The Mule Ride.... ?
Trip Start Apr 18, 2008
8Trip End Apr 26, 2008
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Where I stayed
Of course, I had no reason to doubt the agent at the time, so I booked us for the one-day ride. You go about halfway down the canyon, to a place called Plateau Point, have lunch, and ride back up again.
What I expected the ride to be like, based on assorted factors, including the Xanterra web site
1) The path would be narrow and winding over steep drops and I'd be scared, sometimes really scared.
2) I'd have a real problem with the fact there were only two restroom breaks the whole day.
3) I'd be very sore afterwards.
What I hoped for
1) I'd make friends with my mule.
2) I'd see cool animals and birds.
What actually happened
I had one of those weird nights where I didn't really sleep. It seemed like I was watching myself dream all night. I hate it when that happens because I don't feel very rested in the morning. And I wanted to be rested for the mule ride because I fully expected it to be a grueling affair. Maybe not as bad as walking that far, but not easy, either.
Because there were to be only two bathroom breaks, I limited the amount of fluid I drank. You see, I was signed up early in my life for the frequent pee-er program, and usually can't last much more than an hour between bathroom breaks. The problem with my fluid-free strategy was that I then was risking dehydration, which would not be a good thing either. Worrying about how to strike this balance between two forms of discomfort (one rather more dangerous than the other, though the embarrassment of losing bladder control while on the mule would perhaps have been the more devastating of the two) actually took up a large share of my allotted stress-time for the trip. I'd even considered purchasing Depends (adult diapers), but in the end couldn't bring myself to do it.
I absolutely could not have my morning mocha and still make it to the first pee-break, about 2.5 hours into the ride, so I did without. My initial plan for Carefree had been to wean myself off of coffee in preparation for the mule ride, but once I found a mocha source, I couldn't deprive myself. My failure of will meant I was faced with the prospect of riding a mule while enduring a caffeine-withdrawal headache, so I doped up on Aleve the night before and at breakfast. It was also a prophylactic measure against saddle-soreness.
We had breakfast at the Bright Angel Lodge restaurant. We got there when it opened at 6:30, told the waiter we needed to be at the mule ride at 7:00, and he got us our food and our check promptly, without us having to nag about it. Very pleasant experience.
It was cold, as previously mentioned. We'd been told to dress in layers as the inside of the canyon would be warmer than the rim. I had on a "wife-beater" tank top, a cotton button-down long-sleeved shirt, a sweater, a hooded windbreaker, a polar fleece jacket, my wide-brimmed hat, and gloves. I was shivering as I stood outside the mule corral, waiting for everything to begin.
Before we could get on the mules, we had to have our orientation session. Casey (or maybe KC), the manager of the mule ride operation, had us gather around him so he could give us a speech designed scare us out of taking the trip.
Casey was dressed up like a cowboy. He had the hat, the tan suede jacket, the chaps and boots and even a waxed handlebar mustache. His thirty minute speech was polished to perfection. I wish I had a copy for you to read, but I'll just have to recount the images that managed to stick. Bear in mind that all of this is paraphrasing.
We stood grouped in a semi-circle around him as he sat on the wooden fence of the corral. About thirty potential riders.
"Maybe you thought that riding a mule would be the easy way to see the canyon," he began, squinting at us under the shadow of his hat. "Well, think again. Riding a mule is hard work. About half an hour into the ride, your knees are going to begin to hurt, and an hour later, you'll be wondering how you can stand the pain and wishing you'd stayed home. That's because there's no exercise that can prepare you for what riding does to your knees, nothing except riding. Not walking, or jogging, or riding a bike, or doing one of those stair stepper contraptions. Riding is hard on your knees, so if you've had any knee injuries or operations in the past, you should think hard about whether you want to subject them to this trip."
Regarding the pain we would experience, he also told us that we would be tired, our "hineys" would hurt, and that we would hurt in places we didn't even know we could hurt. "When you get off of your mule at the end of the day, we're going to have to help you down. There will be people here to watch you. Word's gotten out and people come here for entertainment, to watch the faces of mule riders when they get off the mules and try to walk around. Now, many of you have planned this trip for a long time, and paid your money in advance. If you back out now, I will refund your money. No damage done. But," and here he tilted his head and gave us all a serious look, "if you go down in that canyon and decide that you can't continue, we're not sending a helicopter down after you. You have to find your own way back up. And if I have to go down in that canyon to retrieve my mule, you are not getting your money back just for the hassle you'd have caused me.
"So," he asked, "are you ready to ride?" "Yes!" we all yelled. "I didn't hear you!" "YES!" And I was ready. I knew it would hurt. I didn't care how stupid I looked getting off the mule. I was psyched up and ready to go. But Casey wasn't finished with us yet.
"Now that you know what you're in for, it's time to give you an orientation to the mule. Anybody know what a mule is? A cross between a female horse and a male jackass. That's right, a jackass. And mules have a lot of their daddy in them. Everybody know what a mule is best known for? Being stubborn. Stubborn as a mule. How do you think us puny humans can make them do what we want? Well, they're pack animals. They look to the dominant animal in the herd. But they weigh over 1,000 pounds, so to make them know who's boss, we use this." He held up a riding crop. "Now, management doesn't want me offending the customers. Some people call this a whip or a crop. But here, we call it a ... Mule Motivator." He gave us all his squinty look again. "Now, many of you are probably uncomfortable with the idea of using the Motivator on your mule. You might be vegetarians. You might belong to the Humane Society. But I'm here to tell you that there is no other way to control your mule and if you can't use the Motivator, you shouldn't go on this ride."
At this point, I started to get uncomfortable. I didn't want to hit my mule.
"Anybody here ride in the English style?" A few hands went up. "Well, I have to tell you right now that this is a totally different thing. Mules aren't like your obedient horses, who you can just tap on the rear to tell them to move." He demonstrated by holding the crop so the head was pointed down, the way you do in English riding, apparently, and did a little flick of his wrist. "Go horsey!" he squeaked. "That kind of thing won't work here. Mules are tough. They can eat cactus. Their skin is thick. You hit them like that and they'll think a fly landed on them and will swat it with their tail. Here's the right way to hold the Motivator." He demonstrated, holding the crop with the head up, fist clenched tightly around the handle. "When you use it, you have to lift your arm high and swing it down and when you hit, you need it to make a noise. Hitting the mule doesn't hurt it, but it doesn't like that noise." To demonstrate the noise, he whacked his boot a few times.
I started thinking of backing out at this point. Not only would I have to hit the mule, I'd have to really whack it. Plus, what if I couldn't do it right?
There was more, of course. Next, Casey described the terrible things that would happen if we did not keep our mules under control. He explained that mules will naturally walk in single file, and that they should be three to five feet apart. From our perches upon the mules' backs, that would look like our mule's nose was right up to the next mule's tail. "Nose-to-tail, nose-to-tail." This was his mantra for the next ten minutes. "Mules are herd animals, they like to be together. If your mule starts lagging, eventually it's going to realize that it's gotten too far from the herd and it's going to run to catch up. If it has to run twenty feet to catch up, the mule behind it will have to run thirty, and the one behind that forty. These trails are narrow, and you are sharing them with hikers. You don't want your mule suddenly bolting to catch up. So keep the mules nose-to-tail.
"These mules walk this trail every day. They know it by heart. So if they come down the trail and there is a boulder on it that wasn't there yesterday, they're gonna freak out because they know that boulder was put there by the big Canyon Ogre as an ambush. It's not going to want to pass that boulder. Now, if you are nose-to-tail with the mule in front of you, your mule won't even notice that rock and will just walk on by it.
"There are animals here, deer and bighorn sheep. They can be in the bushes right next to the trail and you'd never know they're there. Until they decide to leap out in front of you. I'm sure some of you have experienced that in your cars. Well, what's your mule going to do if a deer suddenly darts in front of it? It's going to freak out. It's going to wheel around and run the other direction, pushing past the mules behind it and the hikers and anything else in its way until it's gotten far enough away to turn around and figure out if it's in danger or not. But if you keep your mules nose-to-tail, no animal is going to leap in between them."
Frankly, I think that description is what scared me the most.
"How to you keep your mule nose-to-tail? With this." He held up the Motivator. "If your mule starts hanging back, you've got to motivate it," he demonstrated on his boot again, "to catch up. Now, I want you to know we're serious about this. If you can't or won't control your mule we might just throw you off the ride. My predecessor did this a lot, but I'm more forgiving. We'll work with you, help you, but if you are still not able to do what you need to do, we will throw you off. And you'll have to walk back up."
His next topic was about what happened if the rider freaked out. "If you are afraid of heights, or of large animals, you should reconsider this trip. If you get out there and start freaking out, what's going to happen? Your mule is going to sense you freaking out, and its going to freak out. And because it's freaking out, the other mules are going to freak out. And so will their riders. And the hikers on the trail, seeing all these freaking out mules, well, they're going to start freaking out too. We don't want a lot of freaking out going on. So don't go down there if you think you'll freak out."
I was starting to freak out. What if I couldn't keep my mule nose-to-tail? What if something scared it and it bolted away? I barely listened to the final parts of the speech, about how mules had made the trail, and how we had to share it with hikers, and how his mules were well trained and docile beasts (if stubborn). I wasn't sure I should go.
"So, are you ready to be mule riders?" Casey demanded. "YES!" yelled the crowd. But my yell was half-hearted. Julie had been behind me for the entire speech, and I had no idea how she was feeling about the adventure. Knowing Julie, she was probably stoked to go. I turned around to ask her whether we should back out or not.
...TO BE CONTINUED...