I was back in the Grand Canyon riding a mule a couple of weeks back — something I have done many times in the past 20 years. My love of mules and mule riding take me back to my boyhood days in the Brim Hollow. My grandfather Brim had two mules, Kate and Liz. That’s Liz with a long “I,” as in “prize.”
In the old feed barn, the corn crib was located directly across the hallway from the mule stables. The crib featured a large, shelled-corn box. I guessed it to be three feet by four feet and about 18 inches deep. Attached to the end of the box was a hand-cranked corn sheller. I have shelled many an ear of yellow corn — one ear at time. The ear of corn went in the top of the sheller; and, as the crank was turned, the corn rained out of the bottom. Of course, the red corn cob was “spit” out of the side of the sheller. The crib had a pile of corn shucks that reached to the ceiling, and beside it stood a pile of red, corn cobs almost as high.
On many afternoons I swung on the ladder that reached into the barn loft as I listened to the mules crunch shelled corn with their big mule teeth, chasing the corn around the bottom of the trough with their big lips. The sounds and smells of the mule barn have stayed with me across the years.
So it is little wonder I find trips to the Grand Canyon almost magical. Over the years I have ridden mules named Wilford, Willow, Budreau, Gizmo, Lucy, Skidmark and Mister, just to name a few.
This year my ride was scheduled for April 17, but COVID-19 interrupted my plans. Fortunately, I was allowed to pick the next open date when the mule rides resumed. It fell on Aug. 26. So, Wednesday, Aug. 25 found me on a plane bound for Phoenix.
My friend, Harmon H. Jones, III accompanied me on this trip. His father and my friend, the late Harmon H. Jones, Jr. made the mule ride with me in 2003. So we had lots of memories to catch up on. This turned out to be one of my best rides.
The mule ride down to Phantom Ranch begins at the world-famous Stone Corral. It, along with the equally famous Grand Canyon Mule Barn are features of the South Rim. Over the years, each time I have waited in the early morning hours for the ride to begin, the sight of the wranglers coming with the mule train in tow has stirred my heart in a way I can’t explain.
In the corral, mules are matched up with riders according to the personalities of the mules and the experience of the riders. This year I was assigned to a creamy-white molly (female) named Crystal. I found out later why the head wrangler put me on Crystal. Crystal was a mule with an attitude.
One of the safety features that is stressed in every orientation session at the Stone Corral is the need to keep the mules traveling “head to tail” in a tight, compact group. If a mule falls behind its tendency is to run to catch up, which can create all kinds of problems, especially for inexperienced riders. As I have often heard the head wrangler warn, “The last thing your guide wants to do is look back and see Grandma upside-down under her mule!”
We had barely left the Stone Corral when I realized Crystal would lay her ears back. That’s mule body language for “Back off!” or “I’m fixin’ to bite or kick you!” at the slightest provocation. Crystal didn’t like the mule in front of her. She didn’t like the mule behind her. And she didn’t like me! If she laid her ears back once, she laid her ears back a hundred times over the next two days. In the words of Forrest Gump, she would lay her ears back “for no good reason.” I think she would lay her ears back when she recalled a bad memory. You didn’t mess with Crystal!
But she was a great ride — easy in her gait and steady on the trail. I decided she was my favorite of all the mules I have ridden in the past 20 years, even if she did have an attitude.
Incidentally, if a Grand Canyon Mule Ride is on your bucket list, I might be the man you need to see. If you weigh 200 pounds or less and aren’t afraid of heights, contact me by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or text (615-973-8645). Rides are usually booked a year in advance by lottery. I might even arrange for you to ride Crystal!