Sunday, September 18, 2011

Childhood and Mule Trains

Among the rich traditions surrounding The Dixie Lion's Roundup rodeo in St George, Utah, the Grand Entry is the most inclusive.  Each night, for two hours before the rodeo starts, the Dixie Lion's Club opens the arena to all riders, who, add a festive air to the historic SunBowl while jealous fans guard their seats.  From rough-riding Arizona Strip cowboys to bejeweled rodeo queens, from Dixie newcomers to native sons and daughters, the rodeo opener is an important social gathering where old friends catch up while riding side-by-side to the sounds and smells of Rodeo.  Live country music competes with human chatter and the soft pounding of hooves in freshly tilled dirt.   The savory smells of rodeo-hamburgers wafting over earthy-livestock, fill the arena.  It is heady stuff, for riders and spectators alike--who come under the influence of anticipation .  Moments before showtime, as if breaking a spell, the smooth voice of professional rodeo announcer, Reed Flake, takes control of the random gathering and empties the arena in preparation for the Grand Entry.  After a pregnant pause filled with thoughts of welcome, patriotism and sponsors, his command brings the random gathering back into the arena behind billowing flags--running the traditional serpentine pattern that kicks off the beginning of the greatest show on Earth.
After leading a string of pack mules in the Saturday afternoon parade, I went directly into the Dixie Sunbowl to participate in the Grand Entry.  Behind me, Calamity Jane carried a beautiful pack job, sporting a real canvas manty with a nice symmetrical double-diamond hitch tied over her load, while Minnie Pearl caboosed our train, packing two coolers full of ice and drinks slung over her sawbucks.  Mule trains are not something one usually sees at the Dixie Roundup--in fact the only mules one would normally expect to see are the ones that professional-funnyman, Randy Munns, dresses up clown-style with coveralls and a bobbly cowboy hat riding on a spring between its long ears.  

Last night, along the edge of the arena, throngs of children lined up to get autographs from celebritous beauties, dressed in sequined ribbons and tiara clad hats. Youngsters hoping to touch the soft nose of a real live horse stretched eager arms through the fences.  Curious kids of all ages wondered about my train of longears and I began pulling the string along side of the cabled wall to let one small kid after another climb into the saddle in front of me for a lap around the arena--with the approval of parents who eagerly helped them over the fence.  We would go into the arena's center and turn the train in a circle so tight that we were nose on tail for a couple of turns.  I would sing out, "GIDDUP MULE TRAIN!  HYAAAAAH!"  Then we would pull up next to the stands and trade riders.  Most of the kids giggled and talked happily--which I could barely hear over the din as I worked to keep the train moving in proper fashion.  One 3 year old boy asked me with grown-up politeness, "Mr.  What is your name?"  Another 4 year old girl heard me yell at Calamity to, "Get back in line!"  For the rest of the ride, she kept yelling back, "Get back in line!  Get back in line!" doing her best to help me out.  Even from the grandstands after her turn was over, I would hear her yell each time I pulled the train up to switch riders, "Get back in line!"   It was a piece of magic that I will likely never forget, and I suspect most of those cute little kids won't either.  One group of parents tried to thank me as the call came to empty the arena, and wondered aloud why I was willing to spend the entire time giving rides when it was obviously a bit of a handful.  I just tipped my hat and rode out of the arena with a lump in my throat, and a lightness of heart that  comes with the sweetness of childhood and mule trains.

File photo from last year:  Too many of my hands were full of rein, rope and kid to take pictures last night.  If something turns up--I'll replace this one with the real thing.  :)

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Great Divide: A tale of two oceans

Lightening intruded aggressively, breaking into the darkness in the most painful way.  Before our eyes could re-adapt to the dark, another blinding flash would tease some tiny detail out of the foreboding blackness of the forest.  Every tree looked like a bear and the thunder that followed added anxiety to the taughtness of Molly Mule's muscles.  She felt like a coiled spring between my legs.  It was late Saturday night... and we were headed for camp much later than we had planned.  Three blown trailer tires in the middle of the previous night as we traveled across central Utah, a return to the trail-head for a dog that stayed under my trailer after getting halfway to camp, and two runaway horses that had to be chased and re-caught, had put Nephew Adam and I several hours behind the rest of the already-late group.

As the staccato snap of rain hitting my hat gave rhythm to intermittent claps of thunder, the push and shove of the wind made pine trees groan, but filled our lungs with the sweet taste of rain-washed mountain air.  We hadn't slept now for two nights and fatigue didn't help us penetrate the thick WindRiver blackness.  If we could locate camp, we still had animals to unpack and care for before we could make shelter for ourselves.  What a rush!  Adam's fear was palpable as he queried, "Do you have a flashlight Uncle Paul?"   In my saddle bags there is one if we need it I replied.  "So how are we going to find camp?" he wanted to know.  It was a good question.  I was pretty sure we were on the trail, but we couldn't see it.  The Winds are big enough that a wrong turn in the dark could put you far from your goal.  We'll figure it out was my tired reply.  I had a hunch the mules knew where they were going.  After what seemed like an eternity, Molly took a sharp left turn into a small tree lined clearing.  We picked our way through the vacant darkness on what seemed like even less of a trail, down a steep hill, over some boulders.  Suddenly, we broke into camp on the edge of the meadow along the NorthWest corner of Raid Lake.  Everyone else was holed up against the storm, and their horses and mules nickered their welcome.

It was the beginning of a perfect week in the prettiest of mountain ranges.   While exploring about 70 miles of country that was new to us, we made a cowboy out of Adam, and schooled the very young Preston and Trevor.  Only the fishing was sub-par.  We made our trek this year with 12 animals and 7 people.

Getting your kid permission to have a week out of school takes an act of congress these days.  We applied for an "educational leave" this year and so a geography lesson was in order for our 2011 WindRiver's trip.  Hands on lessons being what they are, I don't think any one of us will forget the significance of standing on the Great Continental Divide.  Just pee a little to the left and you are leaking into the Pacific ocean...a little to the right and you will probably end up watering the Atlantic via the Gulf of Mexico.  It made a deep impression on 8 year old Preston's mind.   The strong wind on Washakie pass that day made watering both oceans a difficult task.

Like each year in the past, getting ready for the WindRivers is a big task.  Animals, equipment, gear, and food all have to be prepared.  These aren't relaxing vacations in the normal sense of the word.  There is a bit of stress involved, a few cuss words, and a lot of work--but they recharge life's batteries in a way that sitting on the beach can't touch.  Riding through Washakie Pass was elevating to the soul.  Seeing and peeing down both sides of the Great Divide is a mans prerogative and it allowed us to touch this country from sea to shining sea.  Two oceans--both falling from one lofty mountain pass.

Post Script:  A hearty thanks to Trent Harmon for getting up after midnight to open his store and sell us tires in Nephi (Harmon Tire).  Thanks to Jim Wallick, Brandon Larson, and my good Brother Mike as well for a fabulous trip.  And big thanks to Roy over at Jaxonbilt Hats for keeping our heads covered in every condition imaginable--and that is no paid endorsement.