Woody Hoge and I spent quite a lot of time together up in the Gila. He was a Texan by birth, and a WWII veteran, but in heart and mind he belonged to the mountains of Western New Mexico. He was a rough and ready sort of feller—like someone right out of the old frontier—and small of stature, but BIG in heart. I always thought he was a bit quirky, sort of in the way of a leprechaun, very inquisitive, and bright and cheerful of countenance; and I loved that about him.

By the time I met him, Woody already had more than twenty years of experience up in the Gila Wilderness.  He seemed to know every trail, every canyon, every creek, and every peak; as well as every ranger and how to evade them. Being the young buck that I was at the time, I thought he was an old feller; but now, not so much, as I’m already older than Woody was when he died.

What Woody saw in me I’ll never know.  I was just a cocky little greenhorn still in my teens who thought I actually knew a little sumthin-sumthin about the world and the critters that inhabited it.  At first, I think, Woody only let me tag along with him out of the kindness of his heart, and as a favor to my dad. But as the months and years rolled by, we developed a deep friendship rooted in our mutual love for those old mountains and in our respect for all those who, like us, treasured them. I guess a lot of Woody’s personality must have rubbed off on me; he’s a big part of who I am today. I’ve always considered him one of my best friends; and I think one of the best things my dad ever did for me as a kid growing up was introduce me to Woody Hoge.

I signed on with Woody as a trail hand, wrangler, mule skinner, and all-around camp boy. About the only thing he wouldn’t let me do was cook. Woody was just about the best camp cook you could ever ask for.  His Dutch oven shortcake was something to cause even the finest French chef to blush over; especially when soaked in canned peaches—which, by the way, always made their way into the panniers.  Anyway, I think Woody must have appreciated the fact that I was pretty good with livestock: horses, cattle, and even dogs. But until I met Woody, I didn’t know much of anything, like what I would eventually come to know, about mules.

Now, from my point of reckoning, the average intelligence of the typical mule totally dwarfs the average intelligence of the typical human being — all factors considered. For instance, you’ll seldom find a mule being stupid in a no-stupid zone.  But when it comes to people, it happens all the time.  Thus, the apparent discrepancy between the much lower number of premature mule deaths in comparison to that of humans. This story is, in fact, a prime example of that very truth.

Well, Fancy (I called her Fancy because she was) was a stout, young buckskin colored mule; and I loved her from the moment I first laid eyes on her.  Not only was her color unusual, for a mule, but her ears were blond and tipped with dark brown, while her mane was dark brown at the base but turned blond near the tips.  She had a brown streak running right down the very middle of her back, ending in a dark brown tail with streaks of blond running through it. I’ve seldom seen a woman’s hair that could match it in texture, beauty, or sheer elegance.

But what I loved most about Fancy was her no-nonsense, spunky-punk attitude.  When I first met her, she was already about seven years old.  But nobody had fooled with her very much, so she was just barely even green broke.  Still, Woody, who I’m sure appreciated her beauty every bit as much as I, was bound and determined to add her to the pack string whether she was all together up and ready for it or not. I think this was mostly due to the fact that, while elegant, she was also well put together; probably the biggest, strongest mule that we had.  I don’t know how much Woody paid for her, but I do know that he was awfully proud of her, as was I.

One summer, Woody contracted with the U.S. Forest Service to head into a place in the Gila called Trotter Cabin. Our assignment was to take the place completely apart, log by log, and bury absolutely everything in a pit not less than five feet from the surface, which meant that the pit itself had to be between ten and fifteen feet deep.  The Forest Service wanted this done because, while the cabin had been there for decades, still, it was situated in wilderness territory. Wilderness, as the term was understood and applied at the time, meant that virtually anything and everything that was human built, and that the Forest Service themselves hadn’t put there, had to go.  I thought that policy a bit odd at the time, especially when it came to useful old log cabins and such, and I still do.

One big encumbrance that we faced in getting this mission accomplished, and one to which I’m not all that sure Woody had given ample consideration, was that we had to do all the work with hand tools only.  Because we would be working in wilderness territory, we could take no gasoline or gas-powered equipment.  That meant no chain saw, or log splitter, or generator, or any power tools of any kind.  We could only pack in hammers, hand saws, shovels, ropes and… well, that’s about it.  Our crew consisted of Woody, me, and Juan and Jose’—two illegal Mexican nationals—who were kinsmen and, therefore, looked much alike, making it hard to tell which one was which. So I fondly referred to them as “J & J,” or the “J twins,” or simply “JJ.”

We loaded up old Nelly—Woody’s big red truck—the mules, the “J twins,” all our supplies and, pulling the horses in an old, worn out stock trailer, headed west from Silver City, out through Cliff, then up through Mogollon, and on toward Snow Lake. Now, Woody called that old truck “Nelly” because you were never too sure whether or not the brakes were going to work, and he would often have to pump the brake pedal several times and holler “Whoaaaa Nelly” just to get that thing to slow down or come to a stop.  I’ve often wondered how he managed to get the truck inspected… if it ever was. But Nelly always provided plenty of excitement, especially when pulling a trailer in the mountains; sort of like being on the scariest rollercoaster you could possibly imagine, and with no guarantee that you would come back alive. Our aim was to head in toward Trotter Cabin from a trail head near Snow Lake.

You know, there is nothing quite like the initiation of a wilderness mission with a clear objective to put one in high spirits. I only wish those tourists, who happened upon us while we were saddling up and getting ready to head out, would not have shown up when they did; not because I have anything in particular against tourist and all their questions, in fact, it was kind of fun showing off and educating them to authentic wilderness travel.  But the problem, you see, was that they had with them the prettiest little redheaded girl that I think I had ever seen.  She was obviously spellbound with me as I put on a little show, working with the mules and whispering into Fancy’s ear, then looking back at the girl and smiling, like Fancy and I had a little secret that we weren’t sharing with her. It was all a little goofy, I know, but looking into that little girl’s big green eyes, so full of wonder, I just couldn’t help hamming it up a bit.

While probably a year of so younger than I was, still, that girl was pretty much all I could think about for the rest of the day.  And, much to my embarrassment, J & J seemed to have caught on to my dilemma and kept whispering little things in Spanish and laughing behind my back. I’m not sure Woody appreciated my being distracted that day, either. I decided there’s nothing like visions of a pretty girl in a young boy’s head to spoil his enjoyment of some beautiful wilderness scenery and pretty much ruin his day.

Anyway, with horses saddled, mules all in line, and panniers filled we headed off down the trail toward the Middle Fork of the Gila River and Trotter Meadow.  I’m sure we must have made quite a colorful spectacle in the eyes of the few backpackers we encountered here and there on the trail as we rolled along in a vague cloud of dust—Woody in the lead, me next with four mules in tow, and the JJ’s bringing up the rear.  Our ponies were fresh, the mules were in good spirits and, as always, the relatively high altitude of the Gila made it a very pleasant mid-summer ride; except maybe for the big ole green-headed horse flies that occasionally swept in to aggravate us. This was one of our shorter excursions into the wilderness; we made it from the trailhead down to the cabin by mid-afternoon.

The following week turned out to be one of the toughest, butt-busting experiences of my life.  First, the four of us commenced to digging a 20’ x 20’, fifteen-foot-deep pit to bury the cabin and all its content in. We slept in that cabin for the first few nights we were there. We also managed to have a little luck fishing for trout in the stream each evening. So, we cooked them up, along with the meat and other things that we had brought with us, on a beautiful, old wood stove that was still there in the cabin.  I have to tell you it was all pretty nice; who could ever want for more? I kept thinking, “What a shame to have to tear this old cabin down!”

After digging out the pit, we began taking the cabin apart with sledgehammers.  Actually, it came apart a whole lot easier than I had imagined that it would.  The mortar that had been chinked between those old logs was already cracked and ready to come all apart. On the second day of our disassembling work, we were assailed by one of the wickedest mountain thundershowers that I think I’ve ever encountered.  I mean the lightning was hitting so close to us that our hair was standing on end. I even looked to see Fancy’s tail flying perpendicular to the ground.  It was hitting so close, in fact, that you could feel your tongue kind of buzzing and taste the electricity in the air; something akin to the smell of burnt electrical wiring. And, even though we all had quite a bit of outdoor experience, especially Woody, still, we were quite dumbfounded as to just where we should go for safety; certainly not under a tree, or down in that pit, or anywhere close to the horses.  So, we just spread out and crouched down, as low to the ground as we could get, right out in the middle of the open meadow.

I remember Woody calling out to me just after one incredible clap of thunder that literally jarred our teeth, “Where do you think we should go, Phil?  Home?”

“Yeah,” I responded, “but it’s getting a little too late for that now, don’t ya think?”

But despite the mountain storms and the occasional mishaps—I bandaged one or the other of the “JJ’s” fingers more than once—things went pretty smooth all-in-all.  The days were cool and pleasant enough, bathing in those cold mountain waters at the end of the day was invigorating, Woody’s cooking was superb, and sleeping out under the brilliant, mountain, wilderness stars for those last few nights was stunning.

Our little rodeo commenced on the final day when we were to leave Trotter and head back toward Snow Lake.  I could tell that Woody was in love with that old wood burning stove he had been cooking on.  It had been in the cabin for who knows how many decades but, I have to admit, even as a teenager I could see that it was a thing of beauty; too beautiful to bury in a makeshift landfill.  And, just as I feared, Woody wanted that stove.

I don’t know if, by contract, he had a right to take it or not; he most likely did.  But, at the time, I was under the impression that “everything” was supposed to be buried—from the old logs and cement slab that we had to break in pieces, to the old tin roof and the glass windowpanes that someone had packed in and put in place years earlier; everything was supposed to be buried.  But Woody wasn’t going to wait around for anybody’s special permission or confirmation, and there were no rangers in sight that day. In fact, only one ranger had ridden in for a little visit during the whole time we had been there.  So, Woody had determined that we were going to pack that stove out of there.

I questioned Woody at length as to just how he proposed we do that.  However, I already had a pretty good idea because, the whole time he talked about it, I could tell he was eyeing Fancy.  I suggested, rather adamantly, that we use one of the more experienced mules for the job. But he said that Fancy was the stoutest mule of the bunch.  When I protested that she was yet untested, his response was simply, “Well, she’s gotta learn sometime!”

“Yeah,” I said, “but don’t you think she should do her learning when we’re all a little closer to a hospital?”

Woody just smiled and said, “Ohhh, I think she’s gonna be okay with it; and, besides, I’ve got all the confidence in ya Phil.” Now what does one say to something like that?

So, I swallowed hard and, after breaking camp and loading out the panniers with what few provisions and tools we were packing out of there, made my way out to the meadow to wrangle up our ponies and the mules.  When I got to Fancy and got her haltered, I took off her hobbles and whispered in her ear, “I’m sorry about all this, baby, please don’t kill anybody today!” I took note that, at that very moment, she instantly cocked her head sideways and looked at me rather mischievously… “Uh oh!” You know, if you’re halfway alert to the possibilities, you don’t have to be a genius to tell when a horse, or in this case a mule, is feeling their oats and preparing to get a little rambunctious.

We had all the other horses and mules packed and ready to go.  Woody was just putting a final diamond hitch on ole Butch, our number three, as I finished buckling down the pack saddle on Fancy. I knew she knew something unacceptable was up and was sure enough getting ready for action; probably because of what I had just told her earlier—I never should have mentioned it to her, I’m thinking.

Our first attempt at getting the stove up on Fancy was a dismal failure.  With J & J on one side doing the initial lifting, and Woody and I on the other to receive the stove and try to balance it on the saddle, Fancy simple stepped to the side, in the direction of the JJ’s and left the stove hanging in midair.  Woody and I leapt out of the way, barely escaping with our lives, while the stove came crashing down to the ground.  Woody commenced to cussing Fancy for attempting to destroy his beautiful stove. But, seeing the consternation in my eyes, he backed off and said, “Well okay then, let’s just try that again.”

On the next try, I could see Fancy’s legs already shaking from fear. She was afraid of that stove. This was something completely different and new. Feeling nothing but compassion for her, I tried calming her down with my whispers, but she was having none of it.  The stove stayed balanced up on the pack saddle just long enough for Woody to initiate one tie down, and then she reared up and the stove tumbled backward right off her rump and on to the ground.

Now Woody was really getting riled up and, I have to admit, my compassion toward Fancy was beginning to evaporate pretty quickly, as well.  I kept hold of the lead rope while she ran round and round me in circles trying to get away from that stove and from us. Juan and Jose’ had already fled for their lives, finding cover behind some wild razzberry bushes away off to the side. After several minutes of her running in circles and me trying not to get run over or kicked, while continually trying to sweet talk her back down, she finally came to a standstill.

I suggested to Woody that, maybe, J & J could again do the lifting from Fancy’s left side, and Woody, if he could manage by himself, would catch and balance the stove from her right side; while I stood up by Fancy’s head and whispered pleasant thoughts into her ear.  Then, maybe Fancy would allow the stove to ride. Woody agreed that my idea sounded pretty brilliant, so this was the plan upon which we next commenced.

Well, my plan worked… for a little bit.  Juan and Jose’, having worked up their courage, returned to the scene and did a great job lifting the stove. Woody caught and balanced it from the other side until one of the J’s could get around to where he was. Then, with a “J” on each side continuing the balancing act, Woody commenced to throwing a hitch over that old stove in an attempt to secure it to the pack saddle. While all of that was going on, I just kept fiddling with Fancy’s ears, talking to her, and trying to keep her head up and her countenance sweet.

Woody had just about gotten that stove all strapped down and secured and we were all on the verge of breathing sighs of relief when… in an instant, all HELL broke loose! Instead of going head down, as I had anticipated, Fancy went all head up, rearing up and jerking the lead rope right through my hands. THEN she went back head down to the ground and the rodeo was on… what I mean!

Mexicans and gringos alike fled for their lives in a flourish of desperation. Dust and mud were kicked up in every direction while that broncy little mule reached for the sky just a twisting and a turning and then coming back to earth so hard that, when she hit the ground, I saw the pines shaking a hundred yards away.  She let out a harsh sounding bray and reached for the sky again, leaving parts and pieces of that ole stove hanging up there in the air then raining back down all around us like some kind of a junkyard hailstorm. She was so fast and furious about the matter that we could hardly tell mule from stove from dirt being kicked up everywhere—it was all such a blur.  She frog walked all the way across that meadow and back again with the four of us in hot pursuit. I was in the lead and could hear both of the J-twins behind me just a hootin and a hollerin in Spanish and cheering our little mule on as she left a path of destruction an eighth of a mile wide in her wake and pieces of stove strewn all along the way.

When my poor Fancy finally gave out, she was standing, quivering, and sweating like a waterfall under a big ponderosa. I was the first to reach her and gently, cautiously approached with hand out.  Amazingly, she showed no more fear, I guess she had bucked it all out, and allowed me to take hold of the halter. I rubbed her ears, spoke quietly to her, and just let her emotionally unwind for a bit.

When Woody caught up, all out of breath, he was asking, “Is she alright? Is she alright?” I gathered from his voice that he was now far more concerned with his little mule than he was with that old stove.

“Yeah, she’s alright,” I said, “But if we both value this little mule, and our lives, I’m thinkin we’re gonna have to come up with a better plan.”  Woody quickly agreed.

At this point, I was kind of hoping we’d just bury that old stove, but I could see that was never going to happen. So, our next best plan was to gather up all the pieces of stove that Fancy had scattered all over the countryside, disassemble as best we could what parts still clung together, and then distribute the individual pieces of the stove among all the panniers that the pack string was carrying, along with our other tools and supplies. We figured we’d just pack everything out that way and then, if and when we managed to make it back home, Woody and I would try reassembling the stove.

So that was the plan we settled on; and it worked. While Fancy was still a little nervous about what was going into those panniers, we ended up giving her a bit lighter load than some of the others; and so, in the end, it seemed to meet with her approval. But I swear she kept staring at me with that “I tried to tell you so” look in her eyes.

When we finally made it back to the truck late that evening, Woody said to me, “Now ya see there, Phil, I told you we’d manage to get that old stove outta there, somehow!”

“Unh hunh,” I laughed, “too bad it took a little mule to finally show us how to do it the right way.”

Well, my Mexican buds returned home with plenty money in their pockets to help get their families through yet another winter and with wild stories to tell, no doubt, about their wilderness adventures, the crazy gringos they traveled with, and the wonderful rodeo they got to witness one day way back up in the Mogollon Mountains.

Woody and I went on to have plenty more adventures together in the Gila and I hope to share a few of them with you along the way if I may. But if there is one thing of which I am dead certain… it’s that neither one of us would ever forget that day when a wild mountain rodeo taught both of us a thing or two about the difference between typical humankind rationale and the superior notions of one fancy, and very rank, little mule.

Now, those of you who know me well will surely testify to the fact that I’m one who does not appreciate hyperbole and would never willfully succumb to such literary indulgence. So then, you can be sure that the preceding story is absolutely true in every detail…  in so far as I recollect!

Copyright © 2022 Philip R. Stroud

All rights reserved

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