Once in my crazy youth I decided to join the Boy Scouts of America, an upstanding (if slightly asinine) organization dedicated to integrity, friendship, and most importantly, pyrotechnics.
Yes, I wasn't much for first aid or pioneering or the cleanliness so bandied about in our Scout Law, but I can tell you this: I relished every camping trip as if it might be my last. Weekends spent with my best friends doing very little but tramping through the woods, lighting fires, and playing flashlight tag were a pleasant escape from my annoying sister and visits from the grandparents.
That all changed one hellish day in August of 1998. The day the mule wouldn't shut up.
Our annual summer trip was always slightly different than our normal weekend excursions: usually it coincided with one of the major Boy Scout camps in the Southwest Texas area, so we could earn merit badges, or one of the aptly named "adventure camps", like the sailboating camp on Laguna Madre or the horseback camp that we ended up in 1998.
We went there as a preparatory trip for next year's coup: Philmont. Philmont, if you don't know, is a 2 week hiking tour covering over 100 miles of fine New Mexico highlands. So the camp we went to (name left out to condemn it forever before it gets any free publicity, bad or otherwise) offered a 3 day, 24 mile hike. Also, unlike Philmont, they provided a lovely pack mule to haul grill tops and a small cooler for our food. Our mule was named Jack.
Jack, you naughty boy, you.
Jack was accommodating the first two days of the trip. He seemingly had a problem with my friend Rob (who had no doubt harassed Jack and made disparaging comments about his ancestry) and would bray whenever he came near. But in general he was a passive guest on our trip, more luggage than beast. And we came to ignore him beyond a compulsory "Hello" in the morning.
The third day brought famine, and torture and great woe upon the land.
We had been walking maybe an hour, our 30 pound backpacks inconvenient but certainly not chiropractically challenging. We stopped at a small water station to fill our canteens for the rest of the 9 mile hike in. Jack took advantage of our relatively short break to sit down, as he always like to do. Only when we decided to get moving again, Jack refused to budge.
There's a phrase for this. "Stubborn as a mule." You city folks are very lucky not to have experienced this firsthand. Us city folks hate you.
We pushed, we pulled, we cajoled, we threatened. Nothing doing. And Jack sat quietly through this whole ordeal, confident in his victory. We held him no real grudge at the time - apparently he had been suffering from an ear infection just days before we had arrived. But he was getting annoying with his silent protest. John casually suggested we light him on fire a la Tibetan monk. I told him the only thing worse than a petulant mule was an immolated one.
Finally, our scoutmaster decided to break the first rule of Troop 1089 (no technology!) and used his cell phone to dial up the taskmaster back at base camp. Our worst fears were confirmed: Jack wasn't going to finish the trip with the rest of us. A truck would be on its way to pick up Jack.
We didn't seem to mind this, but then the truck came barreling around the bend. It was about that time when Jack began to bray, and earned his dubious title, "The Mule That Wouldn't Shut Up."
He brayed loudly, like clockwork, every three seconds until the truck came to a full stop. When his owner got out of the cab, Jack rolled over, half on his side, but did not miss a single bray. His owner was wide-eyed. "Is he alright? How long has he been doing this? What happened!?"
We all tried to explain, and our scoutmaster finally convinced him that Jack had only started it a minute before. We all knew this was the solemn truth, but the owner was skeptical. He lovingly patted Jack on the head (note: braying is still in full effect) and removed the cooler, grill tops, and ropes from his back. He then tugged gently on Jack's leading rope and - voila! - the mule arose, the braying ceased, and Jack was eagerly led wherever he would go, which turned out to be the small trailer hitched to the truck. We looked at his bags, and then at the owner, who shrugged apologetically. "No room here. Don't worry, it's not so far."
This from the man in the four-wheel-drive automobile. We leered enviously at Jack's ride, and then began divvying up his weight.
It turns out a mule carries a lot more than you think he does.
As we began the merciless 8 mile hike back to camp in our now well over 50 pound packs, my friend Wolf turned to me and asked rhetorically: "Remember the movie Wag The Dog? And the story about what the title means?"
"Sure. Most people think the dog wags the tail. But maybe what's happening is the tail is wagging the dog."
"Yeah. So maybe here we're not leading the mule."
I contemplated this thought until we arrived back to base camp, where Jack was found healthy and happy and gallivanting around the ranch. At the time, we were just happy to be done with the hike, but we spent our last day on camp secretly trying to throw rocks at that damned mule for maximum retribution.
When we arrived at Philmont, and were offered the use of a mule on a precarious mountain trail, we quickly declined. I found it telling that nobody questioned our judgment. Maybe Jack gets around more than I know.
An utterly true story with virtually no embellishment.