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Why walk when you can ride?

In the mountains, a CEO finds that mules are a man's best friend

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  • Written by  Ashley Bray
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  • Comments:   DISQUS_COMMENTS
Why walk when you can ride?

Mules are sure-footed and stronger, pound-for-pound, than a horse, says banker James Holly. Read more at

After carrying a 50-pound backpack over 10,000-foot passes a few times, James Holly figured there had to be a better way to see the mountains.

"Backpacking is something that you do if, one, you don't know any better, or two, you have a keen sense of masochism and you like the haul," says Holly, president and CEO of $1.4 billon-assets Bank of the Sierra, Porterville, Calif.

He noticed others on the paths riding and packing with horses and mules, and decided he wanted to try it. A friend showed him how to get started and lent him a mule and a trailer. From that point, Holly was hooked. "It just makes it a much more enjoyable trip," he says.

Holly has been packing and riding mules through the Sierra Nevada mountain range for almost 40 years. The hobby requires quite a commitment. In addition to mules, over time he has purchased a trailer, a pick-up truck to pull the trailer, and saddles and other riding equipment. He also has created a tack room in his barn to store the equipment. "There's a lot of logistics to doing this," he says.

Conveniently, Holly has ten acres of permanent pasture and some native hillside at his home ranch, which he uses to care for his four mules: two "Molly" or female mules named Reba McEntire and Brandy, and two "John" or male mules named Arizona and Buster. He has had most of the mules for close to 15 years. Upkeep and care is not much different from any other pet. He grooms and trims them every ten to twelve weeks and administers shots and other medication a few times a year. He grazes them on the land and feeds them grain in the spring to prepare for the riding season, which runs from about late June to late September.

During a season, Holly typically goes on five or six shorter trips of three to four days and one longer trip of seven to nine days. He says he follows a ratio of one mule to ride and one mule to pack, with more packing mules taken out on longer trips. Each animal can hold about 200 pounds, which enables Holly to travel with everything from ice chests to sleeping bags. "If you can ride and pack, you can go pretty much all the same places the backpackers go, but you can carry things that make a difference, like a chair and a table." While backpackers are eating freeze-dried and other unsavory meals, Holly travels with meats on dry ice, along with salads, fruit cocktail, eggs, bacon, and wine. He cooks on a large propane stove. He makes sure his mules are well fed, too, and plans out stops to graze and water them.

Mules enable Holly to travel 15 to 20 miles a day versus 10 miles backpacking. He has traveled as far as 30 miles in one day. With the Sierra Nevada mountain range in his backyard, there's plenty to see. Nearby are Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon National Park, and Yosemite National Park. He has traveled nearly all the 210-mile John Muir Trail, which runs from Yosemite Valley to Sequoia National Park. "These mountains, John Muir called them the ‘gentle wilderness,' and it really is," he says. "There's nothing like it in the continental U.S.A."

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