"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Grand Canyon Journals, Chapter Six: Neither rain nor pain nor saddle sores....

(Reminder: Clicking on a photo should enlarge it. On my computer, clicking on it again, enlarges it to full screen.)

My tummy was full of New York steak, baked potato, salad and veggies, topped off with chocolate cake. My body was very happy after a hot shower that washed away the remaining aches.

Then I made an awful discovery. In an effort to take only the essentials for an overnight stay at Phantom Ranch in the bottom of the Grand Canyon, I had neglected to bring anything to read. I was ready for bed and had no desire to get dressed and go to the canteen to search for reading material. Besides, the canteen was full of hikers chowing down on stew.

So I crawled in bed at 6:30, wrote some unreadable nonsense in my journal, and went to sleep at 8:30. I heard the canteen bell ringing frantically shortly after I went to sleep. I got up long enough to look out the windows for anything on fire, then went back to bed.

My tiny travel alarm went off at zero dark thirty. I had to have my little bag of belongings down by the corral before 6:30, and myself at the canteen for breakfast precisely at 6:30.

There was barely enough light enough to see without a flashlight (I was at the bottom of a canyon, after all) when I delivered my luggage to the stone corral. Down at the main corral the wrangler was saddling the mules, packing snacks in the saddle bags. I walked back to the canteen and waited for the doors to open.

Despite a horrendous case of bed head, I presented myself at the Phantom Ranch canteen.

As we waited, I heard a man describing a rescue on the trail the night before. The hiker told of coming across a woman hiker who was disoriented, perhaps from dehydration. Her companion was with her, so the hiker said he’d go ahead for help.

By this time it was dark, and the hiker somehow found his way along the trail, completely missing the hiker’s bridge. Thus, he felt his way along the scary part of the trail to the Black Bridge, extending his walk by a mile and a half.

I asked him if there had been any ambient light and he said there hadn’t. “It was pitch black,” he said. I was dumbfounded that he had missed the Silver Bridge. (Go to this site and look at the first two photos of the approach to the Silver Bridge--the rock wall side--to see how difficult it would be to miss this bridge. It MUST have been dark: http://www.bridgemeister.com/pic.php?pid=1941)

The ringing bell summoned the Park Rangers and the woman was brought in without incident.

After scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, and pancakes, we six riders presented ourselves at the appointed place in the cool morning air. Wrangler Tina looked us over. No one appeared too bowlegged or in obvious pain. The morning was cool. Not freezing cold as it had been at the South Rim. Cool at 43 degrees. Perfect.

I mounted up. I think TC was still sleeping. Then, Tina brought a double leather pouch over and slipped it over my saddle horn. I had the great privilege of delivering the U.S. Mail from Phantom Ranch to the South Rim.

With TC and the US Mail pouches. Note the front of the stirrups are enclosed with leather. That's not my foot below the leather, but a rock behind us.

Shaking Lady had promised in an oath at the beginning of this ride to jump in the Colorado River and rescue the mail should it somehow land in said river. I didn’t have to take that oath because I already have carrier credentials.. Good thing, too, because I can’t swim.

“Neither rain nor pain nor saddle sores shall stay us couriers from the swift completion of our appointed rounds,” I said to myself. I mentioned this to TC while the other riders mounted up. TC snorted.

Not too sure about “swift completion” when we’re talking about mules climbing back up to the Rim. It took slightly more than five hours going down to the ranch; it would take about six and a half going up.

Wrangler Tina checking on us as we rode out of Dodge.

I also reminded TC about the chat we’d had the afternoon before—the one about scraping me off on the rocks. He…. He…. Well, he did something that he wouldn’t have to do on the trail, so we got that out of the way.

A brief pause for a gear check as we leave Phantom Ranch.

The sun was just kissing the cliffs and escarpments at the top of the Canyon as we rode out of Dodge.

Riding the trail between the Black Bridge and the Silver Bridge, with the roaring Colorado below us. I have lots of photos of Shaking Lady's back. There's a saying in Alaska that goes, "If you aren't the lead dog, the view never changes."

A Rocky Mountain sheep on the rock above us couldn't care less about the intrusion. The mules didn't care, either.

TC didn’t exactly renege on our agreement about scraping, but he started reaching back with his head and scratching his face on my foot, or rather, the stirrup that held my foot.

When we reached our break place at Indian Gardens, six mule dear were browsing there. I didn't have my camera ready and missed a great shot of a fawn looking over his mother's back, wondering if he should run

or stay with mom.

And then TC did it—he pushed the stirrup outward with his nose, giving my knee a nice twist. I thought he’d done serious damage to the knee for about an hour, and sniveled to myself. Then I gave up. Looking in the saddle bag, I discovered I had my own stuff (they pack it randomly, so you don’t necessarily carry your own gear). After a bit of self-medication, I didn’t hurt anywhere anymore, forever and ever, amen.

Mercy, the white mule behind me, was lagging far behind despite constant application of the motivator, so Wrangler Tina towed her out.

Wrangler Tina "towing" Mercy.

A hairpin turn on Bright Angel trail.

We made lots of stops on the way up, especially in the steepest portions of the trail. Close to the top, I noticed ice beside the trail. Must have been a cold trip for the riders starting that morning As for me, I had been comfortable the entire ride up.

Eventually, we topped out. I didn’t even need any help dismounting. I felt great.

Giving the mules a breather. Note how they are all turned out over the edge.

I said goodbye to my mule. "TC, " I said as I patted him. "Thanks for a great trip. Sorry about not being an experienced rider, but, heck, it's better than hauling borax, huh?" I thanked Tina, slipping a tip into her hand, and headed for my room at the Bright Angel Lodge, stopping by the soda fountain first for a big lemonade.

Native American rock paintings along Bright Angel trail.

Then I took a nap.


Please Read--Important

This is the part where I spoil all the glee I’ve had poking fun at myself and TC the mule. My aches and pains weren’t that bad, although anyone who doesn’t ride often will have sore knees. That goes away soon after dismounting.

Self-medicating works, too. And about that? It's a prescription pain killer coveted by Dr. House on TV. I've had it three years, and only two are missing from the original amount.

Saddle sores? Hmmm. Yeah, but they go away in a few days, and mine didn’t blister after all. I should have done what I did when I rode a horse ten miles across Haleakala Crater on Maui, and ten miles back. I wore padded bike shorts over my jeans. Looked silly, but it worked.

A mule train ascending Bright Angel the next day.

TC trying to scrape me off? Totally accidental. TC was a very round mule and thus my short legs stuck out farther than he realized. As Wrangler Tina said, "It's like trying to saddle a barrel," as she made some comment about TC being overweight.

TC chose his part of the path carefully—he was no dumb mule, but a canny, experienced Grand Canyon rider-certified mule. If that part of the path was too close to the rock walls, it was my job to watch out for that. The thing with his face twisting my knee—that was TC’s bad, but after the self-medication wore off, my knee didn’t hurt.

This shows the lower portion of Bright Angel Trail, after descending Jacob's Ladder (see next photo). The lush green strip is Indian Gardens. From there, the trail descends the green gully (not the light colored trail seen in the photo, but to the right of it) to Jesus Corner, the Devil's Corkscrew, and The Furnace to the Colorado River. It takes a right turn along the river to the bridges.

Danger? Of course. Hiking the Canyon trails is dangerous on your own two feet, but the mules are chosen carefully and well-trained. Mules are known for being sure-footed. In more than a hundred years of carrying people into the canyon, the mules have never lost a rider. That’s estimated to be more than 600,000 people.

Most of the mules come from Tennessee when they are four year olds. The wranglers work with them and use them for pack animals first. Then, when they’ve “stopped being silly,” as head wrangler Max said, the wranglers ride them until the mules are calm and safe and know exactly where they’re going and what they're doing. Then, the mule’s tail is belled—cut into a shape that certifies the animal is safe for riders. It’s a big deal.

Don’t know how to ride? Listen, this is bonehead mule riding. The mules know everything. All you have to do is sit on top, have fun, and take lots of pictures. The reins are tied to the correct length.

Would I recommend this trip? Absolutely. It’s a terrific adventure and a great way to see the Canyon and Phantom Ranch. These trips often sell out a year in advance.

Part of the upper portion of Bright Angel Trail, descending from the South Rim. The switchbacks are called Jacob's Ladder.

How would I rate it? A ten, no question. Among one of my finest adventures.

Sunset at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Grand Canyon Journals, Chapter Five, Forbidden Desire

More than three hundred years ago, a woodsman called Nestor hefted his axe and threw it into a lake in the Karelian Republic of Russia.

Nestor felt the axe’s was job was done, having completed a twenty-two dome church more a hundred feet high and without a single nail. The church is now the pride of Kizhi Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“There was never, there is not now, and there never will be another like it,” Nestor is quoted as saying of the remarkable church as his axe sank in the waters of Lake Onega.

Not too long ago, on the other side of the globe from Nestor's magnificent church, in another UNESCO World Heritage Site, I was thinking much the same thing. Totally besotted with desire, I gazed at the queen-sized bed before me in my cabin at Phantom Ranch. I had only one night to enjoy between its sheets and its siren song was luring me forward. There will never be a bed as seductive as this one…

Just before I succumbed, the ranch manager’s demonic words echoed in my head. “Don’t do it, don’t take a nap. Put your gear down and take a walk. If you don’t, you will be very stiff and sore in the morning.”

The other side of my cabin.

I already hurt, I thought. What’s a little more pain? But I knew he was right and his words stopped me like a full-on intervention. If I went to bed at two in the afternoon, it would be dark when I awoke and too late to explore Phantom Ranch. Reluctantly I put down my tiny little bag of overnight essentials, pocketed my camera, and walked out the door.

First stop: the Canteen and a tall cup of lemonade. Phantom Ranch, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, used by Native Americans for centuries, and by explorers and miners since the Civil War era, was called Roosevelt Camp for a while after Teddy Roosevelt visited during a hunting expedition in 1913. Roosevelt’s enthusiasm for the Canyon led to the creation of the Grand Canyon National Park. The Fred Harvey Company was granted concessions in the park, and it hired American architect Mary Coulter to design Phantom Ranch of native material.

Phantom Ranch Canteen

Then I headed back down the trail towards the mule corral. I had something to discuss with a certain mule. Most of the mules were under a roof that sheltered them from the sun and rain. It’s also where the feed and water were. As I stood watching, that darned old TC separated himself from the herd, walked out into the corral, and looked at me.

“TC,” I said. “I want to talk with you about this scraping me off on the rocks thing. If you agree to stop doing that, I promise I won’t use the motivator on you.” TC appeared to listen, then dropped to the ground and rolled in the dirt. I’m pretty sure that dry dirt contained a lot of dried mule manure.

I wasn’t quite sure how to interpret that, so I continued on my walk. It had occurred to me that the Colorado River had disappeared, and I was curious about how I’d missed its departure. The only way to find out was to back track to its last known sighting.

Eventually I noticed there seemed to be some distance between a ridge on the right and the ridge behind it, so I took a path in that direction. I came upon a Park Service Ranger cabin. Then something caught my eye on the opposite side of the trail.

See it? See it?

The mule deer paid no attention to me, and after a number of pictures, I walked on, soon reaching the bridge that was denied mule riders. This was a newer bridge and with this addition, hikers can make a circular hike from Phantom Ranch, across the South Kaibab Trail Black Bridge, along the cliffs of the Colorado to the Bright Angel Trail Silver Bridge, and back to the ranch.

I opted to hang out on the bridge for awhile, which swayed slightly when I walked across its steel grate decking. From the far side of the bridge I was able to gain a new perspective of the narrow trail scratched into the cliffs.

Okay, so maybe the trail isn't hundreds of feet above the river, but it sure looks that way when you're on top of a mule.

Also visible was part of the pipeline that moves potable water from the North Rim to Phantom Ranch, and up to Indian Gardens, all by gravity flow. From Indian Gardens, there is a pump station that pushes the water to the South Rim, where it supplies the entire community of lodges, hotels, and operational buildings for the park.

The water pipeline is the darkest line running across the nearest embankment. Above that is the in-coming Bright Angel Trail. The other lines are part of the bridge guy lines.

Some hikers were on the riverbank below me, adding perspective to the size of the river and its height above the shore.

Two people stand along the river's edge and a third is crouched on the rocks in front of them.

I wandered back to the ranch, exploring the various amenities and cabins, and found a couple ravens busy cleaning the outside barbecue grill. We were to have steak dinner that evening at 5 p.m. in the canteen--New York steak, baked potato, a big salad, veggies, biscuits, and chocolate cake. I wondered if the steaks would be cooked on the freshly-cleaned grill.

When I got back to my cabin, it was 3:30, a hour and a half before dinner. I took my scant gear off the bed and arranged it for the night.

Then I took a nap in that wonderful bed. It was everything my heart (and other body parts) desired.


(to be continued)

NOTE: The link below will lead you to some exceptional photographs of the Black Bridge. There also is a link there to photos of the Silver Bridge. The photographer was on foot--not on the back of a mule, so his photos are much better than mine, and put both bridges into spatial perspective. He also has photos of a mule pack train approaching the bridge.


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Hands: A Metaphor to Celebrate Thanksgiving


Wrapped in an orange life vest, I am sitting on a worn wood plank on a “rustic” pilgrim riverboat with two dozen or more other passengers. We are crossing the wide and murky Yarlung Zangbo River that flows through a broad plateau in the Himalayan mountains of Tibet, on the way to visit the first Buddhist monastery built in that country.

Boat after boat ferries passengers across the river to Samye Monastery. Some of us are tourists. Most are Tibetans making a pilgrimage to the twelve-hundred year old monastery during the eight-day Chinese National holiday. For many, it is a once in a lifetime journey.

A Tibetan woman of indeterminate age sits across from me. She is wearing typical Tibetan clothing, and her colorful striped apron tells me she is married. On her feet, though, are neon green sneakers.

A young teenager vacates the seat next to me and the woman moves to occupy it. She sits quietly for a couple minutes, then takes my hand, holds it up, and puts her brown hand next to mine. We see the obvious differences first. Then we see the similarities.

We smile at each other. Her smile outshines mine by megawatts. The Tibetans, especially the country people, seem to smile from their souls, and this becomes the prominent and enduring memory of my six days in that country.


A few days later, I am pacing myself as I climb the two hundred and seventy-six steps of the Potala Palace in Lhasa. Already bothered by a multi-day migraine headache from the 12,000 foot altitude and with some pulmonary edema accumulating, I am climbing another thousand feet toward the top of the palace.

It isn’t only the steps, the blocks of stone carried on the backs of Tibetan peasants during construction of this massive edifice in the 1600s. They are of uneven height, but even the walks in between stairs are slanted uphill. We have been advised to climb the steps as if trekking up switch-backs, rather than tackle them head-on. It seems to help.

There are several gates and passages to go through. I step aside to photograph the three-foot thick walls and watch a Tibetan woman pass through a kaleidoscope of reds, oranges, and yellows.

I marvel at a woman carrying cases of bottled water and merchandise on her back, bound for one of the small gift stands in the courtyard beyond us. She pauses for a moment, smiles, then trudges onward. My legs are strong and willing, but there isn't enough oxygen in this air for someone who has lived at sea level all her life.

I reach another gate, near the actual entrance to the Red Palace, the central portion of the exiled Dalai Lama’s former study and prayer halls. This one has a couple benches outside its entrance. An elderly Tibetan man smiles and gestures for me to sit and rest. He does the same to others. I notice his hand holding his precious entrance ticket.

The Chinese government has set a daily limit on the number of visitors to the palace. They also limit each visit to one hour, with fines imposed on tour guides whose group surpasses that amount. Thus, an hour later, I am on the other side, having reached the thirteenth and highest floor in the Red Palace, another thousand feet above the valley floor.

Below me lies the town of Lhasa. I have dreamed of visiting here since I was a small child. Now I find it hard to believe I am actually here.

The walk down is by a different route, new scenery, new experiences. In the drainage ditches alongside the stone path, weeds and flowers struggle to survive. They bloom nevertheless.

(Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. I am thankful for you and all the hands extended to me during my life.)