The Great Southwest Trip 2017


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Wednesday, September 13

Today was the big day! Doug, Candy and I got up at 5:30 am, packed our bags, checked them at the front desk of the Maswik lodge (where we'd be staying again Thursday night after we came up from the bottom of the canyon) and had breakfast. Then we went to the Stone Corral, where the group was meeting at 6:45, with our tiny plastic bags of overnight stuff, our yellow raincoats, and our canteens.

And just for fun, here's the brochure they sent. I actually read it two or three times, including just before we left...the guy at the Bright Angel tour desk, where we checked in the day before, said, wow, nobody reads it...! Must be a shock for people who don't, there are a lot of things that are required...

We are reading the sign about the mule trip, standing in the cold morning with seven other women who are obviously going to take the ride as well, and several other people who have just come to hang out and see the mules load up and go. And here they come, from the barn/corral across the street (remember the 'Mule Crossing' sign? this is what it was for!) I was SO EXCITED.
They brought them into the corral and tied one to each section of chain, and we loaded our overnight stuff into saddlebags, and stood and watched, holding our raincoats and canteens. The guides (Simon and Chelsea) introduced themselves, and talked a little about how we were going to do stuff today.

The Awesomeness of Doug

So they loaded everything up, it was about 7:20, and then the manager of the mule trips came over and sat on the rock ledge in front of the ten of us (me, Doug, Candy and the seven other women). And he said, Now I'm going to give you the scary talk. And he said that yes, people had been hurt and died on this trip, but it was never the mule's fault. We were going to have to pay attention to our mules and the trail guides, keep the mules moving, watch other riders and the trail for things that might happen, and a whole lot of other serious Stuff That Must Be Done.

And Doug leaned over to me and said, I don't think I can do this.
Can't or don't want to? I said.
Can't, he said. I really am not sure I'm up for this, it sounds really intense.
Well, I said, whatever you decide is fine with me, but if you bail, just be sure you're not going to regret it...

And then the manager said The Thing- he said, and if you think this is not for you, if you come tell me that and back out before your butt hits the saddle, we'll refund your money after the mule riders leave.

And that cinched it. No, said Doug, this is not for me. So we went to the manager and Doug said, I don't think I can do this. And he shook Doug's hand and thanked him, we got Doug's stuff out of the saddlebags, I got the claim check for our suitcases from my wallet and said, they're refunding a lot of money, just find a room wherever you can and be here at noon tomorrow and we'll see you then.

Both the guides mentioned how grateful they were that he didn't insist on doing something he wasn't up for...they have to deal with this all the time, and it is not easy. We heard some stories about that later on...

Doug took these, then handed me back the camera. Candy is in the light blue shirt, I'm beyond her in green. They lined us up and matched us with mules. She got Blackburn, I got Dudley. And they said, we don't know your names yet, but we know these mules, so now their names are yours. If we say, Dudley, do this, that means you, so listen up for your mule's name. And that was true both ways on this ride, which was pretty amusing.
And we were on our mules, and set off down the trail. We were supposed to keep in line, and keep the mules close together with our 'motivators' (quirts, small handheld whips which none of us used hard enough for the mules to even notice). We were also not supposed to take pictures except when the group stopped for water, or talks from the guides, about every half hour. Candy and I both cheated, but since I didn't want to actually hold my camera to my face, I just turned it on and took pics from where it was hanging around my neck and hoped they would turn out well...

some kind of thistle

You can see the face of the Native spirit that guards the trail if you look at the edge of the cliff, about a third of the way down... And now that we're down the steepest part (for now) we can see a lot of the canyon! Candy was ahead of me on the way down, so I got a lot of good pictures of her and her mule... Looking back up at the rim, where we had come from.
Candy's picture of Blackburn, another view of the rim of the canyon to our left, our new friend Linda's picture of our guide Simon, and the rest stop at Three Mile.

The Bright Angel Trail is about nine and a half miles down, the first three being almost straight down the cliff with switchbacks all the way-hell to come back up, as Doug and I discovered when we hiked it in '92. The stops are Mile and a Half, Three Mile, and Indian Garden at 5 miles.

The one thing they DIDN'T tell us, in the overwhelming pile of information and warnings we got before we left, is that the rider is sitting on top of the mule's front legs, and that means that when you go down steep switchbacks the mule will keep going til his head and neck stick out OVER the cliff, til his FEET are on the edge, then turn. It took me a couple of white-knuckle switchbacks to figure that one out...

The switchbacks below Three Mile.

Almost in Indian Garden.

Indian Garden, the halfway point. It's about 10:30 am, we've been riding for 2 1/2 hours, we are hot and tired. Lunch is boxes, everyone gets one. Turkey sandwiches (thick slices of real turkey breast with cheese, noms!) an apple, trail mix, raisins, fritos and powerade. I'm not very hungry for some reason, and just have half a sandwich, the apple and the drink. I put the fritos in the box of goodies for hikers to take, and put the trail mix in my pocket. I'm not feeling great, and although I'm drinking a lot of water, it's going right through me, which is not normal. Hm...
But we enjoy lunch, check out Indian Garden (bathrooms, water, picnic tables, ranger quarters, etc.), have some photos taken with our mules, get our overshirts sopping wet (it's getting hot, it'll be over 80 on the rim and over 100 at the bottom) and off we go again!
The first two are my and Candy's pictures of the same beautiful rocks, where we're going...except she included Blackburn's adorable ears! The third and fourth pictures are at a stop; whenever we stopped for a drink or for the guides to tell us about the canyon, we made a line with our mules' heads all looking at the canyon so if anything happened they would know where the edge was...!
At that stop, while we were drinking water and taking pictures, Simon told us that we were about to go down into the inner canyon, and the first thing we'd hit was a switchback this is called, and I'm not making this up, the 'Oh Jesus!' switchback. He said, just let the mules do their thing and DON'T STOP. It was narrow and steep, and I heard one woman behind me say OH HOLY SHIT! which made me laugh. Candy thinks the lefthand picture is that switchback; I didn't take a pic, I was holding onto my saddle horn!

The second picture is looking down where we're going, to the Devil's Corkscrew. I'm not making any of these names up.

After that, it was a straight shot to the Colorado River, and here it is!

The Stupidness of Jo

After the Corkscrew we went along a stream, and by some rocks, and stopped for a water break. And all of a sudden, I was so dizzy I thought I was going to faint. I leaned over and grabbed the saddlehorn. Chelsea, I said to the guide who had gotten down when we stopped, I think I'm going to faint. I need to get down. She came over on the double. Are you sure? Yes, I said, I don't know what's wrong but I'm so dizzy I can't stay up.

Chelsea and Simon both thought it was the heat, of course. We were all wearing long sleeves and long pants and heavy shoes, and the temps were getting up in the 90s by that point. I was sitting on a rock, with my head between my knees, and eight other women staring at me from their mules.

Simon: Have you been drinking water?
Me: Yes, and it's not the heat, heat doesn't bother me. I don't know what this is.
Simon: Want me to pour water on your shirt and see if that helps?
Me: Sure, give it a try.

And he takes the back of my shirt and my tank top I'm wearing underneath it, pulls them out and POURS ICE WATER DOWN MY BACK.

WOW!!!!

Well, it certainly woke me up, and I managed to get to Phantom Ranch...it wasn't til we were there that I figured out what was wrong with me...I hadn't eaten any salt all day! Usually this isn't a problem, I'm always snacking on chips and such when I travel...but that day I just hadn't, and hadn't eaten any at lunch. Duh. So for the rest of this trip, I made a conscious effort to eat something salty every day...and boy, did that help!
The trail along the Colorado River. It was GORGEOUS. In the third picture, you can see the Bright Angel Bridge (known as the Silver Bridge), which is for hikers/foot traffic, and if you look closely you'll see the Kaibab Suspension Bridge (or Black Bridge), for mules, across the canyon farther back.
Crossing the bridge, and coming into Phantom Ranch. In the fourth picture you can see where the mules stay overnight and rest up.
John Wesley Powell found the flat area where the Bright Angel Creek flows into the Colorado (about 12 square miles), but the cabins weren't build til Mary Jane Colter, who built pretty much all the old stuff at the Grand Canyon, designed and built them in the late 1920s. The hiker dormitories were added later. Phantom Ranch can sleep 92 people total, plus there is a Parks Service-run campground on the other side of Bright Angel Creek from the Ranch buildings. The North and South Kaibab and Bright Angel trails all meet here; we met people who were doing a hike from one side to the other and stopping here, as well as going down and back on one side or the other like we were doing, but hiking. Ten people a day (approximately) take the mule trip and spend the night.
This is our cabin. It's a four-person cabin, but since Doug didn't come Candy and I each get a bottom bunk. Notice the closed-up fireplace, and also the cartridge box for any food you want to keep in the cabins...evidently little critters can get it. I didn't actually catch Candy leaving food out to see if any would come in, but I know she thought about it...

After we settled into our room and checked it out, we split up and did stuff, meeting back up for dinner.

So I walked down the trail to the campground, across the Bright Angel creek (above) and saw this sign with the thermometer...yes, it's a HUNDRED AND TWO. And you can see from these pictures, it is not sunny. In fact...there comes the rain, big fat raindrops, and then the heavens opened up and it rained like hell. I was on my way back to the cabin and got caught in it, and took shelter in the ranger's station with a couple of people who were two of a group of four backpackers that were just starting to put their tents up when the downpour started, they scattered with the tent pieces and now they couldn't find the other people to get the tent set up! We all hung out til the rain slackened, then I went back to the cabin and dried out.
A beautiful tree in the rain, one of the whimsical door numbers the cabins had, and a plant called (no kidding) mule's fat.
Then it was about 45 minutes to dinner, so I thought I'd walk up the North Kaibab trail as far as I could go in about 20-25 minutes. The next set of pictures are from there.
And I took some pictures of more of the whimsical birds with the cabin numbers on them before dinner.
Candy took these four pictures while she was hiking around before dinner. The first is the Moreton Bay fig tree that is in the center of Phantom Ranch.
The building on the left is the community room, full of tables for people to sit at and talk and eat and play games and whatever. It's also the post office, general store, and restaurant, which means that for meals (breakfast and dinner) they close the store and kick everyone out for two hours. Dinner was from 5-7, and the building opened back up from 8-10, so Candy and I went over for a well-earned and delicious beer. A Bright Angel IPA, to be precise. And it was, indeed, delicious.