From the Bottom Up

My husband Kevin and I love visiting the National Parks. There are always adventures awaiting. We’ve experienced a lightning storm at Arches, explored Anasazi ruins at Mesa Verde and, just recently, an old ghost town outside Death Valley.

One recent adventure was a bit more exciting than our usual. Kevin had decided our lives would not be complete unless we stayed at Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. You can’t drive to Phantom Ranch. You can hike the nine miles down. You can raft the Colorado River to get there. Or, if you are convinced by your husband that the best option has four legs, you trek to the bottom on a mule.

At the Grand Canyon gift shop is a book titled Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon, with an inscription by the author that reads “Don’t end up in my book.” I made that my goal. Just so you know, I’m not particularly afraid of heights, but I do have a healthy respect for narrow trails with hundred-foot drop offs. The mules do not. They like to walk on the outside of the trail. Meaning with their hooves inches from the outer edge. No safety walls, no reassuring barriers, no guardrails. None. Nada. My best advice if you, too, choose this adventure? Close your eyes, say your prayers, and hope for the best.

There’s a bend in the trail the wranglers call Poison Point, because one drop and you’re dead. There’s another called the ‘Oh Jesus’ turn, because everyone finds God. Then there’s Skeleton Point. You get the idea. No one was more surprised than me to make the turn at Poison Point, open my eyes, and find I was still in the saddle.

After bumping down the canyon on the back of Mable (if I was putting my life in the care of this beast, I figure we should be on a first name basis) and crossing the Colorado River via a suspension bridge (pretty cool), finally arriving at our destination is a life-affirming experience. Phantom Ranch is a place out of time. Cabins designed by Mary Colter still look the same as when they were built in the 1920s. We ate family-style at the canteen, and during the afternoon were entertained by young men from the Czech Republic singing what I assume were Czech folk songs. Their prodigious consumption of beer (not cheap at canteen prices) kept the entertainment going.

Seeing the Grand Canyon from the bottom up is absolutely stunning. I took a walk at dawn to watch the canyon walls catch the light as the sun rose. There’s this immense quiet about the place, broken only by the call of birds and the muted rumble of the mighty Colorado.

After two nights in our rustic cabin, it was back on Mable (we’re best buds now) and up the South Kaibab trail. Confident that Mable knew what she was doing, I decided I could keep my eyes open to absorb the incredible vistas as we climbed out of the canyon. Returning to the South Rim with a sore posterior and huge respect for the strength of mules, I enjoyed the sense of having accomplished something few have done. I was even happier when Kevin said, “I really enjoyed that. But once is enough.” His butt was sore, too.


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