March 20, 2007

Nary a Track

I have been honored to have this photograph, description and poem published on this week as the photo of the week in their "Picture the West" feature. Click on this link to see the presentation. Picture the West For those that won't make it that far, here is the essence of the entry.

This vintage photo is of my grandfather, Alfred Kern, with his mule team and rural mail route carriage near Mink Creek in Franklin County, Idaho. He is the one to the right. Note the sheep camp in the background. Grandpa used to go through a team of mules every three years. Among other occupations common at the time my grandfather worked as a rural mail carrier to the ranches and farms between Preston, Idaho and Mink Creek. He had two teams, one based in Preston that took him the sixteen miles to Riverdale, where he switched teams to continue on to Mink Creek, up higher in the mountains and about another sixteen miles further on. On the return trip, he would trade teams again at Riverdale and return home. Each team went 32 miles each day. At that rate the animals lasted only three years.

It's hard to appreciate the work of these beasts of burden from our perspective today—but they gave it all they had during their short lives of servitude. Through my entire life I have seen horses and mules give everything they have until they drop— literally. And what do they get from it? Some good treatment along the way - maybe - but not always. They don't even get much recognition or remembrance once they're gone.

Here in Utah we are surrounded by pioneer museums that tend to present the human side of things—but leave out the role that the beasts of burden played in the opening of the west. One day, walking out of one of the largest ones in Salt Lake, the following poem just struck me. Though the names of the mules in our family picture are long forgotten - they themselves are not - and live on in the lore of my family. At least we have the photograph along with inherited appreciation and memories.

Nary a Track
by Paul Kern

The horses are gone and so are the oxen,
The mules are too—all long forgotten,
Within the walls of the pioneer museum,
There's nary a track or even a trace of 'em.

But there are dishes and hats and spectacles,
Goods hauled west in horse-drawn vehicles.
They even have lots of photos of those,
Who stared unsmiling in a photographic pose.

The musty smell of days since passed,
Lingers on saddles and an old boot last.
A single and a double-tree,
Cracked harness and a chair for three.

There's a prairie schooner by the wall,
And a surrey and sleigh just down the hall,
Covered with pictures of those now dead,
They didn't all walk—it has been said.

Most of those things as a general rule,
Were pulled out here by horse or mule.
It's odd how humans so quickly forget,
And take for granted the things they get.

What they have and what they've got,
Came through creatures of a lesser lot,

You'd think a horse photo or maybe two,
On the walls of the halls would be just due.

But the horses are gone and so are the oxen,
The mules are too—all long forgotten,
Within the walls of the pioneer museum,
There's nary a track or even a trace of 'em.

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