A Man and His Mule
By Suzanne Hurt
A couple of Aussies were killing time at Rock Creek Pack Station. They had a few days off and were heading to Vegas as soon as they could borrow a car from the boss. Time enough for a few jokes about a mule and the older hand assigned to her.
“She's the slowest mule at the station," said 27-year-old Matt Willey. “She’s so slow, if she falls over you have time to jump off her.”
The older hand, Larry Aksentowitz, called Australia "a Third-World country” and whispered in the mule’s big ear, “Don't you listen to them Australians."
The mule just stood there.
"I've never seen her with so much energy,” laughed Willey, a shaggy-haired Australian with a silver hoop in one ear.
Aksentowitz bragged he never had to tie up his mule, Maxine, to keep her from straying.
"That's 'cuz she's too stupid to walk off and find grass," grinned 20-year-old Clay Baird.
Aksentowitz said, "These Aussies and their horses -- they just don't appreciate a fine ride.”
The pack station crew liked to tease each other. Made hard work easier. Maxine and Aksentowitz took a lot of it.
He asked Texas cowboy Todd Mills not to let guests ride Maxine. “You dude out Maxine,” he said, “it takes me a week to get her back into shape.”
“What’s there to get back in shape?” asked Mills. “She's so ugly, one of the other mules has to cover the hay so she can sneak up on it.”
Aksentowitz said, “Everybody makes fun of my mule. They say, ‘She’s old. She’s slow. She’s fat.’ But I love her. She’s just so dependable.”
Rock Creek Pack Station is set in a huge glacial valley at roughly 10,000 feet elevation southwest of Tom’s Place. Mt. Starr, Bear Creek Spire and parts of Wheeler Ridge rise from the nearby John Muir Wilderness.
The first thing to know about the pack station is that there are horses and there are mules. Both have their jobs. They work together to take people and supplies into the wilderness. Mules are the offspring of female horses and male donkeys. Usually, mules are used for packing and horses are reserved for riding.
There are some people who like to think horses are at a higher level of evolutionary development. They say horses are fast, brave, beautiful creatures. Horses don’t walk -- they prance. They rear into the air like they own it. And when they snort, they snort with the pride belonging to such wondrous steeds.
Those people look at mules and laugh. They say mules have goofy long ears, short legs and pot bellies. They’re as ornery as spit. And they’ve got a whine that could make a mountain lion’s skin crawl. Those people would rather get stranded in the Sierra with broken legs, no food and no beer than ride mules.
But those who have come to know mules speak of the animals with respect.
Aksentowitz grew up on a Nebraska ranch. He is compact, with clear-sky blue eyes, a strong nose and worn hands greased with Neat’s Foot oil. He’d never worked with mules and hadn’t been near horses in years when he joined Rock Creek last year.
The first season at a pack station is hard. Especially for anyone not used to physical labor. Aksentowitz had retired as a respiratory therapist and cardiovascular technician. He’s witty, compassionate and, as he said, “old enough to fart dust.” He had to lift 90-pound hay bales and 50-pound grain sacks.
"I hadn't worked quite this hard in some time. The first couple of weeks, I thought I was going to die," he said.
Aksentowitz was assigned to ride a mule.
He was one of the first working at the station each morning. And one of the best-dressed. He wore a white Western hat, a blue silk scarf, riding boots, tan leather chaps and a matching vest. White goatskin gloves hung from his jeans.
He wanted a cowboy life and at 53 had a rare chance to live it learning to be a packer. He might not ride as fast or know all there was to know about the animals yet. But he wanted it just as much.
He was a living tall tale like everyone there. Nearly all were intelligent, articulate and funny. Aksentowitz was possibly the most eloquent. In that crowd, that’s saying a lot.
“This is entirely different than cowboying and wrangling horses. But it’s a lot more fun,” he said. “And man, look at my office.”
He was learning the job. He took care of animals and equipment. Some days he oiled all the saddlebags or washed dozens of blankets. He went on multi-day trips as a fishing guide and led day rides.
One day, a woman brought two girls to ride. Aksentowitz was to be the trail guide. He was ready to take his trusty mule but was told to ride a particular mare. He got the animals ready even though he was disappointed to be riding a horse. Especially that one.
"She already bit me in the ass once," he said.
He helped his riders on their horses. Then he mounted the mare, telling her under his breath, "Try and behave yourself."
He walked away on the horse and sang back over his shoulder at his riders, "Oh, don't ever hit your mother with a shovel..."
Maxine waited for his return.
Aksentowitz and the mule bonded in a way some people couldn’t understand. He snuck her apples and called her Max. Other hands complained she was ornery. Phil Hirnshall, who’s worked at the pack station 30 years, said Maxine is crotchety and hard to live with. She’s mellowed some with age, but is just as slow, he said.
The pack station takes mules to compete in Bishop’s Mule Days each year. Maxine never goes.
“You have to have a blend of speed and skill,” he explained. "They don't have an ugly contest."
His wife, Jamie, has worked there as a packer nearly as long. She said, “Larry’s the only person who’s liked this mule in 25 years.”
They call the mule Warthog.
Picking Maxine out from the rest of the mules in the mule corral isn’t easy. Mules can be hard to tell apart. They don’t have white markings like horses. Rock Creek’s mules from Kentucky and Tennessee come primarily in three colors: dark bay (brown), sorrel (red) and black.
Aksentowitz walked slowly through the pen eyeing the mules. “Max darling, where are you?” he said, carrying a halter. He looked for her distinguishing features.
“There’s a notch on her left ear. And she’s kind of lost her girlish figure. But you can tell by the expression on her; she’s got a lot of dignity and intelligence,” he said.
He spotted her in the middle. She looked pretty by mule standards: a petite 14 hands high, with a dark brown body and sorrel belly, face and ears; long lashes fluttering against brown eyes the size of plums; green hay resting in her two-inch nostrils.
“There you are,” he said, his voice getting softer. “I see you.”
He led her to a hitching rail in the yard and fed her grain. Other mules whimpered bizarrely. Their noises were something you'd expect out of apes.
After just a few months at the station, Aksentowitz had already picked up a lot of knowledge about mules. They are affectionate and docile. Earning their trust takes time. And they’re not ornery, he said.
“Mules aren’t really all that stubborn. You just don’t force a mule. You persuade her,” Aksentowitz said. When Maxine stopped on a trail, he scratched her ears and she moved on. She had a “nice little trot” but was too dignified to run.
“I tried to get her to run. She looked back at me like, ‘You old fool. We’re both too old for this,’ ” he said.
Mules carry 150 – 250 pound loads. Sometimes the loads are nervous or heavy riders who don’t know their “horse’s” true identity.
Mules are cautious and have stronger self-preservation skills than horses. They run from a threat and sometimes fight. They test whether rocks move before putting their weight on them.
“Mules are smarter in many ways. On a steep slope with rocks, a horse might stumble. Those mules just catfoot right down,” he said.
When he annoyed Maxine, she let him know by running him into low branches and scraping him against boulders. But she also took good care of him so he could enjoy gorgeous mountain scenery out on the trail. On a fly-fishing trip, a dog charged at Maxine while his hands were full. Maxine didn’t rear up like a skittish horse. She spun around and kicked the dog with both hind legs.
Aksentowitz wasn’t the only hand who liked riding a mule. Packer Tom Allewelt, 43, of Alanca majored in equine industry at Cal-Poly at Pomona and rode only horses until he got to know mules.
"I often prefer to ride on mules,” he said while shoeing a horse. “Mules can be great riding horses.”
Especially in the mountains. Mules go farther, are hardier and adjust faster than horses.
“Due to their higher intelligence and greater agility in rough terrain, they adapt more quickly,” he said. “A horse is willing to do most anything and can do it twice as fast as a mule. A mule will think before it acts.”
Willey said a mule named Molly is so smart she can untie knots. "Then she takes herself out for a walk," he said.
An hour after the Aussies ripped on Maxine and Larry, news rippled through the pack station that one of the new packers was stranded in the backcountry. Arkansas cowboy Randy Wicker had taken a mule string four miles to Lake Two to pick up guests’ gear, called dunnage. Now his horse, Levi, was sick.
Aksentowitz was chosen to take a fresh horse to Wicker and stay with the horse if needed. Aksentowitz quickly saddled his mule. “Nothing else will do,” he said. "This is a work of art. The rest are just horses."
He stuck a knife in his belt, asked where he could find Wicker and rode off towing a spare horse.
That afternoon, Wicker rode in with the mules. Aksentowitz and Maxine led a sweaty, slightly stiff Levi in 10 minutes later. Aksentowitz sat straight in the saddle. His head seemed higher and his gaze more confident.
In the kitchen later, Aksentowitz reached for a cup of coffee and smiled. “You notice it took a mule to rescue a horse.”