by Sherry Jarvis
As we mounted our mules leaving Phantom Ranch that morning it was sprinkling and the low clouds created a haze like mist over the canyon. As the mules walked down the trail you could barely hear their hoof beats because the trail was just wet enough to soften each stride. The serene quiet of the morning was sweet music to my ears and I marveled once again at the essence of this picturesque placed called Phantom Ranch. It had waltzed in and out of our lives in a moment in time charming us with it’s quaint yet regal presence. As I looked back over my shoulder catching one last glimpse of this peaceful location I hoped that I would be able to visit again someday. When I turned back around I saw Joan riding her mule Blanche in front of me and I thanked God for making this opportunity of a life time possible for both of us. I could not contain my emotions as I held back the tears forming in my eyes. There are just some moments in your life you never want to forget and this was one of them.
As we approached the CO River this time the thought of crossing the suspension bridge did not bring any pucker factor to me but rather a sense of awe at how it was built. I thought of the men who had built it and the difficulties they must have encountered. I wondered if the experience of thousands of other people who had crossed the bridge before me had found this ride as special as I did. I wondered why they had chosen to take this journey? I wondered how it had affected their lives? Was it just a vacation or something much more like it was for Joan and I? I would never know the answers. But I could not imagine how someone could take this extraordinary journey and not be altered or at least see life and creation from a new perspective after experiencing one of God’s most remarkable formations. I know that I would never be the same because every time I think of this trip I would be reminded of God’s incredible power, grace and love. I would remember the generosity of all the people who helped make the trip possible. I would not forget the friends we made along the way. I would reminisce about the stories Doug and Bill told us. I would recall how flawless and trustworthy our mules Maude and Blanche were as they climbed up and down the trails with a calm pace. I would memorize the smile on my friend Joan’s face as her bucket list ride was being fulfilled. I didn’t want to forget one single breath-taking view, the feelings of excitement, the sensations of riding Maude, the contentment of riding the trail of life in the will of God.
After crossing the bridge and going back through the tunnel it wasn’t far before we had to stop at a wide spot to wait for the mule skinners who were bringing a train of mules down the trail with supplies for Phantom Ranch. I heard Doug talking on the radio to them before we reached the place where they would pass us. There were two mule skinners with about 10 mules each on their train. It still amazes me that all of the supplies and garbage are hauled in and out every day by these mules. They must be in great shape because they were not strolling along like we were; you could tell they were in a hurry. They had a job to complete. In fact they went down to Phantom Ranch unloaded their goods, reloaded and caught us by the time we were at the second bathroom break. They were not wasting any time. However they were sure puffing and sweating when they reached us up on the flat where they were allowed to catch their breath before leaving ahead of us to make their final assent to the top of the rim.
I left the canyon with a new respect and adoration of mules. I am astounded at what they can do and how well they can do it. It isn’t surprising I felt a real affection for Maude and wanted to take her home with me. I will always hold her dear in my heart because she helped create some of the fondest memories in my life. Of course I was partial to her and thought she was the best mule of them all. Isn’t that silly? They were all great mules. I am sure everyone else felt the same way about the mule they were riding. I remember my Dad telling me all about his mule “Twine” like he was the best mule in the world. Mom thought her mule “ “ was perfect for her. Joan loved the way Blanche had a nice long stride on her. I guess everybody bonds with their mule. They have a way of capturing your heart. Besides the magnificent scenery they are probably to stars of the show on this journey. Heck without them you would have to walk. We met some people at Phantom Ranch who had walked down but had decided it would be too difficult to walk back up so they hired some mules so they could ride back to the top. One gal was going to walk but hired a mule to take her backpack out for her. Truly, the mules are very valuable in the Canyon, they are not just a form of entertainment. They may have the reputation of being stubborn but we can certainly learn a lot of lessons from them.
As we started back up Kaibab Trail Doug told Joan and I all kinds of stories. We were in the front of the line this time; Doug leading us, then Joan and then myself with Bill following up the rear. I think Doug spent most of the time turned around talking with us about some of the exciting trips he had and why he loved his job. We delighted in his stories. We told him how blessed he was to have such a gorgeous office and to have found his calling in life, even if he isn’t getting rich doing it. I thought if I was younger, single and liked heat I would love to be a guide at the Grand Canyon. The last part about not being fond of heat would be the biggest obstacle to keep me from liking this job.
I am not sure if Doug and Bill realize it or not, but they are much more than a couple of mule skinner guides who show people the way down and up the trail at the Grand Canyon keeping them safe. They are central characters who play a significant role in the lives of people embarking on not just an ordinary vacation but for some of us it is a very spiritual journey. They touch lives in unique ways. I saw them offer compassion, encouragement, reassurance, help, and support to those who needed it just at the right time. They provided mule savvy, history, geology, nature, and geography lessons that were fascinating. They inspire us with a dedication and love for mules, the Canyon and work ethic that gives one a sense of pride and determination to live your dreams. I know it must be somewhat of a sacrifice to live the life they do, but I want to say Thank you to Doug, Bill, and all the other mule guides who ensure each trip is safe and picture-perfect for each one of us. I know there are probably people who whine and complain about certain things on the trip. You can’t please all the people all the time. But for me it could not have been more ideal. So for Doug, Bill and all the other guides I want to encourage you to keep on being the best you can be and look at each ride as an opportunity to touch a person’s life in a very rare way that nobody else can do.
Doug told us the ride out was easy. I guess he might have to define “easy”. I thought the trails were much more difficult in places. Maybe he meant that they would seem easier today because the riders were now used to the trails and sort of knew what to expect. The element of surprise was over. Of course the mules had to work a lot harder going up the steep trails and so we had to stop and rest more often so they could catch their breath. At one of these rest stops Joan’s mule Blanche decided to urinate. She put her left foot right next to the edge of the trail and hung her right foot over the edge of the cliff. Joan was leaning away from edge. That’s what I call “Living on the Edge”. I was laughing and had to get my camera out to take a picture.
There were a couple of times when we parked the mules out to rest that Joan kept her mule fairly straight on the trail because when the mule was positioned the way they were suppose to be, the mules head was hanging out over the cliff. I had fun taking pictures of Maude’s ears during these rest periods. It was spine-tingling to sit there on your mule with his front feet so close to the edge. The mules took advantage of these times and were very relaxed. So I found no reason to be afraid and I thoroughly delighted in the moments taking in the gorgeous countryside at each outlook.
As we made our way up Kaibab Trail every now and then we could see a glimpse of the CO River. As it got further and further away it seemed as if it’s size and power dwindled. The reality of being at the bottom of the canyon was already fading into a memory, I wanted to grab it and never let it go. Pretty soon Doug said, “Take one last look at the river, after this you will see it no more.” His words sent a pain into my heart because it brought me back to reality for a moment. This was only a holiday, an escape from our real lives, a retreat that broke up the monotony and pressure of life in the real world, a bucket list event that would not happen exactly like this again. However, no matter what tensions we would have to face back home, I would not let that spoil the joy of being a part of this voyage. I pushed back all fear of what the future may hold and of regrets of the past. I chose to live in the pleasure of the moment. I would take the lessons learned on this quest and apply them to living life to the fullest “right on the edge” once we returned to what can seem like the mundane of everyday life.
A couple of my favorite spots on Kaibab trail were “Window to Heaven” and “Jacob’s Ladder”. Window to heaven was a hole in the top of a rock which looked like a window. We were far below it when Doug pointed it out to us. As we looked up you could see right through the hole into the sky above. I almost didn’t get my camera out in time to take a picture of it because I was so drawn to the eye-catching spot. Have you ever thought much about the windows of heaven? What does God mean when He says, “I will open to you the windows of heaven?” Of course, that is a figure of speech with a very powerful message.
I love windows a great deal, I love windows in a home, I love windows in buildings, and I love windows because they let the light in. And I love to be at a place where there is a lot of light. And I love windows because they allow those who are inside to look out upon God’s wonderful creation. Windows are a wonderful, wonderful blessing. I love windows of all sizes and windows of all shapes. I especially love stained glass windows in a church that tell the story of Jesus. As I gazed at this “window to heaven” somehow miraculously carved in this rock I thought of references in the Bible about “windows of heaven.” Many times in the Bible you read that God opened the “windows of heaven”. But the main truth is that God opens the windows of heaven on our behalf. He has already done that on two occasions and some great day He is going to open the windows again. God has been so good to us. He opened the windows of heaven and sent us His only begotten Son to rescue us. He opened the windows again and sent the Holy Spirit to purify and empower us. Then some glorious day He will open the windows of heaven again and send His precious Son back to take us to be with Him forever.
“Jacob’s ladder” was a long series of abrupt vertical switch backs over a precipice that seemed to go on and on. It was almost like a winding staircase. It reminded me of the one we had seen in the church in Santa Fe. One doesn’t climb up a stairway like this very quickly. Getting to the top is a gradual process where the mules take one step at a time. Even though I could tell the climb was quite extreme because of how hard Maude was pushing with her hindquarters it wasn’t until we reached the top and I looked back that I realized how vertical the climb had been. I thought this is how the Lord leads us on with very gradual steps, so gentle that we don’t even realize we’re ascending until we look back.
If you are not familiar with the story of Jacob’s ladder in the Bible it happens in the form of a strange dream. In his dream Jacob saw a “ladder or stairway.” descending from heaven to earth. On the stairway Jacob saw the angels of God going up and down the stairs. At the top of the ladder stood God himself. Just think about that. Jacob at the bottom, God at the top, a stairway filled with angels in between. What does it mean? The message of the dream is this: “Jacob, I’m nearer to you than you think I am. Although I am in heaven and you are on earth, there’s a stairway that reaches from me to you. And my angels are constantly watching over you. They tell me what you need and I send them back to earth with my answers. I’m not very far away. In fact, I’m with you wherever you go. When you travel, my stairway travels with you. Everywhere you go, I will go with you.
Think about it this way: While I am struggling with the problems of today, God is hard at work providing solutions for the things I am going to face tomorrow. He’s already there, working creatively in situations I have yet to face, preparing them for me and me for them. Or to say it yet another way: God is already at work providing solutions for problems I don’t even know I have yet! That blows my mind even more than riding a mule on Jacob’s ladder did.
Are you worried about next week? Forget it. He’s already there. How about next year? Don’t sweat it. Sleep well. He’s already there. What about the tough decisions that loom up ahead for Joan when the fantasy ride is over? She need not fear because God is there to walk her through the days ahead. And God will do much more than that. He is going ahead of her, clearing the way, arranging the details, so when she gets there she will have confidence that He has already been there before. Just like our mules had already been on that trail before and knew exactly how to take care of us every step of the way with safety so we could enjoy the ride.
I believe that through this dream Jacob discovered the omnipresence of God—that God is everywhere present all the time. I was reminded of this truth again while riding Maude below the “window of heaven” and on “Jacob’s ladder”. I know that wherever I am, there is God. And wherever God is, there is a stairway or window to heaven reaching down from God in my deepest moments of desperation or victory to be near me.
Jesus Christ is himself the stairway that leads back to the window of heaven. If you want to go through the window of heaven, Jesus is the stairway, he is the ladder, that will take you from here to there. That’s why in the gospel of John, Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” Jesus is “the way” to heaven. Without him, there is no other way.
Now that Jesus Christ has come, we know that God can never be far away from us. He is the ladder that leads to heaven, he is the bridge that crosses the great gulf, he is the stairway that leads to paradise, he is the window to eternal life.
I didn’t think it would take me this long and this many pages to journal about our mule trip. I believe that this Part 5 is long enough so I will close for now.
Part 6 will include the rest of the ride to the rim. There may even be a Part 7 about our drive home. And who knows a Part 8 about the rest of the story????