SLATE CREEK – Cowboys and mountain men possess a definitive amount of tenacity. There’s a grit deep in their veins as thick as the dirt beneath their nails.
And when you ask about their mounts, well, you might find they are more akin to a pal, than an animal. They are steady in spirit, hearty in work ethic, and determined, if not downright stubborn.
These men and their steeds have been the inspiration for countless novels, movies and television shows. For one Idaho County man, the 1989 film "Lonesome Dove" resonates beyond simple film appreciation. It defined a chapter in his life at Slate Creek.
For some, the guts and bravado of the cowboy life is learned by watching films. In fact, I might be so bold as to say a cowboy hasn’t earned his saddle unless he’s spent a few hours with Gus and Woodrow.
In “Lonesome Dove,” Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call launch an epic journey to drive cattle from Texas to Montana. The movie stars Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones as former Texas Rangers.
Life lessons are learned along the way (“it’s better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it”) and the bond of a true friendship is exposed (“You're one-of-a-kind, Augustus. We're gonna miss you.”).
Others are born with a mountain man’s mettle as if it were branded on them at birth. My father-in-law, Dan Doherty of Slate Creek, fits into this category. It’s as if the winds from the mountain blew down across the plains and filled his lungs as he took his first breath. His spirit wouldn’t feel complete until he found his place high in the hills.
For Dan, watching “Lonesome Dove” is like a visit with kindred spirits.
In 1996, a prequel to “Lonesome Dove” was released and titled "Dead Man's Walk." There’s a scene in this TV miniseries where a Comanche chief, Buffalo Hump, is warned "beware the dark woman on the white mule."
Buffalo Hump is told the woman will carry a sword and ride a white mule and will bring devastation on the Comanche people. Watching this mule walk towards him on the big screen, Dan couldn’t have known the tale that would spin in the future.
The two paths converged several years later, here, in Idaho County. Dan had to have that mule, maybe as a confirmation of the connection he felt to the cowboy lifestyle.
Dan was still working as an emergency room doctor at the time he purchased the mule he named Lonesome. But truth be told, his spirit belonged in the mountains. Bringing Lonesome home to his cabin kept Dan in touch with the ol’ West.
Dan was nine when his parents gave him a donkey. Guided by his inner cowboy, he walked to the local general store and bought a knapsack. He constructed a makeshift saddlebag and snuck a few cans of beans from his mother’s cabinets.
Grabbing a sleeping back he loaded his “pack horse” for a journey to an abandoned lot down the road. There he built a fire and cooked his meal before camping out for the night.
Like a brilliant sunrise rising in the sky after an extended winter, a thirst for adventure was born.
Dan’s not built for the city. He’s meant to saddle a horse and ride among the trees.
Dan has spent days on end packing through the Frank Church Wilderness on a horse named Dibbs, accompanied by his trusty Blue Healer, Scout. It was years after Dibbs was buried that Dan found Lonesome. Scout’s gone too, and new companions, Axl and Josie, were brought to the farm.
Like a coat of snow, Lonesome was covered completely in white. He enjoyed a wide, open pasture edged by Cottonwood trees and the rolling Slate Creek. He was kept company by geese and chickens and the occasional wild turkey and more frequent mule deer.
He was mild-mannered, and even a bit skittish. He kept a watchful eye as guests approached. But greeted a gentle touch with appreciation, if not desire for continued attention.
Lonesome was too long in the tooth to be ridden anymore. His back, left leg sported an abscess. But he was a tough old mule, fighting through previous illnesses that may have taken a weaker mule.
He enjoyed slowly trailing behind visitors hoping he would be granted a grooming. Or maybe he followed knowing once the trek returned to the corral, he would be rewarded with handfuls of oats. During the summers, Lonesome appreciated a visit from my daughter who offered him fresh apples from the garden.
Lonesome had lived to the far end of a life span for a mule. This year marked his 35th birthday.
On Saturday, Feb. 18, we visited Dan and his wife, Linda, at Slate Creek. Lonesome had been found that morning laying down in his corral. Dan explained the end was near for our friend. We walked to his corral, brushed him one last time and said our goodbyes.
During the night, while we slept, Lonesome passed away. That night I dreamed Lonesome was a young mule, healthy once again, running up the hill and away into the mountains.
It wasn’t an ominous greeting, like his famous movie scene, or a rushed escape. Lonesome was passing through, moving on to far away pastures. He found his freedom and youthful spirit, free to run wild or find a stand of Cottonwood trees where he could enjoy a cool breeze.
In “Lonesome Dove,” Woodrow says goodbye to his longtime pal, Gus. As much as the movie is about two cattlemen riding the trails, it is more about appreciating life and friendships.
At one point Gus says, “The only healthy way to live life is to learn to like all the little everyday things, like a sip of good whiskey in the evening, a soft bed, a glass of buttermilk, or a feisty gentleman like myself.”
That sums up the bond between Lonesome and Dan. Dan provided oats and a comfortable corral, and Lonesome repaid him with unwavering friendship.
Rest easy, old friend.