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My alarm broke the cool silence in the cabin at 6am Friday morning. I had 20 minutes to pack my belongings into the plastic bag to go back on the mule and get dressed to leave. My swimsuit was dry so I stuffed everything in the bag, pulled on my dusty jeans and muddy boots, and covered myself in sunscreen once again. I drank all the water in my room. Zach had told us at dinner that we were under a water shortage and it was likely that shortly after we left there would be no more drinking water at Phantom Ranch. While unusual, this happens from time to time, and if it gets really bad, they helicopter water in. I felt better about my choice not to shower. Still, having a sink to brush my teeth and rinse my face was a welcome amenity.
Breakfast was eggs, pancakes, juice, peaches, tea, and coffee. We again sat family-style at the last table in the dining area. The sisters, Sara, and I discussed our experiences being teachers as we’d discovered that common thread the night before. Sara said she’d spent her life teaching and raising children and that Larry had been the explorer, trekking in the Himalayas and traveling the world. Then she mentioned they were going to be doing a seven-day horseback camping trip later this summer up in the midwest, so I think she has the right idea: better late than never for her life of adventure.
A small group of riders who hadn’t come with us were riding out ahead of us and someone asked who they were. Ed told us those were hikers who got to the bottom and said “hell no” to walking back up the canyon. The mules we’d seen riding down the morning before while we waited to mount had been the mules these people were using as an escape from hiking out. The cost of getting a mule to bring you out of the canyon was pretty close to what we’d paid for two days of riding plus accommodations. It seemed like a lazy and expensive experience.
We refilled our water bags and walked out to mount up for the ride up. The wranglers had told us this would be the easy ride so I kept my phone in my chest pocket to take better photos. I marveled at the level of trust we’d all blindly given our mules: living beings we had never interacted with were expected to keep us safe going up and down a mountain. The mules are excellent at what they do, but very rarely in life do you put your life in the hands (or hooves) of another living being without having some sort of background with them. In the same line as yesterday we rode out of the corral at Phantom Ranch.
We passed deer grazing on the banks of the Bright Angel Creek and wound back across the trail by the Indian ruins, where we could see the Black Bridge. Above the Black Bridge we saw a pack mule train making their way down the shadowed mountain, a cloud of dust in their wake. Ed told us we’d pull off to the side by the ruins to let them pass. We used the time as a photo op and took pictures of the train crossing the bridge, and each other on our mules. I was pleasantly surprised to see a female wrangler leading the train. John told us they had two female wranglers right now, and that one had come from Boston with no animal experience.
With the pack train behind us, we continued up to and across the Black Bridge once again. The trail we’d come in on split off to the right shortly after the bridge and we took the South Kaibab trail on the left to ascend. There were no water stops on this trail and once the sun rose fully there would be very little shade. The climb started almost immediately, with tight switchbacks jutting out in the vast openness. Ed and John told us about various sites such as “no-no corner” where pack trains and passenger trains would attempt to cross on the narrow trail. No-no corner shot out over a deep gorge with nothing on either side and neither the pack train nor the rider trains ever wanted to actually ride out to wait for the other to pass there. Luckily we didn’t run into that conundrum.
As we climbed, so did the sun and the temperature. We rested frequently to let the mules breath and relax. I noticed Maude was being a bit finicky at one of our longer stops when she refused to stay in line, sidestepping anxiously. At a large plateau with restroom facilities we tied the mules to a hitching post to rest for close to half an hour. During this rest the pack train from the morning passed us, continuing on their ride back up. Maude seemed very sweaty and was breathing fairly heavily, continuing to sidestep. John came to look at her and said she seemed more tired than she should be. He reached into the mule med kit and pulled out a mild relaxer which he injected down her throat. She wasn’t thrilled, but it did help, and she was perkier for the rest of the trip. I got some fantastic photos at this stop – the one I sent you mid-trip is from here. We had a great view of the red inner rim and the huge expanse of canyon there. Our wranglers pointed out a spot to look at from the rim to see where Phantom Ranch was in relation to the rest of the canyon, since there was no way to see it. They also told us when we turned a corner where we’d see the Colorado from muleback for the last time.
Looking back down the switchbacks my knees were happy I wasn’t doing this on foot. The ascent was definitely easier than the descent had been but it still wasn’t an easy walk. Some of the switchbacks were incredibly steep and rocky. We came to one shady spot to rest and were told that because of how the rock had formed, that area had never seen direct sunlight, and was one of precious few areas of shade on this trail. After that, we were less than an hour from the top. We could see the rim but it looked like a steep vertical climb. As we snaked around rock formations the path revealed itself in parts, and almost without warning, we crested the rim once again. We followed the wranglers to the barn, where they handed us each a certificate of muleskinning and our belongings. Then we piled into a van to ride back to Bright Angel Lodge.
In the lodge we returned our borrowed raincoats and exchanged contact information with other riders. Everyone knew I was writing a book and wanted to read it so they took my email to check in with me in a few months. I wanted to change out of my dusty clothes and eat at the fancy El Tovar restaurant before I headed north. It took me much longer than it should have to change my pants in the restroom but I was moving slowly and covered in a layer of sweat and dusty. In hiking pants and sandals once again, I ran into Sara in the lobby for the final time, and then it was back to my other powerful steed: the Mustang. I put my dusty things in the trunk and drove to El Tovar. Sadly, the main dining room was closed, but I was able to snag a table on the bar porch with a view overlooking the rim. A disdainful sense of superiority accompanied me during my meal as I gazed at tourists gawking at the canyon. I wanted to yell at them for not experiencing anything while they stood their with their iPhones and iPads taking pictures instead of enjoying the view. You see so very little on the rim that, while beautiful, it is almost underwhelming because you can’t comprehend how enormous the formation is.
I had chili with rice and drank a Grand Canyon Mule, made with locally-sourced vodka. I chose it just for the name. Then it was time to drive north to Page. I wanted to get to my campsite before dark, and then have my last beer at Horseshoe Bend at sunset. Zach had told me he’d done guidework up in Page and that while the hike at Horseshoe wasn’t technically by any means, his clients told him that it was the easiest hike with the best payoff they’d done, so that solidified my goal. I had one stop to make: on the plateau we’d seen in the far distance a small pillar. Ed told us it was a watchtower, designed by a woman to blend into the land. While she was away, men had looked at her plans and built it. Upon her return it wasn’t as she desired and she made them tear it down and rebuild it. Never send a man to do a woman’s work. The watchtower was about 25 miles from where we’d been and John told me it was right on my drive out, so I wanted to stop there too.
The drive to the watchtower was quiet and peaceful. I was glad I stopped there because they had restrooms and water, two things I was appreciating more than normal on this journey. I climbed to the top and took some photos. The watchtower gave a much more impressive glimpse at the size and scope of the canyon. If someone didn’t want to hike at all then that was the place to go for views. I was glad I’d had both experiences. Then I was off, once again.