The Grand Canyon – Florida Wildflowers Special Report

Morning over the south rim as snow greets February                                                                                     Photos by the author

Charlie the mule gets new shoes as we inquire
Does the Grand Canyon Really Exist?

By Michael Abrams
Copyrighted 2008

•See companion story on the Sonoran Desert

Biting-cold, windy winter clamped down at the south rim of the Grand Canyon where junipers and pinyon pines weathered the freeze on the steep impossible, impassible slopes as February was ready to begin.

Dawn arrived and the sun began to set the blue overcast sky afire. Every second, the colors rained down and blended phosphorescent orange and pink.

Visitors wrapped themselves in heavy coats, gloves and hats and tried to use their cameras to capture this kaleidoscope. They were like the proverbial mice trying to photograph an elephant. Then came the realization that it was impossible to capture so large a picture. Some people simply gave in to the natural urge to stand and absorb.

Does such a wonder as the Grand Canyon really exist?


Biblical verse on rock at
Hermit's Rest lookout

It is exactly a century since environmentally conscious President Theodore Roosevelt declared the Grand Canyon a national monument in 1908. 

Congress made it a park in 1919.

The landforms are hard to imagine. I've spent most of my life in Florida on a vast horizontal plane, with a few sinkholes scattered here and there.

But here I am. And it does exist. The mind struggles to capture all that the eye can take in. It's almost like stepping off onto another planet.

Who can comprehend this vast awesome majestic absence of space?  It is a long fall downward. The canyon is a mile deep and an average 10 miles across. Some who have challenged the height and the width have lost.

These unfortunate people are documented in the book Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon.  The cover shows skeletons. It's sold in all the shops around here.

A mile below, the Colorado river, brown and somtimes turbid, snakes its way for 277 miles. It carved this canyon, chiseled as a madman might take a take a hammer to a pie. I could see 11 miles across at my vantage point, but distance across is as far as 18.

*       *      *

My California cousin Bob and I had taken the first leg of this weeklong trip from Los Angeles through the Sonoran desert to a fairly warm Phoenix to visit relatives. Welcome rains had come not only to Southern California but to the parched Sonoran Desert and its thirsty and thrifty  saguaro (sawaro) cactus with upraised prayerful branches – good news for residents who had suffered through a severe drought.

We left the four million residents of metropolitan Phoenix and their Super Bowl onslaught and soon found ourselves in need of gloves and warm pullover hats as we drove north and began to reach the altitudes of 7,000 feet or better. The landscape was changing. The vigilant saguaro had disappeared and we were in a land of fir and spruce. 

A cascade of pure white snow had fallen days previously and I had the pleasure of crunching into it until toes chilled and bare hands were stinging and stiff.

At the entrance to the canyon park we paid the $25 fee for the car - possibly one of the world's great bargains, considering the lifelong memories that people bring home.  A 12-month pass is available for $50.

Shuttle bus routes include a hiker express to trailheads; a bank, postoffice, market, restaurants and cafeterias make this park a premier destination.

Visitors can also arrive in a sleek silver train on the Grand Canyon Railway from Flagstaff or Williams, Arizona.
It stops right across from the lodges.  The restored 1920s coach trip takes two hours. A steam engine runs in the summer and a diesel the rest of the year.

We had reservations at the Maswik Lodge, the least expensive of several lodges inside the park on the South Rim (about $100 for a double room) and so we splurged for dinner and breakfast at the ritzy El Tovar, the magnificent hotel where one could view the canyon through picture windows. We sat at a fireplace table,  lavished by heat, doubly warmed with chardonnay.

Two of the most conspicuous guests at that lodge were the moose smiling benevolently down at us from the lobby wall.

There are few things more unnatural than a supercilious smile from a stuffed moose, in my estimation.

We asked, and a ranger admitted to us that there are no moose (meese?) at Grand Canyon. This moose was simply for the edification of  tourists. Aha,  Score one for detective work. But we think the bear and deer were native.

(Continued at top right)

Moose had no excuse

Click here to see this picture and others.

We did not come to hike in winter (maybe next time), so spent our time enjoying the vistas and photographing from the lookout points on the south rim. 

Hiking trails range from from introductory to "steep."  Park visitors can enjoy lectures, nature presentations, guided walks and a visitor's center with a question desk staffed by rangers and many-colored wall-size maps to ponder. Native American handicrafts, particularly turquoise jewelry, are sold in the souvenir shops. The national park service headquarters may be reached at (928) 638-7888 or through the canyon website at

Or, you can experience the magic of the canyon for yourself with one of the many Grand Canyon Tours available online.

From the rim we could barely make out the Phantom Ranch which offers accommodations and food for muleriders and backpackers who hike down to the floor of the canyon. Reservations must be made well in advance for the overnight stay.

 The ice was slippery and after two spills (ouch) I determined that for a greenhorn flatlander it's much safer  to walk in the snow than chance an icy shortcut.

*     *     *

As it happens, the park keeps 160 mules for riding and for carrying your gear in the Grand Canyon. In the summer, 40 of them are in use at once.  The mules make it a little easier for those who want to make the long hikes.

Some are available in winter for hikers who defy cold weather. Charlie, who can carry a 200-300 pound pack on his back,  didn't want to come to the shed for his special studded winter shoes, so Larry Spencer, 35, had a tug-of-war with him.

Finally, Charlie budged and left his friends for the warm barn.

Studded shoe must be
worn in the winter
Shoes last only four to six weeks because "the rocks and everything will tear them up."

Spencer, a farrier or expert in care of the equine hoof,  hails from West Virginia. He  explained that a  mule is the progeny of a horse and a jackass. It is sterile and has ears larger than a horse.

It's foot is rounder than that of a horse.  Rounder feet mean the shoes have to be heated and hammered a bit more. What the large ears mean, I didn't find out.
Spencer says there are five or six sizes of shoes for mules and horses. Same shoes, actually.

Wearing a thick leather apron,  he grabbed Charlie's left front leg and put it between his own legs. He leaned forward and began to extract the nails (see picture below).

He compared the old shoe with the new for fit, and heated and hammered a new shoe for Charlie, careful to make it just the right size, measuring several times against the hoof.

He pared the hoof, and filed the hoof down.  The nails, two inches long, are actually driven through the hoof, come out, and are cut off.

 "It could hurt if you nailed him in the wrong place," said Spencer. I was wondering who might be hurt the most here.  Spencer has been a farrier for 14 years. He's a graduate of a six week course at the Oklahoma State Horseshoe School.

  "You're always learning something new," he said. For instance, he said, at school "you didn't have to deal with hoof rot and stuff like that." 

If the Shoe Fits

Charlie, a Grand Canyon pack mule, finally agrees to get new shoes.  Special nails are hammered into his hoof and are cut off after they penetrate outside of the hoof.  Charlie is is a patient customer as farrier Larry Spencer removes the old nails.