Have you ever looked back on an experience in your life and wondered, “How did I do that?” Those are my thoughts as I look at this image of myself taken while riding a mule out of the depths of the Grand Canyon. The words of an old hymn come to mind: “Trust and obey, there is no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.” On this trip, I needed to do both in order to succeed and survive.
A few months ago, my husband suggested that we take the mule ride to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Given that you can only get to the bottom by foot or mule, I thought the mule idea was a better one. We made our reservations for April 30, 2016.
When we arrived at the South Rim, we were surprised by the cold temperatures. It actually snowed on April 28! The day of our mule excursion, it was pouring rain. After receiving instructions, and nervously mounting our mules, we proceeded down the Bright Angel Trail on a five-hour journey to the Phantom Ranch. The canyon was filled with fog. We couldn’t see any farther than twenty feet in front of us. The decreased visibility actually helped me forget about the canyon drop-offs and focus on one thing, getting to know my mule named Olga.
Mules are hybrid animals, the offspring of a male donkey and female horse. Mules resemble horses in terms of height, but have short manes like donkeys. Olga had a reddish-brown coat and soft, gentle-looking eyes. Her big ears stuck out on either side of her head. Each ear curled forward as she plodded along, almost like a swimmer with hands cupped, to pull back water with each stroke. Olga had made this trip many times. She knew the trail, the guides, and the other mules. This was Olga’s territory.
I have never been at the mercy of an animal before. My job was to hold on to the saddle horn with my right hand and keep the reins in my left. A “motivator” (whip) was hanging from my right wrist to use if necessary in case Olga slowed down. I’m sorry to say, Olga slowed down frequently, and my feeble attempts to use the motivator didn’t have much of an impact. She responded better when Josiah, our guide, called her name.
I was amazed at Olga’s strength and courage. After we stopped for lunch, the clouds lifted to reveal the splendor of the canyon around us. As we rounded a narrow hairpin curve, Olga’s head lurched forward into space and my stomach flipped like I was on a ride at a theme park. What a thrill! Olga didn’t lose her balance, and I stayed on the saddle. Two good things! As the hours passed, I began to trust Olga. She navigated the trail like a pro. By the second day, I could actually relax enough to take some pictures.
Our guides, Kevin and Josiah, were experienced wranglers and very knowledgeable about mules and the canyon. I obeyed them regarding the use of my phone, and kept it strapped around my neck as directed. We were allowed to take pictures whenever we wanted. But I must say it was easier when Olga stopped. Down in the canyon there was no signal. We could not send or receive calls, text, or email. We had gone back in time 100 years! Kevin and Josiah carried walkie talkies for communication with the outside world.
Safety was a priority. Our guides insisted we wait for their assistance regarding mounting, or dismounting our mules. That wasn’t a problem for me! I was too short to climb up on Olga without help. After a couple of hours of riding, my feet and legs were numb. I needed support to dismount and stand up!
After our mules crossed the Colorado River on the Black Bridge, we turned in at the Phantom Ranch for the night. The next morning we began our ascent up the South Kaibab Trail. This trail was shorter and steeper than Bright Angel. Along the trail we stopped periodically to rest the mules. Josiah instructed us to line up our mules in a row and look out upon the canyon to witness the art of God.
The layers of rock so distant and faded when seen from the rim, exploded in vibrant colors of pink, red, and green! Pinyon pine, juniper, wildflowers, and wild grass flourished in a place I had considered barren. A kind of holy hush whispered on the wind. This was a place like no other. A place wild and free. A place accessible through obedience and trust.