ANGELES NATIONAL FOREST — As morning traffic crept westward on the Foothill Freeway 2,000 feet below, Dennis Lonergan methodically loaded groceries onto a train of donkeys at the Chantry Flats pack station in the San Gabriel mountains.
"Ow! Get off my foot," the affable, mustachioed Lonergan chided one animal. The burro complied, but began to nibble on Lonergan's knee. Nearby a horse took a drink from an old bathtub.
"They have to eat for two hours before they'll work," he explained, scraping a hoof clean.
Lonergan, 34, left his construction job in Arcadia 12 years ago to run the station and an accompanying snack shop.
"When I saw the opportunity to buy this multibillion-dollar mule operation I jumped at the chance," he said dryly.
Lonergan's team includes 12 horses, mules and donkeys with names such as Sugarfoot, Whiskey, Moonbeam--and a horse born at the station called Chantry. For 15 cents a pound, Lonergan transports supplies to cabins in the Big Santa Anita Canyon of the Angeles National Forest. The mules can carry up to 250 pounds each.
He also contracts with the U.S. Forest Service to maintain the Hoegee's and Spruce Grove campsites, leading a train of donkeys with brooms and rakes sticking out of their packs down the trails every week.
Lonergan decided early in life that this was the way to live.
The Arcadia High School graduate spent weekends and summer vacations with his uncle since he was 12, "just to keep me out of trouble downtown."
"I enjoyed being outside working with animals and my uncle," he said. Most important, "I liked being out of the rat race."
Later he worked in construction two or three days a week, but "that was just something to make money."
Working with Lonergan at Chantry Flats is his wife, Jody, 33. She grew up in rural Yakima, Wash., and swears that she wouldn't be in Southern California if she had to live in the city.
"People come up and say: 'Wow, this is retirement,' " she said. "It's beautiful up here. Most people would give their right arm to have a view like we do."
A donkey shifted restlessly beneath his leather pack and she came to his rescue, scratching him with a rake. "Once they get a load on, they can't turn around or itch where they want to," she explained.
Her husband dashed to catch another donkey who had wandered off.
Although the Lonergans are only a 10-minute drive from downtown Arcadia, the city might as well be in a different time zone, as far as they're concerned.
"I don't get a big kick out of going downtown," Dennis Lonergan confessed. "If I stand in line, the counter will close when I get to it. . . . We'll go down, watch a movie or something, but even that's not much fun anymore. It costs an arm and a leg by the time you pay for popcorn and Coke and get in."
Jody Lonergan agrees. "I like solitude," she said. "I take my dog, go for a ride somewhere. Every couple of weeks we go hiking."
But there are some sacrifices, including giving up certain creature comforts enjoyed by city dwellers. They only receive two television channels and must heat their cabin with a wood-burning stove and a kerosene heater. But the Lonergans say they don't mind.
"We'll never get to be rich," Jody Lonergan concedes. "We're doing good hard work, and since we're our own bosses, we don't have to worry about answering to anybody. They have a lot of stress down there. We have our own, but its different."
As when an animal starts bucking along a narrow trail atop a sheer cliff.
One time, a mule called Doc started acting up and lost several pounds of his load, and there was nothing much the Lonergans could do.
"You can't stop him. He's too big," Jody Lonergan explained.
"People think it's a pleasure ride, but you've got to watch them all the time," she said. "They're like a group of kids. Some will listen, some won't. You go round a tree one way and somebody decides they'll go the other way. If they itch, they start rubbing against a tree or you. That's a good way to get knocked off a cliff."
One time a donkey created havoc when he brushed against a bees' nest.
"I was swatting bees off animals, off me," Dennis Lonergan said. Knowing that a 70-foot drop lay at the edge of the trail didn't help. "Bees were swarming all over, biting and biting. One of the loads started to fall off. . . . " Fortunately only one mule ran off, and he showed up back at the station an hour later covered with bumps.
But the most memorable moment resulted when nails were packed into one bag along with soda cans and bottles of wine. One can was punctured, and the donkey went crazy at the hissing on his back. More and more cans were pierced as he started running.
"You can't yell, it scares them more," she said. "Thank goodness after 40 yards he stopped when he realized it wasn't hurting." Every bottle was broken, though.