I wouldn't lay the worst of our ordeal on the backs of mules, except it belongs there. If Sis, Jackie and Honker deserved slack, if they hadn't instead bruised my body and worn out my mind, if they'd even then helped us pack out an elk from some bowl bottom, I'd be telling a sweeter story now, no doubt.
They were Gordy Mickens's mules and he loaned them to us. All three. Big, strong mules. Honker previously belonged to a friend of mine in Ohio. Gordy took a shine to him during a visit and fetched him back to Montana the summer before our hunt. He was very fond of them.
I know I will sound like an ingrate with my complaints. After all, Gordy welcomed Lew and me to come hunt his favorite basin, lodged us in his mountain cabin, fed us, loaned us his tent and equipment, loaded us up in his rig and trailer and took us to the trail head. He walked the packed mules out to spike camp with us, too, and helped us set camp before going back to Hamilton. He even stayed long enough to call in a nice bull for us—an opportunity I bollixed without getting off a shot. How could there be feelings other than gratitude and deep obligation for such generosity?
You be the judge. To that end, I will manage a fair and impartial recounting of my ordeal, exactly as I remember it, in spite of an urge to stop near every pastured mule I see, jump the fence, sweet talk my way up to its side and them plant a preemptive pain near its seedless groin, just to remind it an Omniscient God thought fit it should never reproduce.
It wasn't always this way with me and mules. I hunted elk with Gordy in the company of Jackie and Sis just the year before, and despite my inexperience riding and packing animals, I got along fine with them, even developed a wary affection for them. Sure, I made a few mistakes, but the mules tolerated me, even taught me a few tricks. Gordy's experience, understanding and good-humored instruction made up for the rest. I was anxious to get back with Lew and do it all over again.
Besides, I'd heard Gordy tell me and anyone who would listen that "A mule will never hurt you." I heard it often and believed it. He had a convincing way of saying it. If we were around his mules, he'd scratch hard behind their ears or give them loud dust-smacks on the neck and say it with affection to nobody in particular. If we were in gathered company, he'd look off in the distance, as though remembering bitter disappointments from failed parts of his life, transgressions and betrayals which mules were incapable of dealing, and repeat it with a wistful voice. "A mule will never hurt you," he would say, just like a big lug would say it. It made men nod and women melt.
People who own mules feel obligated to repeat this comforting illusion because they want to believe it. I know that now. The illusion assumes you can't make a mule do something it thinks it can't or doesn't want to do. Its corollaries are that mules are sensible, whereas horses are not. Mules are sure-footed; horses, club-footed. Mules care about their safety; horses are clueless. The implication is that as long as you are attached to a mule, you will come out on top. What I think now is that I only heard the clipped version of this homily, and that the full, decoded statement probably reads "A mule will never hurt you ... unless it can."
Gordy's affection for his mules runs deep, so the risk is great that my comments about them might seem like reflections upon him. But Walt Whitman says if you love a leper, you hate his leprosy. In this way I distinguish between the muleteer and his mules, even if the muleteer's affection for his animals will not allow him to separate himself. I like Gordy and not his mules.
It's true that Gordy and his outfitting pard once strung together almost 50 pack mules when he was in the business. It's true that he grew up with horses and has been around shod critters all his life. It's true that Lew grew up with horses, too, that he wrangled out West for several years and also guided for a pack outfitter for several seasons. It's also true that my prior riding experiences were mostly boyhood disasters. They came from pastured ponies that bolted straight toward an immense briar thicket every time I grabbed a fistful of mane and threw myself onto a bare back.
I'm a pedestrian, openly and honestly. I confess I never learned the full-gallop voluntary dismount. So what? Ishi never sat a horse until he reached manhood. Besides, to argue that inexperience caused my mule misfortunes is to argue the pit bulldog defense. It goes like this: "Geez, I just can't figure it. A total surprise. That brindle dog never caused no trouble all the time I had him. A stranger walks up and first thing you know, ka-boom! He's lying on the ground bleeding to death."
Besides, I'm not so green I didn't recognize that Lew and I should have had more leverage: large persuasive bits for their bridles, and halter ropes attached to cunning, snaggle-toothed chains that cinched up under their chins. We could have commanded some respect. But we didn't and we couldn't. We had one dog collar adapted into a chin-chain for three mules. The best we could do was rotate it to the mule acting the craziest on any particular day. And that mild device usually hung up on its ring when we most required it. So for me, too often events rekindled flashbacks of a frightened but determined boy astride an insulted, savvy pony, hoping please just once that it would veer off from the briar patch tunnel, resigned to yet another involuntary full-gallop dismount.
The first time I got mule thrown was in the dark after a hard day's hunt. Mules see a nation of trail spooks in fading light, and we usually didn't ride back to camp until a few of these spooks had positioned themselves behind bushes and deadfalls. I'd learned to anticipate most of them by learning mule body language. This particular night found me back at camp with no surprises, relieved and relaxed. I swung a leg over Honker to dismount, as smooth as John Wayne.
When he spooked and bucked straight into the air, my weight drove into the stirrup and forced the saddle and bags to his belly while simultaneously ejecting me like an F-14 punch-out. I landed with a woof on my Cat Quiver, which failed to deploy.
Jackie flared, raring and pawing, and followed Honker into the night. Standing at the end of a short halter rope, who was Lew to deny her? I don't remember how Sis got loose to follow them. She did, though.
Did you know that the mind can anesthetize back and hip pain? I might have doubted the possibility until it actually worked for me. I simply filled myself with the sounds and the thoughts of braying mules running free in the night, of a friend's custom saddle dragging the ground and spurring its mount with each stride, and of saddlebags full of cameras and precious goods ripped loose somewhere in the dark and left to weigh on the mind until morning.
Once we recaptured the mules and tethered them, the trio settled quickly into tormenting each other. It was a nightly ritual. A routine of theirs. They positioned their rears toward each other, waved ear messages back and forth and pawed at their stations with shod hooves, eventually scooping out trenches deep enough that a Just God should have seen them as dug graves. If you can distract the mind enough, the body feels very little pain.
We hung around camp the next morning, looking for saddlebags and devising equipment repairs. The bags turned up within an hour, and none of the camera goods was damaged. The custom rawhide-trimmed saddle didn't look quite so good anymore, but it was ready for more service after we laced the bags back with parachute cord. I found a rusty length of baling wire on a corral rail, and with a Leatherman's tool, some duct tape, a wedge of split pine, cyanoacrylate, and two plastic tent stakes, was able to resurrect an otherwise useless quiver. It reminded me of the phrase "things gone haywire" from a bygone time—a time when mufflers could be mended, screen doors reversed from sagging, and bolt fastenings replaced with a few wraps and twists of baling wire. Duct tape gets the publicity now, but only hay wire can hold a world together when it's losing its seams.
Lew had his own pain to contend with, a toothache that started the first day of our adventure when I made a wrong turn outside Indianapolis. The mistake sent us straight toward Chicago and into too many lanes of bumper to bumper, door to door rush hour traffic. They shunted us in one direction very fast over very bad roads. Lew lost a capped tooth during this time, perhaps from grinding his teeth together to focus my concentration, probably for the same reason passengers thrust a foot through the floor board to help a vehicle stop. I didn't ask him. He was relieved when we found the saddlebags. The medicine kit contained the supply of amoxicillin he needed for staving off infection. He could bear the pain since he only hurt bad when he breathed through his mouth climbing up or down mountains. Or when he talked, ate, or drank. I think he was better off than me.
After the Honker episode, I switched to Sis. She was Gordy's favorite, smaller and older by at least ten years than Honker or Jackie. She had a fast gait and a shiny black coat. Looking back, I'm not so sure she really meant to hurt me. She made good use of her opportunity, though.
We'd stopped along the trail, and when I tried to remount, she pirouetted just as I threw my weight up, sending me flying. I landed safely for a second time, in a nest of bear grass ringed by stumps, deadfalls and boulders such as typically spike the high country. Ignoring good fortune, I focused on recapturing her so I could teach her to whoa during a mount. Perhaps she anticipated the lesson and that is why it took a while to get her back. I used the time to scheme how I might teach her best.
Lessons come hard and mean in such country. I'd mounted on the trot several times while yelling "Whoa!" without result. So I learned to select unobstructed areas when coming to or leaving the saddle, thus owing my clean landing in some measure to my own precaution. That night I also learned Sis had robbed me of my single remaining painless sleeping position while forcing Lew and me into the same shrinking bottle of Advil. All in all, I think she learned less than I did.
The rest of the transgressions amounted to petty daily tortures caused by their obstinance and mutual jealousies. At night, they took the form of incessant pawing as they maneuvered at the end of their tether to posture and threaten one another. ("How old are you, Trigger?" "I'm 143,978. One, two, three, four, five ...") Jackie seemed to be the center of it all. We watched her grow so rank that first we could barely ride her, then we could barely lead her to picket or water, and eventually we fought to get a halter over her head.
She seemed more like some diabolical intelligence contemptuous of sane behavior and the rules of self preservation than a dumb animal obliged to work for a living, and her influence spread through beast and man. She vexed me mightily, a haughty princess fallen into the hands of ruffians, refusing them even the smallest request, even those to her benefit. It should have been no surprise when she jumped off a canyon rim.
I knew how Gordy would see all this. His mules (especially his mules) would never hurt anyone. He was tied to a premise that would not yield an acceptable explanation for their misbehavior. The cause, therefore, had to lie outside the mules. Jackie must have been in heat, he reasoned afterwards, to spread such jealousies and turmoil. And when she went loco and jumped off the mountain? Most likely a bee stung her, he guessed. He was too attached to his leprosy to look in any other direction, and too kind to lay the causes on my inexperience. I could admire him for his ability to move safely amongst them, but he was, after all, the man who fed the pit bulls.
The hunting had been good. Lew passed up a very makeable shot on a cow in hopes of taking the herd bull behind her. The second option never materialized. I'd been close to scoring several times, too, but never loosed an arrow after an elk, continuing a streak too many years intact. We hunted hard to the end, and by then we'd pushed most of the critters out of our range.
We rose early the last morning, broke camp, packed the mules and headed for the trail head, a little bit sad to be leaving. The pannier boxes went to Jackie, and the soft canvas bags onto Honker and Sis. Jackie got the halter with the chin chain. Lew led Honker down the trail with Jackie tied off loosely to his saddle. I followed behind her leading Sis.
We hadn't gone too far before Lew decided he wouldn't fight Honker lagging. So he removed Jackie's chin-chain, gave it to Honker and got his attention. Maybe the chain could have kept Jackie from going over the mountain. I doubt it.
Several hours later we were picking our way down and around a horseshoe rim when Jackie's back feet slid on some loose rocks. As she worked to regain her footing and keep up with Honker, she slipped a few more times, crow-hopping and causing the pannier boxes to start slapping her sides. It was like watching an avalanche start from a bird dropping. She soon worked herself up to flared nostrils, bulging eyes, flailing panniers and the edge of the rim.
Lew sized up the situation quickly. He gave me Honker's rope, grabbed hold of Jackie's and tried amidst the maelstrom to work the panniers loose from the frame horns. Later he told me that he'd set his belt sheath knife aside for the first time during the trip. He wished for it then to cut the boxes loose.
Fearing he'd get a hand caught up in the canvas loops, I yelled out, "Be careful." Good advice, but hardly worth mentioning to a man timing a frenzied mule's jumps so he could get close enough to lift heavy boxes off her back. He worked one box free. It fell from the bucking mule, bounced and went over the edge. I could hear it cracking and tumbling down the mountain amidst all the din atop it. Its top sprung and its contents clanged and thudded down the rocky slope.
When it became clear to Lew that Jackie herself was going over unless he could physically ground her, he gave up on the other pannier box, swung around to her front with both fists hold of the halter rope, and dug in cowboy fashion. His boots plowed twin furrows in the scree as he leaned back at forty-five degrees. It was a classic pose, the last one I remember as they both went over the edge.
Calm and quiet followed confusion and noise so quickly that I almost doubted what I'd seen and heard. Still, there was only one of me and two of mules. I listened for clues a while longer, then tied up Sis and Honker and edged over to the rim for a look.
The mountain side reminded me of one of those pull-off areas along a winding West Virginia road where a small sign reads "Dumping Prohibited." Lew was picking his way along a narrow shelf about 40 yards below. Farther down among the loose rocks lay the first pannier box, empty. At the tree line 150 yards below the shelf stood the mule, grazing peacefully. The other pannier box lay close by, empty.
Lew was okay, and the mule was alive. He'd skidded a ways, but released her in time to save himself. It caused her to pinwheel and strew pannier contents everywhere. He watched her turn several spectacular flips, and then settle into sideways rolls. She tried several times to regain her legs, but could not overcome the tow of gravity and the severity of the incline.
Lew made his way around the horseshoe shelf and then climbed down along its stepped outer ridge to reclaim the mule. She was bruised and a little bloodied, but nothing seemed broken. She would not stand to have the pannier replaced on her back, so Lew led her up the outer edge of the horseshoe, the way he came down, halter in one hand, box in tow in the other.
Meanwhile, I slid down to the first pannier box and started refilling it, keeping a concerned eye toward Lew. Jackie would follow him until she'd get to a high step. Then she had to gather herself and bound ahead of Lew to gain the next resting tread. She was noticeably shaky. I worried aloud that if her legs failed or if she slipped or got jerked by her lead rope, that she would roll back on Lew. Little he could do to avoid it if it happened, the ridge was that narrow and that steep.
Once we regrouped, all five of us seemed content to plod ahead, minding our own business. Two of us should have been paying better attention, though. We missed the fork that veered off toward the trail head. Several hours in the wrong direction is no big deal, but they can weigh on worn bodies and tired minds that simply want to point home.
The truck radio gave a few static coughs and died as we drove off from Gordy's cabin. A while later, the driver's side mirror popped out of its frame. I bought a tube of silicon adhesive outside Hamilton to repair the mirror, and also a tire to replace the one that blew out on a rock in the high country. We may have been bruised and medicated, but the truck going haywire was just too ironic and too dangerous not to fight back.
Gassing up in Wyoming, we pulled in behind a rig with Iowa plates towing a small, enclosed horse trailer. A raghorn elk rack was lashed to the truck cap. I've never measured an adventure by my success or failure with antlers and such, and I've always been happy for any archer when, against odds, he could find a beast willing to come home with him. But when I had the chance, I didn't make small talk at the cash register with two bow hunters from Iowa.
The trailer got me thinking, though. On our way again, I speculated on the vast differences between mules and pack burros and wondered why we couldn't rent a few donkeys the next time we came. Humble, gentle donkeys, like Jesus rode into Nazareth. Lew made spare comments through cupped hands, so that only warm air moved over his tooth. He thought it a good idea, too.
With scant conversation and no radio to hold my attention, my mind wandered around on the way home. Beyond burros and my next elk hunt somewhere, I thought about the coming game seasons in Ohio, revisited my plans for hunting whitetails and small game, and reflected back often on our past adventure.
I thought back to that first night on the road when I woke up from the passenger's side, hurtling through the darkness. Road noises from the truck such as I had never heard before created a sense of spaceship otherworldliness. I remembered peeking at the dashboard speedometer, which only registered 30 mph and sent me scrambling to understand. The speedometer had circled the globe, and then some, it turned out. When the needle pegged, it didn't just disappear from the dashboard circuit. No, it continued around past the 0 and reappeared at the 10, the 20 and settled in below the 30 mph marks.
I even kept close to that pace during my turn at the wheel, pleased to find out after 8 years that ceiling speed wasn't determined by my truck's speedometer. A whole new circle of possibilities opened up. I meant to explore them, my nerve firmed by a buddy who was a professional long-haul truck driver and took it all in ho-hum stride, and by my excitement to be going elk hunting again.
After all, I reasoned, every precious moment saved from the road trip could be redeemed in Montana's Selway Bitterroot Wilderness, where water springs so cold and sweet from the tops of mountains that it numbs your hands and thrills your mouth; where mule deer stroll past while you listen for elk; where grouse sit along the trail like Al Capp's Shmoos, waiting for you to summon them to dinner; where slobbering, black-maned, ivory-horned monarchs scream at your intrusions and turn your bows and arrows into puny twigs; where each new day begins with a brisk ride on faithful mules and each peaceful evening returns you to a faraway camp, a small fire, Indian coffee and a carefree night under Big Sky stars.
Two years later, rain or dry, cold or warm, the old Chevy belches a cloud of gray smoke each time I start the engine, like a sci-fi movie reminder that I hadn't been dreaming, and that the engine valves had indeed experienced the trip exactly as I remembered it.