’t think of my list. I knew I had some boring things on it, but for the life of me I couldn’t think of the interesting items.
“You’ve been all over, girl! You ever been to the High Sierras?” Steve asked. I haven’t been, but he made them sound so beautiful that they’re now on my list of places to visit.
The mother of the family of three was looking a bit flushed and tired so Ed had us relax in the shelter until she felt better. We were approaching the last push and he told us once we crossed the bridge over the Colorado we’d have less than an hour left and the mules would begin to get lazy. We got back on and rode out. Berta again didn’t want to cross and John had to dismount and lead her across the water, but everyone made it without incident. Turning a corner, the deep green of the Colorado River appeared to the left. Ed told us we would be crossing the Black Bridge, not the first bridge we could see, so we rode on. The trail merged with the South Kaibab Trail – the one we’d be riding up the following day – and after a couple of switchbacks we paused for another safety briefing. We were about to go into a cave and come out of the cave on the bridge, so again, it was important to stay together so the mules wouldn’t spook or run. The cave was pitch-black for a few seconds before opening up onto the bridge and suddenly I was on the back of a mule crossing the Colorado. Another cave and we were on the home stretch.
The trail wound past the ruins of Indian settlements and a more recent grave piled high with rocks and topped with cowboy gear. We passed the Bright Angel campground across the Bright Angel Creek, and then we entered the Phantom Ranch Corral, at the very bottom of the Grand Canyon. It was early afternoon and the sun was hot and high. A ranger met us with a pitcher of ice water, a schedule of meals, cabin assignments, and a big smile. Off our mules, the wranglers got our overnight bags to their rightful owners and sent us on our way. We had a few hours of free time before dinner.