DQ Blog


A mule, wrote William Faulkner, in one of his later novels, is an animal that “will labor ten years willingly and patiently for you, for the privilege of kicking you once.” But if the mule happens to love you as much as Rosie the Campfire Mule loves Wes Livingston, a Wyoming backcountry guide and horseman, a man of legendary skills and tart opinions, chances are that the decade of work will pass and the kick will remain undelivered.

photo 2I got to know Wes and Rosie, and to witness their unusual relationship, last month in the Teton Wilderness of northwestern Wyoming, not far from the southeast boundary of Yellowstone National Park. This is hard country, wrinkled with mountains and big buttes of crumbly gray volcanic breccia, high passes between the verdant drainages where beavers dam streams and grizzly bears kill the occasional calf moose, grassy plateaus at 11,000 feet upon which elk graze in summer amid the wildflowers. Not far away is a headwaters trickle that becomes the upper, upper Yellowstone River. Forgive me being a little vague about place names here, but suffice to say it’s a remote area, farther from an improved road than anywhere else in the lower 48 states. I was visiting on business: shadowing an elk researcher named Arthur Middleton, during an eight-day pack trip, on behalf of National Geographic. Middleton’s research partner, Joe Riis, who happens also to be a Nat Geo photographer, was along too. Wes Livingston guided and supported us, with help from a string of pack mules to complement our riding horses. One of those mules, a middle-aged reddish-brown female with dents of seniority above her eyebrows, was Rosie. I recognized her to be a special animal, with special status, the first night she walked into our campfire circle and stood over the flames, singeing her belly fur, in order to be part of our conversation and closer to Wes.

Rosie carried full panniers during the day, like any pack animal, but once unsaddled she became part of the people group. While the horses and other mules stood picketed or hobbled

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In February of this year I turned 65.  Ugh.  It seems catastrophically old.  Five years earlier, I had invented a cheerful motto to assuage the sting of turning 60, which seemed bad enough: “Sixty: Too young to quit skiing, too old to go bald.”  I couldn’t use that again, so I considered several other consolations: 1) Turning 65 in 2013, already so soon, is better than never turning 65 at all; and 2) now I qualified for Medicare, meaning that the egregiously high premiums I was paying to a certain insurance company, as a self-employed person, not part of a group, who occasionally rides small airplanes in Africa and engages in other mildly risky behavior, would disappear from my monthly nut.  I drank a grateful toast to Lyndon Johnson—something that wouldn’t have occurred to me during the Vietnam war—for that blessing.

And I took one other measure of birthday observance, rather more reckless.  Half-seriously, I muttered aloud to my dear wife: This year, I want to climb the Grand Teton.  I’ve lived in the shadow of that mountain for forty years, and it’s time that I get a look at the view from the top.

David Quammen atop Grand Teton with (left to right) Paul Bertelli, David, Conrad Anker and Betsy Quammen.Betsy took me seriously.  Before I knew it, she had made one call and my birthday present was arranged.  Her call was to our good friend Conrad Anker (one of the world’s preeminent mountaineers—in case you don’t happen to follow climbing—as well as an extraordinarily fine and unpretentious man).  Conrad said: Sure, sounds like fun, he’d be glad to accompany me, and Betsy too, to the top of the Grand.  He put it into his calendar for mid-July.  Which meant that I, with my big mouth, had to put it into my calendar too.

This wouldn’t be guiding.  This would be a larkish outing among friends, one of whom happened to be vastly competent within the context and the others, um, not quite so much.

Betsy Quammen on Grand Teton.Another good friend, Paul Bertelli, signed on for this enterprise.  A strong young climber named Bud Martin, whom Paul and Conrad both knew and trusted, became our fifth.  I put

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