Sheridan King: Grande Dame of Tuolomne

Sheridan King’s life has been a two-act play, divided in the middle by 1983, the year she took a summer job leading trail rides in Yosemite National Park.

Until then, King had traveled the U.S. working a variety of jobs — school counselor, cutting horse competitor, south Texas ranch hand — to sustain her horse habit. But the day she saddled a mule and rode down Yosemite’s High Sierra Loop trail, the curtain opened on her new life’s passion.

Today, King’s an inspiration to a new generation of female packers who join her in crisscrossing the Sierra Nevada Mountains at the lead of a mule string.

On a summer afternoon, between trail rides, we sat at a picnic table eating hamburgers. She shared some hard-earned wisdoms.

Yosemite National Park is my whole world. I know it so well I can tell you where to ride if you want to see azaleas blooming in the spring. Where the cow parsnip blooms in June on the Pacific Coast Trail. That deer will rut in Smokey Jack Meadow. The park still surprises me, too. Last summer was dry and whole meadows turned blue with alpine gentian flowers.
When you love a place this much, you stick around. Before you know it, you’re the oldest person around. Now I’m thought of as part of Yosemite. I consider it a blessing to be associated with one of the most beautiful places on the planet.
My first packtrip was a six-day trip up the Merced River. I didn’t know how to pack. A cowboy loaded my mules at the corral, handed me a map and sent me down the trail. A whiteout snowstorm hit, obliterating the trail. My horse felt his way along in the snow. When he bumped into a tree, we turned and kept going. That’s one way to learn.
The best part of packing is the solo time on the trail. Just you and a mule string, walking in cadence down the trail, becoming one. It’s almost a spiritual feeling, like being one with the animals. I feel like there’s no distance between me and the universe, completely unaware of myself or my ego. Athletes call it “being in the zone.”
Riding over a mountain pass in a lightning storm, you don’t have a choice to turn around. You just ride. It’s a more exhilarating feeling than you can get riding on a perfect, sunny day.
Anything can happen on the trail, and learning to accept that about life in general was a break through for me.
I don’t like these Belgian-cross mules. They’re too big, and their bodies breakdown. I’ll take a smaller mule any day, like an Arab- or Quarter Horse-cross. They’re light footed and nearly dance over rocks and between trees.
Mules are so full of personality; they add a Technicolor experience to the backcountry. You wake up in the morning, and there’s a mule sticking her head in the tent, licking your face.
Mule breeding has changed. It used to be that mostly old, nasty brood mares were crossed to whatever wrinkled old Jack. Nobody worried about what came out. Now they use beautiful Mammoth Jacks that stand fifteen hands and have a good disposition. They breed them to refined brood mares to create quality mules.
Mules are more self-preserving than horses. They know how to take care of themselves — which means they also take care of their rider. A horse would run off a cliff if he got scared, but a mule would never loose his senses enough to do that. Insurance companies noticed we had fewer accidents with mules and told us to switch our saddle horses over.
When I was two, we visited New York City. My grandmother told a story that when I saw a mounted police officer, I ran straight through traffic on Lexington Avenue and hugged that officer’s horse. I was one of those (horse crazy) girls, and never got better.
Doc Moyle setup a camp in the 1930s and packed-in Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keefe. They made some famous paintings and photographs there. The camp stood as of a few years ago, but the Park Service told the government packers to go in there and take the camp down. I can’t understand why they did that. It was a piece of history.
The majority of the packers in Yosemite are women and I think that’s terrific. But there isn’t much of a career ladder. Your only choice, besides going from outfit to outfit, is to take a job with the Park or Forest Service, where you end up sitting at a desk. Unless you can find a winter job to compliment summer packing. I tell young packers that they need to find a job that will give them security, if they also want to pack their whole lives.
Yosemite used to rent burros to the public. They’d come to the stables, we load the burro, teach them a box hitch, and off they’d go. An hour later, the burro would come running home. The person would come chasing it down, mad as can be, and we’d hide in the barn so they couldn’t yell at us.
The first park you work in is the one you’ll fall in love with. I love Yosemite. Across the boundary, Sequoia National Park is beautiful, but it’s not the same to me.
A person’s defenses come down in the backcountry, and their heart opens up. You can learn about their passions, struggles, and loves. It makes you realize that we’re not that different.
The park’s not Disneyland; things can happen. But the dangers are enveloped by the raw beauty of the land. Listen to a waterfall and you’ll hear the power of nature. People and animals die in the cities, too. I find death easier to accept in the wild.