Bellville library worker takes the ride of a lifetime

By Fonda Kendrick - Bellville Star

Riders experience the stark and rocky beauty of the Grand Canyon from the back of sure-footed mules.

Fredericktown resident Nancy Strayer braves a trail ride to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

It’s the trip tour guides try to convince people not to take. But when Nancy Strayer, who had braved the journey once already, was invited to venture it again, she jumped at the chance: a second mule ride to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Strayer shared her experiences from both trips with a full house at the Bellville branch of the Mansfield/Richland County Public Library last Thursday evening.

Although Strayer, a Fredericktown resident, has worked at the Bellville library branch for the past four years, she is no stranger to nature and the outdoors. Strayer retired from her administrator’s position with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources after 31 years.

Strayer rode the Grand Canyon trails in both 2008 and 2015. Although it took years for her to accomplish this, the idea had been in her mind for a long time. “From the time I was a very, very, very small child, I knew that I was going to ride the mules at the Grand Canyon,” Strayer said.

She described the adventure this way: “To say it was fantastic wouldn’t be enough. It was amazing. It was awesome. It was life-altering. It was… wow!”

Both of Strayer’s trips to Arizona were in October.

“Full moon in October in the Grand Canyon is a very special time,” Strayer explained. On her first trip, she reached the bottom of the canyon around three days before the full moon. “We were all going to go to bed the first trip,” she remembered, “and the lady in the canteen said, ‘I overheard you guys talking about getting an early night’s sleep. You don’t want to do that. You need to stay up, and you need to stay up until about 11.’ And so the moon comes up, and, of course it’s dark in the Canyon, and then the Canyon starts lighting from the top…. And eventually it was light enough you could have read a book sitting outside. It was so bright, almost like daylight. It was really, really, special,” Strayer commented.

Grand Canyon National Park was established in 1919. When first opened, the park saw approximately 37,000 people. Last year the park welcomed five million visitors.

“If you go to the Canyon, you need to expect it to be a cultural and international experience. People from all over the world will be there. And they’ll be [talking], but you probably won’t understand a word they are saying, but the looks [on their faces] when they look over the edge for the first time, it doesn’t matter where you’re from.”

Hiking the Canyon is an option, Strayer explained, but she commented, “Because I’m kinda on the lazy side, I prefer to go down in, but not under my own power. The way to see the Canyon is on the back of a mule.”

The morning of the trip, riders gather at the Mule Barn, which was built in 1907. Mule rides start at the Mule Corral, located at the head of the Bright Angel Trail.

At the mule barn, riders meet the head wrangler, who leads the expedition.

“[The wrangler’s] goal is to convince you that you do not want to do the ride,” explains Strayer. “And I’m serious. For a half an hour, they pretty much convince you that this is one of the scariest, most awful things you have ever experienced…. They tell you at least three times, ‘Now you can back out, and we will give you a full refund. If you don’t want to go, you can still back out.’ And they say this numerous times.”

Once any reluctant riders are weeded out, Strayer said wranglers comfort those remaining with a favorite saying: “If you get scared and are afraid to look, just do what the mules do. Shut your eyes.”

Wranglers also give riders another important piece of advice. They instruct riders that when they stop on the trail, they should turn the mule’s head out over the cliff and direct the mule’s front hooves to the edge of cliff. This allows the mules to know where the path drops off.

“When your mule turns like that, your heart just about disappears,” Strayer noted.

The riders’ destination for the first of the two-day trip is Phantom Ranch. It is located in the bottom of the Canyon and was established in 1922 by the Fred Harvey Company. Besides the view, Strayer said, the highlight of the camp is food. Once reaching camp after crossing the Colorado River, hungry riders receive a New York strip steak dinner. If purchased outside of the mule ride trip, the price tag would be around $60, since everything must come into the camp on mules.

Although riders of any skill level are welcomed on the trip, those with previous riding experience are definitely at a physical advantage. Strayer spoke of a trail rider who had never ridden before, whom she saw on the morning of the trip’s second day. “Justin was not a rider. Justin was hurting…. I saw him looking at his boots, and he could not get them on.”

Upon arriving at the top of the Canyon, successful riders are awarded a certificate, as they are now members of the Order of the Master Mule Skinners of the Grand Canyon Trails.

Any brave vacationers wishing to make reservations for their own mule ride into the Canyon may reserve their spots 13 months in advance. The cost in 2015 was about $550. Although riders are required to be in good physical condition, all skill levels of riders are welcome. Those making the trip must weigh less than 200 pounds dressed and be at least 4 ‘7” tall. They must speak and understand English and should not have a fear of heights or large animals.

Although no mule riders have ever died on the trip, there have been many accidents. Only one fatality, that of a wrangler, has been recorded since the mule ride tours began. An estimated 600,000 adventurers have ridden in the Grand Canyon.

Riders experience the stark and rocky beauty of the Grand Canyon from the back of sure-footed mules. experience the stark and rocky beauty of the Grand Canyon from the back of sure-footed mules.

Fredericktown resident Nancy Strayer braves a trail ride to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. resident Nancy Strayer braves a trail ride to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

By Fonda Kendrick

Bellville Star