The Bright Angel Trail
By sherry Jarvis
We woke long before the alarm went off at 5:00. After dressing and eating a peanut butter and choke cherry jelly sandwich for breakfast, we took all of our luggage out to the car except for the little bags we had packed to take with us on our overnight trip to Phantom ranch at the bottom of the Canyon. Then we took my laptop computer, cell phone, car keys, and our purses to the bellman’s closet to be locked up. We put a few dollars in our pockets for spending money and tips.
As we gathered at the travel center we met our fellow mule riders. Nobody had ever been on the ride. So we were all greenies to riding the canyon. Except Joan and I; we were the only ones who rode horses on a regular basis. A few of them had never ridden before. I thought boy, are they ever going to be sore, after a 5 ½ hour ride, and they were. They hurt even more the next day climbing on their mule for another 5 ½ hour ride back up the canyon. I did feel sorry for them. So on the second day I shared the Tylenol I had in my pocket which I had not needed. They were very grateful.
As we walked to the corral where the mules were waiting it was a very cool morning. The clouds were low and it was just getting light. Most everyone had on jackets. The clouds were dark and heavy. It looked like rain. Everyone kept asking if it was going to rain. Of course the guides were politically correct saying, “It could, you just never know?” I loved the cool crisp air and that fact that the clouds would keep the temperatures down. I wasn’t worried about rain. Besides we were prepared, we had our cool yellow rain slickers that said, “Mule Rider” on the back.
As our guides Doug and Bill did last-minute checks of the tack for each mule, Steve, the manager, entertained us as he told us all about the trip, including all the rules. He was so funny, Joan said we should have video-taped his orientation presentation. These were the main rules:
- Stay on your mule. Never dismount until the guide gives you permission.
- Keep the knot in the reins on the neck of the mule. (They had tied the reins in a knot, we were to hold on to the loop and leave the reins loose at all times.)
- Don’t ever let your mule stop and eat!
- Use the spanker to keep your mule up with the group at all times.
- When we stop to let the mules rest or let someone catch up, always turn your mule so his nose points out over the cliff and his rump to the wall. (This was called “Parking”)
- Communicate with each other and the guides. (Like: yell pit-stop if your mules has to urinate, and don’t let your mule pee in the same spot as the mule in front of you.)
- Smile and have fun. Enjoy the journey, this is your vacation.
Steve also gave the option of backing out of the ride with a 100% money back guarantee if one did it before they left the corral. But once you leave the corral you are committed and there were no refunds. However, if you were too scared to finish the ride you could walk back at any time, forfeiting all fees. He reassured us that we were in good hands. Doug and Bill had each taken over 3000 trips with the mules down the Canyon.
He also explained there has never been a death on the mule ride, but every year there are lots of hiker deaths and serious injuries. He thought it was a lot safer to ride a mule than hike the canyon. Of course the mule skinners thought hiking the trail was crazy. They definitely preferred riding to walking. Only a few people have been injured riding the mules and that was because they panicked. Everyone decided they were going on the ride.
All 10 brave souls lined up in the middle of the mule pen as Steve assigned us our mules. We were told that our name would be our mules name the rest of the trip. We all laughed, but they were serious. Jewel rode in front of me on the way down. She had never ridden a horse before and she sometimes had a hard time keeping her mule Ike going. So the guide would yell, “Ike catch up!” She was so afraid. I could see her shaking all over. I kept telling her to just “breathe”. It didn’t work. She couldn’t even talk. But she was a real trooper and kept going and finished the whole ride. I bet she was so proud of her accomplishment.
It was so dang funny when they called “Maude” for me and “Blanche” for Joan. We had gone from hot chicks “Thelma and Louise” in Albuquerque to “The Golden Girls” on the mule ride. Joan asked the guide if a Jenny mule had the temperament of a mare. He just kind of looked at her like: “Ride your mule lady?” But as the trip unfolded we got to know the guides and they discovered a lot about us. Joan and I were so happy that we got to ride in the back of the pack on the trail down. We are used to guiding people on trails and we take turn riding up front or in the back. Neither one of us likes riding in the middle. Maybe because neither of us really like crowds. We exchanged tons of stories with Doug our guide who brought up the rear.
Not long after we got started on the trail we passed through a couple of small tunnels and then the guides stopped us to check our cinches. They gave everyone the option of turning back at that point. Nobody took them up on the offer, even Jewel who was shaking uncontrollably. Doug was so compassionate as he tried to reassure her she was going to be ok. At that point I don’t know if she believed him. Since she was right in front of me, I kept giving her encouragement. Eventually I think she started to relax and enjoy the journey. I gave her some riding tips that she said helped her feel more comfortable.
My cousin, a big tough brave cowboy, told me the first mile of this ride scared the heck out of him and he never let go of the saddle horn. I thought what is the big deal? This is easy. But Joan said, “I’m not making any judgments yet, I bet it will get harder.” And she was right. We didn’t know what we were in for.
The first trek to Garden Springs where we had lunch was a piece of cake. Yes, it was magnificent looking up or down at the vertical cliffs, but the trails were fairly wide and not too steep. We asked Doug, how many switch backs there were on the ride. He didn’t know. There had to be hundreds.
The only thing I didn’t like about that first part of the ride was there were lots of hikers toward the top. I was being totally selfish. I wanted the whole canyon to ourselves. I wished that just our group of 10 mule riders and the 2 guides could be allowed to enjoy this trail all alone. It would have been even better, if it had just been Joan, I and one guide to keep us safe.
I prefer riding away from civilization in remote places. The Canyon is so marvelous, no words can describe it and I didn’t want to share our space with so many hikers. However, as we got further and further down toward the bottom the hikers were fewer. We were told that less than 1% of the people who visit the Canyon actually go clear to the bottom. The good thing is the mules always had the right of way. Hikers had to stop and put their backs to the wall as we passed by.
As we approached Garden Spring where we had our first bathroom break and lunch the trail leveled off quite a bit. There was a ranger station, spickets to fill your canteens, an outhouse, and benches to sit on to eat your lunch. We were instructed to eat and drink as much as we could, and we were expected to do it super fast. The guides didn’t want to dally there. They kept saying we want to get to Phantom ranch before it gets too hot. They said it can get over 110 degrees at the bottom. But thankfully the approaching rain clouds kept it fairly cool. I think our high was only about 93.
I fed my carrots to Blanche and Maude then saved my Apple for later. Before we mounted our mules the guides sprayed water on our backs and bandanas to help keep us cool. They said we would thank them later. It did get pretty warm when we dropped down around “Oh Jesus Corner”, which was our first look at a real steep and narrow corner. Doug said they call it that because when people ride around it they say, “Oh Jesus, help me!” Before we reached “Oh Jesus Corner”, we rode through an oasis of trees and green plants along a crystal clear stream. Joan said that was the most beautiful spot of the ride. It was like a little glimpse of heaven. However, after leaving this lush area we would only ride through steep rugged rocks until we reach Phantom Ranch, another beautiful oasis on Bright Angel Creek, which flows into the Colorado River.
After “Oh Jesus Corner”, we were on a fast decent, crossing a couple of streams. Ike jumped one of the creeks, and somehow Jewel stayed on. Then we rounded a corner to see the mighty Colorado River. It was a dirty brown from the rains. However, the sight of it still took my breath away, as I praised God for this truly amazing experience. At first we were on a flat area and again I thought, “Is this all there is?” Then we started to climb again to ride along the rugged cliffs hundreds of feet above the river. It was so thrilling, I just kept thinking, “It can’t get any better than this!”
I put my reins over the saddle horn, trusted Maude and took as many pictures as I could while still taking time to look at the wonderful scenery. I knew I would have pictures, but I wanted to burn every bit of this experience into my memory. How I felt, what I smelled, what I heard, it all was almost too much to take in at once. It was all over way too fast.
As we rode along the cliffs above the Colorado River I still could hardly believe that Joan and I were actually doing this, or that my parents had also rode this very trail. My Mom said she thought for sure she was going to die that day. I had not felt this alive since I first went free rappelling in the Sierra mountains near Lake Tahoe, NV in the early 90’s, or rode my first colt snubbed up to my Dad’s roping horse when I was only 13 years old. This was an experience I would never forget and I had my doubts at that moment that I would ever be able to top this ride. Mom and Dad were right it is a ride of a lifetime.
As I saw the suspension bridge we were going to cross, I got my first hint of what I call pucker factor. When I told that to Doug he laughed and asked how that bridge could cause me to be anxious. I said, because at least up here on this trail there is earth underneath my mules feet. As I began to think about it, I realized even the bridge was nothing to fear, because Maude knew what she was doing and if it didn’t phase her than it shouldn’t be any big deal for me. Besides she had not given me one reason to not trust her completely. I realized that I need to trust God with everything in my life as much as I trusted Maude with my life every step of the way on this journey.
Right before the bridge is a tunnel which is pitch dark in the middle and then as you come out into the sunshine you are on the suspension bridge. Maude never hesitated, and I was filled with joy unspeakable, as I took pictures of the rafters below on the river and turned to take pictures of Joan riding behind me. She was smiling from ear to ear. Just seeing her brought tears to my eyes.
It wasn’t far to Phantom Ranch after we crossed the bridge. We passed the area where the hikers pitch their tents and the corrals where the mules would stay for the night. After we dismounted the cook from the Canteena brought us clear glasses of ice-cold water. It tasted so good after drinking out of those canteens which tasted like plastic. She gave us directions to our cabins, the shower house and the Canteena where we would eat a delicious supper and breakfast. She gave us instructions about supper and the program schedule for the evening. The guides unpacked out plastic bags with our belongings and we went to find our cabin. It was starting to rain.
There are just no words to describe how satisfied we felt at that moment, or how much we appreciated life, the miracles of God’s creation and the opportunity to take this very special trip together. Cowgirls and friends forever we were pushing back the thoughts of reality of the tough decisions Joan would have to face when we got back home. But for now we could live in the moment in this amazing place as if it would never end.
Stay tuned for the rest of the story…