Speaking of retirement, this is a mule, out to pasture in Round Valley.

My neighbor owns a mule named Molly, bought when she was retired from pack train service. Molly worked hard for decades, hauling packs into the mountains. She is nearly fifty now, and is well cared for. I don’t think that is Molly in the photo, but for me it might as well be. I still can’t reliably tell a mule from a horse; I asked my neighbor to teach me, but for her it is so obvious, it is hard to imagine someone else can’t see the difference. This is another mule a pasture or two away, so the view is the same.

Bishop, California holds an event called Mule Days, a sort of historical rodeo celebrating all the amazing things mules can do. Mule trains were key in the development of this area, making the high Sierra accessible to mining, logging, and tourism. I was once passed by a mule train on a hiking trail. They were coming down from a lake, having carried in supplies for campers. Tied nose to tail on short tethers, the mules walked at a pace that was surprisingly fast, and which I was sure I could not match. I watched their feet as they magically found their way on the rough ground.

Mules have a reputation for being stubborn, but all the ones I’ve met here have been quite sweet. Not far from this photo, there’s a corral that encompasses a meadow. I went in to photograph the poplar trees that grow there and found myself facing roughly twenty mules, all of whom were eager to see if I had treats for them. I had no reason to expect mayhem, but so many large animals walking eagerly toward me had my lizard brain worried. I imagined the headline: Man Mauled by Mules in Meadow. I held my ground and was spared any injury, but all my pockets were thoroughly sniffed. They were just a little disappointed that I was empty handed. Mind you, there was nobody else around for miles, so there was no hope of rescue if I was wrong.

My neighbor visits Molly twice a day, brushing burrs from her coat and keeping her company. This winter, she gave Molly a blanket, her first, to keep the cold out of old bones. I’m told Molly enjoys the blanket very much.