Riding a Mule to the Bottom of the Grand Canyon

I grew up in a small town in southwest New Mexico called Silver City. The Grand Canyon in Arizona was a (fairly long) day's drive away. My father loved to drive and the Grand Canyon always seemed like a good destination. I don't know how many times we went there when I was young, but it was often enough that I felt like it was practically in our backyard.

One year, someone in the family got the idea that we should ride mules to the bottom of the canyon. My oldest sister was already married and no longer with us, and my mother refused to go; she said she would spend the day reading in our motel room or walking through the tourist shops. But my father, brother, and other sister thought it would be a great idea — and I preferred the mule ride to shopping with my mother.

Since I was quite small I have always been afraid of horses and elephants. I don't know how and why I first feared horses, except they were very big, unpredictable, and had a very vicious kick. We saw horses fairly often in Silver City — particularly during the Fourth of July parade.

However, I know I feared elephants after seeing the movie Elephant Walk with Elizabeth Taylor, Dana Andrews, and Peter Finch. The film was made in 1954 and the main character builds his plantation right on the trail where the elephants would walk daily to get down to the river for their water; everyone warned him that the elephants would be unhappy to have their trail blocked. And they were. At the end of the film, the elephants stampede into the house and completely destroy it. I had a healthy respect for elephants after that. And, to this day (thanks to a lot of National Geographic and Nature films), I fully appreciate their intelligence and compassion.

Because I had this fear of both elephants and horses, my mother was very surprised when I agreed to ride a mule to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. But I thought to myself that elephants, horses and mules were clearly different animals. Mules weren't as big as an elephant, obviously, and these mules (I was sure) would be walking on a guided tour, well behaved, and certainly never running. Ah, the innocence of youth.

In the stockade at the south rim of the canyon, we were assigned our mules. My mule's name was Jeep; I don't know why he was given that name but I suspect it was because he was good at going over rough terrain. I was told he was a young mule, not terribly experienced although he had gone down the canyon for at least six months. My father's mule was named Marilyn because she was light in colour — thus named after Marilyn Monroe. Alas, I don't remember the names of my brother's or sister's mules. No doubt they do.

There were, at the time, several different trips you could take. Some went to the lodge at the bottom, and people stayed overnight and returned the next day. Another took the trip down first, stayed at the lodge, and went up to the north rim on the second day. But we were taking a simple, easy day trip: We would ride to the bottom, have a look at the Colorado River and eat our lunch, and return to the top on the same day. That meant about six or seven hours in the saddle.

We all posed for a photograph at the beginning of the ride.

We had barely started when we stopped on the first switchback of the trail for a photograph to be taken. At the bottom of the photograph is our guide (whose name I don't remember).

Moving up the photograph (from bottom to top), you will see:

As soon as the photograph was taken, we were off: August 13, 1961. I was two months shy of my 16th birthday. The family had gone to pick up my sister from school at Northern Arizona University (after a year away, she was coming home) and we turned the trip into a small holiday before we went back to school in September.

We started down the trail slowly enough, each mule's head pretty close to the rear end of the mule in front. Even though we are all holding onto reins, don't be fooled: the mules were totally in charge. And it didn't take long for Jeep to show me his true colours. He had a little spark and he liked to have (I can only imagine) some fun. He'd slow down until the mule in front of him was several yards away; then he'd trot faster to catch up. He wasn't galloping, but for this small-town girl who had never been on a horse or mule, he might as well have been. Each time, he speeded up, my heart beat twice as fast. He'd catch up to the mule in front, slow down, and then repeat the process. All. The. Way. Down.

It was a hot ride — no relief from the August sun. The switchbacks were frequent and it got very tiring. I don't recall stopping for any breaks. Jeep and I just plodded, then trotted, all the way to the bottom of the canyon.

We reached the bottom at about noon, and finally got off our mules, tied them to a hitching post, and went to a small area where we were given bag lunches. Our view of the Colorado River was brief — on a cliff several feet above the river itself — but I remember being impressed. I had grown up in a countryside that had few rivers. Water was scarce. All my life I've been impressed with big rivers.

When my mule went to the edge to eat some grass, this was the kind of view I might see. (Photo by Bob Ingraham)

All too soon, we had to return to our mules for the ride back up. Going up was much harder for the mules. We had to stop frequently to allow them to rest. Jeep (my mule) liked to stand at the furthest edge of the trail and bend his head over to get what I guess he thought was the best piece of grass.

We sometimes stopped because my father's mule, Marilyn, would begin to wheeze and cough. We all worried she might collapse before we got to the top. (The next day, we saw that Marilyn didn't go down as usual; hopefully, she got better and she was able to retire.)

My mother was waiting for us at the top, and we returned home to Silver City the next day. It was a trip I never forgot.

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In no particular order, here are other personal articles I have written:

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