This spring, with the Sunflowers exploding over the Owyhee desert in riotous glory, I remember Brenda and Mac.
I don't know much about mules. What I do know came from just two mules: training rides on Melissa and Robert Ribley's tough and smart little Murrtheblur (he has over 3700 AERC miles), and from Brenda the pack mule in my Forest Service Sierra Nevada pack string. Brenda was the best mule to teach a greenhorn packer (me) how to pack. She was terribly smart and patient and forgiving.
Brenda loved big sunflowers (appropriately named Mule's Ears: genus Wyethia, sunflower family). She'd be tied to the end of the pack string, sometimes carrying a 200+ pound load, dancing lightly on her dainty mule toes, darting off the trail to snatch a mouthful of the yellow flowers, never pulling the slack out of her lead rope tied to the horse ahead of her.
She was about 24 when I left the Forest Service 8 years ago. I lost touch with her; the FS was thinking about getting rid of their whole string. I like to think she's still out there around Bridgeport, California, with her aging herd, treating herself to the delicacies of her favorite flower in the springtime.
Rushcreek Mac came from the Rushcreek Ranch in Nebraska. Steph Teeter got him when he was around 8 years old. He came as a working cow horse - he didn't know anything about treats or horse hugs. He was mostly John T's mount, but I got to ride him some 265 endurance miles over the years. He was turning into an awesome endurance horse. Mac even got overall Best Condition when I got to ride him in the 3-day 2013 Owyhee Fandango.
Mac loved big sunflowers (Arrowleaf Balsamroot: Balsamrohiza sagittata, sunflower family). If you didn't let him stop to eat his fill out on the trail, he'd artfully snatch them up as he walked or trotted by, doing the Mule's Ear Dance just like Brenda did.
Some girls wear flowers in their hair? Mac often had them hanging out of his mouth.
And then one day that summer, Mac showed up with the herd dead lame. Steph took him to the clinic where they found he had broken his left elbow. How the hell…!? Running and fell down? Rolled over on something? Playing too hard with Jose? That pretty much was the beginning of the end. He had a few months to heal up, to see if he might at least make it as a trail horse one day. He did get better, but the lameness would come and go, and that shoulder atrophied from his compromised use. He didn't seem to be in pain, and he certainly wasn't unhappy. But last fall, he suddenly became very lame again. Uncomfortable enough on that left side, that at some point you'd have to worry about him foundering in the right front foot. Steph made the sad but wise decision to have him put down, before things got bad.
I had enough days left to hang out extra with Mac, and spoil him with lots of treats and horse hugs. He didn't mind at all.
Steph took him to the clinic to be put down, but I kept some of his tail hairs. When Steph planted two trees over Rhett's grave, we put a few tail hairs with each tree, so Mac and Rhett could hang out together Over the Rainbow Bridge, eating treats and Mule's Ears together.
Maybe they'll run into Brenda out there.