Coffee heat rising

Mules

Another essay found in DropBox. This one was published in a short-lived but delightful Tucson monthly.

She looked like some vision from the nineteenth century, trudging alone up the Bright Angel Trail in her long, brilliant amethyst skirt and black velvet blouse. After the dose of hokeyness we had just taken from the fake cowboys with the Grand-Ole-Opry drawls back at the South Rim, we could easily have believed she was an actress tricked out as an Indian woman, like the giant costumed Mickey Mouse at Disneyland.

She had to stand aside so our fourteen-rider mule string could amble downhill past her. Up close we saw genuine gray hair showing beneath the heavy scarf covering her head. Her elegant, lined face was the color of Supai sandstone. Around her neck, arms, and fingers she wore several pounds of turquoise and silver—all notably unlike the stuff for sale in the El Tovar gift shop. Yes, we were kicking dust into the eyes of a real, live Navajo matriarch.

Nice touch. Walt would have liked it.

Photographer Peter Ensenberger and I were on the Grand Canyon mule train on assignment for a children’s magazine. We were supposed to cover the trip from the point of view of two twelve-year-olds, but when the boys announced they were too terrified to cling to the lumbering beasts down ten and a half miles of steep grades, we abandoned them at the top with one of their fathers. The youngsters’ defection left us in the company of a pair of retired snowbirds touring the West in their camper, two capable wranglerettes, and eight self-consciously hilarious gay caballeros who planned to meet two hiking buddies at Phantom Ranch.

We soon found ourselves on the edge of a sheer precipice, sharing a four-foot-wide path with scores of tourists on foot. The unimaginable view that looks flat as a postcard from the rim pops into three dimensions once you’re in the Canyon. Three deep dimensions. The still, lucent spires and buttes, the heartbreaking cliffs and folded layers of sandstone, shale, and limestone seem so vast you feel suspended in space. There’s an eerie sense of free-fall, as though you were floating above the swallows that dart to and from their rocky nests.

Mules are not as sure-footed as advertised. Jane, the lady snowbird, rode a steed given to tripping over pebbles and wheezing and groaning with exertion—and Jane was far from overweight. At one point her mule stumbled, its knees buckled, and it almost went down. An animal that came that close to falling on a wide, fairly level stretch was less than reassuring when we reached Jacob’s Ladder, a set of narrow, steep switchbacks that trace a fault line down the face of the 500-foot-high redwall limestone cliffs.

The biggest menace to mule navigation is not stones, plump tourists, three-foot-wide paths beside numbing heights, or pits of ankle-deep sand, but the hiker. Every time we approached one, wrangler Jill grew nervous. Most tourists are cooperative, if begrudging, about stepping aside and waiting for the mules to pass. The problem is that mules tend to spook around hikers—particularly the exotics attracted to the theme park that is the South Rim, folks with buzzing video cameras at their eyes and Walkman headsets in their ears.

Jill’s mule, Thelma (the animals all bear names wranglers think sound quaintly rural), had gone down into the Canyon only twice, but she already knew that she loathed hikers. She viewed backpacks with something akin to mule terror. Every time a human carrying a pack came near, Thelma considered bolting. By instinct, a mule knows that togetherness keeps one safe and solitude exposes one to wolves. So if Thelma, our leader, were to take off down the trail at a dead run or decided to jump over the ledge, thirteen others would follow.

“No mule has ever gone off the edge with a rider on it,” Ensenberger kept insisting. He’d been listening to our new friend, the Fred Harvey P.R. man. If that factoid is true, I figured, it just increases the odds that one soon will.

We came around one bend to find a man with a backpack and a hiking staff perched over the immense void on a tiny outcropping no more than three feet square. Across the trail from him, four people flattened themselves against the wall like lizards on a rock. My stirrup grazed a hiker’s belly—no way around it. A thick yellow cloud of dust, as suffocating as Mexico City smog, rose around us and hung in the air long after we were gone.

More than 100,000 people walk the Bright Angel Trail each year. They have to compete for space with a permanent 130-head remuda of mules. On any given day, sixty-six mules for guests and wranglers may be traveling the Bright Angel and South Kaibab trails, plus another thirty in the pack string. That comes to something over 35,000 mule trips a year.

A normal 1,000- to 1,200-pound equine excretes about forty-four pounds of manure and six quarts of urine a day—so says William Schurg, director of the University of Arizona’s horse program in the Animal Sciences Department. The Grand Canyon mule averages about five hours a day on the trail, 365 days a year. Let’s do a little math. When all 96 passenger and pack mules are on duty, they emit roughly 307,000 pounds of mule patties a year. They also piss 10,512 gallons of urine on the trails. More than enough odoriferous gifts, certainly, to make sure that each hiker gets his or her own to slog through or skip around on every trip.

We arrived at the cottonwood groves of Indian Gardens, where we annoyed some more walkers by making them wait while our troupe was assisted in dismounting, seasoned rider or no, one by one. On this early spring day, the crowded campground was almost as busy as a National Park Service tent tenement in August. We took a short break for lunch, a pit stop, canteen refills. Then onward, pushing our sore bodies and sweaty mules the four more miles to the bottom.

The power was out when we rode into Phantom Ranch, a pastoral resort made of native rock and shaded beneath cultivated cottonwoods near the confluence of Bright Angel Creek and the Colorado River. Our hosts advised that if we wanted warm water for a shower, we should try to get to the bathhouse first. Ensenberger and I briefly considered that and then headed straight for the bar.

There we met a diverse group of hikers and campers. Topic of conversation? You guessed it: mules. A robust middle-aged woman from Scottsdale, an affluent suburb of Phoenix, was complaining about interminable waits endured while mules rested on the trail and wranglers held forth about scenery, history, and geology.

We grabbed our beers and fled outdoors.

At dinner—steak and potatoes, family style—we sat with members of an extended family who had converged at the Canyon from waypoints nationwide. A server set a flask of burgundy on the table, which wove its way from hand to hand.

“Want to do some wine?” a young swain asked his girlfriend.

He said it with a straight face. The guy actually talked that way.

#

After the feed, Ensenberger got his camera and we took off to catch sunset’s last light on the inner gorge.

The Colorado was running jade green, except where silt-laden Bright Angel Creek dumped mud into it. Fly-casting, a man hooked an eighteen-inch trout and released it.

While Ensenberger chased light and shadows, I watched the creek pour into the river.

The sheer quantity of water that flows across the earth’s surface, ton after roiling ton of it, enough to dig this “horrid abyss” through two billion years of rock, gives you pause, especially when you consider how it has been spoiled. You wonder whether that shimmering rainbow trout was safe to eat—what exotica had made its way up the food chain to the fat, shining fish? Not even mules can stomach what flows in the Grand Canyon. When we crossed Garden Creek, wrangler Jill warned us not to let them drink the water, because it would make them sick.

To prevent further contaminating the Colorado, river runners have to carry chemical toilets and tote out human waste. Yet for the sake of entertaining a few tourists, the Park Service permits mule ride operators to turn the Bright Angel and Kaibab trails into the world’s longest urinals.

Given all that sewage, “real” hikers avoid those two conveniently located trails, leaving them to hoi polloi who drift through in their campers and Winnebagos. “You can’t always have the ideal situation,” says Flagstaff writer and Sierra Club activist Dan Dagget, “because it is crowded, it is narrow, and a lot of times [wranglers] want to stop and talk where it’s not the best place.” Dagget chooses lesser-known trails and stays away from the ones around Grand Canyon Village. Robert Lippman, a Friend of the Colorado River, agrees that those who complain can “go away from the main trails.”

But that’s not an option for the visitor unfamiliar with the Canyon or less prepared for serious hiking. Any proposal to limit mule traffic is bound to be greeted by that dreaded charge, “elitism.”

Never mind that few underprivileged faces can be seen at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. It will cost you $206 to ride down there and stay overnight. True, if you hike, a crib in a Phantom Ranch dorm will lighten your load by just $19—but the steak dinner is $23 and breakfast costs $8.50. This is a place where folks “do” wine.

The people discommoded (if one dare use that term) by the mules are exactly those proles who know no other place to hike in the Canyon. The ones who outnumber riders by more than three to one.

Some environmentalists favor keeping the mule traffic. If tourists are lured to specific districts, the theory goes, damage from crowds of gawkers and geeks will be contained while larger wild areas continue unmolested. Dagget echoes other outdoorsmen when he says the South Kaibab and Bright Angel trails are “a sacrifice area to start with.”

Now there’s elitism for you. Who do these people think they are, to talk about sacrificing the Grand Canyon?

My friend Jean Cole, who at the age of sixty-six hiked up the South Kaibab Trail in three hours, says she can remember when mules were restricted to Bright Angel. Now trains go down Bright Angel and up the South Kaibab; meanwhile, over on the North Rim, a concessionaire sells mule rides on the North Kaibab.

Might not be a bad idea to cut back Thelma’s trips to just one trail. If that means fewer people in the saddle, tough—tourists with enough stamina to ride down thirty-degree inclines for five and a half hours can manage to walk instead. For a rider who is inexperienced, as concession operators say 98 percent of their customers are, the mule trip results in every bit as many blisters and aching muscles as would a ten-mile hike. As a trade-off, 100,000 hikers would have access to a centrally located trail free of filth and large, nervous, stinking roadblocks.

Evening’s bronze glow faded into putty-colored dusk, and with it this reverie.

#

Next morning before the heat was on the air, we headed up the South Kaibab Trail into the highlands of kitsch, phony Native Americana, and Tusayan, home of the most expensive McDonald’s in the western hemisphere.

The Kaibab is dust-dry and much steeper than Bright Angel. It covers the 4,400-foot climb in eight miles instead of ten and a half. After every two or three switchbacks, we had to pause to rest the mules, hauling them around each time so their heads faced out over the awesome drop.

We were passing through a set of tight switchbacks called the Chimney, a few hundred yards from the rim, when we saw her again.

Like a silent brooding spirit, she looked exactly as she had the day before: the black velvet blouse, the splendid jewelry, that ground-length skirt a lustrous orchid hue. Only ths time she wasn’t alone. She had with her two young adults and about a half-dozen ebony-haired children, all dressed in the serviceable styles offered by places like Wal-Mart. A small and beautiful woman, she radiated moral authority.

She and her clan stood aside while the mule train passed. We got a few feet beyond them and stopped one last time. There, our sturdy steeds elected to unload. Thelma voided a massive, mucous pile. My mule spread its legs and released a river of urine. Down the line behind us, I could hear a great splattering and plopping as the rest followed suit. A hot, musky, gut-wrenching stench wafted on the breeze, and the dust beneath us turned to muck.

We moved on. And that was the last I saw of her.

—30—

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