I remember how secure I felt, there in the High Sierra. I remember how comforting it was to have him to lean on in that wild and craggy land. I remember the rush of the sundown breeze that shook the hemlocks beside our trail and rippled his coarse golden hair.
Most of all, I remember his eyes--deep pools of amber that mirrored affection, humor and a certain stubborn streak. We met near Tuolomne Meadows. The attraction was strong. We traveled together six days.
His name was Buttermilk; he was my faithful mule in the back-country wilderness of Yosemite National Park.
I had long loved Yosemite Valley, that magical bowl of searing light and waterfalls and moons that are fuller than dreams. But to ride above it all in summer, to be carried by mule across sleek granite shelves and through fragrant stands of Jeffery pines, to sleep in the white tents of camps with names like Sunrise and Vogelsang--that was my desire.
I had signed on for this saddle trip in December, when reservations are first accepted for camps that sprawl by lake and meadow and icy brook between 7,000 and 11,000 feet. Depending on the weather, the High Sierra camps are open only 9 or 10 weeks between June and Labor Day.
I had no experience with mules, and most of my encounters with horses had been on carrousels. The mules averaged a bit more than two miles an hour and their gait was easy. I was surprised by the comfort of the ride and thanks to Buttermilk's build--or mine--I was not saddle sore.
The first hour of the first morning was the worst: My knees quivered and refused to meet when I dismounted and tried to scramble over boulders for a picnic by a pond. But then I relaxed.
From our wrangler I learned not to startle Buttermilk so that he would not startle me. I approached him with loving small talk and a bit of crooning, so he wouldn't jump or kick if he'd been napping.
I learned to use the reins and my heels to keep within 10 feet or so of the mule ahead. Buttermilk stood out amid the dark train because he was the color of honey; his mother must have been a palomino.
We left camp each morning about 9 and rode until perhaps 10:30 before climbing down for a break beside a stream or to stretch out in the sun on a granite ledge and stare at the fabled profile of Half Dome far below.
There were eight in our group: a family of three, two couples and a single woman in her 70s. We talked of Bach and wildflowers, of presidents and butterflies, of oatmeal with brown sugar (which we had for breakfast) and of the cinnamon bear and her cub that we saw after lunch.
We spent four to five hours a day in the saddle, riding in single file behind the wrangler who led a pack mule with our duffel bags.
Dazzle and Shade
The mules walked, most of the time, gingerly stepping down stone ledges or ambling along dusty trails by long alpine meadows. The forest shade was welcome under a stained-glass blue sky. The mountain crests were dazzling, from the spritzy pink of sunup to the plum of alpenglow.
Each afternoon we pulled into a camp of white tents, most of them with four beds. Men and women were divided, unless a couple happened to get the rare tent for two or two couples decided to share.
Sturdy metal beds had crisp sheets, fat pillows and a heap of heavy blankets. Towels and soap were stacked on a table, as were pink candles in tin candlesticks. Each tent had a metal stove and a bucket of cedar blocks for the fires that were welcome each night as the temperature fell into the 30s.
Other tents hid hot showers and toilets. A larger tent was the dining room. Meals were hearty and welcome, right from the first ringing of the 7 a.m. triangle and the cook's call: "Thirty minutes till breakfast!"
A Bit of Bad News
For six days I heard no radio and picked up no news except from passing hikers, who reported that the spring was dry at Sunrise Camp because of the summer drought, so there would be no showers. One apple-cheeked family suggested a dip in a nearby lake, but they were from Bavaria and accustomed to cold water.
Buttermilk and I got on well, with lots of eye contact and nuzzling. He balked only once, when a wooden bridge was out and we faced a root-bound gully. The wrangler whipped his horse into making the uphill leap, but the mules did not want to follow. Finally, Buttermilk jumped across, then veered off through rough brush. I ducked to save my head and snagged my straw hat on a branch.
"OK, Buttermilk," I heard myself shout, "no more Ms. Nice Guy." I whapped him gently on the rear and tugged him back to the trail.
For the rest of the week, like Ferdinand the bull, Buttermilk was a mellow beast. He liked to smell the flowers and munch the tall grass.
I remember a faint sadness as we rode the final mile. I remember how his tawny ears twitched as I whispered a last farewell.
I wonder if he remembers me at all?
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For information on 1988 summer camps, write to High Sierra Reservations, Yosemite Park and Curry Co., 5410 E. Home Ave., Fresno, Calif. 93727.