On the road… again!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek
Horses and Mules
Once in a while making a trip by horseback was preferable to walking, but not always. The Footloose Forester was only a sometimes rider, so never got comfortable enough around horses and mules to actually want to ride them. First of all, there was all that gear; and the feeding. Usually, there was someone else whose responsibility it was to see to those things, but once in a while, you were close enough to be without bridles, saddles, and feed that you wondered if everything was going to work out.
The dude ranch approach is rather reassuring to the novice, so there was a higher sense of ease when there were expert riders around who kept their eyes on their charges. Besides, the keepers of riding stables usually took pains to match the temperament of the horses with the perceived skill of their riders; and most often scheduled the trips to easily manageable jaunts. The Footloose Forester didn’t worry about those trips. He was more concerned about the ones that had distant sites as the objective of the trip, so having to rely on horses and/or mules to get us there. So, the inexpert rider in the person of the Footloose Forester always wondered if he was up to the long ride; up to the challenge of steep trails; up for unknown river crossings; and all the while maintaining a mutually tolerant relationship with the horse or mule.
Riding mules are just as trail worthy as horses, perhaps more so. They don’t seem as skittish as horses in rugged terrain; at least that is what the blissfully ignorant Footloose Forester always chose to believe. Of course, many mules are known to be stubborn so if he didn’t want you on top, he didn’t get labeled as a riding mule. The first mule that the Footloose Forester tried to mount let him know immediately that he wasn’t a riding mule. The Footloose Forester doesn’t blame the Forest Service packer who came along with a horse and a mule and offered a way to make our trip into Desolation Valley Wilderness Area more manageable. He hadn’t tried to ride the mule himself, since his horse was his regular ride and the mule was just his regular pack animal. We soon found out that the mule wasn’t having any; and he unceremoniously dumped the Footloose Forester by scraping him against the side of a Ponderosa Pine tree.
A riding mule with a well-dressed rider
Years later, the next mule did accept riders, and he was a welcome sight, standing tethered there at the end of the trailhead that led to the remote fishing village of Tarrafal at the rugged western tip of Santo Antão in the Cape Verde Archipelago. The mule trail was the overland means of reaching Tarrafal with supplies, thus the crude hitching rack with three tethered mules might have seemed a strange sight so far from town, but it soon became apparent that transport by mules was the one and only practical solution. As we climbed higher and higher along the narrow trail to the top, the Footloose Forester became more grateful for the ride. He was recovering from a leg operation and wondered if his leg was up to the task if he had to finish the trip on foot. So, although he sometimes wanted to dismount and walk along the narrower sections of the trail, even dismounting at some places meant risking getting pitched over the edge and tumbling down into the rocky outcrops below. One place was so dangerous, however, that the mule skinner/guide asked him to dismount before we reached that stricture where the trail was chiseled out from the shoulder of the ridge spine. At that point, and a few others along the way, the rider could touch the rock face with his left hand and spit into space on his right side. But the trusted mule made his silent way to the ridgeline plateau above, where both man and animal breathed a sigh of relief. It was then that the mule decided to jump forward and down to a flat stretch. The Footloose Forester went sailing over to the mule’s ears to land amid a group of sharp boulders. Hitting packed soil instead of sharp stones was a big relief because we had not yet reached our destination. On the way back, the Footloose Forester was again thrown from that mule at that same point; when the cinch strap broke as the mule lurched forward to gain a foothold on the upslope.
Hours in the saddle of a gentle riding mule in Haiti were almost a pleasure, by comparison. Three missionaries who wanted to showcase their mission project in the steep headwaters region of the Artibonite Valley in Central Haiti were well-prepared for the trip. They had a small string of horses and mules that they used regularly when visiting their project site in the uplands. The pastor seemed a bit embarrassed to offer a mule as a ride, since the others had sleek, well-preened horses for themselves; and fancy western saddles that actually flashed silver. Not to worry, the Footloose Forester wasn’t planning to challenge them by racing along the trail. The missionaries were kind enough, however, to switch mounts from time to time, thus allowing him to rest his back by changing positions in a different saddle. It was a great trip.
Three days by horseback into the range management project sites in Lesotho was the biggest test of horsemanship that the Footloose Forester ever faced. If the Boy Scouts had offered a merit badge for riding skills, he would have earned it during those days. Even if he had no idea that so many challenges were going to be thrown at him, the tests were everywhere. The trail master, who was also the project manager, wasn’t purposely trying to test the Footloose Forester in riding skills; he was merely extending his judicious sense of the competence level of his visiting evaluator, one stage at a time. But for the Footloose Forester, it was the equivalent of sink or swim. There were steep grades to scramble up, long sections where there was no trail; stream crossings that could not be easily predicted; and miles of solo testing where you knew that it was either pass or fail. And one time that challenged your ability to stay in the saddle as three horses challenged each other in a hair-raising gallop. The experience could have been painful, but in the end, it was one of those times that one looks back on with nostalgia. And so, it was another great trip.