FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- It’s a long way from the rim of the Grand Canyon down to the bottom where the Colorado River flows. Since the 1920s mules have delivered mail and care packages to the boatmen and backpackers at Phantom Ranch, a small outpost on the floor of the canyon.
But now the company that runs the mule train says it’s too much of a burden. The last day for package delivery will be April 15.
On a recent chilly morning the packers were up at 3 a.m. getting the mules ready for their seven-mile trek down into the Grand Canyon.
"I need to catch up on my beauty sleep, man," Levi Goldsmith joked.
"That’s the truth," Charles Brashears said.
"Hey, I’m here for eye candy," Goldsmith said.
The men don't have much time for joking. They brushed and fed the mules, then strapped each one with 150 pounds of saddlebags filled with boxes. They worked quickly so they could leave at first light.
The mules supply Phantom Ranch with what it needs 365 days a year. Phantom — as it’s called — is a modest resort, about a dozen cabins, two bunk houses and a restaurant nestled in the trees beside Bright Angel Creek, a tributary to the Colorado River. The company that runs the mules, and all the hotels and restaurants in the park, is Xanterra. John Berry works for the company and is in charge of the mules on the south rim.
"We pack everything from food to bedding, pillows, windows, everything, Christmas trees during Christmas and the mail all on the back of a mule," Berry said.
"You know it’s almost like getting a toy at Christmas," said Kristin Harned, who has been getting mail at the bottom of Grand Canyon for more than a decade.
She and her husband John are both river guides. Care packages and letters by mule have sustained the ties between them.
"I remember one summer John and I spent, was it six or eight weeks apart," Harned said. "We were both on river trips and when he got home I had left the day before. Or somehow we missed each other. And that is a very long time. So I look forward to the letters from him because you’re inspired down there, too, they’re kind of poetic, you know. So it’s like being there with him and being connected."
And Harned can still get letters, but she’s sad to see the package service canceled. Xanterra’s John Berry says the packages became unmanageable.
"It got too big for us," Berry said. "We just could not handle how many boxes were being sent down."
And Berry says they also had to haul a lot of boxes out.
"I think last year we packed out 150 pounds worth of boxes that had not been picked up," Berry said. "I know at Christmastime we packed out 25 pounds of cookies that were left down there for a couple months."
For the past 10 years river guide Marieke Taney has spent her birthday on the river.
"And so that was always a really special thing to get to Phantom and have something waiting for you," Taney said. "With clients you can tell them it’s your birthday but it doesn’t mean anything. And sometimes I wouldn’t tell people, so to have that little bit there when I'd get to Phantom was really special."
But now Taney says she’ll have to make do with birthday cards.
"I really, really hope they don’t stop at least the letters," Taney said.
Xanterra said it has no plans of discontinuing letter service. So you can still send postcards and letters into and out of the canyon. And if you do, it will still get stamped “sent by mule from the bottom of the Grand Canyon.”