May 9, 2001
Their names were Swanee, Hank, and Maverick. And yes, they were cowboys. With names like those, they weren’t about to be flight attendants. Nope, they were bona fide, dyed-in-the-chaps, twangy-voiced, tall-tale-tellin’, Stetson-sportin’ cowboys, looking as natural in their saddles as I do sitting in a movie theater.
When I was a kid, I wanted to grow up to be a cowboy, but with glasses, Rockports, an L.L. Bean jacket, and a baseball cap, I looked less like Clint Eastwood and more like Woody Allen as Swanee, Hank, and Maverick guided me and 16 other tourists through Bryce Canyon on horseback.
The morning had broken cold and blustery, with wet snow spitting from a gray sky. My wife and I were certain that our afternoon ride through the canyon was going to be a miserable experience, like being trapped on a narrow trail behind a mule with a hyperactive sphincter…but enough foreshadowing.
By the time we saddled up in a corral near the rim of the canyon shortly before one o’clock, the clouds had blown away, leaving us with bright, cool, sunny Utah skies. The head honcho (whose name may have been Honcho) had sized up each rider by asking a few questions and scanning the person’s physique; following this brief exam, the rider would be assigned a ride. I got a horse named Rodeo Red, a fine creature that had been a rodeo champion back in 1989. Diane, who would be riding just ahead of me, was led to a mule named Sir Henry, a beast that I would soon call Sir Methane…but enough foreshadowing.
The guides checked to make sure we had a modicum of equine knowledge (e.g. recognizing the differences between a horse, a mule, an ass, and an elbow), then led us down into Bryce Canyon single-file. Swanee emphasized the importance of keeping our animals within 6 to 8 feet apart; if a horse or mule is allowed to lag behind, it eventually will catch up by suddenly trotting or cantering ahead, creating a chain reaction of novice riders bumping along in their leather saddles.
It just so happened there were two women from Los Angeles riding ahead of Diane, and one of them was having major difficulties with her mule, which was as stubborn as a…well, you know. This malcontented creature (the mule, not the Californian) would stop on curves in the trail to bend down and munch grass, reach into shady spots to eat snow, or settle down with other mules for a game of cribbage. And when he was done, he’d lurch ahead, dragging all of us behind him on a bumpy ride. This happened far too often.
Now, I examined Swanee and the other cowboys as they rode, and I tried my best to emulate them, and whether I tried cementing myself into the saddle or lifting myself out of it by straightening my legs, I invariably saddlewhacked parts of my anatomy that are best left un-saddlewhacked.
On top of that, I had to contend with Sir Methane, who was lifting his tail and firing off one prolonged, noisy, gaseous round after another in my direction – a scene certainly never captured by John Ford in any of his Westerns. Time and time again, my enjoyment of the gorgeous vistas of the canyon was interrupted by gastric explosions the likes of which could be duplicated by a human being only with the aid of a bullhorn. Not that Rodeo Red was exempt from such activity; in fact, more than once did I have to twist in my saddle to assure the young boy riding behind that it was not me.
Before I leave the impression that I regret my ride, let me assure you I had a great time. Bryce Canyon is stunningly beautiful, with its fanciful hoodoos jutting up from the earth, ancient bristlecone pines growing out of the desert, trails cutting along multi-colored cliffs and through stream beds, with authentic cowboys leading the way.
Non-gassy cowboys, I might add.