Some mules walk the edge?” Cynthia questioned this salvo from the wrangler with shocked incredulity.
“In the flipping Grand Canyon? There?” She snapped her hand up from the wrist and pointed ahead. “With the sheer drop off to Splatsville? What even possesses these animals to go down this trail in the first place?” She peeked at the first leg of the Bright Angel Trail again. “What possesses people to go down this trail?”
“I reckinnn you won’t be joining us today, ma’am?” The cowboy smiled broadly. “You know, we ain’t never lost nobody down that canyon off a mule.” He swung his hat over his ride. “Fine animal, a jackass (male) crossed with a mare (female). Look at those big eyes of hizz.” He rubbed his mule’s mane with great affection. “Outside of Johnson’s head they izz, those eyes, sooz he can see all four of his feeeeett.” Everyone knew his drawl was phony. This wrangler, Jeff, was both urbane and razor sharp. They chuckled.
Minos, Cynthia’s husband and Krista’s business partner, grabbed his wife’s shoulders and squeezed. Cynthia’s daughter, Krista, ushered a reassuring smile. “We will both be fine, Mom. Honestly.”
“A horse has 64 chromosomes. A jackass has 62. Who knows how many chromosomes in a hybrid?” Jeff, now speaking in his usual tone, scanned the group for a response.
“63,” a young Asian woman rejoined smoothly.
“Right you are,” congratulated Jeff.
“Are all of you ready for the trip of a lifetime?” Jeff cupped one ear.
“Yes!” The group of mule riders pumped fists.
“Okay, let’s hear some rules.” Jeff cupped his other ear.
“Tight group.” A young woman’s chin stretched upward to call out.
“Don’t lean to one side,” piped an older man as he did just that to demonstrate. Nodding, Jeff began to turn his mule around to take the lead.
The brilliance of the sun and the blue sky captivated Cynthia as she watched them depart. Among the Pinion pines, Utah junipers, agave, and yuccas, a rock squirrel flitted about begging everyone to ignore the Do Not Feed signs.
As a backdrop to the lighter tones of the trail itself, the rarefied hues of brown and red and gray humbled the viewer. The formations of contrasting colors rose from enormous depths and summoned the mule train’s descent. “Beyond,” Cynthia marveled. “It hardly seems real.”
Despite the beauty, she glanced ahead at the first corner of the trail that appeared to just drop off into the abyss. She would wait until the group reappeared. They would be facing her after they maneuvered a hairpin-like curve and headed toward the rock tunnel that was down and to Cynthia’s left. In the distance, the Z-shaped scratch that comprised a portion of the Bright Angel Trail on its natural fault line transfigured hikers into wee action figures. Cynthia lowered her head and rubbed the back of her neck.
Prior to the commencement of mule hooves clomping, tails swishing, and riders swaying on their gradual trek down the canyon to spend the night at Phantom Ranch, Krista heard female wrangler Becky murmur to her colleague, “Did you see the new guy in the barn?”
Becky received a negative shake of the head from Will in reply. “Odd they didn’t tell us about him. I didn’t catch his name. He seemed pretty interested in just one mount, Mary Lou. Kept adjusting her saddle. I made a note to talk to him, but by time I got around to it, he was gone. Wasn’t there that long.” She reflected for a moment and then added, “Seemed to know his way around. Like he had been well-trained.”
Becky looked around as Will lifted his reins. “Time to go,” he said. Close attention to the task at hand consumed them at once.
The group of paying riders commenced their odyssey down the trail. What magical vistas awaited them? What potential dangers? Nervous and exhilarated, they resolved to observe everything along this journey into one of the earth’s most amazing wonders. What stories would they have to share with their loved ones back home? What photos? They managed to keep the abundance of jitters under wraps.
Her blonde ponytail struggling to move in sync with the tail of the beast beneath her, Krista’s 29-year-old muscles began to relax. The jeans she donned had the right amount of stretch for comfort in the saddle. She studied her mule. “You are well taken care of, aren’t you, Buddy?” Buddy snorted and shook his mane as though in comprehension of her observation.
Directly ahead of her, Minos remained rigid in his saddle. His stoic appearance was that of someone familiar with cliffs and riding donkeys or mules, yet at the same time completely out of his element. Krista studied her foreign-born stepfather. Big difference—the cliffs of Santorini and the Grand Canyon. She took a side glance over the edge to what appeared to be a drop to oblivion. Like the mule, Minos was dependable and surefooted. She would not be doing this without him.
Warm relief swathed her eyes as Cynthia caught sight of Krista and Minos in the middle of the mystically-restored-to-her-sight pack of mule riders. She waved, as did other visitors at the South Rim. “Are you there yet?” Cynthia projected using her hands as a megaphone. She craned her neck seeking a response, received none, and waved some more.
“Get your cameras ready,” a booming voice commanded. “They will soon be going through the tunnel.”
“Can you get a shot of the group from both sides of the tunnel?” a teenager running along the cement path called out as she looked down over the rock wall. “It’s a short tunnel.” She looked up to see a friend circling his hand, indicating his location was better.
Jeff, in the lead, glanced over his shoulder at the mule train. He knew the riders anticipated the extraordinary experience of riding through this square opening of a tunnel chiseled out of solid rock in the Kaibab formation. Difficult to picture now, he had informed many, but the limestone once hosted a variety of sea creatures such as corals and sponges under a shallow sea. Jeff loved the kiss of red that warmed the overall buff color of the rock surrounding the tunnel. The expressions of appreciation for this trail feature reverberated behind him.
“Minos,” Krista called out, “what do you think of that?” She whistled.
“Most extraordinary, Krista,” he extolled while twisting his neck. “A picture frame.”
“You still don’t look comfortable on your mule, Minos,” Krista ventured.
“Oh, my girl, I think the mule has yet to experience comfort with me on its back.” Minos did not twist his neck to speak.
“My mule is a sweetheart.” Krista bowed her head and made soft kissing noises. “Aren’t you, Buddy?”
“I do not kiss mules,” Minos said flatly. “Not even air kisses.”
“Of course you don’t.” Krista puffed air, making a vibrating noise with her lips. She could not expect more from this male driven by old-world stereotypes. “Maybe that is why the two of you have not bonded,” she teased.
“Hmmm. Perhaps.” He did not yield the point.
“Is it a male or female?” She decided to see if he had taken any interest whatsoever in his mule. “Does your mule have a name?”
“I did acquire this information,” Minos said, further straightening his back with indignation. “Her name is Mary Lou.”
Then Krista noticed Minos beginning to lean in the opposite direction from the cliff. Still in a playful mood, she thought to remind him of one of the wrangler’s rules. She knew Do Not Lean prevented a rider from slipping off a mule.
Then her brows shot up, and her state of mind turned to pure terror. She opened her mouth to scream.