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.