HALL – Elwood was thinking metaphysical donkey thoughts one rainy day last week.
To keep the ol’ synapses snapping, he sighed to a couple of newspapermen who dropped by. You know what they say about donkeys and their brains.
They don’t say those things about Elwood. He ponders the world as it passes him by, day and night, on State Highway 1 in the Flint Creek Valley. He wonders why everyone but him needs to get somewhere else.
People are funny, Elwood said, twitching back an ear twice the length of the photographer’s best lens. They run like rats in a cage, I guess to keep up with the spin of the Earth. On my side of the fence, it’s not even turning.
He’s been on that side for maybe 15 years now. Elwood’s age is in dispute, and may never be known.
“The closest we can come up with is 37,” says Liz Luoma, who lives next to Elwood’s pasture. “But that isn’t so old for a donkey. I’m told they can live to be 50.”
The Luomas love Elwood, and even though they don’t actually own him, Liz and Keith have taken over primary care. They make sure he gets his grain, his hay, his arthritis medicine.
“Yeah, and he doesn’t like it,” Liz says. “So you have to smash it onto two teaspoons and put it inside his mouth. Once a day, all winter long.”
The derivation of “Elwood” is a mystery.
“My boyfriend named him, but I don’t know why he called him that. I didn’t ask him,” Sheila Keirnes says.
Might it have had something to do with Elwood Blues (Dan Aykroyd) of the Blues Brothers?
“That sure could have been it,” she replies.
Keirnes and her ex-boyfriend got Elwood from Jim Snead in Drummond before Snead passed away in 1998. Keirnes, who runs the Stockman Bar in Hall, thinks Elwood isn’t much more than 20 or so.
“I was going to have his teeth floated (filed) but the guy told me he wasn’t that old,” says Keirnes, who adds that Elwood was “a hell of a little packhorse” in his day.
Elwood accepts such praise with a humble snort or, if you’re near enough, a nuzzle to the shoulder. Though we puzzle him, he loves humans.
“He’s got a hell of a personality,” says Wally Small, who stops by to see Elwood whenever the Old Timers Ski Club heads up to Discovery Basin from Missoula.
Sometimes Small’s daughter, Denise, accompanies the skiers, who range in age from their mid-60s to Small’s 79. Denise has become Elwood’s biggest fan.
“She absolutely adores him,” her father says. “She’ll stand and bend forward and he’ll just lean his head on her shoulder.”
The ski club, sometimes 10 or 12 strong, travels to Discovery or Lookout Pass at least once or twice a week during the winter. They never pass through Hall without stopping to see Elwood and plying him with treats.
“I would call him our ski mascot,” says Stan Cohen, another regular in the club.
Elwood loves treats. Carrots are fine – he’ll bare his teeth in a grin of appreciation as he takes one from your hand.
Odd to say, he doesn’t do apples. A juicy yellow apple from an unknown benefactor sat untouched in the mud on the rainy day.
“But, man, he loves peanut butter. And doughnuts,” Cohen says.
Nature Valley Granola Bars, adds Small.
Potato chips, Keirnes says, who then points out the ramifications:
“He’s way, way too fat,” she says. “He’s not supposed to have those bulges in his sides. I can’t seem to convince people of that.”
Even without the carrot of, well, a carrot, Elwood turned from the back side of the pasture and watched as the newspapermen emerged from their car. His long ears twitched. Maybe he saw the “4” on the license plate, thought it was his ski club buddies from Missoula. He waited a respectable length of time, then plodded slowly toward them as the rain splattered off his back. There’s no hurry when your world is standing still.
Elwood posed for the camera. He exchanged donkey pleasantries. He took the first carrot offered with graciousness and a few loud chomps. Then the second. Then the third. Then the maple bar from the grocery in Drummond.
A year or so ago, someone honored Elwood with a nameplate on the gatepost and a nifty woodcut of a pitiable-looking burro. He’s swaybacked and, OK, a tad overweight, and he could probably use a pedicure. But even as the rain settled in on his stock-still world, Elwood looked anything but pitiable.
“He’s part of Hall,” Keirnes notes. “I think he should be mayor.“
He’s all donkey, in all the best ways. Think Eddy Murphy in “Shrek.” Don’t think Pleasure Island in “Pinocchio,” where carefree boys who don’t want to go to school are turned into donkeys, ostensibly because donkeys are ignorant and stupid.
That’s not Elwood. And there’s no sign of his ancestry, the African wild ass, in this guy. He brays when spoken to, and when the wind’s right you can almost hear him in Drummond, eight miles away.
A donkey can be called an ass or a burro, but “donkey” fits Elwood best. Keirnes says Snead picked him up at a horse sale in Billings years ago. Because of that, she assumes Elwood comes from east of the mountains. And because his ears are notched, she thinks he may have been adopted off the range.
“That usually tells you he was wild at some point in his life,” she says.
Elwood wasn’t discussing his heritage, nor did he grumble about the rain. He knew it would stop in due time and leave an inimitable freshness to September. Then there’ll be snow, and the snow will melt. The hayfields will ripen, berries will grow, and autumn showers will come again.
The newspapermen climbed into the car and headed back to Missoula. Snack time was over for this donkey. He turned from the fence in nonchalance and went back to doing what he does best – being Elwood.
Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reprinted with permission from Kim Briggerman and The Missoulian newspaper. Thank You!
Matthew Koehler said on: September 19, 2010, 9:44 am Oh Elwood! Thanks for a great story Kim! Elwood also serves as a friendly reminder to not “haul ass” through Hall.