Outdoors Blog

Behind the scenes with Richard the Mule

9:26 a.m. A group of 25 runners and hikers passed through the coffee stand. They were spread out but a large group gathered to chat.
9:26 a.m. A group of 25 runners and hikers passed through the coffee stand. They were spread out but a large group gathered to chat.

I followed Matt Bishop of Boise on Saturday throughout his first day operating Café Mulé for the story that ran in Wednesday’s edition of the Idaho Statesman. Bishop wants to operate a coffee shop on remote Foothills trails using his mule, Richard, to pack in the gear. He has hit permitting snags, so right now he’s serving coffee for free.

The main story got a little heavier on permitting issues than I would have liked, so I thought I’d use this blog post to share some of the behind-the-scenes nuggets I collected that day and more information on the star of the show — Richard. Plus, I’ve used the photos above to create a timeline of the day (the first is out of order, to avoid having a lead photo that looks like the one with the main story).

What’s in a name?

I met Bishop and Richard at the Orchard Gulch trailhead just before 6 a.m., with a hint of sun emerging above the Foothills. The trailhead is several miles down Rocky Canyon Road, the dirt continuation of Shaw Mountain Road. Richard already was loaded up with an 85-pound pannier full of gear on each side, some miscellaneous gear and his packing apparatus for a total of 200 pounds.

“You’re the man, Richard,” Bishop told him. “That’s more than I could have carried.”

We spent most of the 1.5-mile, 40-minute hike to Bishop’s coffee spot discussing Richard. Bishop purchased him in December with assistance from an acquaintance he now refers to as his “mule friend.” Bishop and Richard walk the Foothills trails frequently.

“He seems to be doing great,” Bishop said. “He doesn’t love mountain bikes coming up real close behind him.”

Bishop decided on a mule because they have a reputation for an even temperament and good stability on the trail. Mules are half donkey and donkeys don’t generally like dogs, Bishop said, so he had to make sure he found a mule that could get along with dogs.

“I wanted a mule who was calm and gentle,” Bishop said.

Richard’s age is “up for debate.” The seller said Richard was 13 years old. Bishop’s “mule friend” said he looked 18. The veterinarian said he’s 16 to 20, and likely on the higher side.

“I tell people he’s 18,” Bishop said.

Richard is a family name. That’s Bishop’s father’s middle name.

“My father’s a really determined guy and when he was growing up his parents called him ‘Mule,’ ” Bishop said. “I decided to kind of pick at my dad.”

Richard is “family now,” Bishop said. He never forgets that the mule is an 1,100-pound animal but hasn’t seen any reason to “mistrust” him.

“They’re pleasers,” Bishop said. “They want you to talk t o them and pet them. They kind of want to be reassured all the time, and especially Richard — I think he’s on the extreme in that. It’s been really rewarding learning and working with him.

“... Richard is teaching me patience that is very useful as a parent. You’ve got to watch your frustration around them.”

False start again

By 6:40 a.m., we were at Bishop’s selected spot near the intersection of the Five Mile Gulch and Orchard Gulch trails. Richard delivered his load to a flat area overlooking Lucky Peak, the Treasure Valley and the rising sun, then headed to a nice grassy area about 100 yards away. Bishop tethered him there for the morning.

Then Bishop began setting up his table. He was right on schedule, firing up his camp stove about 7:30 a.m. — his published start time. But after a quick twitch of life, the stove didn’t work.

That brought back memories of the previous several weeks. On Bishop’s first attempt at a dress rehearsal, his tow vehicle broke down on 8th Street. The next week, he was set to try again but his vehicle broke down before he got it home from the shop. He scheduled another attempt the next week, and it poured.

He finally completed the dry run Friday. The stove worked great. And now, with customers likely on the way, he didn’t have heat.

He tried a second propane tank. He tried cleaning the connections. A mountain biker stopped to take a look. Finally, almost out of ideas, Bishop tore apart the regulator in the stove. He found rusty pieces in there, perhaps from a bad propane tank. He put it back together — he’d never taken one apart, much less re-assembled one — and the stove lit.

“If the burner wouldn’t have worked, it would have been a little rough emotionally,” Bishop said. “My kids would still love me but they might not want to be around me the next little bit.”

And so it begins ...

The first customer arrived at 8:04 a.m. Jeremy Frei was riding a mountain bike.

“The coffee is fabulous,” he said. “Put it in the Foothills at 8 o’clock in the morning on a beautiful morning like this and you can’t beat it.”

From the time Frei arrived until noon, there was barely a moment when there wasn’t a trail user at the coffee stand. Some drank, some didn’t. But almost everyone stopped to chat — and many lingered for 15-20 minutes.

“Trail running and coffee are two of my three favorite things — and wine is the other,” Claire Gudmundsen of Boise said. “I was super excited because I hadn’t had any coffee, so I saved my coffee for coming up here. I was like, ‘This will be my reward for getting to the top of the hill.’ ”

Jeff Black of Boise, a trail runner, arrived with his own cup. He asked Bishop about his idea. Bishop told him he likes coffee.

“A lot of people like coffee,” Black said. “You’re taking it to another level. I think you’re going where no coffee maker has gone before.”

At one point, around 9:30 a.m., 12 people were gathered around the coffee stand. Word started to spread among the runners and bikers that there was coffee at the top of the hill.

One woman said she thought the other person was joking.

“I smelled coffee on his breath,” another answered.

Time to go

By the time the last folks left — including some who stopped to chat after the coffee setup was taken down — and Bishop packed up the panniers, it was after 1 p.m. Richard returned. Bishop brushed him and reloaded all the gear.

“He knows to stand still for things, which makes my life a lot easier,” Bishop said.