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Tevis: Max and Junior (the mule)

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Max Merlich

Like most things in life, once you get older, it is the journey to the destination that you will remember, not the arrival there. While we did get to Auburn, it was in the truck and trailer down from Foresthill. But we sure had fun.

So many people helped us get ready for the Tevis as well as during the ride. I will probably forget some and for that I apologize but I must mention Lisa, who trained with me and spent many days on the road, crewing and putting up with my fretting and worry. Gordon and Sharon I owe a lot who gave me confidence, advice and then came all the way down and crewed the day of the ride. Jane Switzer and her mother and father who gave us a great place to camp and pasture Junior in May, set up the pre-ride with Vicky Testa and Kim Nunez, and for coming out and cheering us on at Robie, Robinson, Michigan Bluff and Foresthill to console us. Tom Noll who gave me a great cheat sheet on times and pacing between the VC’s and a very accurate description of the trail that we had not ridden. And Ona for much good advice and encouragement and the reminder to have fun! And to all the fellow riders who gave us so much good luck and best wishes before the ride, thanks, we thought about you on the trail and really thought we were going to make it.

We pre-rode the Foresthill to the river on Memorial day but could not cross due to high water. Vicky Testa and I were dropped off on Wed noon before the ride by Lisa out at the Hwy 49 crossing of the trail and we rode out to the river, crossed and crossed back and rode to Auburn. It was a slow trot and a hot afternoon. The river was on the way up and we did not dally on the other side as Junior was getting light on his feet on the crossing and the water was up to my calves. Vicky assured it would be lower for the crossing during the ride. Crossing No-Hands bridge on the way in was quite a thrill and the trail remains uphill from there to the finish but not bad trail. I was reflecting on if I would be riding it Sunday morning but no way to tell. We went to the BBQ that night at the fairgrounds in Auburn and I got to see Crockett Dumas who I had not seen in 25 years. Met some other great folks also.

We hauled up to Robie Park on Thursday morning and found a good place to camp and set up. We saw our fellow NW riders as well as made some new friends. We walked Junior a couple of times and he was clearly getting jacked up. He made friends with Ron Wilkins and Diane LIndholm’s big molly mules. Chris Yost and Nance Worman showed up about dark and we made plans for a ride the next day. We rode out for a couple miles and back so we could see the start and called it good and made plans to meet at 430 am for the start. All the critters were ready and a steady stream of rigs were piling in. A horse evidently spooked in his pen a few camps from us mid morning and ended up breaking his front leg and more and was put down and hauled off which put a little damper on things. It was pretty awful to hear that going on. We vetted in fine and packed up our boxes and the Westergard’s arrived late afternoon and we made our plans. The vet in was great to watch and we saw some famous horses like Bogus Thunder vet in, awesome horse. The atmosphere in camp was pretty electric and Lisa commented that it was like the super bowl of endurance. I had to tie Junior to the trailer finally because he was so jacked over all the goings on. I think he was afraid the ride was going to start without him. The ride meeting went on and on but the dinner was great.

We were in pen 2 which was a horrible place to muster up 60-80 horses in the dark. Dust, rocks, trees and amped-up horses made that a stressful time. We were told to circle and wait for release on a controlled start. Junior behaved well although Lisa had had to hold him for me to mount. He had been beside himself in his pen but calmed during the saddling operation at 4 am. I finally just stood in the middle of the pen and waited. Was supposed to ride with Nance and Chris but could not find them in the chaos, turns out Chris had overslept! How could that possibly be…..I did not sleep at all!

We were out of the pen on a controlled start which surged up the road in fits and starts and was more stressful than the pen. Some kicking and bucking and yelling going on but we stayed out of that, and we were off. Actually once released it went pretty well, folks were fairly polite and in a mile we were on single track downhill switchbacks to Hwy 89 crossing. I think there was a big wreck behind me, I heard it and was glad it was behind me. Daylight came and it became apparent fast that we were going to trot downhill fast on rocky trail or get run over so we did. We crossed 89 and started up Squaw Valley ski area on good single track hard uphill. Some guy was bucked off behind me and his horse was ramming through our group and I had to spin Junior and face him in a bad spot but Junior held trail and the horse bailed over and continued until he reached the next group and was caught. He was tied to a tree and left, that commotion and delay caused a huge traffic jam but only a few people were nasty about it. Soon we were up above the lodge and in to the ski runs and service roads and there was room to pass. We passed Crockett Dumas and several people and I knew it was going to be a good day on the mule. He was so strong and competitive. He pulled the mountain over Squaw at a fast trot and I once saw 150 on the monitor but most of the time he was 100-110, I knew he was in great shape. At High Camp he did not drink but we fill bottles, sponged and left. We rode into the Granite Chief wilderness with three mules leading a pack of a dozen riders. It was mule country, big boulders, bogs, roots and tough trail. Mostly walking, short stretches of trotting. It was high and beautiful country, you could see Tahoe and the Pacific Ocean if it was clear. It was about the only time I got to gaze around at the view all day, the going was slow enough you could let the mule pick his way. I was breaking him off big handfuls of tall grass up near my saddle and feeding them to him on the fly. I have heard it could be boggy and we hit one bog but it was a dry year. Between there and Lyons Ridge we did some serious downhill trotting on rocks, it was easy to see standards for trotting downhill were going to be lowered considerably here or you were going to be run over or not make time. Just out of Lyons Junior drank well and it was the last water in a trough but there was more. He actually threatened other horses when they tried to get in on the last of the water! We came into Lyons Ridge and he was down and we vetted and were out of there in a hurry. Sharon’s advice on that was true, we passed many people in the VC eating watermelon and fooling around. Junior had a few bites and was pulling me down the trail when he saw horses leaving so on we went.

In a mile or so we came around a corner in a good trot and there was Cougar Rock. I had pretty well made up my mind to go around that but I was curious to see just how bad it was. I have heard it both ways. A women on a big chestnut was up on the rock scrambling with all four and the chestnut was trying to stand on his hind legs and bail back out. There was a line of people waiting for their turn at it and we never slowed, we went right and passed another half dozen. After that it was along a high ridge on some good single track up and down and we were passed by quite a few anxious riders. There were not many good places to pass and I could hear rumbling from behind but I was not in the lead. This is the only part of the ride where I saw some bad sportsmanship and not much, just some passing where it was not too smart. Some knee hooking and that sort of thing, and it was the only time the mule threatened to kick. Then we were into Red Star and he was down fast and we saw our NW vet Dr. Timmons! He made me come back and said he saw something in the mules RR but not enough to make me trot again, just said to be aware. He circled RR to watch on my card which may have meant something, maybe not.

Soon we were on a two track road with good trotting and we made the 7-8 miles to Robinson in short order. I rode with Krista Snyder some here on her Paint Corky and we had a good talk. She went on to finish 28th, good for her. This was pretty cool in that there was a big crowd and people actually cheering. There was Lisa, Gordon and Sharon who took over and we were vetted in fast, Junior had a good roll and went to eating. He was hungry and had drank well and looked and felt great. There were some horses in difficulty already at this VC, it was a hard 36 miles and I think it sorts out weak and the sick fast. We were well ahead of our schedule and all was good. Gordon and Sharon were crewing for Tony Bennedetti as well and he was gone already but his horse was not looking so good they said.

We left at noon on time and headed out through the top of Duncan Canyon and down Mosquito ridge. Here was some rocky trail that was downhill and had to be trotted to make time. It was hot by then and we were in the old Red Star Burn that my company had done some work on both the fire fighting and some salvage logging on the west end. It was a huge burn and I understand that the trail was relocated after the fire. We crossed road 43 and were downhill into Dusty Corners on a dusty rocky red dirt two track that was downhill all the way and nasty to trot. It was like this all the way to Dusty and it was not relaxing, you had to stay riding all the time and Junior was doing those little slips in the rear in the rocks and the dust. Again I rode some with Krista Snyder. In Dusty Junior drank a ton of sponge water and some better water, filled our bottles and were off on the Pucker Point trail. I loved this trail, it was all single track and on a north facing slope with big beautiful timber and cool shade. We made great time here with a small group, it was good trail and good going. I can’t say that I noticed Pucker Point when we went by, there were some high sides but the trail was good and solid and Junior just wanted to go. Into Last Chance and the halfway mark on the ride we were thinking that we have probably come more than halfway in terms of difficulty. Junior was down fast and ate pretty well but he peed darker than I wanted. He had been drinking more than he ever has so I was not really worried but it was hot and he had put out hard already. We elyted him for the 5th time and left for the canyons.

In about a mile you hit the edge of the middle fork of the American River. It was a planned get off and run for me and we did. It is a 2200 foot drop in a mile or two and it is a lot of switchbacks and rock. We ran where we could. Had one nice little pool of water left on the way down and he drank well and soon we crossed the swinging bridge. I was alone during this descent but there were people in the river when I got there. I went up to the drinking hole up the trail a couple of hundred yards and it was just like advertised, good cool water. We had a drink and a bath and were ready to go when the Japanese gentlemen rode up. I used my scoop to cool his horse and told him if he wanted to pass now would be a good time as I was going to tail up. He said “no, please go slow, horse tired” Off we went with me wondering about a fellow on a horse I had heard he paid big bucks for asking a guy with a $1500 mule to go slow! But this gentlemen finished also…. It took a long time to tail out of this hole and I had to get on twice or puke in front of people. It was very hot and very steep and rocky with a ton of switchbacks. I think this is where Khrista Snyder passed me. Into Devils Thumb, no food but water and then only a mile to Deadwood. Junior drank some and ate well and we left behind the Japanese gentlemen.

Eldorado Canyon is just about as deep but is a little longer trail so not as steep. We rode some of it and then got off and ran what we could. I met a lady from the Midwest riding JAC Natalie, one of Annarose’s great horses and we visited on the way down when we were not gasping. We were passed near the bottom by some riders and I tailed up some and rode some into Michigan Bluff. Some of this was with a fellow from Colorado who had been running up front but had been told to slow. There had been no easy water to get to in the bottom but a mile from the top there was a little creek that flowed out on the trail in a muddy puddle. Junior kept going up the creek until he found a nice pool and drank well. He was standing like a dog drinking out of the toilet with his feet on the seat and had me hung in an alder tree but I let him drink! Into Michigan where we saw Kim and Vicky and some other nice folks cheering us on. Julie Suhr, who I have wanted to meet for years and have emailed some came up to us and gave us a hug. Junior spied mash buckets and pulled me across the yard but we were told he could not have them, they were for another rider. I thought I was not going to be able to drag him off them but I did, I felt so bad for him, I could just feel him sink. No hay at all there, some kind fellow gave me a handful of straw and we left waking down the street with him eating straw! It was only a mile or two to Chicken Hawk Volcano VC so we trotted on. At a quarter mile we got off and I tailed him up a dirt road into the VC at mile 65. He was at 64 in a couple minutes and I was thinking that this has went well for us, I am pretty much ruined from the running and tailing but he is fine and still has good energy and is only 4 miles from our crew at Foresthill. Some nice folks are sponging him and I let them sponge his rear end after seeing the water is not cold and it is still 95 out. Was this a mistake? Never know, I had been doing it all day at times it was so hot and have done it most of his rides that were this hot if the water is not that cold. Anyways we are pulsed and he is eating hard and when we trot out we are told to come back………Six vets line up and watch us a second time and that is that, he is lame. The all agree RR and think rear end. Two of them palpate him and cannot find any soreness, he just keeps on chowing down. I cannot find anything on his legs, feet or rear end either. DeWayne where are you when I need you???? He says I can try to work it out but I figure it must be a deep pull, a cramp would show. And just like that, it is over.

We get a ride down to Foresthill and meet our crew, unsaddle him and feed him. I am explaining to Sharon what happened and going over his rump there it is, a baseball size lump of cramp and he is not liking it touched. Sharon and I put on Arnica at great peril and by morning he is sound at the trot on pavement and by Sunday afternoon in S Oregon on the way home at a grazing spot he is his old self pulling me around. Was it water on his rear, lack of elytes or just the cumulative trauma of downhill trotting and all the little slips. Never know but I would bet the latter, he got half again as much elyte as he ever has and it was so hot I cannot imagine semi warm water causing him to cramp.

As we are hauling out of Foresthill about dark I see my fellow riders from the trail leaving for Auburn and it was bittersweet to see them go but we wished them the best of luck. At that point most all of the hard stuff is behind you and even though it is the final push, it is nice to have downhill easy trail. I am sure if we could have gotten to that point Junior would have picked it up and went on home strong. On the other hand, three of our PNER riders, Sue Walz, Ernie Schrader and Dean Hoalst were all pulled at Lower Quarry, six miles from the end. What heartbreak. But I did hear that Dean’s great horse PK Whiskey, finished the ride at 20 years old. What a horse!

Will we try again? Hard to say right now, because of the difficulty of the trail the time element becomes a large factor. That is the only thing I did not like about the ride is the pressing need to trot downhill on ground that I normally do not trot on. If you don’t, you probably won’t make it on time. Having a mount with a good surefooted downhill trot or even a real fast walk would be a big advantage I would think. We have a while to think on it anyway and it was all in all a tremendous experience.

Most of all I am glad I did not hurt him in any way and brought him home sound and ready for the NC 100 later this month. Toy Mt will look flat and the trail smooth compared to Tevis!
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