Maggie, the Canyon and Me

It's been said that there are only three things in life that are never overrated: Timex watches, Memphis barbeque and the Grand Canyon. Well, if called as a witness, I can attest that all three will never disappoint you. In fact, they will always exceed your expectations.

For years I have worn a Timex watch. It's cheap, reliable, and as long as I properly reset it twice a year (spring forward, fall back), it will always tell me the correct time. And as John Cameron Swayze used to say on the commercials, "It takes a licking and keeps on ticking!"

I wouldn't trade my Timex for a Rolex. Well, actually, I would, but then I would promptly sell the Rolex to someone who has more money than brains and thinks that if you pay thousands of dollars for a watch, you'll get better time. And then I'd take the proceeds from the sale and buy me a new Timex ... and a car.

Regarding Memphis barbeque, well let me just say that if I were on death row on the eve of my execution and I was asked what I wanted for my last meal, I would reply without hesitation, "Rendezvous ribs, please."

And now, I can attest to the grandeur of the Grand Canyon, as I have explored it, up close and personal, from top to bottom and back again. Frankly, I couldn't have done it without a Tennessee gal named Maggie. She served as the tour guide for my Grand Canyon expedition. Although she now lives and works in Arizona, Maggie is originally from Gallatin. She comes from quite a Tennessee family, even though I have it on good authority that her father was a real jackass.

You see, Maggie is a mule. She is part of a glorious pack of Tennessee mules that were all born and raised on the Greenwood Farms in Gallatin, Tenn. Greenwood Farms is run by Dickie and Rufus Reese, third generation Tennessee mule traders. For more than 80 years, the Reese family has given the world its greatest mules. Greenwood Farms mules even helped win the Cold War. From 1979 to 1989, the Reese family was the main supplier for mules used in Afghanistan in the war against the Soviet Union. It was a pack of Greenwood Farms mules that got the vital weapons and supplies to Afghan rebels in the mountains of Afghanistan that were used to bring down the evil empire.

For the past quarter century, Greenwood Farms has been the sole supplier of Tennessee mules for a company called "The Grand Canyon Trail Concessionaires." Each and every day, Tennessee mules from Grand Canyon Trail Concessionaires take folks like me down (and back up) the treacherous Bright Angel Trail that drops some 3,000 feet from the south rim of the Grand Canyon to the base below. Maggie and her brothers and sisters are carrying on a tradition that dates back to 1904 when no less a figure than Teddy Roosevelt traversed into the Grand Canyon astride a mule.

It was my wife (Judge Claudia) who introduced me to Maggie. In fact, it was Her Honor's idea that I ride Maggie down a 3,000-foot rock wall. When she suggested it, I immediately did three things. First, I called the cable TV company and cancelled the Travel Channel. (Judge Claudia gets some of her craziest ideas from watching the Travel Channel.) Second, I looked at my wife and very calmly asked, "Um, dear, um ... Are you crazy?!!!" And third, I called my insurance agent to see if my wife had secretly increased the limits of my life insurance policy.

But despite the fact that I'm afraid of heights and I am a board-certified coward, I found myself a few weeks ago mounting a saddle on top of Maggie and proceeding to literally step off the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Before the expedition started, I was required to attend an orientation session in which I was told in no uncertain terms that if I was afraid of heights or large animals, or wished to see my next birthday, I should skip the trip. I was ready to do so, but Judge Claudia and two of the three Haltom children were ready to take part in this grand adventure, and I realized if I didn't go along, my children would someday tell my grandchildren, "Your grandfather was a real coward." (It would be a true statement, but not one I wish my grandchildren to hear.)

At the end of the orientation session, I had to read and sign the clearest assumption of the risk document I have seen in 30 years of law practice. Basically the document said that although there was no reported fatality in the 104-year history of Tennessee mule rides in the Grand Canyon, it was an inherently dangerous and foolhardy activity that I would probably not survive. The fact that there were no reported fatalities in the 104-year history of this mule train was of little comfort to me, as this just meant that a tragedy was long overdue, and that in the next edition of the Tennessee Bar Journal there would no doubt be a brief news insert: "Memphis Lawyer and Gallatin Mule Perish in Grand Canyon Fall."

And so, after executing the legal documents, I put my life in Maggie's hands, or more accurately, her hooves. I figured that any mule that could defeat the Russians in Afghanistan could carry me safely into the Grand Canyon. For seven hours, I rode Maggie down ice-covered trails on the side of the Grand Canyon and then back up again. In the process, Maggie became my spiritual advisor. Thanks to her, I prayed. I prayed a lot. I thanked God for Maggie, and I prayed that she would not lead me on a short ride into the gates of heaven or hell.

My wife and children thought it was the grandest adventure ever. In the course of the trip, they kept "ooh-ing" and "ah-ing" over the incredible view. I had no such reaction, as I kept my eyes closed during the entire expedition.

When the remarkable adventure was finally over and I was safely back on top of the south rim, I hugged my fellow Tennessean Maggie. I would have kissed her, but I remain faithful to Judge Claudia. And while I certainly have my weaknesses, I am no ass-kisser.

Now that I have survived, I highly recommend a Grand Canyon tour aboard a Tennessee mule. And while you will never see me on the Travel Channel, I do make two recommendations for such a journey: First, bring a change of underwear. Second, ask for Maggie.


Bill Haltom BILL HALTOM is a partner with the Memphis firm of Thomason, Hendrix, Harvey, Johnson & Mitchell. He is past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is a past president of the Memphis Bar Association.