Friday, September 10, 2004

Mule trekker views Rockies from a saddle

Hailey rambler takes coffee break in valley

Jake Lemon of Hailey takes a break last summer with his three mules Jed, Bernie and Uinta, on his ?shakedown cruise? through the Frank Churck-River of No Return Wilderness. Photo by Bob Jonas

Time is a relative term. But, since April 15, Hailey mule trekker Jake Lemon?s journey up through the Northern Rockies has been right on schedule--with a few minor bumps in the road.

?When I get up in the morning to when I swing my leg over the saddle, it?s four hours,? Lemon said over coffee during an impromptu visit to Hailey at the end of August. Mornings consist of a leisurely breakfast and petting and combing his three mules before Lemon leads out the loaded animals for another day of travel.

Lemon started a seven-month mule trip to Canada this spring by crossing through the Grand Canyon and the Escalante National Monument in southern Utah. The grueling country and slow pace, which in itself is a throw back to another time in history, has been authentic and sometimes tough.

But Lemon, who?s no longer a greenhorn, has balanced his journey with some contact with the civilized world at the periphery of his route north.

In fact, a stone bruise incurred by Jed on one of his hooves near Challis at the end of August required that Jake and the animals take a break to allow Jed time to heal. Lemon had been planning to meet friends at Mount Borah for a rendezvous, but Jed?s bruise on the sole of one of his hooves precipitated a change of plans. The closest Lemon had planned on coming to his Wood River Valley home was Borah, but as a result of Jed?s infirmary Lemon borrowed a car from friends in Challis, and had a picnic with about 30 people at Curtis Park in Hailey.

?They had a hard time recognizing me,? Lemon said, sporting a full beard and close-cropped hair. ?Everybody missed the animals.?

Jed, Bernie and Uinta were resting in a pasture near Challis.

Lemon?s training mission for his solo trip was last summer with his long-time friend and backcountry companion Bob Jonas, of Ketchum, on a ?shakedown cruise? through central Idaho?s Frank Church ? River of No Return Wilderness.

Meanwhile, Lemon has had a number of adventures in the last four and a half months, and while Jed?s injury was not altogether uneventful, the experience became a stroke of luck.

Lemon had stopped at a place called Burnt Creek, a place with water and grass the day Jed got his bruise, he said. He formulated a plan to hike out in search of a telephone to try to call for a trailer ride to Challis. In three miles walking a remote desert road, Lemon would find a cowboy driving with his three dogs who would stop for him.

?For me walking just three miles was a gift,? Lemon said. ?I was really out there.?

Lemon found a phone and tracked down Dick Burtchill and his wife Betsy, who came from Challis and picked up Jake and his pack string.

Lemon said people have been interested in what he is doing all along the trip and that many strangers have bent over backwards to be supportive.

?There have been problems with bugs, and traveling in the rights of way of highways,? he said. ?Lack of water in the desert is stressful travel, which hurts my back.?

Lemon said that so far the worst part of the trip was when he made the 120 miles on the Oregon Trail between Fort Bridger, Wyo., and Montpelier, Idaho.

?Ninety percent of the stretch was highway right of way,? Lemon said. ?I had two near accidents (with vehicles).?

Lemon said both episodes happened in a two-hour period on the same stretch of highway. One occurred when the pack string was moving through a narrow road cut and another while crossing a bridge.

?I?m out on the bridge,? he said. ?I?m praying.?

Lemon described a broken rope, a loose mule, curves in the road, semi tractor-trailers bearing down and brake smoke so thick the air was acrid.

?I had no choice but to continue,? he said. ?The animals were great. This whole thing is what I call a calculated risk. The risk was a little too close that day.?

In a more peaceful place, the Escalante National Monument, Lemon had other issues. He hired an outfitter to set up caches of feed and water for him and the mules.

Lemon said in the big spaces that he has covered his Global Positioning System device used for orientation and backup to the maps he carries has been an essential tool.

?That GPS has saved the day a number of times,? he said.

Lemon said maintaining his orientation in the backcountry has deepened his appreciation for the talent old timers had with finding their way through the wilderness, like one of his idols, Jim Bridger.

?He had a fundamental mind for spaces similar to Jonas,? he said.

Lemon had plans to travel through the high country of the Uinta Mountains in northeastern Utah, but snow at a place called Dead Man?s Pass required him to circumnavigate the range. It was at that time he also had to swap a mule, a change in the pack string that took about a week to arrange.

During the first two days of Lemon?s respite in Hailey culture shock came in the form of confusion.

?What hit me was the degree of busyness,? he said. ?It really kind of stunned me, but at the same time this busyness, this productivity is essential to my trip. I had to be busy to finance my trip, and I use products of the world (like the GPS and leather saddles) on the trail. It has a place but it is a real contrast to being out on the trail.?

Lemon said one of the reasons for him to make the trip is as an experiment in defining his identity.

?My identity is wrapped up in productivity,? said Lemon, who is a wood worker by trade. ?It?s part of the American way. I work in the materiel world. I don?t feel good about myself if I?m not working.?

But, Lemon has found satisfaction on the trail.

?It is a definite sense of accomplishment making miles, meeting the challenge,? he said. ?Related to that is a consciousness about materialism. The concept of chasing the rainbow. How much money is enough??

Lemon said that the demand for more seems to be insatiable in America and that for him the key seems to be to draw a line in the sand somewhere and say that is enough.

?I?ve done that about 10 years ago,? he said. ?This experience is giving me more resolve because a lot of this materialism is about comfort, ease and convenience. Hey, on the trail it?s not real comfortable, things are not convenient and I?m reasonably happy being there. It shows me you don?t need these comforts and convenience.?

Another dimension of Lemon?s trip has been the privilege of traveling on public land.

?That?s truly amazing,? he said. ?Even when I?m not in a public forest going along a highway, that?s public land.?

So far Lemon has traveled over 1,000 miles and has about 500 more to go before he ends his trip near Coeur d?Alene. His setbacks will bring Lemon short of his goal of reaching Canada. He doesn?t want to travel too deep into the winter season, so he will hitch a ride in November with his parents for the last miles of his trip to visit an aunt who lives just over the border in Canada just before he comes home.

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