of flexible saddles and filthy socks
Today I was at Tap Plastics, a local company that retails all kinds of plastic materials. And as usual, I found myself telling stories to the young clerk. You see, she didn’t remember Bob Whitehead, the deceased owner of Tap Plastics, and there were some memories about Bob that were worth sharing.
I spent over a week getting to know Bob very well, in the way that you get to know others in your party in the wilderness. Bob was one of a group that approached me to provide pack llamas for their four-stage expedition down the John Muir Trail.
Up until then, we had never really taken people out in a commercial sense. We’d just packed a lot so we could sell pack-trained llamas. Of course, we usually took some of the kid’s friends, or our friends, or people to whom we had sold a pack llama. But we’d toyed with the idea of outfitting. Then this group asked if we could field enough llamas to take twelve people on an eight-day trip from Tuolumne Meadows to Devil’s Postpile. And due to the season, Yosemite National Park (where we would be for the first three days) required us to pack feed for the animals as well as the people.
I added it up and came to needing 12 animals. Which we had, if we added in all the two-year-olds (with lighter loads due to their age). The problem was, we didn’t have 12 packsaddles. We had exactly 4.
I had always wanted to try a flexible, weatherproof saddle made of polycarbonate plastic. So I came up with a design featuring a pair of curved strips bolted together in a kind of wishbone shape, two sets connected by lightweight aluminum bars, front and back like the traditional mule sawbuck. Every point where anything connected to anything else, we added a D-ring to the bolt. I was weary of packsaddles with no decent lash-points.
The saddle worked. The top of the wishbone kept the load off the llamas’ prominent vertebrae, and it fitted all size animals snugly because it flexed, but was still stiff enough to stay in place without sliding around under their bellies. But oh my, what we didn’t know about working with plastics. Our saddle corners were sharp enough to cut yourself on; the polycarbonate had heat bubbles where we bent it, the places where we drilled holes for the bolts were all developing ‘star fractures’, and we needed to work with a lighter gauge. Kind providence sent Bob Whitehead, the man who knew more about the stuff than anyone else, to watch our prototype in use for eight solid days and tell us how to better construct the design. What are the odds of that?
Thanks to Bob, our next version of those saddles lasted us 12 years.
But that wasn’t what I was telling this young lady about. My story of Bob Whitehead is one of kindness and consideration.
You see, in Yosemite and other popular backcountry trails much plagued with bears, hikers are supposed to pack their food in these bear-proof plastic canisters. And one of our company had the brilliant idea that he could make his own using 4” diameter PVC pipe and screw-on caps. At the trailhead he proudly produced a bunch of these things to be packed onto the llamas.
The problem was, they wouldn’t pack. For three days, the slippery things worked their way out from under every possible strapping arrangement to go bounding down the hill for somebody to retrieve. Then a pair of panniers became empty (the group ate 40 pounds of supplies every day), so we used them to carry the miserable ‘cylinders of doom’ (as we took to calling them when the inventor could not hear).
The failure of his clever plan began to wear on the pipe-bearer. Bob was an encourager by nature, and he set out to find some use for those sections so that bringing them would not be a complete waste of time. On a layover day at Thousand Island Lake (where we saw a bear-proof canister lying in ten feet of crystal-clear water, but that’s another story) Bob finally found something they were good for: washing socks.
To discover this for yourself, all you need is an 18” section of 4” pipe, a pipe cap for the bottom, some detergent, and some really dirty heavy socks. fill the pipe half-way with water, add the soap, and plunge each sock up and down several times, and wring out the water. Repeat once for each day the socks have been worn. Rinse in the same fashion. Lay out on rocks to dry in the sun.
Bob washed all the socks for all twelve of us. At the time, it was something we joked about, because Bob made it so funny we couldn’t help it.
I have my useful, functional saddles to remember Bob Whitehead by. But when I think of him, the first picture that springs to mind is Bob—who was probably the wealthiest person on that trip—on his knees above Thousand-Island Lake, following his master’s example and caring for his friends’ filthy feet.