Charley & Me — Part 1

Touchy-feely time.

I’m actually a little nervous about what I’m about to write. It’s not one of those “guy” subjects a man gladly talks about. It’s not a neutral subject either, like the weather, or geology, or politics. No, it’s definitely one of those girly-girly, Oprah and Dr. Phil subjects.

Yep, I’m gonna talk about my feelings.

I have it figured you should never lie to yourself. You can tell all the lies you want to other people (I’m not condoning it, I’m just using it as a rhetorical counterpoint), but you should never, never, never tell yourself a lie.

For instance, there were years in my early life when I was hurt by the fact that I’m short – 5’3′. I yearned to be taller. Even 5’6′ would have been acceptable, but 5’8′ would have been good, 5’10′ would have been totally cool. And if I could have been six feet tall, Ha!, I would stride the world among the Gods of Tall, wowing the women, testosteroning-up the gym, subtly intimidating all who were lesser, in every moment of the day. And I’d be content. (I’d tell you more about how that all worked out, but that’s a different story. Briefly, somewhere in my mid-20s, I had one of those blinding insights you sometimes have, and I’ve been happy with my height ever since.)

I would never have SAID that to anyone else, but I came to understand that I shouldn’t shy away from it inside my own head.

Because that’s the only way you get to be YOU.

For instance: If you feel in some moment that you want to kill your boss (or your wife, husband, mother, kids, etc.), you don’t run away from that feeling. You admit it to yourself, you recognize it so you can examine it and see where it comes from, what it means.

Of course you know you can’t do it. You know you WON’T do it. But you need to know why you feel like doing it.

If you run away from that process of admitting-and-examining, you cheat yourself out of growing. On that one specific subject, you stay a kid instead of becoming an adult. If you do that enough times, you stop yourself from growing up entirely, becoming one of those arrested infants we’ve all come across – those unconscious, annoyingly clueless people who inhabit probably every family and office in the world.

Sometimes it’s tough as hell to do, because you often find out you’re not a very admirable person, at least by outside social standards. You discover you’re petty, selfish, grabby, petulant, whiny, grudging, lazy, lusty, all sorts of things that would cause the people around you to turn away instantly if you gave free rein to those feelings and impulses in public.

But the only way to get out of being unadmirable is to delve into the feelings, understand them, and in some real way convince yourself that’s not the best way to be. If you only crush the feelings down and pretend they don’t exist … one, you don’t deal with them and they smolder down there forever, and two, you don’t grow up. And even, three, since your own feelings are the laboratory where you learn how other people’s feelings work, if you deny your own inner workings, you cheat yourself out of fully understanding the inner workings of others.

Once you see and admit these things in yourself, you’re more apt to give a little leeway to others when they occasionally let their own unsavory impulses rule.

The sucky thing is that it’s a lifelong quest. If we could all work these things out in our teens or twenties, damn, we’d live in a world run by ADULTS, and wouldn’t that be nice? Instead, we have Bill O’Reillys and Glenn Becks and idiot Pat Robertsons running things, and we can see the results all around us. (We have our imperfect selves in the world, too, of course, but at least, hopefully, we’re constantly trying to grow past being vicious juveniles with too much power.)

So … with some trepidation, I present one of my own inner journeys.

When I was about 21, I took on a mentor at a pack station where I’d just gotten a job.

A pack station is a ranchlike affair on the edge of a wilderness, where they have horses and mules for taking people out camping. You-the-tourist show up with your stuff, they toss you up on horseback, your stuff goes onto a pack mule, and the whole kit and kaboodle heads out for a weekend, or a week, or even a whole summer, of wilderness camping.

I was there about a week before Charley (I’ll call him) came in from a trip. He came off the trail one evening with a string of five mules and four dudes (cough*GUESTS*cough), the lot of them covered with trail dust, sweaty and tired, and the whole stable crew – which happened to be me on that specific day – pitched in to help him unpack and get the guests squared away.

Here’s how unpacking works:

Each mule carries a pack that consists of a box or heavy-duty canvas bag slung on either side, each one packed with 40 to 60 pounds of camp gear and personal items, topped with a center load consisting of stuff like tents and camp chairs, all swathed in a pack tarp and tied together by a complex web of ropework referred to as a “hitch” – the diamond hitch and the box hitch being the most common.

The first mule in the string is tied to a hitching rail, while the packer rides off to tie up and unsaddle his riding mount. You go to the last mule and untie him from the string and retie him about five feet away on the same rail, and continue until all the mules are tied individually to the rail, with plenty of room in between for unpacking. You might also toss a little grain in the manger behind the rail to keep the mules occupied while you unpack them.

Next you undo the hitch, which is made from a lash rope, cinch and hook, altogether 30 to 40 feet long, and you roll it up in a specific careful way for its next use.

You peel off the tarp, folding it and stacking it on the nearby loading dock (a flat deck). Then you pick off the two boxes or bags, one at a time, which means you have to lift each one up enough that the two loops on top come up off the pegs of the sawbuck pack saddle, and convey it to the loading dock.

All this is a LOT easier if you have two cowboys on the job, because sometimes you really need a man on the other side helping. It’s a teamwork thing, in other words.

After all the packs are off, you take the pack saddles and saddle-pads off the mules, storing them carefully in the tack shed, each mule’s gear on a peg with his/her name on it – because all the straps and such are custom-adjusted to their size and shape. Then you release the mules into the main corral, where they usually roll in the dirt to treat the itchy, sweaty feel of hours under the load. You do the same with all the horses, again putting their saddles and bridles on their named pegs.

So anyway, Charley comes in and I help him unpack. I’m pretty green at all this, and he sees that and starts giving me pointers on how best to do each job. This is after a week of demanding wilderness trip, which in this case meant 24-hour a day responsibility for a herd of horses and mules and another herd of humans. Having the patience to give me direction was no small thing.

It takes about an hour to wind all this up, so we’re working side by side for an hour. Charley goes in for coffee with the guests while I finish putting away the horses and mules, and a little while later the lot of the guests and Charley finally motor off toward town, 10 miles or so away along a mostly-dirt road.

A few more crew show up and we feed, throwing down and spreading bales of hay for the herd, which totals about 100 critters but consists usually of only 40 or so actually in the corrals, most of the rest being out on trips.

I live at the pack station, so after dinner and cleaning up, I go back to my cabin and kick back. No TV here in the wilderness, and light only by candle or lantern, so the entertainment is talking, reading, playing music, or drinking. And then sleep, knowing the wind-up alarm is going off at 5 a.m. the next morning. But in the meantime, that evening, I hear a lot of stories about Charley. He gets mixed reviews – some of the packers like him, some definitely don’t, but all agree you don’t want to get on his bad side.

Charley rolls in to breakfast two days later, with another trip on his schedule. The whole crew – wilderness guides, mule packers, horse wranglers, etc. — ate together in the chuckhouse, which has one big table in it, with chairs all around. The chair at the head of the table belongs to the Big Boss, whether he’s there or not. Nobody ever sits there. The chair at the other end, unknown to some of us, is always Charley’s. Only problem is, Danny-boy has already sat down there.

Charley walks up behind Danny-boy and says “You’re in my chair.” Male pheromones suddenly swirl in the room, and Danny-boy comes back sullenly with “Don’t have your name on it.” Charley leans forward a half inch and says it again, quietly: “You’re in my chair.”

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