It was 1970. Flores Flat had been recently purchased by a new-age guru named Norman to serve as the home base for his religious cult. The religious cult, suspiciously enough, was soon to become hugely successful, growing in a couple of years into a large corporation with many properties, a chain of health-food stores, restaurants, huge trucks with the cult’s sunburst logo emblazoned on the sides and, to top it all off, a beautiful one-hundred and eighty foot, three-masted Herreshoff schooner. Years later, after it all collapsed, it was considered by some to have been a front for laundering drug money. Except for forcing us to move, however, none of this is part of the present story.
The Flat, as we called it, was a defunct resort nestled in a tiny valley perched high on the side of the mountains overlooking Santa Barbara. It consisted of a main lodge adjacent to the road and a number of cabins tucked away among the oak trees and chaparral. It hadn’t functioned as a resort for many years and was, all the time I lived there, merely a speculative investment owned by a group of doctors down in Los Angeles. It had been on the market for the whole time so it wasn’t too much of a surprise when it finally sold.
When I moved there, my old friends Michael and Diane were caretaking the place. They had taken over the job from their friends. A year later, when Michael and Diane caught a bad case of religion and descended into the netherworld of Transcendental Meditation, I, in turn, inherited the caretaker’s job. The caretaker’s job consisted of some minimal maintenance, renting out the cabins for fifty dollars a month each and sending the rent money to the owners. I got to live there for free. It was an unusual situation, to be sure, without so much as a pretense of permanence to it. Naturally enough, I took the opportunity to rent the cabins out to my friends and acquaintances. This hand-me-down succession of management and tenants resulted in a small, close-knit but unplanned community that was pretty much always in a state of transition. People came and went. Others took their place. In spite of this constant flux, perhaps because of it, it remained pleasantly compatible and lasted for many years.
Anyway, now that it was sold, all the folks living there had been asked to move. Norman invited me to stay on and join the group but I politely declined. These, then, were the last days before the cult moved in. Everyone had already gone except for me and Gail’s mule.
Moving is easy when you’re young. Still, I wanted to have one last day of heightened experience (ahem) to remember the place by, to say a proper goodbye to this little valley and its rustic, tranquil charms. So, early one morning, I ingested a hefty dose of a mind-altering substance and proceeded to wander about the land in a seriously reconfigured state of consciousness. Eventually, my meandering took me down by Casa Fiesta — my neighbor Gail’s cabin — to where her mule, Rose, stood tethered to a huge oak tree. A twenty-foot length of inch-thick rope was fixed firmly about her neck. Gail had already moved out but hadn’t yet found a new home for Rose. The only inhabitants around that day were me and the mule.
Rose was, like most mules, a massive animal, much larger than a horse. The small of her back stood well above eye level. Even under normal circumstances she was an impressive animal, and given my state of mind, she was absolutely the most colossal, awe-inspiring sight I could have imagined. Completely enthralled, I sat down a few yards away and settled in to watch her for a while. It wasn’t long before I began to see something I hadn’t expected. I began to see how Rose felt.
What crept into my mind and, indeed, came to consume my thoughts entirely was that Rose’s life, her whole being, her entire consciousness, was centered on one and only one thing: that rope around her neck. The rope defined her existence. It held her in bondage. It restricted her world to those paltry few feet of space beneath the unyielding oak. The rope — it seemed so clear to me — represented the sum total of poor Rose’s life. Once I realized this it didn’t take long for me to decide. There was only one thing I could do. I had to set her free.
This decision was not made casually. She wasn’t my mule and her fate wasn’t my business. If I set her free, she might run off. She might get hurt or hurt someone else. I didn’t know this mule. Gail had gotten her only a few weeks before. Rose was new to the Flat; she was an unknown entity; she was huge and powerful; she was obviously intelligent; and, most important of all, she was capable of inflicting serious damage on someone who acted unwisely in her vicinity. I thought about all of this but, in the end, none of it really mattered. The time and the situation contained its own logic and that logic called out for something other than the present reality, a higher justice, if you will.
So, my mind was made up, and I approached her with a cautious determination that was tempered only with some measure of apprehension. Rose had been watching me all the while, of course, and stood there quietly as I approached. I patted her gently on the neck and began to fumble with the huge knot. Rose seemed to focus in on my actions, becoming almost fiercely attentive, as though she understood what I was trying to do. I pried and strained and struggled, trying to undo the knot. It didn’t give way. I tried again and again but it didn’t budge. I just didn’t have the strength in my hands to release the knot. Finally, reluctantly, I gave up in frustration and started to walk away.
All the while, as I was struggling with the knot, Rose had been holding her head upright, being careful not to interfere with my efforts. Now, as she realized that I had given up and was walking away, her head suddenly drooped down in a pathetic, hangdog gesture. Her entire demeanor changed. Gone was that rapt attention of only seconds before. She stared blankly at the ground and let out a deep sigh. Rose understood what was happening, all right. She knew full well that I had given up; that I wasn’t going to set her free. It was such a heart-rending display of utter hopelessness and resignation and it struck me with such an intense, piercing regret that I was forced to halt in my tracks. After offering her that faint glimmer of hope, that brief anticipation of some sort of change in her life, I was betraying her and cruelly abandoning her to her forlorn fate. Rose was miserable, desolate and heartbroken and it made me feel utterly wretched.
Then, suddenly, like a bolt of lightening from on high, I was hit with a brilliant flash of insight. I remembered my pocket knife. I had a pocket knife! Yes! My spirits rebounded and soared skyward as I fished the knife out of my pants pocket. As I headed back toward Rose, her head came up and she looked at me once again with that intense focus. She stood upright and rigid, waiting patiently as I sawed and hacked at the tether. Soon, the line parted, dropped away and Rose was free.
For a few seconds she didn’t move. Then, gradually, tentatively, Rose began to drift slowly away. She turned from me, took a couple of steps, and halted. At that instant, I realized both my foolishness and my peril. To my immense consternation, in spite of my caution, there I was staring straight down the gun barrel of those deadly hooves. Had she decided to, Rose could have kicked me clear into the next county and right out of existence. I looked into her eyes. I stared at those huge hooves only inches away. She stared back at me over her shoulder and, for a few, very long seconds, considered her options. I got the distinct impression that she was testing me, testing my courage perhaps; testing my reactions to her newly gained freedom and power. I didn’t, or couldn’t, move. I was frozen in place, like in those dreams where the monster is closing in on you and your legs refuse to function. Then, she simply walked away and I was out of range.
Rose slowly moved off some twenty feet or so, all the while gazing back at me as if she was still not completely sure of what was happening, not completely sure that she was free to go. All of a sudden, she kicked her hind legs into the air and bolted away. She ran a few yards, halted, then kicked up her legs again and started running in circles. Sprinting around in ever larger circles and repeatedly kicking up her heels, Rose came fully to the realization that she was, in fact, free at last. What a glorious sight it was: this huge animal, kicking up her legs and frolicking about like a colt in springtime. It was a sight to lighten the heart, a sight that I would never forget.
A couple of weeks went by before Gail found a new home for Rose. In the meantime, Rose was given the run of Flores Flat. She was completely free. I left all the gates open so she could eat whatever was left in the garden and roam freely as she pleased. Mostly, though, Rose followed me around. Whenever I left the lodge — even at night — she would soon appear, following along a few feet behind me. Surprisingly, Rose walked almost silently, so the first couple of times she came up behind me in the dark it was unsettling. I would all of a sudden become aware that I was being followed closely by something very large. Once I got used to her doing this, I came to welcome her tagging along with me in the darkness. It made me feel both proud and secure to have such an impressive ally. It was obvious that Rose liked me. I was her liberator and we were friends.