MONO PASS TRAIL — Mary Breckenridge crosses the High Sierra every year, with only her horse and two mules for company.
She always leaves in September, when heat still tents the Central Valley but cool mountain breezes stir silvery-green aspen leaves.
Higher up, the nights could be so cold that the water in her coffee pot turned rock-hard. It's happened. She kept going. Packing and unpacking 300 pounds of gear daily, making and breaking camp, starting her fire from twigs.
Reporter's notebook: Follow the journey
It made her feel thrillingly self-reliant. A true Western woman.
Except, now she's 64, and she's not sure she can do it anymore. Not alone.
Bucko Davis had sworn he was done with packing. He'd had enough of being so tired that he would unload a pile of gear from a mule, plop down on top of it and have people walk by without realizing there was a limp body beneath the cowboy hat pulled over his face.
Then Mary tracked him down. They've been friends for 30 years, since he was a packer and she was a cook on commercial High Sierra trips. She needs him as backup.
Once long ago, Bucko said he would never tell her "no." He agrees to the trip.
He's spent his whole life in these mountains. He loves how the junipers line up for sentry duty along the ridges, the way edible mushrooms pop out amid the damp undergrowth.
Maybe now he can know if they will ever let him leave in peace.
Climbing the ridge out of Lake Edison on the first morning of their trip, Bucko, a Mono Indian, points to a distant peak.
"My brother Henry's up there now," he says.
Mary was at Henry's all-night funeral powwow — the only non-Indian woman dancing and chanting beneath the stars and oaks. Henry had given her the eagle feather she wears on her black cowboy hat.
Bucko scattered his older brother's ashes on Volcanic Knob. The ashes of Henry's best friend were spread on the mountain across from his. "They were both ornery. You can still hear them hollering across at each other," Bucko says, referring to thunder.
The horses are as fidgety as children on the first day of school. Mary's favorite mule, Dixie, keeps trying to kick her pack-mate, Woody.
"Dixie, huh-nee, don't " Mary chides in her Bakersfield twang.
She's blond with broad shoulders and a broad smile. Bucko, gray showing in his dark ponytail, is small, lithe and tends to limit his expressions to his gray-blue eyes. Both have the rolling gait of people who've spent a lot of time on horseback.
The three-day ride will carry them over the 12,000-foot Mono Pass, one of the shorter routes Mary has traveled in the past. Bucko has ridden almost every Sierra trail but somehow never crossed over on this old Indian trading path. It runs through a vast wilderness area where, for hundreds of square miles, there are no paved roads.
By late afternoon, the clink of horseshoes climbing granite has settled to a steady beat. Volcanic Knob is far behind by the time they make camp.
Mary unpacks her mules, shaking from exhaustion as she lifts the heavy metal food containers. She doesn't call Bucko over, but says she's glad he's around.
"It would be a hell of a thing if I got out here alone and then found out I couldn't do it."
She ties her three animals to a line she rigs high between two trees, in a way that allows them to move without getting tangled up. She curries them, serves them dinner in nosebags and gives her horse, Surprise, a long hug, resting her face against his neck.
Mary rolls out her sleeping bag right next to them. She doesn't wear her hearing aid at night, depending on Surprise, Dixie and Woody to alert her to danger. She only uses a tent if it's freezing or raining hard.
The tremor she takes medication for has set in. Doctors have told her it's not the onset of Parkinson's or some other neurological disease, but it makes her arm and hand shake, like now. Her arthritic shoulder aches. Her face is flushed and damp.
She looks up at the mountains — fired with the pink and tangerine of alpenglow — and smiles.
"I just love this," she whispers.
Mary sleeps between a bag of Purina horse chow and a sizable alarm clock. She snores until it goes off at 8 a.m. It's a treat to sleep in.
Bucko leaves camp early and walks along a shimmering river. It's his chance to give thanks to Grandfather Mystery, who created Mother Earth. Bucko was raised by his grandmother, who picked berries, wove baskets and taught him the traditions he follows.
"Every day, I thank the Grandfather for another day of life and for my eyes to see it," he says with an intensity that belies his mosey-along demeanor.
He's 52. "But I'm old before my time," he says.
His liver is damaged. He drank hard for many years — even though he knew that Native Americans often lack an enzyme to process alcohol. Even though he'd seen what it had done to Henry.
Twelve years ago, a doctor told Bucko he was killing himself. He thought of his daughter, Autumn, and quit drinking for good, he says.