SHAWNEE - In the late 1960s, freshly removed from college for what he says were false accusations of "mouthing off," Glenn Ryan did not go home. He hit the road and slept where he could, under trees or in chicken coops.
"Spent about three years being a bum," he says, "which was actually training for this job."
Now he's spent 13 years living in Colorado forests, working as an Old West packer, leading a string of mules that make up one of the last two hooved trains across the U.S. Forest Service.
"If it involves getting dirty, bloody and blistered, then we'll work with ya," says Ryan, 67, a Forest Service employee who rides horseback while commanding the Rocky Mountain Specialty Pack String.
The Rocky Mountain Field Institute, a Colorado Springs nonprofit, has called upon Ryan's string yearly to deliver thousands of pounds of equipment to a base camp deep in the wilderness surrounding Kit Carson Peak.
Other frequent requests come from the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, which also employs trail builders on the state's highest mountains and counts on the mules to move heavy necessities such as tools and stoves.
"The amount of work and the type of work he does is just mind-blowing," says Ryan's boss, Brian Banks, head of the South Platte Ranger District. "There really are very few professions left in the world like that, and his is not only one of the most unique positions, but also one of the most dangerous. It's one of the most difficult positions in the Forest Service."
Ryan spends summer days driving a trailer around the state and beyond; missions are also in Wyoming's Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, South Dakota's Black Hills and Nebraska's grasslands. Often his team of 11 mules starts before sunrise and finishes after sunset, performing as their ancestors did.
Workaholic on horseback
Throughout history, America has relied on these animals, a cross between a female horse and donkey. They've got the size and agility of the mare and the wits of the donkey, making them ideal for building canals, pulling plows and, yes, hauling gear to remote places that ATVs and helicopters can't reach.
"The early days of the Forest Service were a time of rugged adventure, when horsemanship and backwoods skills were key job requirements," a narrator says in a commemorative video celebrating the agency's past and present with the mules. "A ranger and a pack train in the backcountry symbolize those times."
Ryan is a rare breed. "He's got a skillset that's almost lost," says Ivan Archer as he admires Ryan's property, the ranch that the Forest Service acquired 40 years ago. The fellow cowboy and Colorado parks ranger trucked over some high-quality, weed-free hay, which Ryan stowed in a shed near a pen that was empty except for Skid the mule and Karmel the mare, named for Karmel Timmons, artist of the nostalgic paintings that Ryan hangs in his log home.
He's again settling into winter life on the mountainous pastures 50 miles from Denver. The stock has been shuttled to a trusted hand on the drier, warmer Western Slope. Ryan breathes a sigh of relief when they go.
"Then a few days later I'm ready to throw someone to the ground and rip out their eyeballs. Yeah, it's hard to have 'em gone."
He chuckles later. "I have three ex-wives. They all say I'm not the same unless I'm on top of a horse."
His wife, Alice, who lives and works as a guide in Arizona during the winter, bonded with him over horses. They got to know each other in 2003 as he was transitioning to the packer life that had long captivated him.
"I really, truly believe he's a workaholic," she says as she reflects on the job she calls "the Glenn Ryan Weight Loss Program." He's known to knock back a can of cold soup for his on-the-go lunch.
"He's a workaholic, but also he has a deep respect for the animals. I've never met anybody, including any of my family members who have always had horses, who cares so much for their well-being and their health. He's very dedicated to that. I think he grew up that way."
'This is important'
Ryan started riding when he was 6. "Go get on the horse," his dad would say. He competed with jumpers and later decided to be a cowboy. Through the '80s, he worked for rich ranchers in California, sorting and roping cattle.
Like school, the idea of an office was unsettling. He has one; the Forest Service requires him to communicate on the laptop he considers "the anti-Christ."
He's irked by "too many people think(ing) now you can take a class or get on the computer to learn skills." Being a packer requires a lifetime of horsemanship, he says, and the psychic ability to read the mules. Just as he knows their names (Skid, Rita, Joey, Becky, Roz, Rory, Patty, Bruce, Jimmy, Lena, Karla), he likes to know how they think.
To keep their trust is to keep them safe. And he worries about overworking the mules amid more demand for jobs - the result, his boss says, of increased wear and tear on Colorado's forests.
"We're really fighting just to keep it around," Banks says of the pack string. "As budgets go down, there's a lot of managers making really hard decisions, and this is one of those things ... We've been having to get up on the soapbox to try to remind folks this is important, and we need to keep this around."
At the end of another season, Ryan is so occupied by the mules' exhaustion that he almost forgets his own. He doesn't know a packer older than him, but he can't imagine leaving his post. "Dumb," he calls himself.
"I don't know," he says. "It's just in you."