First things first: A mule is not a donkey.
A donkey is a member of the equine family burdened by low self-esteem: a small, modest, long-eared creature from which mules are bred when mated with a horse. In other words, a donkey is the crude base metal from which a superior alloy—the mule—is forged. To call a mule a donkey, then, is at best a beginner’s mistake that will earn the squinting contempt of veteran muleskinners. At worst, they are fighting words.
There are jack mules (male) and jenny or molly mules (female). There are blue mules, cotton mules, sugar mules, and mining mules. There is a mammoth mule that weighs a thousand pounds. George Washington was a mule breeder. But all mules are immune to politics. There is no idealistic mule.
Being hybrids, mules are biologically sterile, which helps explain their dispositions: angry at the world.
The Mexicans have a saying: Una mula piensa por lo menos siete veces al día como matar el amo. “A mule thinks at least seven times a day how to kill its master.” This is doubtless an exaggeration. Nobody, however, disagrees with the drift of this aphorism.
Mules do not tolerate names.
This fact might surprise the lay public. True, one can call a mule anything one wishes. Our white jenny, for example, has been baptized differently by each of my walking partners across Turkey. Deniz Kilic called her Barbara for reasons only he can explain. Mustafa Filiz dubbed her Sunshine. Murat Yazar calls her Sweetie. John Stanmeyer, my photographer colleague, refers to her as Snowflake. My preference is Kirkatir, a Turkish name meaning “grey mule.” It is the original moniker bestowed by her previous owner, an Alevi woodcutter from the forested hills above Mersin. The truth is that, like all mules, she answers to no label meted out by mere humans. Kirkatir does not come when called, or when whistled to. She comes when she feels like it. This is not very often.
Kirkatir is 22 years old.
How old is this in mule years? About five millennia. Walking along a trail with Kirkatir is like trekking with the oldest living being on the planet Earth: It is like taking a Sunday stroll while tethered to a redwood or a bristlecone pine tree. When I first took her for a test walk, back in July, I noticed that her hide was wrinkled around the edges of the packsaddle. “How old is she?” I asked the owner. The owner, Ahmed, looked heavenward. He held up his palms. He shrugged his shoulders. Ahmed was a passable thespian. Her documents, procured after the sale, spelled out the truth.
“She’s not that old,” sniffed Deniz Kilic, who had agreed to her purchase before I arrived in Turkey, and who now felt responsible. Deniz spent the first afternoon of the walk in Turkey peering grimly down into his smart phone. He was looking hard for a Web site that would attest that mules could live for 50 years, or perhaps even a century.
Mules eat everything.
On a cross-country foot journey, this tolerant belly is a useful quality. Horses are much too finicky. That said, the mulish appetite does have its disadvantages. In Jordan, where I traveled with cargo mules, one of the animals, Selwa, ate my Bedouin guide Hamoudi Enwaje’ al Bedul’s walking stick. Walking sticks are very hard to come by in empty deserts. Hamoudi cursed Selwa. Days later, after much intense searching, he at last found another stick. Selwa ate that one, too.
Mules are smarter than horses.
This is a well-known fact about the mule race. Mules, for instance, take no unnecessary chances. Look into a mule’s dark, benthic eyeballs: You will detect quadratic equations cascading down like plankton behind their depthless retinas. Mules are forever calculating their odds. Kirkatir is a careful mule. She observes all posted traffic laws. She stops at all speed bumps installed on roads to slow automobiles. She does this for a very long time.
One afternoon, Deniz and I walked into a veterinarian’s office outside of the Turkish city of Gaziantep. We needed an expert opinion.
“We have a problem with our mule,” we informed the animal doctor, a thin, appraising young man who stood behind the counter in a white medical smock. “Our mule does this strange thing all night long. Whenever we tie her to a tree at a camp, she paces back and forth—yes, back and forth—constantly. She does this odd dance.”
And then, Deniz and I reenacted, to the best of our ability, the rumba of Kirkatir: Standing elbow to elbow, we took three steps forward, tossed our heads dramatically—in a wide, clockwise circle—and then took three steps back. Perhaps, we asked the vet, our mule suffered an obscure mule neurosis? Was she a mule insomniac? Was our mule insane?
We repeated these steps three or four times. For clarity’s sake. For an accurate diagnosis.
The vet’s eyes zigzagged between us and a crowd of people growing at the open clinic door. No, the vet said at last. Our mule, he assured us, was perfectly normal.