Mt. Whitney Pack Trains Cowgirl, Cook, Packer, and Author
Irene Kritz, another employee of Mt. Whitney Pack Trains during my days with the outfit, has put together a fascinating collection of 30+ years of packing experience as a High Sierra cook with several pack outfits along the eastern face of the Sierra Nevada in Owens Valley. Her experiences with wrecks involving packers and the mules/horses, moving stock in the Alabama Hills, loose herding, backcountry cook experiments, and just plain surviving the wit and wisdom, or lack thereof, of packers is a wonder to behold. After reading Irene's and Roni's books I am inspired to write one of my own.
Irene has cleverly captured the heart of the packstation cook and her colorful relationship with outfit owners, cowboys (and wannabe cowboys) and eastern Sierra Nevada mule packers. You don't want miss reading Irene's book and the unique imagery it brings from the heart of a truly great packstation cook. Hallelujah!
Campfire Smoke and Trail Dust
by Irene Kritz
Below are a few samplings from Irene's book to whet your appetite.
Looking over the Mt. Whitney Pack Trains stock at the start of the season, there was one new horse that really caught your eye. Big, put together right, a black gelding with socks all the way around, I allowed as how he would be a nice one to ride this summer. The packer leaning on the fence next to me mentioned that the gelding's name was Marty, but since he broke Ken's wrist everyone just called him Ol' Wrist Breaker. It seemed that anything unusual caused this horse to just bust in two. During the roundup, Ken had tried to rope off of him. Guess he'd never been roped off of before, so Ken was set to do the rest of the season one handed. I allowed as how I hoped I wouldn't have to ride him that summer after all.
Seemed that most of us in the crew of Mt. Whitney Pack Trains felt the same way, and Marty hardly got used at all that summer. It was mid September, on a three day Whitney trip when I saw him again. It was the end of the season and most of the stock was pretty wore out so the packer was using Marty.
|We were camped at Outpost Camp when a hiker looking for help found us. He was the leader of a boys' group who had to leave one of his boys at Crabtree Meadows because the kid had emphysema and couldn't hike out. That late in the year meant no rangers and no radios in the backcountry. We knew that there wasn't anybody back at the pack station either. Since the packer had to take our guests and their stuff out, the only one left to get the sick boy was the fat little cook; me. Right away I figured out that the best horse to haul a sick little boy was Tequila. He was small but tough and dependable. The only horse in good enough shape to haul me over the mountain and back was good Ol' Wrist Breaker.
We headed up the trail leading Tequila. Marty was on his best behavior, but he was always like that until something blew him up. According to the boys, that could be anything out of the ordinary. At 12,000 feet we reached the 99 switchbacks and I started loose herding Tequila in front of me. When we got to Weeping Rock near the 55th switchback, I watched Tequila tip toe across and realized that this 30 foot section of trail which usually ran with water was, instead, frozen solid. Looking down the 400 foot drop under us, I decided that Marty and I would both have a better chance if we did this separately. Not realizing that we were already on the ice, I swung down on the inside. Next thing I knew I was lying flat on my back on the ice, my feet hanging off in space, looking straight up at the horse's belly. As I unsuccessfully tried to scramble out on the inside, I wondered if Marty might not consider this one of those out-of-the-ordinary things worth blowing up about. He didn't move a muscle. Unable to climb the ice, I had to roll over, scrabble around, and crawl on my side along the few inches of ice-covered rock between his right hind leg and the cliff edge. Ol' Wrist Breaker never even stirred. I was really beginning to like this horse.
The rest of the trip in towards Crabtree was pretty easy if you don't count balancing two horses in a pile of talus while 25 boy scouts and 25 burros work their way around you as being any big deal.
I found the poor little sick boy at Guitar Lake. He was 6'4", weighed 210 pounds, and seemed more stoned than sick. Most likely, he had the pulmonary edema that came with altitude sickness. Regardless, I figured if I just got him on Tequila, that little horse would bring him out safe. The real problem was his backpack. It was huge and must have weighed 40 or 60 pounds. There was no way Tequila could carry the boy and his pack. I knew Marty could carry the weight so I put it on and crawled aboard. It stuck up a good six inches above my head which worried me but didn't seem to bother good old Marty. We started up the long pass toward home. The kid didn't seem to have any idea what was going on, but Tequila took care of him.
|Between Trail Junction and Trail Crest there is a piece of trail that I have always hated. It is narrow and there is an overhanging rock. While you are ducking that rock, you can look 500 feet straight down just past your right boot. Coming up on this spot, I began to imagine that I would catch that big, old pack on the overhanging rock and fall 500 feet before I bounced the first time. Trying to concentrate on arguing myself out of panicking by being calm and logical, I was two inches from the rock when I realized that I really was going to hit the damn thing.
I grabbed for the horn. Too late! The pack hit. I was shoved onto Marty's rump, my spurs buried in his flanks, my fingernails buried in the bottom of a saddlehorn I couldn't quite reach. Wedged in place, looking 500 feet straight down at the cliffs and talus below me, I let out a panicked scream. If ever a horse had cause to blow up, this was it. But Marty didn't blow up. He just froze in place.
There was nothing I could do but wait to die. After a few more minutes, Marty let out a sigh and began to ease backwards. He leaned back just until the pack slipped loose from the rock. With the grace of a dancer, he swung his body, me, and the pack out and around the overhanging rock. Then with one dazed pack cook still sitting on his rump, Marty walked quietly up the trail. Good Ol' Wrist Breaker.
When I regained my wits, I quickly scrambled back into the saddle. I checked on the kid on Tequila. He didn't seem to realize anything had happened, but Tequila was bring him along fine. We topped the pass and headed on down the mountain. At Weeping Rock, we both got off and led our animals gingerly across the ice. Getting back on with that pack was getting to be a major pain, but by now I was determined to deliver it safely along with its owner. As we jumped down all the big steps in the trail near Consultation Lake, I could feel the pack putting black and blue marks above my kidneys with each jump. I was really starting to hate that thing. Late in the day we finally reached the pack station where I handed the kid and his pack over to his grateful group leader. Being the only crew member there, I finished the evening by finding the 25 visiting burros a corral and some feed, taking care of our stock, and giving Marty and Tequila a big bait of extra grain.
I guess that's the end of the story except for a couple of things I heard later. The first is that the damn kid's damn backpack was stolen out of the campground that very night. I should have left the damn thing up on the mountain. The second is a whole lot sadder. That fall Marty bucked off a deer hunter and hurt him bad. The hunter got well, but Marty was sold onto the killer truck. It broke my heart when I heard that. I guess no one will ever know why he chose to save my life twice on that single day. I hope where he is now is all clear streams and green meadows. So long, Ol' Wrist Breaker.
Trail Crest on the Mt. Whitney Trail - Photo courtesy Peter Burke
A vertical view from the area of the "overhanging rock."
Another view in the area of the "overhanging rock."
I tell a lot of stories about being a backcountry cook, but not many of them describe the actual cooking. Many of the required skills are lost in antiquity. If you aren't lucky enough to find an old timer who will share their knowledge with you, you're probably in trouble. There are no schools or books that teach you how to do this stuff. If you run across a book on Dutch oven cooking, it will usually start out talking about counting the number of charcoal briquettes. Right there you know the author has never cooked any farther from his house than the back yard. Well, I've been just plain lucky and over the years a lot of talented people have shared their high country cooking secrets with me. I suspect they figured that if they didn't help I might end up poisoning or starving a whole lot of folks. Anyway. I'm going to tell you a little about these people, and if you listen careful you might learn a few of their secrets.
The first cooks I worked with were at Mt. Whitney Pack Trains, where I got to work with Bruce and Charles Morgan and Barbara Morgan Jefferson. Being a butcher in the off season, Charles Morgan taught me a lot about handling meat in the high country (no pun intended). In those days, no one froze the meat or used ice chests. Meals were planned in an order based on which meal kept longest. You planned any meal requiring ground meat for the first day. Any poultry or fish had to be used in one or two days. Fresh pork was only good for about three days. From then on until around seven or eight days you used beef or lamb. After that the menu needed to include cured meats like ham and corned beef. Finally, if you went over 12 days without a resupply, you went to canned meats or dried pastas like tortellini. To make sure that you meat was fresh when you needed it, Charles taught me how to keep the meat from spoiling. Every night you would wait until after dark, unwrap all the meat, and spread it out on the table. This chilled the meat and allowed the surfaces to dry out. First thing in the morning, you would wrap it in fresh white butcher paper, put it in a white cloth sack, and roll it in your sleeping bag. When you were ready to use it, you unwrapped the meat and used a knife to peel off the outer layer which was like jerky. Inside, the meat was fresh and delicious. Then you would cut it into steaks, roasts, chops, or stew meat depending on what the menu called for. On one large trip Charles actually carried along the entire forequarter of a steer which he cared for in the same way. Of course, it was so large that he had to hang it up in a tree rather than put it on a table. Charles taught me several other things too, like that if you overslept when you were supposed to be up cooking, you might find a basin of ice cold water poured over your head. He also taught me some new words the day he caught me using his boning knife to chop carrots. Guess real cooks are a little sensitive about their knives.
The most memorable of my mentors was Barbara Jefferson. Barbara was born to the packing business and grew up in the little town of Lone Pine knowing everything there was to know about packing. Quiet and serene, Barbara was often the only real grown up in a business where most of the crew were still children at heart. She taught me how to be a station cook and a trail cook, how to organize menus and supply lists, how to create dishes where you had no supplies, and how to serve a dinner for thirty when you had planned for ten. She was a born teacher and would send me off to do tasks that I believed to be impossible. Once she told me to make a pineapple upside down cake for dinner. We were at Little Whitney Meadow and I knew that we hadn't planned to bring any of the things needed for such a task. Being as Barbara was the kindest person that ever lived; I knew she wouldn't set me a task that really couldn't be done. I started searching for the ingredients, keeping in mind that everything I used for this would have to be replaced for its original use. For example, I started with the canned pineapple and brown sugar that were to be the glaze for the next night's ham. I replaced that glaze with one based on apricot jam and Worchestershire sauce. We were heavy on pancake mix so I used it for the base for my cake batter. Extra flour (for thickening gravy), eggs (from breakfast) and sugar (from that meant for the coffee) kept it from rising too high and made it more cake like. Well, you get the idea. It turned out to be a cake and I was so proud I could hardly stand myself. Barbara just smiled quietly like she knew all along that I could do it.
In later years, it seemed like I learned backcountry cooking skills from everyone I worked with. I learned all the serious Dutch oven cooking skills I know in a single week from a little old man named Dink who was packing for Reds Meadows at the time.
He taught me how to choose the right wood and build the right fire, how to preheat the lid while burning the wood down to coals, how to make hooks to handle the super hot lids, how to use little stones to raise the baking pan to keep it from burning, and how to estimate your cooking times. With these few skills you can bake or roast anything in a Dutch oven that you could do in your kitchen at home. Of course, it can be a little unpredictable. I remember one day when I was working for North Lake Pack and we were in at McClure Meadow. I had to make two batches of brownies. I had two identical Dutch ovens and round cake pans. I built two fires as alike as I could make them out of limb wood from the same tree. I mixed a double batch of brownie batter, and split it between the two pans. Cooked for equal lengths of time, one batch was perfect brownies and the other was so black and hard that we used it to play Frisbee on the meadow. Ah, well, you can't win them all.
When I got to Rock Creek, the best thing I learned about was five-gallon square tins. When you put handles on them, they make perfect water buckets. They fit right down in your pack boxes so they are easy to pack along, weighing very little and taking up no room at all. They can also be heated on the stove for wash water, and when they eventually wear out along the bottom, you can turn them on their sides and use them for ovens. Seriously, just lay one flat on your steel stove top and close the open end with foil. They will bake roasts, pies and cakes just like your oven at home. You should see the looks on the dudes' faces when after a layover day in the wilderness, you feed them prime rib for dinner.
Now most of the actual cooking stories you hear will involve food disasters. Every cook seems to have a few mistakes hanging over her like a dark cloud from the past. Mine was the time the creamed tuna got scorched. It was on a huge Sierra Club trip with 117 people. That much scorched tuna really stinks. According to Tommy Jefferson he could smell it three miles from camp and prayed all the way in that it wasn't OUR dinner.
Marge London was famous for the time she put an unopened can of brown bread in with a ham she was baking. It exploded and blew the ham clear to the other side of the camp. I remember a first year cook who mixed up two different sets of directions for reconstituting dried scalloped potatoes. The result was a large pot full of thin cream with some chunks of potato floating in it. She just served it before the salad and told the guests that it was potato soup. Another beginner made a potentially much more serious mistake. She mistook the chlorinated lime for flour and used it in the stew. Fortunately, it smelled so bad no one would touch it. Wes, one of the Rock Creek packers, tells a story about working with a cook who had her own horse that she let hang in close to her kitchen. One morning she whipped up the eggs for scrambling and left the bowl on the edge of the table. Her pet pony backed up to the table and let fly with something liquid and green. Wes says it missed the eggs by fractions of an inch, but when the cook went ahead and fried those eggs up, nobody much seemed to want them for breakfast. Though no one ever forgets them, those kinds of accidents are few and far between. Mostly pack cooks produce miracles on a regular basis.
One good trick is to never tell the guests what's for dinner that night. That way if things go wrong and you have to figure out something else to serve, they never know. The best trick of all in this business is to wait and cook anything new or tricky on a layover day while the guests and packers are out of camp. Then if it doesn't work out, you throw it in the bushes and fix a different dish. The only problem with these approaches is that when you have to figure out something else to do and you come up with something absolutely brilliant, nobody ever compliments your genius because they never knew you were in trouble in the first place. Guess it's better that way. Good luck with your camp cooking, and maybe someday I'll get to sample some of your work around the campfire.
The "Camp Cook's Troubles" by Charlie Russell - 1912
Using the Frying Pan as an Oven
Tracy Randall Kelley
This is the story of Jasper who for most of his life at Rock Creek Pack Trains was "not much of a mule." Jasper was a medium sized, black john mule. When you needed to get him out of the corral, you could recognize him by a white mark just behind his ears. When I first knew him, he appeared to be just an average mule; middle-aged, average sized, medium build. He was sound and did an okay job of carrying his load. He didn't cause trouble in the station yard and seldom blew up while being loaded. The one thing he lacked that a really good pack mule needed on the rugged trails of the High Sierra was heart. All the packers knew that in any really tough situation where everything depended on a mule's courage, Jasper would most likely give up.
The first time I got to see Jasper in action was on an early season crossing of Mono Pass.
Being the trip cook, I was leading a group of dudes on horseback. The pack strings had left the station about an hour behind us and were just catching us at the top of the pass. At almost 12,000 feet, parts of the trail were still covered with snow banks two or three feet deep. Previous trips had worn a trail through the snow. If you stayed on the packed trail, you were likely to be all right. I led my guests across a band about 40 feet wide. Everyone did fine. Then we pulled off the trail so the strings could pass us after they crossed the snow. It was spectacular watching the matched black strings cross the sparkling snow high on the barren tundra of the pass. Then one of the middle mules stepped off the trail and bogged down in the snow. He thrashed around a little and then quit. Since a mule in trouble can pull your whole string down, the packer quickly untied ropes to free the rest of the string from the bogged mule. The other packer tied his horse and string and came down to help. Usually a bogged down mule will try to buck-jump his way out. He'll keep trying until he gets out, falls down, or until he's exhausted. This mule was only in about two and a half feet of snow, but he didn't even try to get out. The packers moved the other mules off the snow and came back for him with a horse. Hoping the extra pull would help him to move, they dallied up his lead rope and tried to lead him out. The mule just stood there like his feet were cemented to the mountainside. The boys unpacked him, but he still wouldn't try. Finally, they got the shovel off another mule's load and spent a fair amount of time digging all the snow out from under the mule. They also dug a short trail back to the place the rest of us had crossed. The mule decided that this would be good enough and finally strolled nonchalantly out of the snow. The tired packers had to drag the mule's load across the snow before they could put it back on him. As the packers finally passed us, I asked them what the heck was wrong with that mule. One of them said, "Oh, that's just Jasper. He's not much of a mule."
Mono Pass - Photographer Unknown |
This is a Rock Creek party. Don’t really know the packer in the lead. Black gelding had another name but everyone called him suitcase-head. Rider in the brown hat is Jamie Hirnshal of the famous Phil and Jamie couple. She is riding Buck and leading a sorrel named Moe. If you look in the dust right above the mules in the first string, you will see a rider in a blue jacket. That Is Phil, Jamie’s husband, who is probably leading a third string. Since they are running empty mules and deadheading riding stock, they are most likely going in to bring out a spot trip from Mono Creek. (...per Irene Kritz)
In an outfit with over a hundred head of stock, you might work with different animals on each trip. So it was several years before I found myself working around Jasper again. Not that I was all that disappointed to not have him around. On this trip we were northbound from Rock Creek to Mammoth. Since the guests on this trip were hikers, I rode with the packers and led a few mules, fortunately not Jasper. Head packer on this trip was the boss, Craig London, and in his string was our old friend Jasper. There is a beautiful spot on the John Muir Trail just below Pocket Meadow where the canyon is covered in wildflowers: lupine, fireweed, phlox, and penstemon. Working your way through the jumbled flower-covered talus means your animals scramble from rock to rock up the many short switchbacks. Of course, it really gets bad if one of them decides to try to eat some of that tasty looking lupine at the same time they're jumping, sliding and scrambling up some big boulders.
The worst spot was a switchback carved into the rock face. To make it more interesting, a large round boulder had rolled down and lay against the rock wall at the point of the turn. Of course, Jasper got in trouble, and of course it was right in that spot. Just as Jasper passed that corner, someone behind him stopped for a lupine snack and someone ahead of him tried to hurry his jump up the next set of rock steps. Stretched out between them Jasper lost his balance and sat down on the trail. Even with a pack load, most mules would have scrambled to their feet. But Jasper just sat there looking put upon. Craig undid the lead ropes so he was free of the other mules and yelled at him. Momentarily startled, Jasper started to heave himself to his feet. Half way up, he changed his mind and sat back down. Then he rolled slowly over backwards to land wedged between the round boulder and the rock face. With his pack load caught behind the boulder, he sat there like a fat man in a lawn chair. It was one of those moments when you have no real idea of what to do next, but for sure it wasn't going to involve any positive effort on Jasper's part. Craig didn't hesitate. He unfastened both pack cinches and the lash rope thereby freeing Jasper from his pack. Then he took the lead rope and standing straight in front of the mule put all his considerable strength into pulling 1100 pounds of mule uphill. To my complete surprise, he rolled that mule right forward and up on to his feet. Surprised Jasper as much as it did me. As before, the story ended with repacking Jasper. Craig never said anything against the mule, but I could tell he was thinking it.
For years Jasper went on working just hard enough not to get sold. And so eventually he reached his thirties still working for Rock Creek. At that age pack mules still work, but they do shorter moves and carry lighter loads on spot trips in close to the station. They don't work the long backcountry trips except for the Henkes trip.
This is a 15 day hiking trip. The hikers are all a little long in the tooth, so the moves are short and the layover days are frequent. A perfect situation for the old-timer mules like Jasper. This particular trip was in the southern Sierra traveling the Pacific Crest Trail from Horseshoe Meadows to Shepherd Pass with a side trip down into the Kern Canyon. Near Mt. Whitney, this country is high and rough, but the trails are good, and the stock love the meadows. Jasper made it through 13 days without doing anything he shouldn't. The morning of the 14th day he was gone. Chris and Tom couldn't find him when they wrangled. It was a layover day, so they spent most of the day looking. Mules are herd animals and as a rule they don't go off by themselves. When you wrangle and come up short a single animal, it usually means the animal is sick, hurt, trapped, stolen, or dead. Craig joined the trip that day, coming in to help us get out over Shepherd Pass on the last day. He added his efforts to the search for Jasper, but there was no sign of him. Finally, out of time and out of places to look, sadly they gave up and moved out. Everyone agreed that Jasper had probably given up one last time and died out there somewhere.
Horseshoe to Lone Pine. He marched right down that road ignoring traffic and anything else that might have gotten in his way. He was two miles from the outfit's winter pasture at Diaz Lake when a cattle guard and fences finally stopped him. By this time, he had been on the trail for close to three weeks covering almost 60 miles. He had refused to be stopped, caught or tied. Every stockman in the Eastern Sierra had been following the rumors and was rooting for Jasper to survive his great journey. So when Bob Olin from the Forest Service saw an old black mule standing in the middle of the road gazing toward Diaz pasture, he knew who it was. He caught him and called Craig. And that's how Jasper finally came home. And everybody working for the outfit had to admit that he was a lot more mule than any of us had ever thought.
|It was late in the packing season and Rock Creek only had one more trip in the area where Jasper had disappeared. We hoped if he was still alive, he might join their stock. No such luck. Then about a week later, we heard a rumor about a wild black mule that had been seen at Junction Meadow. A few days after that there was another story about a stray mule that came by someone's camp at Crabtree. A few of us secretly hope it might be Jasper, but it wasn't all that likely. As the weeks of fall passed, hope faded. Winter in the high country can start as early as September, and any mule caught in heavy snow is done for. Then we heard that some people at Big Whitney Meadow had caught a loose mule, but it had broken free during the night. Big Whitney was off the main trail but was the way we had come on our trip. That's when we were sure it was Jasper. He was backtracking our trip and was only one more pass from the roadhead at Horseshoe Meadows. When he reached Horseshoe, packers from Cottonwood Pack Station tried to rope him but he got away. Finally, he got on the 12 miles of paved road that climbs down the east face of the Sierra from
I See By Your Outfit That You Are A Cowboy
Return with me once again to the packing days in the High Sierra. As you may remember from past tales, I am Irene, the little round pack cook, guide and occasional storyteller. I travel the high lonesome with many of the great and not-so-great in the horse packing business. Over the years I have seen many kids come to the mountains as useless, young gunsels. It's surprising how many of them turn into genuine hands in only a year or two. Of course we also get the occasional "Hollywood cowboy" who arrives with a lot of talk and not much else. Most of them don't last a season, but some stay on for a while. They usually leave just about as green as they came except now their stories are longer. The only real advantage to having one of these guys around is that the single female guests are sometimes harboring a "western romance novel" fantasy about an affair with a "real cowboy" and these guys are willing to be part of that fantasy. Most of these guys were pretty good looking which I'm sure was part of the problem. These kinds of guys don't do much work but they do keep the guests happy. Since I don't have much patience with them, they're usually not too fond of me either.
WARNING: The following tales contain considerable badmouthing. If you are offended by negative opinions, please to another story.
Well, first off there was Ted. We worked together at Mt. Whitney Pack Trains when he first came to Owens Valley. In later years he worked for some of the local ranches, so maybe he finally earned his spurs. At the time I knew him, he was pretty green but tried real hard to convince everyone that he knew more about stock than any other living person. That made him pretty hostile to anyone who questioned his abilities. I remember one time when he was loading up the final string for a Trail Riders trip leaving out of Horseshoe Meadows. All the other strings had already pulled out and I was waiting to bring up the drag. What was slowing Ted down was that he kept wasting time talking about how good he was. Finally he started bragging that he could tie a diamond hitch faster than anybody, maybe under 30 seconds. Being tired of his mouth and having little ability to control my own, I drawled that I had in fact tied a diamond in twelve seconds flat. Now that wasn't exactly a lie. I just didn't mention that at the time I was practicing on a set of empty boxes thrown over the hitching rail. Taking up the challenge. Ted said that if a useless little bitch like me could tie in twelve seconds, by God, he could tie in ten. In his enthusiasm, he put a little extra swing on his lash cinch and instead of whipping it over the top of the pack load and under the mule, he threw it about 20 feet up a pine tree. When several hard pulls failed to dislodge it, he was forced to climb the tree to get his cinch back. Since the tree was a young lodgepole with lots of close packed, bristly branches Ted had quite a battle to retrieve his rope. By the time he emerged looking like he'd lost a fight with a bobcat, I was laughing pretty hard. That night the boss bawled me out for causing Ted to waste more time. He was right and I was ashamed, but darn, it was funny.
Another memorable moment from my years with Ted came at Crabtree Meadows. Since we had a really long move over the top of Whitney the next day, the stock had been turned loose for the day and would be tied up that night. The stock had drifted west for several miles and were over to Big Sandy. It was Ted's job to wrangle the stock and bring them in. For whatever reason, he chose a big, white gelding to wrangle on. Try to picture this. Everyone is sitting in camp having dinner. The sunset is painting the western sky in blazing colors. Ted on his big, white horse rides directly into that sunset as everyone watches. Reaching the other side of the meadow, he stops abruptly causing his horse to rear. Forty people, all struck by the same thought, yell, "Hi! Ho! Silver." The only thing that sorta wrecked it was that Ted rode all the way back to ask what the shouting was about. We were laughing too hard to tell him.
The only time Ted and I really got into it was on another trip to Crabtree. It was one of those trips where everyone ate like a horse. This can be a real problem for the cook. She has to save out food to make sure the packers are well fed. If they aren't getting enough to eat, they can't do the kind of hard work that makes up their jobs. You have to feed the guests enough to keep them happy and yet limit them to keep the packers going. The cook eats last and if there isn't enough that's just too bad., It's part of the job. Of course, if you're built like me, you can last several weeks on fat alone. On our last night at Crabtree everyone got good sized firsts but there were no seconds. The only thing left was two biscuits. As I hadn't had anything to eat since dinner the night before this, I figured those biscuits were mine. Being as they were my whole dinner I planned to savor them after I finished the dishes. I set them on the kitchen box thinking about the possibility of hunting up some jam to go with them. While I was drying the dishes, Ted came into the kitchen. He spotted those biscuits and said that since he particularly liked biscuits, he was going to take them. I told him not to as they were my dinner. He made a rude sound and grabbed for them anyway. Since I had a spatula in my hand, I smacked his fingers with it. He turned to leave and I put the spatula down. As he stepped away, he called me some pretty creative names. Somewhat offended, I planted the sharp toe of my riding boot where it would do the most good. Ted swung around with one fist clenched and came after me. Reaching behind me for the spatula, I accidentally came up with a butcher knife instead. when I held it in front of me, Ted changed his mind about hitting me. He left the kitchen without further comment. Years later at Reds Meadow I heard a packer tell this story only in that version I had knifed a packer for being in my kitchen. At least I didn't have any trouble keeping people out of my kitchen while I worked at that outfit.
While I was working at Reds Meadows, I ran into another one of these gold-plated cowboys.
This one was named Bill and he was actually a pretty experienced hand with horses and mules. It was dealing with people that brought out the phony in him. He was one of those fellows who never , ever take off their cowboy hats because they don't want anyone to know that they are bald. The first trip I took with him was a four day trip to Thousand Island Lake. We had two layover days and his job was to care for the stock and take the guests on day rides. Early on the first layover he didn't eat breakfast and when I went to see how he was doing with the stock, he was lying on his bedroll groaning and retching. Since he was too sick to work I did all his work as well as my own. It wasn't until late the third day that I caught him laying on his bedroll eating a sack of cookies he had swiped from the kitchen He hadn't been sick at all. I guess he was pretty proud of what a fool he had made of the new cook.
A few years later I ran into Bill again. I was working with a great little gal named Kathy. She drove 18 wheelers in the winter and was a pack cook in the summer. She was young and cute and pretty much liked all the packers. Old Bill and she had a brief go around which Bill took way too seriously. He decided he was in love with her and started stalking her. One day between trips a bunch of us were sitting out by the big stump back of the store when Bill came out of his cabin. He called Kathy over to him and said that he was in love with her and if she didn't love him in return he would kill himself. She said that since she didn't love him that might be a problem., He turned and went back in the cabin, slamming the door. A few minutes later we were all startled by the sound of a gunshot. The cabin door swung open and Bill staggered out, a gun in his hand. He slumped to the ground, the gun falling in the dirt near his outstretched fingers. As I sat there too stunned to react, I noticed that the other crew members were gradually getting to their feet and drifting silently away. One girl walked to Bill and I thought she was going to help him. But she just stepped over him, and went on to her cabin. Kathy was still sitting next to me and said, "Don't worry. He does this all the time." Then she left, too. After a few minutes, Bill raised his head and looked around. Seeing that his audience had left, he got up and dusted himself off. Picking up his gun, he went back to his cabin. Guess this kind of stuff keeps the job from being boring.
At Rock Creek I ran into Grippo, another member of the brotherhood of gunsels. He was a saddle maker who came every summer and traded a week of fixing pack equipment for a week of playing like he was a real live packer. After a few years of that he was so convinced that he was a packer that he managed to convince the administration of a community college that he was, too. They hired him to teach a packing class. The first summer I met him he brought a group of his adult students on a learning trip. Might have been kinda fun if he'd known what he was doing.
He started out by informing me that I didn't have to worry if this trip was too much for me because he had another cook along with him if I couldn't handle it.
Since I had twenty-five years of experience cooking for groups ranging from three people to a hundred people, I was somewhat offended by his greeting. I was hoping that his packing skills were better than his people skills, but I was soon disappointed. On the first day the regular packers took their strings and went on ahead. Grippo showed his people how to pack one mule and then brought it with us. One mile up the trail the load fell off. I could see it was going to be a long day and an even longer trip. After repacking the mule, Grippo left that mule in the care of one of his guests. He then dropped to the back of the string to ride drag. We got over the top of the pass without further mishap. Later as we rode along the side of Summit Lake, I heard a horse coming up along the line of riders at a dead run. Since we were just under 12,000 feet in elevation, I knew that no one in their right mind would be willingly running a horse. Expecting a panicked guest on a run away, I pulled my little mare, Goose, out of line to try and block the fast closing animal. It was Grippo, smiling a big shit-eating grin while galloping his horse to the front. I was pissed enough to yell some pretty interesting advice to him which I can't repeat here. Then I made him walk his heaving horse back to the end of the line. He's lucky I didn't make him walk to camp.
You know, if I tell you all the stupid things he did on that one trip, this story will be a book. But if I was going to, I would mention when he set off the firecrackers and spooked all the stock out of camp. Realizing that everyone was pissed about it, he tried to blame it on some backpackers and offered to lead a group of guys over to beat up the innocent campers. another clever move was the day he made everyone unsaddle without tying up because the horses might catch their saddles in the picket rope. That left the saddles scattered all over camp which cost an hour to clean up. The next morning he had everyone tie their horses on the picket line before saddling, then left the horses standing tied for the next hour. Near as I can figure, he musta thought that horses only tangle their saddles in the picket line in the afternoon, but not in the morning.
The worst thing he did was one afternoon when I had snacks out before dinner. The old Rita mule was trying to sneak in to snatch some crackers. I woulda chased her off, but Grippo started feeding her stuff off the table, petting her, and telling his followers about what a great mule she was. When they turned their backs to go to the campfire, he muttered "Damn pet mule" and slugged Rita as hard as he could right in the nose. Didn't seem very fair to me.
During this trip Grippo rode with all the packer hopefuls. I took care of the people who were just there for the ride.
This included one lady who had never ridden before and was six months pregnant. She got the riding down pretty well but still had trouble mounting. I just made do by having her use any available rock or log for a mounting block. One day her horse developed a cinch sore. We stopped on the trail and I rigged her cinch so it didn't touch the sore. It wasn't ideal because I couldn't rerig both sides of the saddle as the right side was missing the back cinch ring. Just as I was helping her get up on a log to mount, Grippo and his group caught up with us. Unfortunately he decided to get involved. First he started yelling at the lady guest for using the log. Then he tried to force her to mount from the ground. Her pregnancy made that very difficult and she couldn't get on. Then he noticed the changed rigging on the saddle and demanded to know why it was like that. I showed him the cinch sore. Then he noticed that the rigging was different on the off side. So he took the whole saddle off the horse, all the while lecturing me on how having it rigged two different ways could torque the saddle and sore the hose's back. Instead of defending my decision, I tried to tell him that it was the only thing you could do since the back ring was missing on the off side. He went right on working on the saddle and telling me about all my basic flaws. Then he gathered all his students in close so he could show them how it should have been done. When he went to put the offside billets through the back ring, he discovered there wasn't one. At this point he started cussing and just went right on cussing while he put the saddle back together exactly as it was when he got there. Still cussing he saddled the horse, mounted his own horse, took his guests and rode off. That left me to take my guest and her horse back to the log where we had been before we were so rudely interrupted. We only had two more miles to go that day and could change saddles that night, so the horse came out fine.
As the trip went on Grippo would give his students great, long lectures on how real packers did things. Most of the time he was wrong which wouldn't have been a problem for me if he hadn't been doing most of his speechifying in my kitchen while I was trying to work. Finally it reached the point where I was choking trying not to laugh at some of the stuff he was telling those folks. He took offense at my strangled hilarity and assured me that he would get me fired as soon as we got back to the station. Well, he tried, but I was lucky enough to have a good boss who listened to my side of the story, too. I was sure glad of that as it would have been really mortifying to get fired on the word of a gunsel.