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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