God Is My Pathfinder

She hoped to ride a mule down into the Grand Canyon. But what about her fear of heights?

Posted in , Jul 30, 2013

Veteran Taylor Morris and highschool sweetheart Danielle Kelly

“How about we go to Arizona in September?” my husband, George, suggested. He didn’t have to ask twice. I already knew what the highlight of our vacation would be—the Grand Canyon. More specifically, a mule ride from the rim of the canyon all the way down to the bottom.

Just like on The Brady Bunch. I’d been a huge fan. My favorite episode was the one where the whole family rode mules down into the Grand Canyon and had a really groovy time. I decided I would do the same thing someday.

I loved the outdoors and all things Western. What could be cooler than seeing the Grand Canyon from the back of a mule?

“Someday” would finally come in September. I got on my laptop right away to plan our adventure. George wasn’t thrilled about the idea of riding a bony-backed mule for hours on a trail, but when I told him it was on my “bucket list,” he said to go ahead.

I found out that the mule trips fill up fast. Even though our vacation was months away, I put down a deposit and reserved two mules. It wasn’t until a few weeks before we left for Arizona that I looked into the mule rides in more detail. I came across a website with a checklist of qualifications for riders.

At least 4 feet 7 inches tall and weigh less than 200 pounds? Check.

Fluent in English? Check.

Good physical condition? Check.

Not pregnant? Check.

Not afraid of large animals? Double check. We own horses and ride often. But I’d never once been on the back of a mule...yet another reason I couldn’t wait for this trip.

Then the last requirement. Not afraid of heights?

Whoa. That reined me in short.

I’m not just afraid of heights. I’m petrified. Always have been. I was the kid who wouldn’t go down the tall slide on the playground. Who wouldn’t climb the ladder to the high dive, let alone jump off the board.

Even now, I say a quick prayer, then hold my breath when I’m traveling across a high bridge (and I close my eyes if I’m not driving).

But surely I wasn’t going to let this silly fear keep me from the dream I’d held on to for almost 40 years!

The more you know, the less you fear, right? I went to other websites and read more about the mule trip. I learned a lot, all of it comforting.

Mules are tougher and more sure-footed than horses and have an amazing instinct for self-preservation. Their eyes are positioned so they can see where they set all four feet. The mules at the Grand Canyon are dead broke, meaning they’re so calm, well-behaved and welltrained that anyone can ride them.

The best news: In the more than 100-year history of Grand Canyon mule rides, no tourist has ever died from falling.

That was all I needed to know—until the afternoon we arrived at the south rim of the canyon and I went to check out Bright Angel Trail, which we’d be taking with the mules the next morning. I tightened the laces of my hiking boots and stepped onto the trail. It was narrower than I’d expected.

Sticking close to the inside of the trail, as far from the edge as possible, I gingerly took a few steps. Then a few more. Don’t look down into that chasm, I told myself. Look out at the view.

It was beautiful. No, beyond beautiful. Magnificent. Awesome. Breathtaking. Literally. I was so terrified, so paralyzed with fear, I forgot to breathe.

I scuttled back to the park lodge. I wasn’t ready yet to give up my spot in the mule train. But I was going to ask some tough questions at orientation that evening.

I wandered into the gift shop. A book entitled Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon caught my eye. I flipped to the chapter on mule rides and began to read. Bright Angel Trail has 180 switchbacks. Hikers and mule riders share the trail. When they meet, mules take the outside lane.

Every time a mule comes to a switchback, it swings its body and faces outward with its front feet on the edge and its head hanging over the canyon floor thousands of feet below. My heart was racing again and all I was doing was standing in the gift shop reading. Uh-oh.

Things didn’t get any better at the orientation. After going over when and where to meet, what clothes to wear and gear to bring, the head wrangler asked if there were questions. I raised my hand and asked, “Is it true nobody ever died on a Grand Canyon mule ride?”

He shifted from one foot to the other. “No tourist has ever died from a fall on the mule ride. There have been fatalities. Heart attacks and such.”

“But no mule rider has ever fallen over the edge to his or her death?”

He looked even more uncomfortable. “More than fifty years ago, a hiker spooked a pack train. Two mules and one wrangler died,” he said. Then he gave me a confident smile and added, “But I assure you, driving in rush-hour traffic is far more hazardous to your health than this mule ride.”

You might guess that what happened next was I went back to our room, feeling reassured, and prayed for courage, that God gave it to me and the mule ride turned out to be everything I’d ever dreamed of.

But that’s not what happened. I didn’t feel reassured. I felt confused and conflicted. George could tell. “I know you’ve always wanted to do this,” he said. “But what’s the point if you spend the whole ride scared to death?”

I went back to our room and flopped onto the bed. I’d traveled a long way and spent a whole lot of money to realize a childhood dream. But the more I found out about the mule ride, the more scared I got.

My mule would certainly sense my fear. Would I be putting everyone else on the trail in danger if I went through with this?

Tears welled in my eyes. Searching for a tissue, I opened the nightstand drawer. No tissues. But there was a Gideon Bible. I turned to the book I’ve always found to be full of good advice—Proverbs. “Seek his will in all you do and he will show you which path to take.”

Hmm. Path is another word for trail. As in Bright Angel Trail. I closed my eyes, folded my hands and asked God a short, simple question. Should I go on this mule ride tomorrow?

The answer was even shorter and simpler. NO. So I called park headquarters and gave up our spots to someone on the waiting list.

A couple of days later, George and I drove to the north rim of the canyon. The first thing I saw in the lobby of the lodge there was a big sign that said, “Want to take a mule ride?”

I walked up to the welcome desk. “Do your mules make their way down a steep, narrow trail where one misstep could hurl a rider to her death?” I asked.

“We have a ride like that,” the woman at the desk replied, with a hint of a smile. “But we also have one that just winds through the woods. If you look real hard through the trees, you can see the canyon off in the distance.”

“I don’t suppose you have any openings for tomorrow?”

“As a matter of fact, we do,” she said. “This is such a tame ride there’s not a lot of demand for it.”

At sunrise the next morning, I put on my jeans, cowboy boots and hat. I scrambled onto the back of a speckled gray mule named Gunsmoke and rode for three glorious hours through the aspen forest that skirts the north rim of the Grand Canyon.

I had every bit as much fun as the Brady Bunch did. Maybe more. And my bucket list was one item shorter.

The woman at the welcome desk was right. I could see the canyon through the trees. It was magnificent. Awesome. Breathtaking. The way fulfilling a childhood dream should be, even if it’s on a different path than we’d imagined.

View photos of Jennie's Grand Canyon adventure!

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“How about we go to Arizona in September?” my husband suggested. He didn’t have to ask twice. I already knew what the highlight of our vacation would be—a mule ride from the rim of the Grand Canyon all the way down to the bottom.

Just like on The Brady Bunch. I’d been a huge fan. My favorite episode was the one where the whole family rode mules down into the Grand Canyon and had a really groovy time. I decided I would do the same thing someday. What could be cooler than seeing the Grand Canyon from the back of a mule?

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