Bill Decarteret: Mountains, Mules, and Memories
Bill DeCarteret has a lot of respect for mules. Where people think they’re stubborn, his experiences tell him they’re smart; he should know.
Bill had his first taste of working with mules as a Boy Scout and wound up running his own pack stations for 25 years.
Now, he has written a book compiling his years of handling stock, teenage packers, and the visitors who hired his services for work or pleasure. Mixed in is a generous dose of his love for the mountains and good fortune at living the hard, but rewarding, life that allowed him to call Mineral King his summer home.
His stories in Mountains, Mules and Memories provide an education on the ways of horses and mules, insight into turning kids into responsible adults, and psychology on dealing with the general public and government officials. The quirks of each provide some amusing yarns along the trail.
Bill can’t say whether or not his love for the mountains started in 1929 when his parents drove him and his sister to Huntington Lake for his first camping trip, because he was only three months old at the time. However, it didn’t take long for the lure of the mountains to enter his blood.
When he was about 12, he started attending the Boy Scout Camp Mirimichi at Huntington Lake. After three years as a camper, he served for two summers on the junior camp staff. Although Bill had no experience with livestock, he was caretaker of the burros that were at the camp so scouts could learn about packing.
After one summer of leading burros on foot, Bill bought a horse, which he used for the pack trips during his second year. When camp was over, he carried his experience into his first job working with mules at Vaud Cunningham’s High Sierra Saddle and Pack Station. By then, he was hooked.
“I think packing in the Sierra is almost as bad as prospecting,” he said. “Once it gets in your blood, it’s there.”
This was despite early experiences with people, like the group of 15 or 20 men from an oil company who arrived about four hours late and drunk to the gills. Their gear, including a large supply of bottles, exceeded what they had been allowed, so it took extra time to get packed. After one overloaded pack dumped along the trail, a barely-conscious drunk had to carry some six-foot tent poles, which he held cross-wise on his saddle. Passing through trees, the poles caught and he was scraped off his horse like scales on a fish. He lay motionless on the path.
Bill writes: I yelled to Joe, “Stop! I think we just killed the guy!”
Joe, with a lot more experience than his teenage companion, figured the guy was too drunk to die and loaded him and his poles back on the horse. When the over-burdened mules finally reached the camp, the ungrateful campers only managed to complain about how late they were.
Experiences like this seem to be the exception, because most of Bill’s stories deal with gracious visitors and friendly valley neighbors who would always lend a hand.
“You know, most of the people who go to the mountains are a little different,” he said. “They’re not demanding, they enjoy the mountains, they see the beauty.”
Perhaps also, as time went on, Bill learned how to deal with the few people who could be difficult, such as the inspector who told him he had to make his outhouse at the pack station fly-proof.
The summer of 1947, after graduating from high school, Bill took a job as packer at Ray Buckman’s Mineral King Packing Company. After a summer of adventures, he was scheduled to continue working during deer season when he made an unforgiveable mistake. He asked Ray for a raise and was fired on the spot.
By then he needed a full-time job anyway, so he hung out at Southern California Edison’s Big Creek project until they hired him. This not only let him stay in the mountains, but on weekends he could again pack for Cunningham.
He worked for Edison at Big Creek and other mountain stations for five years, then transferred to their substation near Visalia. During his years with Edison, he was married and divorced. Once he was on his own again, he felt the urge to get back to the mountains.
In 1958, he bought the Mineral King Pack Station and began learning what it took to be the boss. His first lesson was on putting together the financing to make the purchase and set up operation. Thanks to the good will and trust of ranchers Emmet and Adolph Gill, he got the $15,000 he needed.
After his first year of operating an all-male facility, Bill had a girlfriend he was serious about, enough that he planned to ask her to marry him as soon as he had the money. A friend convinced him not to wait. He wanted Bill to accompany him on a cattle venture in Nevada. If he brought Marilyn along, they could get married there. Only they would be leaving at 4 a.m. the next day. Somehow, Marilyn accepted this proposal and they went.
Marilyn said that living at a pack station sounded pretty good to her.
“I’d had a horse since I was young and I thought, ‘gee, I get to go up there and ride horses all summer,’” she said. “Little did I know that he was really looking for a cook. No, it was wonderful. The best years of our life.”
One important activity at the pack station was training 15- or 16-year-olds the skills required of a packer and the responsibilities that went with it—at first all boys, but by the ‘70s girls also, and in 1975 an all-girl crew. The newer recruits worked around the pack station, gradually taking on more chores, learning about packing and caring for the animals, until they were ready after two or three years to take a party out on the trail alone.
“It was just between them and the man upstairs to make sure everything went properly,” said Bill. “The stock was taken good care of, people had a good time, and they were safe. It was more responsibility than they would ever have again in their lives.”
“Some of the parties we had, you could see a little concern when a 17-year-old kid was going to take them out for a week,” he said. “By the time they came back, they were exchanging addresses. Those kids proved themselves in a hurry.”
The young crew became like family to the DeCarterets. They call them their kids. The former employees still get together with “Mom and Dad” sometimes. One of the “kids” visited from Alabama just last month.
Also helping out were their own children, Kelly and Emmet, and occasionally Bill’s daughter from his previous marriage, Bonnie. It was Kelly who inspired Bill to write his stories.
“The idea was that someday I would get a little binder and I’d write these things down,” he said. “She’d have them to pass on to her kids. One thing led to another, and now we have a book.”