Welcome to Idaho (Rhymes with Snow)

The icy flakes hit us in the Caribou National Forest where I was expecting to find the “Welcome to Idaho” sign. Except there was no sign, only sideways blasting snow and 2 mules. They looked at me wondering why the hell we were still headed up the mountain toward the flake spitting clouds.

Welcome to Idaho Cracker! Yes, the top hat, which I traditionally wear when crossing a state line is in this photo – just not on my head. (McCoy Creek Road, Caribou National Forest)
Brick navigates a snow covered bridge (Caribou National Forest)

In to the Cold Caribou

As the snow piled up on my hat and my hands froze on the reins, I, too, wondered why we were still going. The answer was simple: I was 7,000 feet up in the Caribou Mountain Range and my next destination, Blackfoot, Idaho, was 80 miles away. Forward was the only direction out of this.

In to a high, cold land. Best to keep moving.

This part of Idaho is not for the indecisive. Wondering was fruitless. Walking is what counted. Putting the miles behind us, one muddy boot at a time, is what would make the difference.

What followed were 5 days of manic-depressive Rocky Mountain fall weather. One moment snow flakes gaining entry to my poncho, frosting my beard and covering the saddle in 3 inches of snow. Socks sloshing washing-machine style in cracked boots that let in the muddy slush.

Then, 3 hours later, bright sunshine baking me out of my foul weather gear. I shuck off my shirt and pants in the middle of the muddy road, leaning on my mules as I peel of thermal tops and bottoms. Then the top layer goes back on until the sun drops behind the mountains and the mules’ ears grow cold to the touch.

Night falls. I crawl in to my bivy bag. The next morning, I wake to a bivy bag full of what looks like shaved ice where the condensation off my body has frozen instead of escaped through the supposedly breathable fabric.

I rise. Saddle the mules. Walk another day West toward Blackfoot.

Here are a few photos to give you a sense of our daily routine. These are photos taken of my first camp on the road between Alpine, Wyoming and Blackfoot, Idaho. It started dry. It ended cold and snowy.

My bivy bag set up for the night. It’s under the camo poncho. I find the bivy bag quicker than setting up my tent. Plus, the view of stars is better.
The “front door” view of my bivy bag under the poncho. Cozy.
This is bear country. That’s why my food is hung in a tree. It’s also hunter country. I put orange vests on my mules so they – especially Brick – look less like a moose or elk to an over eager hunter. This month a rancher showed me photos of 2 of his horses that had been shot to death. I’ve seen this sort of photo too often.
This is the scene the next day. I woke to snow covered mules. My bivy bag is set up under the tree next to the orange vests. Not a heavy snow but a reminder that winter is coming soon.
The view from my bivy bag. Makes it hard to leave my cozy sleeping bag.
I brush the snow off the mules’ backs before saddling them. Then it’s time…
…to hit the road. Mornings, the head lamp is needed if I’m to get an early enough start to make 20 miles before dark. Brick looks as lackluster as I do at the prospect of the cold day ahead. At this point, we still have 80 miles to the next town.
Blech. My view of my boots. The cord hanging down is the draw string on my Army surplus poncho.
My boots are now officially worn out. But not retired. Here, plastic bags I use to keep my socks dry – sort of – in the snow and slush.
Frost and sun: this particular night, it got so cold my water bottles froze solid. Luckily, creek water makes great coffee.

My passage through the Caribou Range made for some memorable photos and tales, more of which I hope to share with you as time permits. Photos of shrimp-like creatures that live in icy streams a mile above sea level. Stories of a quinoa-snatching fox. Stories of men that boil moose hearts in creek water and heave salt bricks over fences. And yet more tales of Indian Relay Races and Shoshone – Bannock blessings.

But right now, what we need is a day off.

In Blackfoot

The mules and I arrived in Blackfoot yesterday, October 6. We found what we were looking for: a warm, dry place to take a day off. Great big thank yous to:

  • The Humprey family: for hosting the mules and me, the shower, doing my laundry and the use of the smooth riding Buick LeSabre!
  • The Blackfoot sheriff’s departmen:t for assisting with my Blackfoot arrival
  • Bill and Linda Sailer: for opening the cattle guard gate and buying me breakfast
  • Clarence and Mary Teton: for the alfalfa for the mules, the coffee, the Shoshone blessing of my mules, trip and wife Julia
  • Kermit: the offer of a place to stay next time we’re on the Res.

You guys really exemplify the best of American hospitality. This week, after the cold slog through the Caribou, it was especially appreciated.

Where to Next

From Blackfoot, the mules and I head toward Atomic City, Idaho.

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[…] Julia and I go on long-distance saddle trips. We’ve ridden mules out our front gate and spent six weeks riding from our home in western North Carolina to Virigina and back. A while back, I rode my mules Brick and Cracker from our home 2,300 miles to Idaho. […]

Bill Kelley
Bill Kelley
4 years ago

Hi Bernie! This is Bill at the Alpine Library. I met you a couple of weeks ago. Glad to see you made it safely to Blackfoot. I’m enjoying reading all of your stories on this site. I’m sure you are probably getting snow today (Oct. 9), but after that it looks like fairly decent weather — temps in the low to mid 50s this weekend for Atomic City. Safe travels!

Scott Taylor
Scott Taylor
4 years ago

You walked right past me and I missed you. I’m on a ranch at Wayan. I spend all summer chasing cows in the Caribou’s.

Geneil Dillehay
Geneil Dillehay
4 years ago

Thanks so much for sharing your journey and he accompanying photos. Please you all stay safe!

Rose
Rose
4 years ago

Wow! You are a determined sort of man, certainly deserves respect, and you have it.
I must admit I’m envious of the relationship you undoubtedly have with your fine mules. Blessings sir🙏

Todd Curry
Todd Curry
4 years ago

Towards Idaho you say!!! Looks like mission accomplished. It’s a bit colder than I would like but Brick and cracker look happy and healthy. Here in Quincy Illinois we still talk about the MULE MAN and his journey. I will have to update everyone. Keep posting and I will keep Q-town informed.

Deborah
Deborah
4 years ago

Thank you so much for sharing your Travels!! Blessings to you and your mules for a safe journey.

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