The summer after I turned twelve years old, my parents gave me the best birthday present ever. Ever since my first visit to the Grand Canyon when I was five or six, I’d wanted to go down to the bottom on the mules. But you had to be twelve to take that trip, so I had to be patient.
At last I was old enough. Early one morning we left our tent trailer parked at a campground on the South Rim, met the wranglers at the corral right on the rim, and climbed aboard our mules. Because I was the youngest person on this trip of about twenty people, my mule’s reins were tied to the saddle of the wrangler who rode at the front of our group. My mother was behind me, and my father, whose mule is the only one whose name I remember, because that poor animal was named Baby Doll, was behind her.
We all wore hats bought in the souvenir shop, because the guidelines we’d been given when we signed up said everyone needed to wear a hat to shade them from the sun. Mine had a nautical theme, of all things, and for some reason the decorations on it had my father, who had an extremely warped sense of humor, saying that it looked like a mad beaver.
My mother, who had had surgery just a few months before, remembers telling my father that she was going, that she wasn’t letting her little girl go down there without her.
All I remember is how magical it was. Incredibly beautiful. I really don’t have the words for it. I just remember layer after layer of varicolored rock, decorated with sparse trees and cactus and the occasional wildflower. I wish I had the photos my father took of our trip, but they’re all slides, and I haven’t been able to have them scanned yet. So you’ll just have to watch this wonderful National Park Service video:
The trail was narrow and, in many places, several hundred feet straight up on one side and several more hundred feet straight down on the other. The mules, we were told, were trained to face out towards the drop whenever they stopped, because when a mule is hit by something, like a falling rock, its first instinct is to back up. The trail was so narrow that sometimes it felt like the mule only had its back feet on the ground when we stopped like that.
It was an incredibly hot day. We were almost to the bottom when my mother felt as if she was going to pass out from the heat. One of the wranglers stayed behind with her in a shady spot as the rest of us went the short distance on to Phantom Ranch, and she followed a little while later. It was 123 degrees in the bottom of the canyon that day.
Phantom Ranch is an oasis, with Bright Angel Creek flowing nearby and the lovely little stone and wood cabins (each with its own evaporative cooler, which my mother, especially, greatly appreciated). I spent most of the late afternoon in the creek, until they rang the bell for supper.
I remember it being much cooler the next day, but maybe that’s because by the time the heat of the day had arrived, we were several thousand feet higher up, almost all the way back to the South Rim.
I do remember being sore for days after that trip down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, but it was one of the milestones of my childhood. I’ve been back to the canyon as an adult, and I still look down on the trail stretching across the Kaibab Plateau and think, “Did we really do that? Did we really?”
Yes, we did.