A million acres and a mule

Sunday, February 25th, 2007 | All Things, Travel

Our home at the Canyon: the Maswik Lodge.

Built in 1971, the lodge — actually a series of stand-alone cabins and two-story wood and stone buildings — lies in a wooded pine area at the southwest end of historic Grand Canyon Village, a few minutes walk from the rim. Once there, I was thrilled with our decision to stay inside the national park instead of in nearby Tusayan, or Williams (at the other terminus of the Grand Canyon Railway line.) Such an idyllic setting… and even without the Canyon-view — rimside hotel El Tovar was booked solid; Bright Angel Lodge was closed for the season — we couldn’t have asked for a much better location, or better value.

The Maswik is named for a Kachina (spirit) in Hopi Indian mythology, who is said to guard the Canyon. Our second floor room had a vaulted beam ceiling, private balcony, and a forest view of the park. We found the space clean and functional; last year’s renovations brought Kohler fixtures and heat lamps into the bathrooms — very soothing after the 40 degree drop in temperatures we experienced after leaving Phoenix.

Maswick Mesquite

We rose before dawn to prepare for our rides: refilling our brand new canteens, and piling on as many layers as possible that would still allow for some movement. What a sight! J and I made quite a fashion statement in our poofy gear and coordinating, fleece-lined knit caps — purchased on impulse at the Bright Angel gift shop the night before. After bowls of hot oatmeal at the main building cafeteria, we set off for the corral.

Along the way, evidence of the sure-footed friends who passed through here before:

Mule Tracks

Were we really going to be riding mules halfway into this Canyon?

Grand Canyon

Growing up in New York City, J and I had precious little experience with animals of the equine variety, Central Park carriages and the occasional NYPD mounted officer notwithstanding. These mules seemed pretty docile, though, and despite their size, were far less intimidating than say, subway — or KFC/Taco Bell — rats. Being skittish city-folk, in the weeks leading up to this morning, we had already peppered the ever-patient Xanterra Parks & Resort staff with questions about their ride safety stats; we were much relieved to learn that in a hundred years of canyon rides, there has never been a fatal mule riding accident, i.e., the mules have the best record in the transportation industry. (Overzealous photographers, too-ambitious hikers, flash flood victims and airplane collisions are another matter.)

Our small group gathered in the bracing wind before a gruff-voice rugged cowboy guide for a half-hour primer on mounting, riding, steering and whipping (or “motivating” in politically-correct Parks parlance.) We were each issued a plastic switch, and stern instructions not to under any circumanstance, allow our mules fall behind the single-file group. Leaving a gap could encourage smaller critters to dash across the path in front, spooking the mule, or worse: cause the mule to gallop to catch up with its brethren — something we definitely wanted to avoid along the snowy Canyon ledge. Any objections I had about inflicting this type of “motivation” were pretty much outweighed by an inherent desire for self-preservation… and the guide assured us that with hides up to an inch thick, the mules were in fact very hardy creatures, and could hardly be hurt by our attentions. (I chose to believe him.)

Our mules, Sassy and Cajun:

Mules in Corral

Last opportunity to back out. Once we started down that trail, there would be no turning back for seven hours. J and I consulted each other briefly and with slight trepidation in our hearts, agreed: onward, into the Canyon!

Bright Angel Trail

A group of bemused Japanese tourists:

Bright Angel Trail

The mules are trained to walk along the outer edge of the trail to allow hikers to pass on the inside, and to avoid knocking off their riders on the outcroppings of rock above — a set-up which made for some pretty hoary intervals. But little by little we eased our white-knuckle grips on the saddle horns enough to start appreciating our jaw-dropping surroundings. Just… Don’t. Look. Down.

Bright Angel Trail

Our guide, Bill, pointed out to us the profile of a Hopi face, peering out the side of the rock wall. The Guardian of the Canyon:

Guardian of the Canyon

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