"Don't try to fight it. Just settle into the saddle and let the mule take care of things."
The mule guide was trying to calm a pale, nervous companion who was obviously on her first mule ride and on her first journey out of Grand Canyon. It was just the two of them in their mule train on the South Kaibab Trail. The guide was a rugged young woman with long, blonde hair, topped with a cream-colored Stetson hat. Fit and trim, her face showed slight signs of damage from the canyon's sun. This only added to her allure. She was strong and straight in the saddle and rode with confidence. Her voice had hints of the Southwestern twang that matched her hat.
"That's a little better," she said, "don't fight the natural movements of the animal, otherwise you'll have a sore butt when we reach the top."
The guide's client was uncomfortable. She looked urban; dressed in a bland, baggy outfit and droopy hat. She wore a pained look that was worse close up than it appeared from afar. As she got closer still it was obvious that this woman was not having fun.
My buddy and I stood aside as they passed us.
"Thank you fellas!" said the guide. Her client said nothing. She was too busy being miserable and doing exactly what the guide told her not to do. She was fighting the mule with every step the poor animal took. Slumped in her saddle and looking downward, her fanny took the brunt of every sway. To and fro, to and fro, the droopy woman listed this way and then that way. The mule seemed to enjoy the torment of its reluctant rider and moseyed its way up the trail.
Thinking that they were gone for good I was surprised to see one of their mules blocking the trail just a half mile up the trail. It's unusual to encounter a particular mule train more than once and very rare for a mule to block the trail.
"Fellas, I'm gonna have to ask ya to pull up right there for a moment and wait. Sorry for the inconvenience!"
The client had left her mule and was off rustling around in the brush. The guide was patient but I sensed that she was embarrassed. We waited and waited while the droopy woman did her business in the bushes. The mules were getting restless as were we. I was annoyed. Hiking the canyon requires a certain kind of cadence and being forced to stop and wait is most unpleasant.
The client emerged in her stoop-shouldered way and got back up on the mule, which snorted as the woman settled into the saddle. Off they went again and slowly disappeared into a bend in the trail. I feared we'd be seeing them again. My fears were soon realized.
There they were again when we hit the Red & White Switchbacks. Winding up two, distinct layers of canyon geology, the switchbacks got their name from the distinct colors of the trail. As I looked up, I noted that some twenty switchbacks were evenly divided into the two strata and their colors. The bottom section was a creamy white color and the upper half a rusty red. The two mules were standing about halfway up, once again blocking the trail. They were pointed out towards the vista.
Switchbacks on any of the canyons trails are an unwelcome sight from below (when you are pointed towards them ready to go up) and the Red & Whites are no exception. I muttered to myself, as I always do, as I climbed them. Going up and ever turning, I counted the bends to take my mind off of the gravitational pull of the planet.
I looked up and stopped counting when I reached the mules and their riders. The beasts made a cartoon-like sound with their lips. But the women weren't saying anything and the droopy woman was still not smiling.
"Hello again," I said, mostly to the guide. "Enjoying the view?"
"Every day! I never get sick of this," the guide replied, hands on her hips as she surveyed the grand vista with a deep breath and a smile. More hunched into her saddle than ever, the client said nothing. I passed by carefully so as not to disturb the mules nor my footing.
Soon they were passing me yet again.
I encountered them four more times on the way up—the droopy woman ever drooping, the tall, blonde guide looking as good as ever. Never had I encountered the same mule train that many times. This was more than a simple distraction. One must yield to the mules by the law of the trail, which is always a little dangerous and takes a lot of time. Then, as parting gifts, the mules generally leave behind their odiferous trinkets that must then be endured and circumnavigated.
Later in the South Rim bar, I saw the droopy woman once again (sans guide). She was sitting at the bar, still not smiling, but now talking to a friend. She had a husband with her now and he and his companions (who apparently had gone up the trail by foot) had gathered in the middle of the bar. They'd set up the chairs in a way that blocked all traffic coming into and leaving the establishment. They also blocked any movement for anyone remaining in the bar. The husband of the droopy woman had one leg propped up on another chair.
"Honey, how about that ice?" he said to a waitress who was trying to squeeze by him and his leg. She returned with an ice bag a few moments later. The husband grunted as she gave it to him.
"The switchbacks were scary, we had to stop a few times on the way up them," the droopy woman told her friend. "and I had no cell-phone reception for most of the way."
"Francine, you have nothing to complain about!" said the husband who was now pressing the ice bag resting onto his knee. "I had to walk up the trail. You rode up on your ass." His friend smirked at this comment. The droopy woman pouted and she and her husband started to fight as if they were in their living room and not in a public place.
This was our cue to leave. Having had enough of Francine and her husband, we left the bar and packed up the truck. Soon we were on our way out of the park, enjoying the quiet ride of the big, GMC truck. Another canyon adventure had ended.
After many hikes into Grand Canyon, one gets a sense of those who connect with the canyon and those who don't. So many diverse kinds of people come and go. The tall, blonde woman in the Stetson hat was connected—she got it.
Francine and her husband did not.