A mule, wrote William Faulkner, in one of his later novels, is an animal that “will labor ten years willingly and patiently for you, for the privilege of kicking you once.” But if the mule happens to love you as much as Rosie the Campfire Mule loves Wes Livingston, a Wyoming backcountry guide and horseman, a man of legendary skills and tart opinions, chances are that the decade of work will pass and the kick will remain undelivered.
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I got to know Wes and Rosie, and to witness their unusual relationship, last month in the Teton Wilderness of northwestern Wyoming, not far from the southeast boundary of Yellowstone National Park. This is hard country, wrinkled with mountains and big buttes of crumbly gray volcanic breccia, high passes between the verdant drainages where beavers dam streams and grizzly bears kill the occasional calf moose, grassy plateaus at 11,000 feet upon which elk graze in summer amid the wildflowers. Not far away is a headwaters trickle that becomes the upper, upper Yellowstone River. Forgive me being a little vague about place names here, but suffice to say it’s a remote area, farther from an improved road than anywhere else in the lower 48 states. I was visiting on business: shadowing an elk researcher named Arthur Middleton, during an eight-day pack trip, on behalf of National Geographic. Middleton’s research partner, Joe Riis, who happens also to be a Nat Geo photographer, was along too. Wes Livingston guided and supported us, with help from a string of pack mules to complement our riding horses. One of those mules, a middle-aged reddish-brown female with dents of seniority above her eyebrows, was Rosie. I recognized her to be a special animal, with special status, the first night she walked into our campfire circle and stood over the flames, singeing her belly fur, in order to be part of our conversation and closer to Wes.

Rosie carried full panniers during the day, like any pack animal, but once unsaddled she became part of the people group. While the horses and other mules stood picketed or hobbled for the night, Wes would remove Rosie’s halter and lead rope and let her wander the camp wearing only a cowbell. After a bit of grazing and rest, she would return to him as we stood drinking whiskey around the fire, or sat eating our dinner, and get as close as she could, sometimes nudging her face into his. After bedtime, as we lay in our tents, we would hear the gentle clunka-clunka-clunka of Rosie’s cowbell as she patrolled the camp, serving as watch-mule against grizzlies.

Wes hadn’t raised Rosie from a foal, though it seemed like that. He had traded for her as a young adult jenny. But once wearing his brand, she had imprinted on him as though he were her long-lost mother, or maybe her one true love. Affection is rarely so pure. It was like something out of Faulkner. (I think in particular of Ike Snopes and his beloved cow, in The Hamlet, but with the roles reversed.) Wes returned the affection, within reason, but he also demanded a modicum of mulish comportment. If she straddled the fire too closely for too long, he would reach out and touch her belly, commenting drily, “I’ve eaten steaks colder than that,” and then shoo her away. If she misbehaved, sneaking into the cook tent and helping herself to horse cubes from the bag, he would scold her and brandish her halter, signaling a threat to be tied to a tree, like a common mule. At that, she would squeal and dash guiltily away. Returning ten minutes later. She was smart and spoiled.

On some days, for our explorations of the high plateaus, Wes would leave his regular horse in camp, the big white gelding aptly named Hammer, riding Rosie instead. No doubt she treasured these occasions of more dignified, more intimate service to Wes. We saw her carry him across some of the nastiest, narrowest mountain trails that a rider might ever want to try.
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I observed this extraordinary animal from a distance, mostly, except when she came (if Wes was otherwise occupied) to put her face in my food. And the other exception was when we made a dicey traverse across the face of what I labeled Hidden Creek Bluff.

This bluff was a steep face of breccia, crumbly and precarious, that stood between us and camp at the end of one day. There was no trail. There were only small footholds amid the rock, barely enough for a person let alone a mule (or maybe I should reverse that order) to clamber across, and four hundred feet of lethal exposure below. If a horse fell, it would be ripped to pieces before it stopped tumbling. A person, likewise. We’re going to ride that? I wondered. Arthur wondered too. (We had crossed it on the way out, earlier that day, but now that we could see the steepness and the possible consequences, it looked very forbidding.) Yep, said Wes. He put his heels into Rosie, she lurched out across, and we followed. Soon we had to dismount, in mid-slope, taking our weight off the animals and letting them walk, as we guided them carefully with their lead ropes.

Except me. With a bad knee, and too many decades of outdoor foolishness behind me, I couldn’t keep up with my own horse, a sure-footed buckskin named Jimbo. This noble animal, described by Wes as “out of a wild-horse mare my brother got at auction and a papered-up paint stud my mother had,” was assigned to me because he could compensate for my deficiencies as a mountain horseman. He was confident, professional, and strong. Now, on the face of the bluff, I gimped along beside him, behind him, unable to climb as fast as Jimbo. It soon became obvious that I was only impeding him, when he needed momentum on the steep rock. Let ‘im go! Wes hollered back. So I secured Jimbo’s lead, made sure it was clear of his feet, and released him. He clattered off along a high angle of his own choice, sending rocks the size of cantaloupes tumbling down at us. The other men and animals continued their traverse. And I stumbled along, falling farther behind.

I would have cost us an extra twenty minutes, if not worse, to make the crossing. Wes saw the problem and had a solution: He tied a short rope to Rosie’s tail. Naw, it won’t hurt her, he said, and the tail is better for towing than the saddle horn, because it’s closer to a mule’s center of gravity. So I grabbed hold of Rosie’s tail, leaned back, kept my feet moving . . . and she short-roped me up Hidden Creek Bluff. It felt a little like riding a rope tow up a ski hill.

Two days later, we moved toward a new camp, with Wes out ahead, and with Lou Lou and Rita and Georgia and Nellie and the other pack animals all laboring beneath their panniers, pigtailed together in a line. The heroine of this little story was among them, doing her quotidian job. As Arthur and I sat our horses, waiting to follow, he said to me: “Doesn’t it seem funny to see Rosie dressed up as a mule?”

Read David Quammen's past blog entries