“Hold real still,” drawled the lead wrangler, his mule plodding past a hiker trying to flatten herself to a rock wall on the Grand Canyon’s narrow South Kaibab Trail. He didn’t have to repeat himself. The woman, wearing sneakers, seemed scared to death.
This meeting of animals and hikers from all over the world has been going on for over a century. In theory, mules have the right of way. In practice, you have every nationality and culture visiting the Grand Canyon, and no wrangler can count on hikers having a clue about what to do. The Park Service advises hikers to wait on the inside of the trail for a mule train to pass, yet some in a hurry will bull their way past, and there are even practical jokers who like to try to spook mules, not realizing they can push animals and riders right over the edge.
On that hot day this July, I sure wondered about the German hiking in front of me. He was making the most of the trek by running from one photo opportunity to the next. He seemed like an accident waiting to happen as he rounded a blind switchback in the trail at full steam. Luckily, a mule train hadn’t quite reached him as he skidded to a halt. At first, I thought the wrangler he’d spotted must be a reincarnation of Princess Diana, especially when I rounded the curve and saw that the tourist paparazzi had grown to half a dozen. To her credit, the wrangler looked regal and knew how to put on a good show: She was dressed in the mule-wrangler uniform of plaid, long-sleeve shirt buttoned to the neck, jeans, cowboy boots and cowboy hat. Turning in profile for the cameras she leisurely reached into one of the saddlebags and pulled out a can of tomato juice. Her male counterpart at the end of the train sat patiently, perhaps considering how he might have played the role if it had been his turn.
It was a different story in 1936, when my father, then 17, rode in a mule train down the Bright Angel Trail. The picture taken of the group by the Kolb Brothers at the top of the trail says it all: First, there’s the wrangler, looking like Tom Mix and wearing a 10-gallon Stetson. Then there’s the lineup on mules of men in their trousers and white shirts and women in their dresses and small-brimmed hats, all in profile, staring out at the Grand Canyon. These tourists were prosperous or sometimes, like my dad, good with a horse; in the middle of the Great Depression, there weren’t many who could afford the trek or a stay at the El Tovar Hotel.
But visiting the inner canyon was anything but easy. Eighteen miles round-trip could be tough on an experienced rider, and hell for an inexperienced one. The cook must have been a sadist, my father told me, stuffing all the packs with salty ham sandwiches and stinting on the water. When the group rode back up, there wasn’t a drop of water to be had, he said, and riders looked as if they’d been sucking on stones.
The Kolbs took their pictures at the beginning of the pack trip to give them time to develop the film before the riders returned to the South Rim. Until 1928, the Kolbs used a darkroom studio they’d built below the South Rim at Indian Gardens. They’d take their pictures as the mule train got underway, run to their studio to make a proof, then catch up with the mules below to take orders from riders for the prints. They’d finish the prints with creek water at the Indian Gardens studio while the mules went down to the Colorado River. Then they’d run back up the trail to deliver photographs to tourists on the South Rim at the end of the day.
Photography has come a long way since then. You can burn a photograph to a CD in a matter of minutes and sell it to tourists before they head down the trail. But the mule trains haven’t changed much. It still takes the same amount of time to go up and down and the same technology, no upgrade or “version 2.4 mules.” The mule my dad rode on is no different than its modern counterpart today; there are just a lot more photographers to pose for, and a heck of a lot more hikers to dodge.
Ann Adams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She is a goat wrangler on a farm in Tajique, New Mexico.