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In Response to Re: Memoir Prompt July 2013; When bad becomes good.:
Foxy the Mule
The year was 1975 and I was working at an advertising agency. There were five graphic designers employed and we worked in a large open room with facing art desks. The designer in front of me was talking about having taken a mule ride down into the Grand Canyon. It did not occur to me that I would one day do this. I did not like to ride horses and certainly not mules. My father used to plow with a mule. They were ornery creatures.
Unfortunately I mentioned the conversation to my husband that night and he immediately filed it away— to be resurrected when we began our vacation discussion about camping in the Grand Canyon. We often tent camped and I enjoyed this, but riding a mule....no way!
The brochures on the Grand Canyon said that reservations had to be made a year in advance for the mule trips. I felt confident that since we were nine months away from our vacation date that I would not be able to get reservations. And I was correct. “We’ll put you on our waiting list.” the nice voice on the phone told me. “You have to be under 200 pounds to ride on a mule and often someone will have to drop out at the last minute due to their weight.” As we prepared for the trip I felt relieved that I would not have to ride that mule. Doug was still hopeful and began to watch his diet so that he could get his weight down under 200 pounds. No way, I thought, will this happen.
The day we left for Arizona, Doug weighted 201 and I was a bit nervous. Still, I thought, there are others on the waiting list and we will be eating lots of fattening food in New Mexico. All those cheese enchiladas and refried beans really pack on the pounds.
When we got to the Grand Canyon we set up our tent in our assigned space and immediately went to the rim. I recall gazing down and seeing a long line of mules twisting their way down the tortuous trail that seemed to go on forever. I saw what I thought was a hawk flying below; it turned out to be a small plane. I heard Doug say “Let go check on that mule trip.” Nervously I pulled myself away from the rim and followed him into the lodge. As luck would have it we were first on the waiting list. “Be here at 8 A.M. sharp for the weigh in.” the lady behind the desk told us. “There’s a good chance you both might make the trip. If a man weighs too much and is disqualified then his wife will usually drop out.” Not what I wanted to hear.
The next morning we were there with the prescribed zip lock bag with a change of underwear, toothpaste and a toothbrush. This was all we were allowed to carry with us. There was a large bunk house at the bottom and we would sleep there after eating dinner. The last man stepped onto the scales and.......he was five pounds over the limit. He and his wife stepped aside and Doug weighed. One hundred and ninety-nine pounds. My heart sank. We were to make the trip.
Our guide, who rode a horse, asked if all of us were experienced horse back riders. Everyone but Doug and I raised their hands. “Okay, not to worry, I will put you two on the first two mules after me.” The mule he chose for me was one of the larger ones and named Rosy. She had a reddish cast to her hair and looked mean. I could tell that she had my number and that we would not get along.
“This is to be my last trip down into the canyon leading the mule team.” our guide told us. “I wasn’t supposed to lead this one but George called in sick. I’ll be missing the party tonight.” He did not sound like a happy camper. This did not bode well, I thought. He continued “All the mules will stop to pee at the switchback points on the trail and they will all do it in the same place. Don’t try to stop them.” As if I could—I thought to myself. Then the guide handed each of us a stick. “If your mule tries to leave the trail to eat weeds or twigs from brush, hit them on the head with this stick and hit them hard.” Saying this he whacked Rosy on the head to stop her from eating some leaves from an overhanding branch.
We began our descent. Mules are broad animals, wider than horses, and my legs stuck out at an uncomfortable angle. Sitting on Rosy I was looking down at a straight drop into the canyon. The trail was not very wide. Rosy followed obediently at first and kept up with the guide. Then she saw something that she considered edible and began to climb the steep sides of the canyon. I whacked her on the head with my stick. It made no impression at all. The guide said over his shoulder, “You’re gonna have to hit her harder than that. She’s stubborn.”
We came to one of the points in the trail. This is called a “switchback” and is where the trail switches back in the opposite direction. The trail has to zig-zag in order not to be a steep descent. At one of these first zig-zags Rosy stopped to pee, and pee, and pee. Needless to say it was not a pleasant smell. Finally she proceeded and I looked back a few minutes later to see another mule doing the same thing. Our guide ignored this, having told us what to expect, and was getting ahead of me and the rest of the group. This went on for hours and I was getting very thirsty. Only the guide carried water.
Finally we reached a sandy spot that broaden into a rest area. There was a spring there and a lot of hikers. The guide passed each of us a cup of water and told us that we were half way to the bottom. A group of hikers with bright blue backpacks began to push past the mules. This was against park rules, our guide told them and asked them to stand aside until we passed. There was a heated discussion and the hikers pushed into the mules with the guide shouting threats at them that he would have them banned from the park. Then he kicked his horse and rode off down the trail leaving me to deal with Rosy who was still looking back at the blue back packs. Seeing her chance to get rid of me Rosy began to buck and I found myself flying through the air and landing, miraculously in the sand, on my butt. Believe me when I say that this was the only spot on the entire trail where there was sand. I was lucky.
Our guide, realizing that he had better pay closer attention to his charges, helped me to my feet and asked nervously if I was hurt. I brushed off the sand and said that I was okay. He could tell that Rosy was still nervous so he put me on his horse and he rode Rosy until he determined she was over her bucking. I had to get back on that mule. It was either that or walk the rest of the way and we still had a distance to go. Rosy behaved herself and I overcame my fear and our guide became quite friendly. I think he realized that it had been his inattention that had allowed the bucking. He did tell me that this would be Rosy’s last trip down carrying people. She had bucked a thirteen year old off the year before and a mule only gets two “bucks” and then they are demoted to carrying supplies.
When we arrived at Phantom Ranch we were met by a girl and a pitcher of lemonade. I could have dank the entire pitcher myself and recall hearing Doug moaning as he tried to get down off his mule. Every muscle in my body ached.
The next morning I had to get back on Rosy. I would like to say that she and I had come to an understanding but we had not. I was still afraid and she was still stubborn. Once I was on her back she cut her eyes around at me as if to say “Didn’t get enough yesterday.”
The trip back up was along the Kaibab Trail. Much steeper and only about an hour. The guide reassured me by saying that Rosy would be too busy pulling up the steep trail to get into any mischief and he was right. When I dismounted from Rosy at the top I vowed never to get on a mule again and I haven’t.
So, you are wondering, what was so good about this adventure.
I have never forgotten it and its been one of my favorite tales over the years. There is something very invigorating about facing a fear and getting through it, coming out on the other side. Adventures make memories and memories brighten our lives. Would I do it again....probably not, but I’m glad I did it that one time.
Posted by Sparkel18
I loved your story, Sparkel. I especially loved your last lines. That is the way I feel about living and working in Saudia Arabia for 2 years. I'm glad I did it but I don't think I would care to do it again. Shelia.