The knowledge of mules

  • Packing on the Idaho-Montana divide


I know more about mules than I want to. I know the scent of their sweat mixed with their steaming breath at 3 in the morning. I know the sight of a fully packed mule string, nine animals long, under the light of a full moon. I know the taut sound of a manila breakaway as it snaps tight, right before it breaks under a thousand pounds of mule. I know the thunder of a wreck.

I’ve been packing mules since I was 19. I’m 32 now and have led strings of these long-eared critters through the backcountry of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. I know that I am half crippled and that anyone looking at me would think I’d been in a bad car crash.

I know that a lot of folks would call a job like this romantic. I call it loneliness. I know that I am a single man who is apparently unable to maintain any kind of stable relationship. I’m gone for weeks at a time, and when I do return I am covered in the sweet smell of manure, dust and sweat. I earn enough to almost cover the bills.

In the hills I crave the town. In town I dream of the hills.

I sit mute in bars, outmatched by North Face-clad climbers in my quest for companionship. My threadbare wool jacket and calloused hands mark me as someone without a trust fund. The loud music and sterile women make me wish for the stars, the silence, and the loneliness.


I talk to the mules. They answer with the braying replies that gave them the moniker of “mountain canary.”

“Knock it off, we’re in this together.”

They look at me, their long ears swiveling to the front.

“I’ve got good news and bad news. The bad news is that this is our job. The good news is that we’re good at it.”

They gaze at me quizzically. They never applied for this job; they were born into it. Suddenly I smell more like a mule than ever before.


These animals will do anything I ask. They will travel 30 miles in a day, march through bogs in the darkness of a new moon, or stand patient while I adjust their saddles. They are not my friends, but co-workers. I never ask too much and they never refuse.

I know the feel of warm mule blood as I gently remove sharp stobs from the puncture wounds marring the thin hide. Her soft eyes trust me even though it was my poor judgment that got us here. I bite my lip until it bleeds because men in black hats don’t cry.

I know the difference between a decker and sawbuck saddle. I know how to tie a basket hitch, barrel hitch, squaw hitch, box hitch, fast diamond, single diamond, or double diamond. I can load lumber, add in a crow’s foot, and make up knots for whatever you have in mind. If I can pick it up, I can pack it.

I know the smell of oiled leather, the cuts, scrapes, burns, and calluses that come with cotton ropes. I know the feel of a frozen picket and fingers that refuse to work in the cold of a November morning. I know the smell of elk and the sound of a grizzly popping its jaw. I know that I’ve been packing so long that I don’t know what else to do.


And I know that things are different now.

Now I know the softness of pillows and the firmness of a bed, the kindness of friends and the love of family. I know the pain of that 80-pound load as I lifted it onto the side of a mule, and the shock when I realized I was on the ground and could barely move my legs. Minutes passed before I rose, almost an hour before I had the rest of the string loaded.

I’ve watched my muscles atrophy from disuse and my skin turn pale from lack of sun. I’ve been warned of bedsores and movements that are quick and sudden. I’ve become acquainted with pain that I had never imagined and learned the patience of dealing with government agencies as I try to get approval for surgery. I’ve endured the numbness of painkillers and the lethargy of injury. I know the harsh sound of a doctor’s voice and the sharp knife of reality: “If you want to walk, you’ll never pack mules again.”

I know that my life is changing and that I need to find a new career. The obvious problem is that the only jobs I’ve ever held have included mules or shovels, and I cannot use either again.

The gap between what I know and what I will learn widens every day. I’m trying desperately to hang onto the other side, to bring it closer, instead of being stretched to my limits.


I know that the future holds fear, transition and hope, and that this elixir will slowly heal me. I know that joy will once again fuel me.

I know all this and more, and sometimes, it seems like I’ll never know enough.


The author no longer packs mules. He lives in western Montana and is happy to be walking again.

Mar 13, 2007 11:10 AM

For years I’ve read HCN while walking back from the post office.  But reading Jason Fisher’s essay on the Knowledge of Mules stopped me under the pine trees in the park where I read it and was transported to the world of packing mules.  And hospitals.  And I reflected on my own health and career.

Mar 19, 2007 11:18 AM

Jason Fisher says " ....the only jobs I’ve ever held have included mules or shovels..." Let me state that he has the ability to put words together that resonate with the sounds, sights and smells of a writer. I want to read more of his essays.

Mar 19, 2007 11:40 AM

Once I said the same thing looking for a new start.  I love learning new things and finding out I can do a good job.  I am much older than the author of this story but I am still learning and creating a new life.  I ask myself what do I like and what am I good at.  Your story is great and very touching if you dream it you can do it.  Tomorrow and the unknown is always scary at less for me but that does not stop me from going forward.  We as thinking, dreaming people can change our life as many time as we want but we just need to want it bad enough to try.  I wish you lots of luck and good fortune for the future.


Mar 26, 2007 10:47 AM

Jason Fisher is looking for a new way to make the bills and possibly a little extra. Well, he can sure as hell write. That seems a good place to start, particularly for one accustomed to being a loner.

Mar 26, 2007 10:49 AM

Me too - Jason, your article reads like a teaser for a book!

Mar 30, 2007 11:06 AM

Thanks for your wonderful story Jason.  It speaks to everyone who sometimes feels like a mule in a culture that only allows horses & donkeys.  Some of us became hybrids from living in the woods before we tried living in "civilization".  Others became two-spirited from other parallel universe experiences.  Trust your body in its ability to rehabilitate & trust your heart/spirit to lead you through the mists of mystery into a new adventure. Honor your Mule Totem!

Apr 03, 2007 10:02 AM

The comment that referred to parallel universe experience, and the phenomenon of being "two-spirited" was spot-on about the conundrum of being at home in the woods, and yet able to function in "civilization." 

Before I retired, I had to spend part of every week in town, and the business of being "two-spirited" was a painful split.  Now I can spend my days here, my companions a heeler and two horses --- and I am wierder than ever.  Thankfully, my husband comes home in the evening to keep me socialized!  I have to keep some social events on my calender, or I'd even forget how to say hello.

Thanks for the comment.  It helped clarify aspects of this phenomenon.

And truly, Jason has a gift. I am glad he shared it, and I hope he continues to write. 


Apr 06, 2007 11:12 AM

Any man who has embraced life, appreciated, and understood its nuances, as you have so obviously done, will overcome what may seem to be overwhelming but are really transitory obstacles to fullfilment in your life.

Thanks for sharing with the rest of us.

Tim Wolcott

Mule Writing
Colleen Friesen
Colleen Friesen
Apr 17, 2010 10:45 PM
You have a gift. Perhaps all that time 'out there' was preparation for your calling as a writer, because man, your writing sings. Thank you for some magic moments...
I know this is old...
C.L. Quigley
C.L. Quigley
Apr 18, 2010 08:54 PM
...but I like it. Wow.
This writing...
Adam Taylor
Adam Taylor
Apr 19, 2010 10:44 AM
Well done. That was a wonderfully written piece...

I am able to identify with a great deal of what he said... especially
"In the hills I crave the town. In town I dream of the hills".

I hope to read more by Jason.
Amanda Laban
Amanda Laban
Feb 09, 2011 09:28 PM
I am glad I found this article. I believe this is the same Jason Fisher I met while working with Nick H. out of the Bitterroot Ranger District in the summer of 2007. I hope someday to be in touch with Jason again.
-Amanda Laban
Susan Chavez
Susan Chavez
Dec 26, 2013 11:26 AM
Here it is, end of 2013, and Jason Fisher's essay still compels at least one more reader to jump in with praise. Well done! There is even a trailer, for a sequel perhaps. Did Amanda ever get in touch with Jason?