Into Grand Canyon on a mule’s back

By G. Sam Piatt - Contributing Columnist

I didn’t ask how much they paid for the tickets that privileged them to straddle the mules and ride them down a narrow trail clinging to canyon walls for a ride to the bottom of the mile-deep Grand Canyon.

But I’ll tell you one thing: You couldn’t pay me enough to take that trip.

One reason is that I’m afraid of heights; another is that I don’t trust mules.

“The guides, both girls, told us – as we approached the first sharp bend — not to lean toward the canyon wall, to keep our eyes on the mules’ ears, and for gosh sakes don’t look out,” said Jim Epling.

He and his wife, Melissa, both retired school teachers from Russell, took this ride of a lifetime a couple of weeks ago.

The mules – Melissa on Dingess and Jim on Emory –didn’t pay much mind to the guides’ instructions. They have a mind of their own.

“Sometimes they would walk on the outside edge and swing their heads out, looking down,” Jim said.

And “down” was a sheer drop of thousands of feet.

“I was really proud of Melissa,” Jim said. “She did great. The trip is not for the light-hearted.”

They had tasted this trip 48 years ago, when they had been married but a year. But that time they rode just a mile down and then back up.

This time they rode through the 110-degree temperature the entire eight miles, arriving at Phantom Ranch at the bottom about six hours from the time they started.

On the way they crossed narrow Silver Bridge, where it was nearly a thousand feet to the small stream below.

At the ranch restaurant they enjoyed a steak dinner, got a good night’s sleep in a rustic cabin, arose early for breakfast, and rode the mules back to the top.

There were 11 riders, counting the two guides.

In a booklet advertising the trip, one rider is quoted as saying, “If you’re afraid of heights just close your eyes – that’s what the mules do.”

There’s a months-long waiting list to get the trip.


One time, back in Elliott County, when I was about 12, I rode Grandma Hannah’s old mule down to the grocery store. On the way back a woman was shucking some sweet corn for dinner in her side yard.

No amount of threats from me could stop that mule from veering over to grab an ear of her corn and stand there munching it. It took her several swipes with a broom to convince that beast he wasn’t invited for dinner.

Then, in the pasture, as we were nearing the barn, there was a small stream meandering down at the bottom of a steep slope.

The mule decided the corn left him thirsty. Down that slope he went, with me clinging to his neck.

I finally fell off and left him there. I wanted to kick that mule in the rear, but fear of retaliation stopped me.

As I reached the top of the slope, I heard him say, “Hee-haw! Hee-haw!”

By G. Sam Piatt

Contributing Columnist

Reach G. SAM PIATT at [email protected] or (606) 932-3619.

Reach G. SAM PIATT at [email protected] or (606) 932-3619.