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Elegy for an Elegant Mule

May 13, 2007

From Bitterroot and Bergamot, December 14, 2005


I heard from my cousin that Burley died last week. Burley is the elegant mule, standing proudly at attention above, whose passing we mourn here.

Burley Ironsides has been a family institution since 1972. His mother was Peg LaMoose (in the above photo, the mount of my cousin GW2, the legendary zoologist cowboy). Burley’s sire was Montana Jack, a jack donkey.

Burley’s passing gives pause. In his retirement years on the MCG Ranch, we would always seek out and greet Burley in much the way one visits a respected elder. He was unfailingly gracious and tolerant of such tomfoolery as having to sport a Santa Claus hat over one ear. The photo below of our dignified friend was taken last summer.


GW2 took Burley in his prime years, along with daughter T, on many an adventure in the wilderness areas of Montana. Below is T on the historic occasion of Burley’s first passenger trip.

T has some wonderful Burley memories: “From the day he was born, Dad began gentling him by brushing him, scratching his ears, lifting up his feet, getting him used to the human touch. All proceeded nicely until weaning time. Burley then became a little hellion, racing around the corral, shaking his head and striking out with both front and hind feet. He climbed up and over the solid post and pole corral several times. Dad put snow fencing up all around the top of the corral, raising it to a height of about 12 feet.

“For several months, Burley continued to be mad, and there were times Dad wondered if a riding mule was such a good idea after all. But eventually, time and hormones came under control, Burley settled
down, and his training began in earnest. I was the first one to ride him, as Dad figured I was lighter and would bounce on the hard ground if Burley took a dislike to the proceedings.

“The day arrived. We saddled up Burley, Dad got up on Mrs. Moose and looped Burley’s halter rope snugly around the saddle horn, and I climbed aboard Burley. His big ears went back and forth a couple of times as I talked to him, and that was it. Burley was a riding mule.”


T goes on: “For many years, Dad and I went together on pack trips into the Bob Marshall Wilderness with Burley, Mrs. Moose, and Dolly Davis, who was Burley’s half sister. Dad usually rode Burley himself, but occasionally allowed me to ride him. It is true: mules are much better to ride than horses in the mountains. They have a smoother gait, are more sure-footed over rough ground, and don’t panic in difficult situations such as fording wild rivers and plunging through belly-deep mud.

In later years, we went on pack trips with Smoke Elser, a wilderness outfitter. Many of Smoke’s pack animals were Burley’s half-brothers and -sisters. Burley always became the favorite of the wranglers and the paying dudes on these trips.

“At home, Burley’s favorite place to hang out on hot summer days was the brick sidewalk directly in front of the front door. Anyone coming or going from the house was given the option of ducking under Burley’s neck or sidling around his backside. We figured it was a good way to screen visitors.

“Whenever Burley was far out in the pasture, all Dad had to do was holler ‘C’mon, Burley!’ Burley’s head would come up, his long ears would point forward and he would come to Dad.”


When Burley was born in 1972 (see above for Burley’s first hours), the world did not stop to take note. Nor did we kids understand that Burley would come to represent a world that our parents showed us and that we now value in a way that is impossible to describe. My cousins, my brother and I all grew up in Montana with parents who saw the last of the Montana frontier. These were magnificent people who fought in WWII, miraculously survived, and came back to Montana to forge lives in business and academia that were still rooted in their pioneer heritage. In their spare time they built log cabins, preserved open space, wrote books, and told the stories of their grandparents who had come to the west with nothing but hope. And they took us, many times, to the wild places we would otherwise never have known.

Burley, the seemingly immortal pack mule, always seemed to represent those remote, pristine places of our youth. Even those of us who never took a pack trip with Burley (God help me, I was living in Chicago when Burley was born), came to associate Burley with a wilderness ethos that we would have to try to keep alive for the next generation.

Now our gentle friend is gone. The fuzzy colt has lived a lifetime and so, it seems, have we. The legacy we can pass on is the experience of pristine places. Part of our job here on earth is to protect these places so they can remain forever.

T sent a quote from The Outermost House by Henry Beston:

We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.

by Edith Oberley

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  1. May 15, 2007 at 10:55 am

    This is lovely, Edith.

  2. May 20, 2007 at 11:42 pm

    Thank you, Dale!

  3. December 12, 2007 at 12:40 am

    Burley wasn’t just a mule he was a piece of the past we struggle to never let go. I’ll remember him with fondness as I do the stories my mother told of riding into the South Fork with GW2.
    thank you for sharing some of your memories

  4. December 12, 2007 at 2:58 pm

    Burley and what he represented holds us all together, Milaine. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

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