Steady, reliable, strong, intelligent and tough is a good start. Anyone who uses the first word ‘stubborn’ to describe a mule needs to look in the mirror. Between mules and annuities, the only people that don’t like them are the ones who don’t understand them.
A few years ago I took Kerry Pechter of the Retirement Income Journal into the Bob Marshall wilderness for a fishing trip. He didn’t have any experience around livestock so I put him on a mule. I did the same for my wife on her first trip. When she became confident enough to ride a horse she looked back and said she felt safer on a mule.
Horses are great but have a tendency to do unpredictable things. It takes an experienced rider to keep a horse steady in unknown territory. My horse gets scared of sticks and butterflies on the trail. It’s weird but the smallest things spook him. While I work to reassure him that the stick is not going to attack, the mules wait patiently and start following when the threat has been eliminated. Always there, always ready.
This year it was time to take the kids, and Yellowstone was the place I wanted to see. It was the first time Erin would let her daughters go on a multi-night pack trip. I wasn’t at all concerned but a mother will always be nervous. An old saying suggests that you can spur a horse off a cliff but a mule will never hurt itself. Therefore the cargo it carries will be equally as safe.
In the movies, cowboys ride horses and mules pull the wagon. While cowboys are out roping and shooting the mules reliably bring along the important stuff. Horses are stocks and mules are annuities.
I planned a route that was pretty simple. We took the trail on the east shore of Yellowstone Lake and went south into the most remote point in the continental United States. If it sounds rugged, it wasn’t. Although high in elevation the trails are gentle and easy, the meadows full of grass and wildflowers, the night sky crisp and bright with early morning temperatures in the mid-30s. Boy did that coffee taste good next to a nice campfire in the cool mountain air.
We’d stake out the horses at night on a long rope so they can’t wander off and let the mules run free. Since a mule’s mom is a horse they will stay close no matter what and provide something of a protective perimeter around camp. The kids were nervous about grizzlies but with three over-sized guard dogs roaming around at all times there is no reason to be worried. I’ve seen mules tree bears before so I don’t give it a second thought.
Long hours on the trail provide the time necessary to clear your head. Kids asking questions, me telling stories and all of us continually taking in the changing landscape. Hiking is great but if you want to look around you have to stop walking. Sitting on a horse or mule allows you to see more of the country you cover.
Over years I’ve watched mule hooves hit the trail in a steady cadence, mile after mile, and drawn parallels to several different areas of my life. Mules are just like annuities because they are steady and reliable when everything else is unpredictable. If you have something you want to protect in the backcountry you put it on a mule.
Years ago I joined a friend and bought five mules from a man whose health no longer allowed him travel in the woods. One of the mules was named Sarah and she was the nicest mule I’ve ever met. When the man explained the personality of each mule he said, “when we go on a pack trip, Sarah carries the eggs.” A couple years later I took my grandfather to a mountain lake to fulfill one of his last wishes. He rode Sarah and I told him that story. I said, “Grandpa, today you are the eggs!”
This time with the kids was no different. The safety and security of good mules kept us comfortable and secure on the trail and in camp. In turn we were able to more fully enjoy the experience. There’s not a better way for a family to spend time together and escaping the madness of the world today goes without saying. If that doesn’t share similarities with a desirable retirement then I don’t know what else to tell you.
Until next time…
Lazy morning in a wonderful meadow and three happy girls after an easy day on the trail.
Lily with a nice hookup and me showing off a grand Yellowstone Cutthroat.
Leaving the deepest part of the trip with Lily and Jitterbug taking us home on the final leg.