By Tom Reed
Reprinted from The Leader, Summer 2001, Vol. 16, No. 3
There is a taste to this place. This time. Nothing is behind you and nothing ahead. There is only now and now has you in a saddle, on a bay horse, heading up a trail of pines and spruce and mountain and stream and meadow.
Behind you, connected to you by only your hand and a lead rope, but carrying everything important to you, is another bay horse, an almost identical match to the one you are riding. You call them The Boys and you cluck and coo and talk to them as if they give a damn about what you have to say. You think they do and maybe, just maybe. Right now they are stepping out, heads nodding, heading down the trail, through the stream and all you have to do is ride. So you ride.
That night as dusk brings the mosquitoes up out of the willows-the same dusk that put the horse flies to bed-you choose a camp. It is a good place, save for the bugs, with a meadow broad before you and room for the horses out there and camp back there, and your kitchen down a ways. So you ease off the bay's back and stretch your muscles with that stiff-good, worked-hard feeling and straighten your back and begin to unload the pack horse. Talking to him. Thanking him. In a while, he has on the hobbles and is out there with his buddies, eating and content and you look around and decide it's time to get cracking before dark.
The tent goes up quickly and a meal down on the gravel bar and the sound of a nighthawk chirping and peeling through the dimming sky and all is well with the world. This is the world. And you haven't thought about anything but this world and you don't even think about not thinking about it.
At dawn you rise in the cool and soak in it before the bugs get up and you turn an ear to the sound of sandhill cranes from somewhere down the meadow. From somewhere down there and the horses have their heads up at the peculiar sound and you tell them, "Don't worry boys, it's only a really big bird that doesn't eat horses" and they go back to their grazing, their peaceful munching as if they understand what you just said and maybe, just maybe.
You turn out of camp and saddle the horses and kick their manure around so that it will break down quickly and you look around. Satisfied. The place looks untouched except for a little chewed grass. And you swing up and feel those tight muscles again and darn, it feels good to be on a horse headed into wild country.
And it goes like this for days, the ride, the squeak of saddle leather. The smell of dust, the taste of it on your tongue. The smell of the sweat of The Boys and your own and the feel of their soft muzzles nuzzling you. Gently. Good camp after good camp. Muscles turning hard with the riding. Eyes looking sharp for wildlife. And riding, always riding. In camp, meals quickly eaten and your belly full and the satisfied feeling of everything going well and of the present. Carpe diem. And you ride.
One evening, a big sow grizzly and her cub cross a broad meadow far out there, rambling, tough gal, giving you and the horses a wide berth and the binoculars sweating in your hands and your mouth dry and, "Boy, what a beautiful animal that is." The next morning, a moose takes her place and walks the same path and you haven't seen another human in days and there's a jet contrail up there reminding you that yes, this is the modern world. And you ride.
Another day you cross the Yellowstone as the Crow and Shoshone and Jim Bridger did long before you. On a horse and your feet get wet because the river is slow and wide, but deep, deep. And a big cutthroat as long as your forearm fins off beneath your horse's belly in the clear water and you are glad there's a fly rod cased on the pack horse. That evening you cast and lose yourself in the rhythm of it, feeling the rod in your hand, casting and drifting and catching another cutthroat, a pure native, whose ancestors swam this same river in the time of the Shoshone and Crow. The horses out there deserving a rest day, a lay over in your ride and you hear them snorting occasionally and if you listen closely you can hear too that quiet swish of tail.
At dawn you rise and saddle and pack and ride up through the burns of '88, where the charred carcasses of lodgepole line your path like mile markers stretching into the horizon as far as you can see. Dead trees, but everywhere at their feet life: fireweed and brush and berries and other flowers by the thousands. Some of the trees have dropped and their bodies lie across your path and you cut the few you can and go around those you can't. By mid-afternoon, you are in a basin below the big pass that will push you up over the Continental Divide into another basin. When you get there a line of elk, a thin band of all bulls heads out before you through old snow up and over the far peak, making time, walking single file. The next morning you will cross the pass and that is all there is. That and the bay boys. Those good gentle horses.
The days melt away in the summer heat of the high mountain sun and you catch more fish and see more elk and ride more miles. There are places with names that sing to you, and places without name that hum just as beautifully. You see more moose, two big bulls high up a narrow creek, jogging before your horses high gaited and pacey and there's a wolf track in the mud and a grizzly scat as big as a calf's head and you ride.
Two nights before your last one in these high wild mountains you sit with your back against the skin of an old log and you hold a hot drink in your hand and look out across the meadow. There, out there, they move and feed and swish their tails and one has his head up, ears forward looking off into the distance as if he's standing guard over the rest. And while you are looking at them, belly full, hands warm, nestled in there in the pine needles and columbines you realize this:
What an amazing thing to have an animal carry your hide up and over and through and far. And you grasp that here is the connection, the element that is everything; a partnership. A bond between man and animal that has lasted for thousands of years and only in the last 100 has been forgotten. This is the animal that has carried your people to war and peace and beyond and then home and here is the connection and you think how damn lucky you are to have found it.
Tom Reed rides and writes and teaches an occasional NOLS horsepacking course. Experiences like these are common place on NOLS horse courses; this essay was based on a course from a few summers ago.