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by Alan Balter

I'm a retired university professor. I worked at the University of Illinois and Chicago State University for 35 years. My job was to prepare teachers for children and adolescents with developmental delays and learning disabilities. My students and I had a good time, and we learned a lot from each other.

The wrangler was well-muscled, a classic mesomorph. He wore a floppy white hat and a plaid kerchief. His jeans were faded, and a buckskin vest covered his denim shirt. Brown boots with pointed toes and nasty looking spurs rounded out his ensemble. “Y’all can call me Duke,” he said, smiling broadly and showing some tobacco stained teeth. “Welcome to the purdiest hole on the face of the earth.” Then, he expectorated with a neat click. I’ve always admired a man who could spit without dribbling on his shirt.

Duke sat atop a massive mule who answered to “Diablo.” His posture, a casual slouch, suggested that he’d been there before. My hunch was that he was an expert at rounding up dogies and sleeping under the stars. For sure, he drank his whiskey straight and didn’t frequent Le Petite Cafe for Quiche Lorraine and petit fours.

A dozen of us had gathered to listen to instructions for our imminent ride to the floor of the Grand Canyon and back. My wife and I looked at least 20 years older than anyone in our group. No age limit was listed in the brochure describing the trip, but anyone weighing more than 200 pounds was disqualified. Thanks to a treadmill and a 24 hour fast before we left home, I managed to sneak under. Still, I was one chubby tenderfoot when I mounted Big Boy, my sole source of transportation for the next two days.

Ten months earlier, when we planned the trip, it seemed like a mildly adventurous thing to do. Of course, ten months ago, I was sitting in relative safety on a recliner in our family room. That chair is nowhere near the Canyon rim over which I was now staring, trying to project self-confidence in front of these strangers, all of whom looked disgustingly blasť.

The ride down would take about eight hours. At the halfway point, Indian Gardens, we would dismount for a picnic lunch. At the bottom, our group would spend the night at Phantom Ranch. Before turning in, there would be dinner and time for exploring the terrain around the Colorado River.

I’d learned about this trip as a child when I read a book about the amazing, sure-footed Grand Canyon mules. A quick inspection of Big Boy’s sure feet showed that he was standing in a pile of solid waste material, poop, as it were. I was almost certain it was his.

Duke, the wrangler guy, continued his instructions. “Don’t y’all fret none if’n yer mules walk on the outside edge of the trail. It’s their instinct, and there ain’t a durned thing y’all can do about it. They’re stubborn as mules, y’know. Yuck, Yuck, Yuck!”

Perched precariously on the back of an equine who stands in his own waste and is not otherwise known for his consummate intellect seemed like a tad too much adventure for me. This was especially true, since the trail was a narrow, winding course, on the lip of a void about the size of Utah. In fact, the word “trail” is a euphemism of extravagant proportion, since it’s no more than a path about 18 inches wide, strewn with loose rocks and slick with mule piss.

We were off! The first mile or so consists of a series of switchbacks.The descent is so steep that it is necessary to swing back and forth across the face of the cliff. As a mule picks his way around a turn, the rider actually hangs over the precipice. Big Boy got my attention when he decided to stop and pluck what he must have considered a particularly succulent cactus plant growing a foot or so below the edge. Does one interrupt a mule’s morning repast? I hesitated to wield the whip lest he take it as a signal to launch both of us on an unscheduled and wingless flight to the Colorado River. Economy class.

The ever vigilant Duke saw what was happening and yelled something like “Yee Haw”or whatever it is that cowpunchers yell. Yessir, good old Duke didnt cotton to no nonsense. Big Boy snatched one last morsel of breakfast and moved on out, twitching his withers.

My wife, astride a chronically flatulent mule directly upwind, kept up a steady round of chatter. She urged me to look at the changing colors of the rock formations. Cliffs, now drab tan, morphed to pink, orange, or purple as we moved lower in the Canyon and the sun struck at different angles.

As we wound slowly downward, so did my anxiety. The beauty of this natural wonder is so splendid, particularly down in it rather than viewing it from the rim, that fears ultimately dissipate and are replaced by a combination of serenity and awe. It grew very quiet. With the exception of a distant caw far above, the buzzing of an angry fly, or an occasional snort immediately below, there was nothing to interfere with our thoughts. It was meditation with a magnificent mantra.

Phantom Ranch, on the floor of the canyon some 7,000 feet below the rim, is a comfortable place. Rustic cabins are set in the woods encircling a cook house and an outside dining area. The rush of the Colorado River provides soothing background noise  My wife and I sat on a log and dangled our feet in the water. Neither of us spoke; we just took it all in, savoring the moment.

After a delicious barbecue dinner, we took a short hike and moseyed on back toward our cabin. Duke and some of his wrangler buddies were having their own quiet talk. They paused to wish us a pleasant night, and Duke said, “Good work today, folks.” He knew true grit when he saw it.

Early the next morning, Big Boy and I renewed acquaintances. In only a day, this tenderfoot had become a seasoned cowboy. My wife called me Tex, and Duke called me Buckaroo. Yippee Ki Yo!

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