I breathe in the crisp air of an early summer morning in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area. Sprawling across central Idaho, the Frank Church is the second largest wilderness area in the lower 48. Spanning 2,366,757 acres, it plays hell on men and animals alike. What little flat ground there is disappears beneath sage and rocks. The mountains stagger towards the sky with brutal steepness. The old timers blasted devilish trails into rock faces that mountain goats avoided.
The scent of crushed sage fills my nose, a sweet aroma brought on by 35 horses in their headlong rush to escape the wrangler. Me. I do not follow their mad charge down the mountainside, causing the buckskin beneath me to chew the bit angrily. He is new to the saddle and still remembers the Nevada mountains that he called home. The urge to buck still visits his mind from time to time. He will make a tough mountain horse though, the kind this country demands. Like the kind I am remembering this morning.
I ignore his frustration and pay my respects to a mule that earned his keep. I touch white bone with memories at the tips of my fingers. Wedged in the crook of a tree branch a large skull stares down from the bluff. The eye sockets, now empty holes, do not recognize me. My memories do not wake the dead.
He was the ugliest mule I have ever seen, uglier than the mountains that he lived and died in. Dirty gray hair covered a hide splattered with pink patches. His obscenely large head bobbed in a sad rhythm when he traveled down the trail. Scott Farr, the outfitter that owned him, always said “the only way I’ll own a mule that ugly is if he’s a damn fine working animal.” He was that for as long as I knew him.
I rode Hulk as a young kid in hunting camp. He was the only mule that tolerated my tricks for getting in the saddle. The 16hh giant stood next to stumps and straddled fallen trees so that my short legs could reach the stirrups. Together, we traveled some of the roughest country the Frank Church can offer. Hogback ridge did not daunt Hulk, nor did the bear cubs in the tree three feet away from his head. He worked years in a land that eliminates animals in months.
How he ended up in the B-C pasture I don’t know. Maybe Scott sold him, or was just pasturing him here. Either way, it doesn’t matter. I found his skull at the beginning of summer. When I found out who the bones belonged to, I wedged the skull into the tree. The lower jaw I never found. He died in this pasture. Simply didn’t come in with the herd one morning a year and half ago. They found his white carcass 150 yards to my left. Part of his vertebrae is still there, but that is all. Remnants of the dead do not last long here. By next year the skull will be fractured by the ice and cold of winter. Two years from now all that will remain is fragments of bone held in place by bark.
He is gone, but I am not, and neither is the buckskin I ride. He has stopped chewing the bit and is now tearing the earth beneath us apart with a large hoof. He does not understand why we have stopped, only that the herd is far ahead and out of sight. One day bones will be all that remains of his youthful impatience. Maybe he will earn his keep well enough to be respected like Hulk. Only time will tell.
I move on. The moment of respecting the dead is over. Now I must tend to the living.