Tuesday, June 9, 2015

GRAND CANYON SUITE (with apologies to Ferdé Grofe)

On a winter trip to the Grand Canyon in the mid-1970s, my husband was determined to hike into the canyon and up again the next day -- like climbing a mountain in reverse. I wasn't interested in doing that; and by then he had been on enough hikes with me to know that he would have a better wilderness experience without me than with me. For my part, well into three weeks of midwinter camping, I was happy to spend one night in a bed with a bathroom and shower a few steps away and a restaurant downstairs.

Instead of hiking I joined three other women and a cowboy named Bill on a string of mules, and together we made our way down, down, and down some more to a point called Indian Gardens about halfway between the rim of the canyon and the Colorado River at the bottom. One of the women was from Israel; another from Australia; the third from a different far-away place. I, from the San Francisco Bay Area, was a local by comparison. Bill was a real cowboy: he told us that his previous job had been punching cows in Wyoming. Herding tourists in Arizona must have been easier than that.

On my first trip west, in 1965, I was struck by the presence in the Greyhound terminal of a couple of genuine cowboys in Levis, cowboy boots and hats, traveling with big duffel bags and coils of rope (one of them was Asian, which somehow isn't what one expects). At that time, at least, the West was still in business at some of the old locations.

On the rim of the Grand Canyon on one of the January nights that we were there, it was four or five degrees above zero. Perhaps my favorite memory of that trip was crawling out of the tent at some small hour of the morning in quest of a bathroom (trying not to step on or otherwise disturb my husband) and looking up at the sky. In the cold, dry desert air six or seven thousand feet above sea level, the stars looked close enough to touch.

One of our mule-riding company had become separated from her luggage and had only one glove. Recognizing that she would never get this chance again, however, she boarded her mule and made the trip, one hand on the reins and the other in her pocket.

Anybody can stay on a Grand Canyon mule; they don't require horsemanship. Down they plodded, saddles and harnesses creaking, sure-footed as advertised. I watched in fascination as my mount, rounding a switchback, perched at the outside edge with all four feet planted together, nearly touching.

We stopped for lunch at Indian Gardens, a formation like a peninsula projecting into thin air with the river far below. We rested, looked around us, and marveled at finding ourselves in such a place; then we re-mounted and plodded and squeaked back up. Bill gave each of us a certificate attesting that we had made the trip. We ladies drank hot chocolate at the restaurant, 
autographed each others' certificates, and parted cordially.

I have to say this for my then-husband: were it not for him I surely would never have ridden a mule into the Grand Canyon.