Published in Western Mule Magazine, July 2008
Much to my friend Blue’s amusement, I had screwed up. He was nice about it, but I could hear the chuckle in the back of his voice over the phone. Just two weeks before our scheduled pack trip (higher elevation, cooler temperatures), I had body-clipped my mules after several 80 degree days at home. I would have to pack in blankets for my nearly naked mules to wear at night in the Smoky Mountains. At least the ride in and out would only be about six miles and I have one tough pack mule to boot.
I loaded the mules, blankets and all, in my 24 foot goose neck trailer, and met Blue off of Highway 40, just 20 miles from the Tennessee boarder. Lucky for me, he as able to guide me for one of the “less than boring” drives into a horse camp I have ever done. It was 11 miles, started out paved with lines on the road. It winded and twisted up and up, half the time I was already on the wrong side of the road. Then the lines were gone, the road went from two lanes to one, and then it was nothing more than gravel. It twisted and climbed, up and up, the cliffs grew and grew. We met a few cars but we were lucky that they where able to pull off. Finally, the road began to change back to pavement and flattened out into the scenic Cataloochee Valley of the Smoky Mountains. We pulled into the area near the horse camp and parked on the side of the road. I was a little relieved.
I tacked the mules and began loading the saddle panniers. Blue had his mules, Red and Beau, tacked up and packed in a jiffy.
(Yes, a man named Blue with a mule named Red, but that’s another story)
He has panniers that he was able to pre-pack and then just hang them from the pack saddle. I must invest in this before the next major trip. It is nearly impossible to balance the saddle panniers as they are already on the back of the mule. I rolled up the mule’s turnout blankets and strapped them over the top of Sadie Mae. With the blankets, tent, my food, sleeping bag, forty-five pounds of mule feed and some bottled water, I know she was glad we didn’t have far to ride.
On the way to the camp, we met a few walkers who where very interested in what we where doing and where we where going with all that stuff and extra mules. I guess they are not used to seeing pack mules or even mules for that matter. We crossed the bridge to the open meadows where the elk come down to graze at dawn and dusk. It was a warm day and we rode out in t-shirts. The creek was running quickly and making a soothing sound. The meadow was quiet and the first butterflies of the season where fluttering around us. We came up to a wet spot in the dirt road where there were around 50 butterflies drinking. As we rode up on them, they all took off at the same time and fluttered around us, one of every color and shape.
At the trail head the pack mules backed up behind the lead mule and danced around the pole at the end of the gate with out a hitch. We began our trip deep into the Smoky Mountains.
The trails started out easy but slowly began to climb. We stopped and rested the mules each time they began to blow too hard. The leaves were still not out on the trees but each side of the trail and the mountainsides were covered in greenery and small wild flowers. We stopped for just a minute at the Giant Popular tree to have our picture made. There are just a few around the Smokies and ‘I am told’ this one is the biggest one and it is registered in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Half way down the other-side of the mountain and almost to our camp-site we ran across what turned out to be just the first of many downed trees, blocking the trail. This one was particularly bad as it had landed at long angle across the trail about was about hip height. There was a trail off to the side but with a sharp angle of loose dirt, roots and still some difficult logs to step over. Blue’s mules went right over after he dismounted and gave them a little encouragement. So I dismounted Seven, Sadie Mae followed Blue’s mules and stepped right over. But Seven did not want to go through that area. His only other choice was to jump it. I climbed over and as soon as I got clear asked him to jump. With great form and the best grace a 1,250-pound Belgian mule can show, he cleared it easily. We soon reached Camp Calledwell.
There where two other hikers on one side of the camp so we set up on the other side. We found a log to set up our saddles and packs, but had more trouble and discussion about where to tie up the mule’s high-lines. They have to be tied between two trees and long enough so that they could not reach any trees to chew the bark off. Most of the trees that where big enough to tie to either had a smaller tree between them or were too far apart for my rope to reach. After the mules where set, the decisions turned to tent placement. Finding a place that was flat, soft and also would not collect water was a priority. We were expecting some rain that night. Blue and I each found a place near our own mules, but only the rain would tell us if we made a wise choice.
We collected firewood and with some effort (Just to see if we could) used a flint and striker to start the camp fire. A few times during the night I woke and checked on the mules. Even with a heavy cloud covering the almost full moon made the camp look like a Wal-Mart parking lot. We didn’t seem to have any unwanted animal visitors that night. The rain finally came at 5:30am, and it was not hard to miss on my tent. I stayed in bed till the rain let up, but Blue was already up eating breakfast.
It rained a little while we were tacking up, but we decided to chance it anyway. Blue had put on his black rain duster coat and so began Seven’s weariness of him. Poor Blue could not even walk through the camp without Seven backing up and snorting at him. I wish I could explain to Seven that Blue didn’t become a monster just because of that black coat. Some times what the mule is thinking is a mystery to us all.
We headed back up the trail we had come down the day before and Seven jumped the big tree for me again. This time, I rode Sadie Mae and led Seven with no pack. This was his first time being led for very long and he did very well and enjoyed the freedom of going down the trail with no rider. He seemed to enjoy jumping small logs and mud puddles all day, something I don’t let him do when I’m riding him. We climbed and climbed. Sometimes the trail was just a small hiker path with a long hillside up and down to either side. The view became more stunning as the mountains opened up.
I was so glad to be riding mules! I could see horse tracks (very round) in the dirt, and it seemed like every hundred feet, one of them had taken a step off the trail. Considering the elevation, I was glad to be riding my steady Sadie Mae. Having once been a pack mule for elk hunting in Wyoming, the tight trail and high elevation was nothing extraordinary to her.
In the Smoky Mountains, there are so many old trees, huge, and with such character in their shape and bark. It was eerily quite in certain parts of the forest: no planes, no cars, no other people talking, no birds. We stopped for rest at a hiker parking lot entrance. The mules took the opportunity to graze and got every blade of grass they could.
At one point, we came upon a very old fence. Blue told me that it was made of Chestnut wood and that it was probably older than his and my ages combined. He had some fence on his family’s land that was made of chestnut wood as well and said it seemed to last forever. The trail followed the fence line and the ridge. On the other side of the fence was private property, I could not help but feel jealous of the lucky dogs who own it!
After a few miles the ridge broke open to green pasture. We tied the mules and were able to go through a gate to a nice stone table and seats for some lunch. This was at 5,600 feet (pretty high up for North Carolina). The wind was blowing very hard. It seemed to be getting colder and the clouds in the distance were lifting off the lower mountains.
As we mounted up, something strange happened. The wind just stopped, dead, not even a light breeze. It was silent for almost a minute and then it picked up again. As I rode down the trail I saw Robins and some Chickadees and an Eastern Towhee, a bird I had to look up later. A chipmunk peeked out from behind a tree trunk twice at me and then ran off to another part of the woods.
And then it started hailing. At first, it was a few drops but then the noise came hard on my hat and I pulled on my rain slicker. I could hold out my hand and catch little frozen dots. It only lasted a few minutes before it changed to a shower of rain. We rode down and down the trail, reclaiming all the upward steps we had taken before. This was on the other side of the mountain and Sadie Mae seemed to know we were headed to camp as she took advantage of the downward momentum.
We came to a few downed trees but most had a path around them. Some required dismounting because it was so tight getting through the trees. Blue had one tree he had wished he had dismounted for as it squeezed his leg as his mule Red went through. At one point we had to do a short “Man from Snowy River” reenactment and as I told Blue right before I slid down “I know the mules can handle all this just fine and they are built for it, but it still makes me a little nervous!” I pointed Sadie Mae toward the hill and down she went with Seven in tow, not a problem. At the bottom we were rewarded with a nice rushing creek and a waterfall. By then, the rain had stopped.
We returned to camp to heat soup and hot chocolate. After a rinsing my hair and a change of clothes, I told Blue I was ready to stay a few extra days. That night, we could see the stars, and the moon was very bright. The mules felt quite pampered in their turn out blankets and I am sure where the only pack mules east of the Mississippi with blankets on.
By morning, the clouds had moved in again, I got up and started packing. Looking around, I wondered how I was ever going to get all that stuff back on the pack mule again. But it all fit in wet tent and all, since I was now short 45 pounds of grain and most of the water bottles. I did forget to pack my light folding chair until the last minute, so it was tied on rather strangely to the top of the pack. On the way out, we rode the lower trails that crossed so many creeks I lost count. It was truly beautiful and the mules moved out; they knew we were heading home.
We hit the elk meadow after about two hours of riding and started back towards the trailers, past the Ranger Station and then by an old church that was built back when the first people settled here. Once in a while you would hear the church bell ring; it seemed everyone who visits here pulls the rope at least once. As we rode by, Blue’s mule Red spooked a little bit, even though there was no one around. Blue said it was the Holy Ghost that scared him.
When we got back to the trailer, we loaded up and headed back upon those 11 miles of twisty road. It was going very well until we met a mini van coming up the gravel hill. The driver backed to the edge as far as she could, but it didn’t leave me much room on the inside of the curve. I had to slide my truck very close to her van and then drive a little behind it before turning the corner to get my trailer through. After that, it was smooth sailing all the way home. When we got home to Eastern North Carolina it was warm with some spring thunder showers, no blankets necessary!
I have been trying to hold on to the relaxed, peaceful mind set I came out of the woods with.
Many Thanks to Blue Goodson for another great pack trip, I can’t wait to do it again!