Houdini Acts

One couple escaped to the country, along with a lovable—if troublesome—herd of “mini-mules.”

By Boyce Upholt | Photos By Jed Conklin

Charlotte Echelberger gazes out her window, warily eyeing her miniature donkey. Phoenix, as he’s named, is edging his way toward a gate. She’s suspicious of his intentions.

“What is he doing?” she asks—a rhetorical question, since her husband, Mel, has only as much insight into a donkey’s mind as she does, which Charlotte admits isn’t much. What the Echelbergers do know is that Phoenix’s mischief gets expensive. He has a talent for unlatching gates and escaping into their mountainous neighborhood, at least until locks were installed. But his crowning achievement was turning on a water pump, then sauntering happily away. Before the Echelbergers noticed, $100 in water was wasted.

“He’s just a pain,” Charlotte says, shaking her head.

Yet, she admits, he’s her favorite kind of pain. The Echelbergers retired to this small plot of black and rocky Idaho dirt precisely so they could tend to animals. 

It’s a rugged piece of territory. From their back window, the Echelbergers overlook a thousand-foot drop to the Clearwater River. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark camped down there in 1805, while leading their Corps of Discovery to the Pacific Ocean. Today, the Echelbergers’ property remains beyond the reach of good cell phone service (though Wi-Fi is available, thanks to satellites) and, at the wrong time of year, Google Maps is liable to direct visitors straight into a snowdrift.

Two years ago, the couple lived along the Oregon coast. Charlotte had a horse, but it had to be pastured a few miles from the house—which meant a nightly commute just for feeding. Then, while flipping through the newsletter provided by their rural power service, Mel noticed plots of land for sale in Idaho.

“So, I said, ‘Heck, let’s jump in the airplane and go take a look,’” Mel remembers. (Both Mel and Charlotte are former professional pilots.) The couple liked what they found and bought up a 7-acre lot.

Overgrown And Wild

“The area is beautiful,” Charlotte says. “You can walk out and you can breathe. You can hear the wind when it starts down over the hill; you can hear it up on the ridge top before it gets here.”

And her horse could be pastured right there in the yard, where she could see him out the window. (The house, built like a ski lodge, offers ample views.)

At their Idaho farm, Mel and Charlotte love having room to breathe, as well as raise animals, such as mini-horses Spot and Barney, and one of their two horses, Tucker.

The land, however, had its challenges. When the Echelbergers first arrived, they could hardly walk their acreage, so thick were the blackberries, wild roses and hawthorns. “Those are some mean, wicked bushes,” Charlotte says of the latter—having encountered inch-and-a-half thorns. They also found around 100 apple trees, which they are carefully culling, keeping the trees with the sweet apples.

Now three-quarters of the ground is cleared—though the Echelbergers have left stands of trees as shelter for the deer, quail and turkey they love to watch. (They’ve also seen one wolf.) Mel has reshaped the low-lying land, creating a pasture where he can raise grass for the animals and a pond he hopes will attract waterfowl.

Then, of course, there are the corrals. Mel assembled fencing from the cut-down pines, and Charlotte purchased animals to fill them. In addition to two horses, the couple has Phoenix, of course, who serves as a mini-donkey stud. He breeds with their three mini-horse broodmares. “And that gives us mules,” Mel says. Actually, they’re “mini-mules,” of which the couple has two, each standing around 30 inches at the shoulder. 

Charlotte named the business “Ears to You,” a punning reference to Phoenix, who loves to have his ears scratched. (He’s her nuisance—her “Houdini,” she calls him, or sometimes her “Dennis the Menace”—but also her favorite.) Each year, the couple aims to foal two more mini mules.

These are sold as pack animals—sometimes used by backpackers—and also as pets. “They are very healthy, very friendly, very level-headed,” Charlotte says. “They have the hybrid vigor, and they’re so much easier to work with [than horses or donkeys].” They also consume much less food than a horse would.

Changing Lifestyles

To list all of Mel’s careers can take some time: He was an Iowa farm boy and then a medic for the Army, Navy and Air Force reserves. He has worked in the space industry, for the U.S. Department of Defense, and at an airport as both an office manager and as a pilot. Charlotte’s career path is also forked, if simpler: She was a nurse, a pilot and a flight instructor.

She and Mel met at the airport in Oakdale, California. Mel sold her the oxygen tanks required when she flew over the Sierras. Before moving to Idaho, the couple often flew together—to Iowa for a class reunion, or just for fun to Texas or Kansas or the Rocky Mountains. But the property, and the animals, has required slowing down—which was part of the intention.

“We decided to give it up and move here and stay home,” Mel says of their piloting. “Well, except there’s so much to do around here—we don’t stay home too much.” Mel, a history major in college, delights in visiting the Lewis and Clark sites strung along the Clearwater valley, as well as historical markers across the Nez Perce Reservation, which surrounds their property. The couple attends local “sausage feeds,” ticketed all-you-can-eat community fundraisers, as well as other small-town events. A neighbor has allowed the couple to “adopt” a daughter, so they have an excuse to attend her high school basketball games.

The mules, too, have become a part of the neighborhood. The local school bus will stop if there are new babies. Students can pour out and coo over the foals.

The resulting celebrity status is certainly an asset, given that it takes a village to raise a stubborn mini-mule. Now, when Phoenix slips free of the fence, everyone knows him—and they know just whom to call.