Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Much Awaited and Equally Overdue Trip Report - Part Deux

The main (and really only) attraction of the second leg or our trip was the Grand Canyon. After leaving Frye's (and then rocking out to some 90s tunes like we always do), Danielle and I soon found ourselves in a big construction zone. For literally 20 miles our roadway was reduced to a single lane, with large pieces of equipment scattered about and not a single soul using any of them. Perhaps Nevada is out of money, too. We were confused, also, by what goal the equipment was there to pursue. It seemed that the road we were on was fully functional; were they just pushing rocks around for the hell of it? "That's basically what the New Deal was, right? Pushing rocks around?" I asked Danielle. "Yup"

After 10 miles at 30 miles per hour, we realized we were actually going to drive over the Hoover Damn. Not near it, or by it, or somewhere close to it; right freaking over it. This struck me as odd, to say the least. Shouldn't there be another road, one which doesn't pass over one of the greatest engineering marvels (not to mention important power producing plants) of our time? Sure enough, they are building another road, but for now a steady stream of cars putters over the bridge at nearly zero velocity. We vowed to stop and take a look around on the way back, in 9 days.

We rolled into the South Rim of the Grand Canyon substantially ahead of schedule (for the entirety of the trip after the Hoover Dam I was able to drive substantially in excess of the posted 75 MPH speed limit) and Danielle found it hard to believe just how little warning we received. Literally one minute you're driving along on this desert like plateau, with some trees and shrubs around you, minding your own business, and then BOOM, there's this 200 mile long hole right in front of you. As you can see, I'm quite astonished. That or Danielle just made me take off my sunglasses for the picture and my retinas are about to melt; take your pick.

We parked the Highlander at the visitor center and our running gag of the trip was born. Danielle needed to organize her stuff, something that she does a lot in her life. She likes to move things around, making sure everything is in the right place, because once things start to get just a little bit disorganized it's not long before our entire apartment looks like a small neutron bomb went off in it. Anyway, I'd hit upon the idea of dividing the Highlander right down the middle (instead of the more obvious approach wherein one of us had the trunk, the other the back seat). While watching her transfer stuff from the trunk to the back seat and vice versa, it occurred to me that this was going to be a common theme; we'd park the car, then we'd have to get out whatever we needed, be it for hiking or dinner or checking into our hotel or whatever. Since we were only staying in the same room for more than a single night once for the remainder of the trip, we were going to spend a quite a bit of time pushing our personal rocks around, without really any discernible gain.

So after we finished rock pushing (admittedly I had some stuff to move around also) we checked into our room at the lodge and received our Mule Tour orientation. This basically involved telling us to wear long sleeves, sunscreen, and to bring the water thingy they gave us back full. It also involved stepping on a scale, as the weight limit is only 200 pounds. After finishing up in the lodge, we set out to "hike" the Rim Trail. I use the quotations because, let's be honest here. The trail goes around the rim. It's flat by it's very definition. The scenery was fantastic, though, with one awesome panoramic postcard level view after another for the duration of the walk. Eventually we took the shuttle bus back to the lodge and decided we had time for a sit down steak dinner at the restaurant (what would be our first of three consecutive steak dinners).

After a delicious and filling meal, and another round of rock pushing, we retired to our rustic room in the lodge (we didn't even have our own bathroom). Danielle went off to take a shower and I decided to check in with my Dad from outside the room. It was at this point that I realized our room was about 30 feet from the rim of the Grand Canyon; pretty freakin' cool if you ask me. I gazed at the stars for a bit, then ran into a family with a 14 year old boy who wanted to go to MIT (I was wearing my Property of MIT Athletics Shirt). We chatted for a few minutes, and they asked if I had heard about the mule rides or knew where and when they could watch the group leave. I pointed them toward the head of Bright Angel Trail and assured them I'd be there at 7am, getting my tutorial on the stop and go mechanics of nature's first 4 wheel drive vehicle. They promised to show up in the morning to see us off. I resolved not to freak out about the prospect of riding a mule 10 miles into the Grand Canyon.

My resolution lasted about 9 hours. After bagels and fruit at the coffee shop, we headed over to the coral. I was immediately struck by how many other idiots had signed up for this preposterous adventure. The mule ride wasn't cheap (~$360 per person), and it looked like nearly 50 people were going to be riding into the hole with us. It became apparent, however, that about 2/3rds of the people were just there for the "day trip", which was a 12 mile round trip into the Canyon, stopping at Plateau Point. We were going 10 miles one way and spending the night at Phantom Ranch. First, we got the orientation, which went something like this.

"Keep your mule close to the mule in front of you. If he falls behind, hit him with the whip, or 'motivator' as we call it in this day and age"

"This trip will be fun."

"Keep your mule close to the mule in front of you. If he falls behind, motivate him"

"Don't worry, the motivator doesn't hurt him."

"Keep your mule close to the mule in front of you. Keep him movtivated."

And so forth for about 30 minutes. At this point I was really, really freaking out. My life time horse back riding experience totals about 30 minutes, all of which came when Danielle bought me a lesson in college (probably in the hopes that I'd suddenly become so enthralled with the activity that I'd take it up in earnest and start riding around with her in the coming months). Much like the quartering of William Wallace, this lesson did not have the intended effect. I left that day even more sure that equestrian activities were not for me. I did realize something, though, looking at the 50 or so odd people around me. Most of them looked pretty average. In general, I'm a pretty smart guy, and despite my lethargy of late, I'm actually in pretty good physical condition by way of simply being young. If these people can do it, and if nobody has ever died doing this, surely I can manage to remain alive. I resolved to remain calm and not freak out.

Then the first group of day trippers mounted up, followed by the second, then the first group of the overnight trip. Somewhere along the way the family from the night before showed up and I gave them my email address, mainly so I could think about something other than my mule spooking on the train and starting to gallop downward, falling off the edge, tossing me into the ravine, and generally turning my innards into a feeding frenzy for the recovering California Condor population. Eventually it was time to mount up, and I met my mule, a grizzled old codger named Dan. Danielle's mule, Gizmo, also seemed a bit on the older side, and I decided that having an older mule was a good thing, as it meant he'd be sure to know where to if you could possibly get lost. And as a final note, just before we left Danielle took an oath and was thus sworn in as an official carrier of the United States Mail. That's right, they still use the mules to bring the mail in and out of the Grand Canyon, and Danielle carried a couple satchels of it right next to her water bottle and plastic bag suitcase.

So away we went. It had been explained to me several times that the mules were in fact trained to walk as close to the edge as absolutely possible. No amount of explaining can really prepare you for it, though. The claim made by our guide was that this was done for the safety of the pedestrian hikers. Imagine, he said, if the mules tried to go inside the hikers instead of always walking closer to the edge. How long would it be before somebody fell over the edge? Truth be told I think the mules just liked to screw with us. Also, whenever we stopped along the trail, which wasn't often on the way down, the mules all pointed themselves out over the canyon. Again we were assured this was for safety, as apparently if a mule spooks he always takes his first step backwards, and again, I wasn't so sure.

The first few miles were rough, but eventually I did get used to the concept of being on top of a 1200 pound animal that seemed not to really care whether I was there or not. Dan was a bit of a problem mule, however, needing of frequent motivation. I probably hit him with the thing 100 times on the way down, undoubtedly more than the sum total of the other 7 riders in the group. He simply wouldn't keep his face close enough to Gizmo's butt, and this much had been beaten into my head; the only way the mule will get 20 feet behind is if he's first 10 feet behind. And the only way he will run to catch up is if he gets 20 feet behind. And let's just say that while I didn't really relish the idea of sitting on top of awalking mule, sitting on top of a running one was another matter entirely. Danielle took lots of pictures on the way down, and only a few choice ones are scattered about here. We saw a good bit of wildlife, too, starting with this big horned sheep.

Eventually we wound our way past the first two rest stops (at 1.5 and 3.0 miles) and arrived at Indian Gardens, which is basically an oasis that exists almost inexplicably 4.5 miles into the canyon that was, you guessed it, originally a garden kept by Native Americans. We stopped for about 30 minutes and ate a boxed lunch provided by the guides ($360 does get you something here folks) and spent most of our time fending off the population of squirrels that have realized it's much easier to steal Oreos than it is to hunt for nuts in the middle of the freakin' desert. Then we got hosed off, which our guides assured us was a good call. The temperature was rising quickly, both as the sun got higher and our elevation got lower. One part of the trail that was in our immediate future was even nicknamed "The Furnace".

So anyway, onward and downward we went, passing through Devil's Corkscrew and the Bright Angel Shale Layer and Tapeat's Sandstone Layer. We saw 3 California Condors in search of their lunch, which was pretty astonishing given that Wikipedia lists there numbers at less than 200 in the wild. Eventually we made our way all the way to the inner gorge, home of the mighty Colorado River. At first I thought we must have been close to our destination, then realized I was perhaps in for quite a bit more bumping around on the back of this mule. A bridge was off in the distance, but I remembered something about the mules not liking that one much, mainly because it had slats on it's floor through which you could see the running water below. Mules, being most sensible creatures, don't think too highly of that set up. Given that we weren't taking that bridge, I surmised that I couldn't even yet see our path across the river. And boy was I right. After dropping all the way to the level of the river, we spent the next mile or more climbing up the side of the inner gorge until we were several hundred feet above the flowing Colorado. Then we went down some switchbacks, through a tunnel, and across the more mule friendly bridge. I had a bit of a scare in the tunnel when Dan ended up 20-30 feet behind Gizmo, mainly because I messed up and pulled back on his reigns while simultaneously motivating him. Eventually I figured it out, and we practically gallopped out of the tunnel and onto the bridge. Once again, however, nothing bad happened. By this point I'd begun to treat Dan with the same attitude I would a roller coaster. Sure they're fun, and sure they feel dangerous, but only if you think about it. In actuality you have no control over what's happening, and what's happening is actually very safe.

After a long walk back along the other side of the Colorado, we finally arrived at Phantom Ranch, a total of 9.8 miles from our starting point at the head of Bright Angel Trail. We dismounted our mules, me barely able to walk but Danielle happy as a clam. I could hardly walk; my ankles hurt, my knees ached, my butt was sore, and to top it all off I had a pretty bad crick in my neck. The ride was a ton of fun, but after 5 hours on top of the mule, I was ready for a relaxing afternoon at Phantom Ranch.

We intended to go to both ranger talks, but neither actually happened. Supposedly the rangers were changing posts or something, but we also caught wind that some hikers were lost and that the rangers might be out looking for them. Instead, we took a walk back out to the Colorado, waded in Bright Angel Creek, and settled in for a short nap inside our private, air conditioned, stone cabin. Around 5pm (yeah...we got down there at something like 1:30pm. Sure felt a lot later than that to me) we went to the canteen for a delicious steak dinner. Later in the evening we bought some post cards and mailed them, which amounted to dropping them into a box, where they sat until the next morning, at which point they were loaded onto Gizmo along with Danielle for the journey back out.

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