Brushing Up My Redneck Credentials

Hank saddling pack horses, 1976

Nothing to do with atheism here — this is me being rustic.

Bishop, California, a town on the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada (a range of mountains that runs north-south through the heart of California), has a big Memorial Day weekend bash every year called Mule Days. Mules have been a part of the local scene for … well, a damned long time, having long been used as cargo carriers for people interested in seven-elephants camping in the John Muir Wilderness.

I’m a big fan of horses and mules both, and worked at a pack station some years back as a packer and wilderness guide, which long-term readers here will know was where I met my recently-deceased Dad.

When you have mules, you can carry a LOT of camp gear, and can get to camp fairly quickly. Which means you can carry things few hikers get to enjoy. Big tents, large bedrolls, Coleman lanterns, ice cream, steak, brandy, guitars.

I had a display at Mule Days, where I was trying to connect up with people who knew my Dad, Dan Farris, to solicit photos and stories for a couple of websites I’ve devoted to him — Friends of Dan Farris and Remembering Dan Farris.

To enhance that effort, I wrote a piece for the local newspaper, the Inyo Register, to describe some of what it’s like to be a mule packer. All of the stuff described, I’m happy to say, is from first-person experience.

Come to think of it, maybe this does have something to do with atheism. My whole reason for being here at FreethoughtBlogs, for calling myself the Blue Collar Atheist, and for writing my book Red Neck Blue Collar Atheist, is to make the point that freedom from religion is something anybody can achieve. You don’t have to be a scientist, have a college degree or be any sort of expert. You just … do it.

Here you go:

A Mule Packer’s Life

Dan leads a string of mules, 1970

Sometime during the summer, you’ll show up for work with duct tape on your fingers. The trail dust and the dry air, the necessity of working constantly with leather and rope, cracks the skin at your fingertips beyond the ability of Band-Aids to help.

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 unseen on a limb right over the trail, 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!”

Dan in camp with guests, about 1980

Riding down a stair-stepped trail, your neck snaps and your teeth click together as your horse lands with an unforgiving thud on that first one. Mid-summer snow sweeps in from nowhere and swirls around you, numbing the fingers that clutch your lead-rope — not to mention your nose and ears. 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 long day’s back-trail, thinking If Only.

But then again …

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

Dan riding in Cascade Valley, about 1985

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 sip of something good.

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-est parts of the world are 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 hooves rocks you into a gentle drowse as the four-legged guide under your saddle takes you home.

Dedicated to Dan Farris, March 22, 1934 – Nov. 6, 2011
“He never complained, and he always brought ’em home safe.