'Mountains, Mules and Memories' author recalls his mule-packing days in the High Sierra
Former mule packer Bill DeCarteret, 87, has written an engaging book of local lore about his 25 years owning and operating Mineral King pack station in the Sierra Nevada.
As the cover of “Mountains, Mules and Memories” states, it is full of “humorous, insightful and reflective stories from the life of a packer in the High Sierra.”
There was the time he rescued a man lost for two days in the wilderness. The man gave him a tip and drove away. DeCarteret opened up the folded money to see how much was there – one dollar.
Or the time he skinned a rattlesnake whole, filled the skin with sand, placed it carefully atop the gear in a bag and rode into the pack station where a fellow packer lifted the bag off the mule.
“He caught a glimpse of the rattlesnake, dropped the bag and let out a yell that could be heard for miles,” DeCarteret wrote. “My party and I couldn’t stop laughing. The formerly friendly packer knew he’d been had and commenced to chasing me around the corrals. A great end to a great trip!”
Friends have always liked his mule-packer stories, so a few years ago he started writing them down – longhand.
He caught a glimpse of the rattlesnake, dropped the bag and let out a yell that could be heard for miles.
Mountains, Mules and Memories
DeCarteret got his start in the Boy Scouts when he was assigned to care for the burros at Camp Mirimichi. In 1945, he got his first paying job working for Vaud Cunningham at High Sierra Pack and Saddle at Huntington Lake.
“I worked three weeks and was paid $30, plus room and board,” he said.
Dillard and Floyd Fike bought the pack station and DeCarteret worked there the next summer. In 1947, he worked for Ray Buckman at Mineral King pack station.
But the realities of life intervened. “I decided I had to have a full-time job,” he said.
For weeks, he stopped every day at the personnel office at the Edison Company at Big Creek until they finally hired him “to keep me out of the office,” he said. On weekends and days off, he would help out at Floyd Pike’s pack station at Huntington.
In 1958, he started looking around for a pack station to buy and “Mineral King pack station came up for sale,” he said.
The next year, he married Marilyn, who went from working in dental offices to running the Mineral King store, post office, housekeeping cabins and dining room.
“Everything we’ve done we’ve done together,” her husband said. “There was never a successful mule packing station without a special wife.”
The couple now lives in Exeter.
A lot of interesting people stopped by Mineral King in those 25 years, Marilyn said. Actress Janet Leigh helped her make sandwiches in the 1970s when Disney almost developed Mineral King Valley into a resort.
She is fond of this quote from Art Buchwald: “The best things in life are not things.”
Marilyn was good with a camera. She took the photo on the back of the book showing a handsome young man in a Western shirt standing next to a mule and with Farewell Gap in the distance. She also took the cover photo.
DeCarteret has great respect for mules. “They think all the time, where a horse just lollygags along,” he said.
People think mules are stubborn but really they’re just smart, he said.
“If you leave a gate open just a little, a horse will try to get through and tear himself up,” he said. “A mule will stand there until you open the gate wide enough.”
His personal riding mule was named Jeannie, who he had for 25 years. “She never knew she was a mule,” he said. “She was just part of the family.”
Cottontail, named after his white rump, was dependable at all times.
The mule Dynamite, whose prickly nature explains his name, refused to cross a bridge where the planks were laid lengthwise because he could see the river below, he said. DeCarteret let him swim across.
Then there was Blue, an old mule used for children’s day rides. The other livestock respected her so much they would let her cut into line, he said. She lived 42 years and is one of the few mules that DeCarteret buried at his old ranch in Three Rivers.
She never knew she was a mule. She was just part of the family.
Bill DeCarteret, High Sierra packer
But DeCarteret is especially proud of having the opportunity to train dozens of young men as packers – there were about 100 over the years.
“We start them out at 15 or 16 years old. It takes me three years to ‘make a packer out of ’em,’ ” he said. When he knew the young packer was ready, he would let him take 10 to 12 animals and a party of five or so into the High Sierra.
“It’s a responsibility they’d never have in their lives. If they got to be vice president of General Motors, they’d always have the president to go to,” he said. “It was just between them and the man upstairs to make sure everyone was safe.”
All have led successful careers and lives, he said. Today, it’s difficult to find a young person with the right attitude to be a packer, he said.
After selling the pack station in the 1980s, DeCarteret spent the next 20 to 25 years designing, making and selling mule-packing gear such as panniers.
For now, the book is not in bookstores or on Amazon. The price is $21.95. To obtain one, call DeCarteret at 559-592-2878, or write to 758 Sherwood St., Exeter, CA 93211.
Mountains, Mules and Memories
Author: Bill DeCarteret
758 Sherwood St., Exeter, CA 93211.