"Night Ride"
by the Sequoia-King Pack Train's Slim Randles

See USE NOTICE on Home Page.


 The "Night Ride" is courtesy of Slim Randles. Slim packed with for Gene and Lona Burkhart out of Sequoia-King Pack Trains (Onion Valley) from 1958 through 1968. But not every year. Usually, though, he'd quit his reporting job about the time the sun started opening those passes!

Thanks for allowing me to use your article Slim!!

You can obtain Slim's story and other stories of the west in the new book: "Hot Biscuits: Eighteen Stories by Women and Men of the Ranching West " by Max Evans Candy Moulton, published by the University of New Mexico Press.Hot Biscuits can be purchased either through the University of New Mexico Press or

Attention all of you High Sierra packers!

Sun Dog Days is book you DO NOT want to miss reading. Slim Randles has masterfully captured the life of two Owens Valley packers, Buck and Smokey, and their adventure, not only in the Coso Mountains but their adventure in life. It is a heartwarming story which will challenge your emotions as you reflect on those days when you were once a packer yourself.
Slim has informed me that he is working on the screenplay to his book and it will soon be made into a motion picture. When it is, I hope that all of you former and current packers will do the High Sierra packing business the honor of seeing the movie.

Sun Dog Days is available at

by Slim Randles

by Slim Randles

The magic crescendo of day's end took forever to come, but it finally happened. The packer could look up to the west, above the tired ranch house, above the shady, whispering black locust trees along the alfalfa fields and see the peaks of the eastern Sierra transform.

From the hazy-hot mountain range of the summer day, the peaks now became vertical battlements backlit by the flooding of a setting sun. Each snowfield seemed larger at this time of day. Each peak strained upward through the sun blasts as if to declare their sovereignty before night cloaked them in mystery.

And the packer saw, as well, the blazing Inyo Mountains to the east, lit with the burnishing brush of evening, the rock spire of the Paiutes' sacred Winnedumah now absorbed by the mountains."Chores done?"

It was the boss.

He nodded.

"Can't eat the scenery," the boss said, chuckling. "Get some food. Time to go."

It was already getting dark when he began the saddling. Five horses, six mules. He tied the stirrups over the saddle seats with the saddle strings on the horses and checked each animal for shoes. Then he strung them together, being careful to get the right order.

You led the horses and tied the mules on behind. If you had trouble with the stock, he knew, it would come from the horses, not the mules. You led first the slowest horse, then the ones who caused you trouble, then the good horses, then the slowest mules, then the faster mules. Each collection of stock required some thinking before it became a functioning pack string.

"Lead ol' Jim," the boss said, unnecessarily. "He's the slowest. Always lead the slowest."

The packer nodded and ran lead ropes through the stirrups hanging on the near side of the saddles, and then tied large bowlines around the necks of the next animals. Six mules first, then the mules to the horses and finally to ol' Jim. One by one in the alkali dust and saltgrass smell of the big corral until there were eleven head in one long string and ol' Jim's lead rope was dallied to the horn of his own rough-out saddle sitting on Brownie.

It was going to be another of those nights. Another of those special nights, he knew. Another gem in the necklace of a life he hoped would become heavy with such treasure. He realized he wasn't talking tonight, except for a few words to each animal in the string as he worked on them. It made him smile, because the packer was naturally talkative, but talk could only profane a night like this, and he needed this night to be pure. Being silent was this mule packer's attempt at religious sacrifice. He would never say anything about it to the boss or the other guys in the bunkhouse, though. If any of them had similar thoughts, they wouldn't talk about them. There is an unspoken holiness in silence.

He tied his jacket behind the cantle, despite the sweaty hot evening and its brassy taste. He knew the winds coming off Kearsarge would bite deeply before he reached the pack station up there in that blackening canyon at 9,200 feet above sea level.

The boss stopped traffic on the highway as the packer rode Brownie and led the jittery, trotting string of animals across the pavement and up the start of the dirt road through the sage toward the night fastness above him. And then it was quiet, but for the footfalls of the horses and mules as they once again figured where their places were and what their speed should be and turned from a herd of tied-together animals into a pack string.


The Kearsarge Pinnacles
As the road became a trail, and the trail went up into the mountains, the packer could look back at the ranch lights at the fort, and then look the two miles farther down the valley along the light-string of headlights to the town lights of Independence, his adopted home. It's strange how those lights mean so much, huddled together in the face of such awe, gathering as if for company and support against the overwhelming mountains and the secrets of the night. He became aware of the moon only gradually, as he realized an hour later that he could make out Brownie's ears before him. Then he turned back to see each silvery animal work the slow switchbacks in turn, and he paused each animal length ahead of them to let them make the corners. There is a thrill and a pride in handling a really long string of stock, he thought. During the days in the high country, he seldom had more than five or six head behind him. But a man who can handle a pack train this long has reached the elite status of packer in this eastern rugged tall-nasty High Sierra country of California. A string like this one, on a moonlit night, alone, can earn a packer a doctorate in this unique craft.

During each of the summer days, he led the mules and took the dudes over the rocky, wind-snapped passes to the fishing lakes. He chatted with the people, reset errant horse and mule shoes, enjoyed the scenery. But these night rides were special. The boss's stock truck could climb the switchbacked dirt road to the pack station in the meadow they called Onion Valley, but not if it had any stock in it. So on the days when some of the stock wasn't needed for the high trails, it was taken down to the ranch in the stock truck where grazing was a lot cheaper than feeding alfalfa.

And when the time came to go back to the mountains, the packer had to ride at night to return them "up the hill" for the next day's work. This meant riding all day, riding all night, then riding all day again, but it didn't happen often and the packer didn't mind that much, really. There were things on the night ride, he knew, that somehow paid the ticket for the fatigue .And it made him smile. The stock didn't seem to misbehave as much at night, either. Maybe they, too, sensed what he did, that this was somehow a privilege and not just another long, dusty trail up the mountain.

At Tubbs Springs, he tied the string to an oak and went down the string, one by one, checking cinches, whispering reassuring words, making certain no saddle pads had slipped. Four cinches needed tightening. Not bad. The percentage was getting smaller each trip, he thought, and he felt pleased.

Then he swung back aboard Brownie, picked up the lead rope to Jim and yelled "Mules!" and they obediently swung into line again and headed for the brushy saddle known locally as Tubbs Summit.

By this time, the moon turned the horses and mules silver with its magic. It gave the packer an unspoken pleasure to look back on a sinuous Sierra snake of eleven animals stretched in a flexible line nearly 150 feet long behind him. And he looked up, straight up on the peaks of Kearsarge where the snow fields always left behind shady patches of dirty white, up where the Inyo moon splashed them with a dream brush and made old secrets come to life.

"You've heard of the ghost of Kearsarge," the old man said. "Everyone knows about her."

The packers at the table at the ranch looked at each other.

"What ghost?" one asked.

"Just the old lady," the old man said, with laughter in his dark Paiute eyes. "She doesn't hurt nothing, you know. Just sings a little."

The evening was dark at the ranch, and the table lamp splashed shadows of the assembled weary cowboys on the kitchen walls as they sipped coffee. It was always good to hear the stories the old man told, coming over from his own small cabin here on the reservation.

"I never heard nothing about a ghost lady up Kearsarge," said the cook.

"That's what they say." said the old man. "Ever since there was a town up there. Used to be the mine up there, you know. Big one. Then there was a big dance in town one Christmas time, it was. Long time ago. Before my time.

"Anyway, everybody went to Independence to dance, you know, except the caretaker and his wife. Avalanche got 'em. They were the only ones. Everybody else went to the dance. Can't remember what year it was. That mine was working then, though."

Nobody spoke while the old man sipped some coffee. "You boys ever hear her up there at night? You can hear her, that's what they say, anyway. Avalanche took her head off, you know. Never did find it. They say she calls for her head at night when there's a moon."

"At Kearsarge?"

"Yeah, you know where those old foundations are? That's where the little town used to be. Where the stock trail leaves the Onion Valley road. Looking for her head. That's what they say. Looking for her head."

The first foundations of Kearsarge glowed in the moonlight, little more than deliberate rock piles and scattered timbers now. The packer steered Brownie around the first and left the little stretch of dirt road again to follow the creek up the canyon. More foundations glowed, their old stones like ageworn teeth, and the wind came down from the snow patches cool and quiet. The packer thought he heard something, once. Just once, but he wondered about it, anyway. Looking back, the cluster of lights that was Independence had now shrunk to a small glowing nucleus in the moonscaped miles below.

He rested the stock on the first switchback above the old ghost town and pulled on his jacket. It helped.

"Your granddad told us there was a spook up at old Kearsarge," the packer said as they walked along the irrigation ditch that one night.

"Grandpa knows a lot," she said, squeezing his hand. "It's probably true."

He saw her eyes then, in the glow of a nearby streetlight there in town, as they walked. The desert night warmed them and made them both think of things long past and yet to come.

"You don't think he was just trying to b.s. us into being scared?"

"Not Grandpa. He knows a lot."

"Umm," the packer said."You like him?"

"Sure. Great guy."

"He likes you, too. He likes you a lot, I know. So does my mom and dad."

"Very nice people, your mom and dad."

She smiled up at him and he could see the pretty eyes again, the ageless eyes that spoke so much of generations of desert and mountain people, despite her youth.

"You like kids?" she asked.

The creek crashed down the mountain, heading for its ignominious ending in the Los Angeles aqueduct far below. The packer took the rocky crossings slowly, stopping often. The longer the string, the slower he must go, until every part of this long silent snake had negotiated every obstacle smoothly. Brownie was used to the stop and go of the night rides with long strings and didn't argue.

And there was the magic, of course. The seductive sorcery of night in the place where desert collides with mountains. It makes the longest nights shorter and the hardest rides easier.

He found the first of the pine trees at about 8,000 feet and listened once more to the breeze in the needles. Most of the horses were eager to get to the corrals and the hay, but the mules seemed content to look for moon-splashed grass clumps along the trail, clumps they may have missed on the last night ride.

The packer looked back each time the trail offered a view of the long string behind him. The saddle horns on the horses and the forks of each pack saddle seemed to be straight up. No one was hanging back on their lead ropes. No one had stepped over one. He could see this clearly, all the way back to the caboose mule. Sometimes he felt like the engineer on a train, except that each of his boxcars had a mind of its own.

Then, as the peaks surrounded them in moon shadow, the wind turned cold and the weariness hit. He pulled his hat down farther on his face, turned up his collar, and shamefully admitted to himself that he looked back less often.

The moon was behind the crest of the Sierra as he rode Brownie into the blackness of the pack station yard. The boss was there to help him unsaddle.

"Everything go okay?"

"No problems," the packer said.

"By the way, happy birthday."

"That's right, isn't it. Thanks."

"How old are you now?"

The packer stopped to think for a second in his early morning weariness. Then nodded.

"Seventeen," the packer said.

Outdoor novelist and hunting guide Slim Randles spent eight summers in the eastern
High Sierra packing mules for Sequoia-Kings Pack Trains.

slim & lona
Slim Randles & Lona Burkhart 1995

Burkhart Ranch
Burkhart ranch in Oregon
1, 2, 3

Richard Leach from South Jordan, Utah Writes.

I phoned Lona Burkhart this morning and she mentioned this web-site. It is hard to believe, but all the horses and all the mules that Slim and I knew are all dead now. They've been gone for decades. So has Gene Burkhart. Very sad. Don't mean to sound somber. I suppose this is why we need authors to record the memories. Those mountains are still there and though my memories of them still linger in the old trails of my mind. I must be content now to view the Wasatch Front in Utah. They're nice too, but not quite as grand as the east slope of the Sierras. Slim always wanted to earn a living writing and thank the Lord he can.

Mr. Randles has been a colorful character and I emphasize the word character. He's been a good friend and I am glad to have known him. Slim and I shared the trails together to be sure, but mostly we packed apart. What we share most is a lifelong love for the Burkharts. Gene was a tough one to know as I'm sure Slim will attest. Even so, we learned to love him a second father. He was stern with us boys, but he was fair and usually right. He taught me a good deal of what has got me through this life. Then there is Lona. She was always so easy to talk to. Slim and I grew very close to her and we both count her amongst our very best friends. I suppose she must be our godmother!

I decided it might be fun to relive my past a few years ago and I purchased a colt from Lona up in Oregon. I brought it home gentled it down and had it broke. Well, about the third time I fell off I decided I'd had enough of reliving my past. Maybe I should have named that quarter horse something other than George W. Oh well, so I found a good home for G.W. and now I spend my time telling stories to my grandkids about what a great cowboy I was. And because I'm their grandpa, they believe everything I tell them. Well, at least I do have my memories.

Thanks Slim!

Richard Leach
January 2008

Other Books Written by Slim Randles
Dogsled, A True Tale of the North, Winchester Press, 1977
Hell, I Was There! (Life Story of Elmer Keith) ghost writer, editor and designer. Petersen Publishing, 1978.
The Long Dark, An Alaska Winter's Tale, Alaska Northwest Publishing, 1984. (First novel published in Alaska).
This Chosen Place (contributor) by Max Evans, University Press of Colorado, 1996.
Raven's Prey, McRoy and Blackburn, 1998. (novel)

ABE Books, making "out of print" books easier to find.

 Slim Randles Cooks Sourdough Pancakes with "The Cast Iron Ranger"

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 Sierra Place Names


George Brown, Native American

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