Making my peace with the desert – and a mule

To many, the desert spring where my wife and I live is remote and isolated. But to others it is a center, or can become one. 

Jeff Muse
Pipe Spring National Monument, near Moccasin, Arizona, is a mere 40 acres inside the 120,000-acre Kaibab Paiute reservation. In the distance are the Vermilion Cliffs.

Unloading the groceries last night beneath the luminescent spiral of the Milky Way, its horizon-wide arc fading into sky glow – suburbs, casinos, 3,000-room hotels – I heard Red kicking his trough, begging.

I’ve come to know that sound, that rhythm, a slow, steady cadence in the high-desert darkness, every time my headlights swing through the corral and then I step from my car door to the hatchback. Boom. Boom. I’ve come to know it, to cherish it. I know now that a retired Grand Canyon mule, though lanky and rickety and three decades old, thinks he’s in charge of this place.

And he is, really. He’s in charge of my date with my wife this morning. Carhartts and work gloves. Old uniform boots. We’ll shovel manure and walk “the boys.”

Paula and I have lived at Pipe Spring National Monument in Arizona for nearly two years. It’s federal property, 40 acres, a postage stamp of sagebrush and juniper, apples, peaches, plums. It’s surrounded by the 120,000-acre reservation of the Kaibab Band of Paiutes, their ancestral homeland. And as the monument’s website explains, generations of “American Indians, Mormon ranchers, plants, animals, and many others have depended on the life-giving water,” just as we now depend on it to drink, bathe, wash our clothes. We depend on ­decades-old snowmelt trickling through sandstone.

But honestly, until Paula applied to be the interpretive manager of this site, a position requiring year-round residence in this small, dust-covered house – a position she took to get back into the National Park Service after four years with another agency – I hadn’t known about Pipe Spring. Hadn’t even heard of it. Hadn’t lived with rattlesnakes in the woodpile, either. Hadn’t watched a black widow spider up close, chased a jackrabbit, or hiked a trail from the back door, up a cliff face, and then set my hand in a dinosaur’s track – a theropod, according to my field guide. A carnivore. It walked this ground 180 million years ago.

This is all my way of saying that life along the Arizona Strip has surprised us. The affection we feel, the welcome. Yet we cannot stay. We know this. The remoteness and isolation are unsustainable. This summer, I’m home only on my days off from Zion, about a two-hour drive given Springdale’s tourist crowds; stop for groceries, and it’s three. And in those hours, as I skirt the geology of the Grand Staircase – the Pink Cliffs, Gray, White, Vermilion – my mind veers to what-ifs: What if I never have a year-round job again? What if the stock market tanks? What if the physical demands of the commuting grow to be too much? This life is beautiful but exhausting.

None of that matters this morning. Red’s waiting. The horse, Rowdy. The steers, the chickens, the ducks. Our cupboard’s full. We’ve got a date.

Still, I’m thinking about our native neighbors, how they exist here, how they endure. It is not remote, they might say. This place is our center. We are of it. I should head outside to the orchard. From there it’s a few steps to the mule.

“Apples,” Paula says. “He loves apples.” 

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