Photography

Mule Dragger: A Return To Wilderness

Words and photos by Natalie Rhea

Nature is constantly changing, and the only thing we can do is surrender. Working against it never bodes well for anyone, but leaning into it is where the real magic happens.

 

While most will recognize Chris Eyer as his pseudonym ‘Mule Dragger,’ I dubbed him the ‘philosophical cowboy,’ as he uses the natural world and spiritual ideals as his compass. His connection to all that is wild is inspiring; a synergy between nature and man. A return to the wilderness in mind and body.

We met Chris at his ranch in remote Montana near the North Fork of The Blackfoot River. As he loaded the mules into the trailer, I noticed one had a deep wound on either side of her rear that was still healing. He recounted during a snowstorm last winter, she veered of and fell through a hole. It took Chris a while to find her, but when he did she was cool as a cucumber while he spent hours shoveling a way out for her; she trusted him. It was evident watching his dynamic with her and the rest of the pack string that this was more than a team, it was a family.

creekbed

As an adult, ‘packing’ became Chris’s career of choice, which he discovered at the ripe age of 16 when hiking the Sierras. He was in awe of a string of mules ahead of him, an iconic image of the American West. He was sold. But it’s the harmony of the wilderness and the work that enriches him; watching the landscape unfold with each step, overcoming adversity when Mother Nature has her own plans, and becoming more in tune with all of his senses. His personal mantra, “The heart of the wilderness is within the wilderness of your heart. Ride there” says it all.

The essence of this work is cumbersome. The only way to get anything in and out of wilderness areas is by human or hoof. What cannot be carried on one’s own back must be packed on a mule or horse. That is where Chris comes in. As a highly-skilled cowboy, he is entrusted with taking material goods for the National Forest Service, nonprofits, and outfitters into wilderness areas.

mule back
pack of mules

His pack string consists of a fiercely beautiful mare, nine mules (at most), and a black dog named Otis, who leads the string with a stick in his mouth, but is sure to keep the pace steady. He cultivates a kinship with his string. There is an obvious tenderness and trust, the result of having endured adversity together. Rain or shine, scree or icy cliff edge — they have traversed through it all. When he has been blinded by darkness with no moonbeams to illuminate the trails, he has leaned on his team’s instinct to find the way. Admittedly, he understands that sometimes leading is following, a lesson learned through his time off-grid.

The wilderness is the original, and most practical way, to become more in tune with ourselves. It will throw every obstacle in front of us, but the true test is our ability to overcome, pivot, build resilience, and confront our fears, allowing nature to recalibrate us to its rhythm.

A 6-foot hole in the ground borders Chris’s fenceline. “Do you know what that’s for?” He asks. It was obvious. To have that kind of resolve and stoicism to always be prepared for the inevitable was surprisingly admirable; it carried wisdom with it; wisdom he earned out there.

pretty boi mule

I asked Chris about the methods he uses to pack his string: old school knots and cinches that took time and practice to perfect, with plenty of mistakes along the way. With every mile, he gets more dialed into the loads being balanced and stable, the sound of something afoot, the tension of the string behind him. Packing over two thousand miles annually in an environment that is constantly changing keeps him on the toes of his Tecovas.

When he is not packing resources into hard-to-reach areas, Chris takes groups into the wilderness including bachelor parties, volunteers, backcountry expeditions; most of whom have not experienced the remote wilderness. He describes the mules as ‘midwives’ — delivering folks to an authentic experience in the wild.

fence and landscape

 

When we remove ourselves from the noise of the world and place ourselves in a situation where the core focus is survival, all that matters suddenly becomes clear: warmth, food, reliance, structure. The task lists drift away in the wind. Self-preservation turns into a tribal mentality. The things we deem important change and the value system within our community becomes elevated. This type of mindfulness allows us to see more clearly, and understand more deeply.

Chris notes that polarization does not exist out in these mountains — meaning the topics we find divisive in everyday life are diluted in a place as magnificent as Montana, with the scapegoat wilderness being an unbiased backdrop for heartfelt conversations. Anyone that participates in a backcountry experience is bound to come back with a new understanding of how they move through the world.

firepit

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