Interlude, With Pack Mule

Sorry, all, about the recent paucity of posts. Among other things, I’ve been busy getting some stuff ready for an event – Mule Days, it’s called – happening in Bishop, California, where I used to live and where my Dad lived.

I’m trying to get all the people who knew him to contribute stories, photos, etc., memories of his life that will go up on a couple of memorial-type web pages. This event will draw quite a few people into the area, some of which will be old friends or acquaintances of his, some of whom will have some of this stuff I’m gathering.

I can’t be there, but I’m hoping my words and pictures will catch their attention.

Thought you might like this, though, a little chain of vignettes that bubbled out of my keyboard this morning, something of what my dad did for 60-plus years, and what I used to do:

A Mule Packer’s Life

Sometime during the summer, you show up for work with duct tape on your hands. The trail dust and the dry air, the necessity of working constantly with leather and rope, cracks the skin at your fingertips.

You watch the new mule’s ears as you snug down the hitch on his pack, looking for the warning that a steel-shod hoof may be headed for your shin, or your knee.

Tying horses side by side for saddling, you forget Amigo hates Zeke, and when you squeeze between them for brushing, Amigo’s teeth clamp viciously onto your thigh, leaving a bruise measurable in square feet, and pretty enough to frame.

On a day as still as a church prayer, a blue grouse crouches invisibly on an overtrail limb, waiting for the moment you’re directly underneath before exploding away, loud as a shotgun blast, taking years off your life and pushing that big red button in your horse’s head, the one that says “Deadly Predator! Flee!”

Riding down a stair-stepped trail, your neck snaps and your teeth click together as your horse lands with an unforgiving thud on each level. Mid-summer snow sweeps in from nowhere and swirls around you, numbing your nose and ears, the fingers that clutch your lead-rope. Or day-long rain soaks your new felt hat, finally defeating your slicker to run down your neck and back in wet black rivers, invading you down to your very underwear.

You ride over a sunken log at the edge of a meadow, and the second mule in your string clips a hoof on it with a hollow thud, bringing out a cloud of white-hot hornets that stirs both human and equine into a slapping, bucking, kicking frenzy.

You arrive at camp and discover you’ve forgotten the butter, or the milk, or the rolls for Tuesday’s dinner, and you look longingly down a day’s long back-trail, thinking If Only.

But then again …

A tiny waterfall chuckles beside the trail as you pass. You come around the curve of a hill and a high country lake gleams azure below you in a hidden valley.

You fork up a mouthful of rainbow trout 30 minutes out of an ice-cold mountain stream, then sit with new friends in the glow of a campfire, swapping war stories over a Whiskey Ditch or a sip of apricot brandy.

The fire dies down, the light of the Coleman lantern vanishes with a final hiss and pop, and the high-country stars come out like diamonds on black velvet. The clang-clonk of the bell on your mare’s neck echoes in from distant pasture, a promise that your stock will be there in the morning when you need them. A full moon, bright enough to read by at this altitude, rises like second daylight.

You wake to mist on the meadow, mule deer browsing amid creekside willows. The smell of wood smoke and campfire coffee wafts through camp, resurrecting you from your bedroll.

You pause at the crest of a mountain pass to rest your stock and take a moment in your head to just … see it. Be aware of it. Inhale the clear, crisp high country air and marvel that you get to be here and not in some office, some distant cubicle.

All the Real World is here before you, horse and mule and mountain, raven and river, deer and dust and deep blue sky, blended together into a whole for which you feel, in this one perfect moment, you were made.

Warm afternoon sun and the gentle plod of your mount rocks you into a gentle drowse while the four-legged taxi driver under your saddle takes you Home.

under your saddle takes you Home.

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  • Leslie


    I am as far removed from this lifestyle as one can be. Yet, I have to check the palms of my hands for callouses and make sure I’m truly in my suburban Florida home when I am done reading one of your stories.

    Thank you for sharing your often poetic view of life on the trail. If it wasn’t for those special people who can transport the reader to distant times and places, life would surely be a dull sentence to endure.


  • Tsu Dho Nimh

    It reminds me of my uncle’s pack trip tales.

    He had one mule that would wait until the first morning on the trail and after he was loaded, would take off at maximum speed for the gap between a pair of trees just big enough for him … and not the packs. If he busted the harness or the packs and came through the gap, he was back down the trail to home at full speed and you could either chase him all the way to the ranch or let him go. If he and the packs came to a sudden stop, he would back out of the gap, get back in line, and be sweet as pie for the rest of the trip.

    So they would make sure he had the new pack saddle and something really sturdy on the that day. He could have been wearing gauze and marshmallows after that, but he only tested the packs on the second day of a trip.

  • dust

    I have a friend that just happens to be a mule, Jake the Awesome Mule I call him. He’s a great old guy who had worked hard for many years on a pack string. That was before I met him tho’. Now I get to ride Jake once in awhile and spoil him a bit with carrots. Ole Jake has taught me that the phrase “Old Mule” is not an insult. Heck, I should be so lucky.

  • F


  • Crudely Wrott

    You bring a little water to my eye when you write about these things, Hank.

    I remember going on pack trips with ol’ Pap. He’d be ridding Yaller, his buckskin Morgan. That horse could outwalk a Tennessee Walker and do it all day, uphill.

    I’d be on Lightning, Quarter Horse and Shetland cross (!). I learned to pay close attention to where he was going. He had a sense that told him if my mind should wander and he’d take me under the first low branch he could get to. Down I’d go.

    We used pack horses to carry our camp, usually one a green bronc learning how to carry a load in the high country and learning some manners as well.

    Bringing up the rear was Miss Jenkins the burro, with a light pack of sandwiches and iced tea and ponchos and fishing gear. No lead rope for her — she had a mad crush on ol’ Lightning and followed us faithfully. If she lost sight of us she’d go to braying and bawling. We’d stop for a short breather and cinch check while she caught up.

    Those days spent with Pap and the livestock who carried us through the woods, up the trail above tree line and down into pristine valleys full of icy streams and game and sights that burn into memory come back to me when I read your stories. Thank you, pardner.

  • geocatherder

    Husband and I own a piece of property in the central Eastern Sierra that used to be a pack station. Hasn’t been run for ages, but the buildings and corrals are still there, rotting away picturesquely and giving the rodents a winter home. I wander between buildings, through a space now overgrown with sage and bunchgrass, and sometimes imagine that I can hear the whinny of the horses and the clamor of the human voices; see out of the corner of my eye the hesitant approach of a vacationing human towards a human-wise horse; smell the dust and horse droppings for a moment, then blown away by the wind coming down the mountains.

    Then an 18-wheeler barrels by on the nearby highway, and the present state of emptiness is restored.

  • marcus

    Finished a two week hike on the PCT in Bishop once. After hiking to the top of Whitney I glissaded down to the trail-head and walked into town. Lovely town. I was my own mule for that trip, hauling a 60 lb pack up and down the Sierras. I remember catching those tasty trout, soaking my tired feet in a cold mountain stream, rough-housing with my dog, passing the pipe around. Good times. Thanks for this.

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