Day two wasn't supposed to be a 30 mile ride. Nor was the climb supposed to be that brutal. We were on the Boulder, peering over the edge into Escalante's tangled chasm of slot canyons, riding through herds of elk and deer, while surprising a hapless bear. It was scout camp... Cowboy scout camp.
We left a little late on day 2 thinking we had plenty of time to get to our next campsite, figuring on an 8 hour ride or so. I knew my jack, Rusty might not pull the hills without giving out, so I took a spare mule just in case. Rusty is a great ride in the suburbs. He has the suspension of a Lincoln Towncar, the steering of a '54 International truck, and he can go all day with me astride his flat back. But he climbs hills like a windup toy.
By mile 10, we topped out just as Rusty tapped out. And then he just hung his tired head, refusing to move any farther. We were a little behind by then, so I sent my buddy Kent to catch the lead group and bring back my spare mule. I got off and started walking, Rusty reluctantly following. Leather chinks slapped the trail-weary denim of my jeans to the beat of my steps. Dust from each foot-fall rose to mingle with the beads of sweat that were lining up under the brim of my old slouch hat. Time passed. A lot of time. Rusty, leaning back on his lead rope, turned the flat terrain into a strenuous climb and I began to tire. Suddenly, like a scene out of a spaghetti western, Kailee and Preston came galloping up in a cloud, my extra mule in tow. Quickly, we traded saddles and Rusty got to wear an empty pack saddle for the rest of the trip.
Tired donkeys don't lead or herd well. Thank goodness for the talented and charming Colton Gust. We had 20 more miles to travel, thanks to a wrong turn or two in some heavy timber stands with nearly impossible tangles of deadfall. Colton cast his spell as he swung his rope, true, over and over. Heading, healing, and sometimes missing, he kept Rusty on track until we made camp. Rising in his saddle, Colton sang out in perfect pitch, "Yeehaw! Its the Boulder Mountain Donkey Ropin' Association!"
It was nearly dark by the time we got our final bearings. With 6 or 8 miles to go, there was some talk of a survival camp that night. We ferried our camp gear between camps each day and didn't have most of it with us. Nerves started fraying a little, but we decided to ride on. As we descended from Jacobs Lake toward our camp at Cow Puncher flat, it started to rain lightly through broken clouds. The setting sun cast its golden net into the throat of the canyon as our mounts strained against the gravity of our tired weight. The temperature quickly changed, and cool, mountain scrubbed air filled our lungs with the scent of rain and pine. We were in heaven. Ahead, 7 year old Preston, who hadn't complained the entire day, finally called out, "Dad, I don't feel so good."
Just breathe a chestfull of that celestial air, son. I called back. For the next two hours, we rode in total darkness. Gary Christensen led the tired troops down the hill while Dave Gust worried about ever-cheerful Colton and Rusty bringing up the rear. Just drop your chin in your chest and go to sleep, Dave. Those mules know where to go :)
Preston was smiling when we finally arrived at camp, apparently healed by the ozonated draft. Kailee did a wrangler's job of getting the animals squared away for the night, the tack stowed, and the tent set up. Soon, we were enjoying a little dinner and the best night's sleep of the trip. It was a ride to remember, complete with the three things that make any ride unforgettable: good company, good scenery, and GOOD adventure.