Ahead of us, at our feet, it is only a concept. Wilderness.
A word. Nothing more. We have told them of the trip
ahead, have laid out the maps on the floor of the ranch
kitchen and traced our route with an eager index finger.
But there, it was only a paper concept. We pointed
to the mountain ridges on the map, to the backcountry
rivers we would cross with our stock, to the far-back
hidden valleys where waterfalls dropped off canyon
walls, but it was only a dream then. Even here, even
now at the roadhead, it is still just a promise. Still
a word. Wilderness. But now the air around the horse
trailers is more eager, and the words that float in
the mountain summer wind are a little more high-pitched,
a little more excited than they were a few days ago
on the kitchen linoleum. The trail into the wild country
is at our feet, at the hooves of our good horses, not
just some black dotted line on a government-issue map.
It is really happening and I can feel the anticipation
in the students as they move easily and comfortably,
calling out signals to each other as they lift heavy
panniers. “Front’s on.” “Back’s
on.” “Cinch.” “Rope.” “Easy,
Maybe, I think, I’ll make packers out of ‘em
I have two young geldings with me, horses that I
am raising and training and introducing to big
much as we are introducing these wide-eyed students
to the wilderness. I call them The Boys, but their real names are Tuck and Pard,
The Wonder Ponies. They are bays, both fine-headed and well-bred. They are marked
exactly the same, though one is a shade lighter than the other. They each have
a star of white on the forehead. It is their only white mark. Their legs are
as straight and true and dark as fire-blackened lodgepole. They carry me and
they carry my food and that is all I can ask of them. In return, I take care
of them and let them graze tall grass in far-back meadows and drink cold water
from mountain streams. I feed them oats each night and place my open palm on
their necks and I tell them stories of the grass and the water ahead. I think
I carry the responsibility of eight young women and
men who look to me for leadership, for knowledge.
I’m teaching them how to horsepack and they are doing it
well. Some have never ridden, but after a week, two weeks, three weeks, they
will be packers. We ride.
Days later and deep into it, well back into the tall
uncut, we pitch camp at the edge of a vast valley
called Fox Park. It is here that the trip sinks
our souls. After we turn The Boys and the rest of the gang out into the meadow,
after they are hobbled and belled and picketed, we lean back on elbows in tall
grass and swat the occasional mosquito. We are sated in that feeling that only
comes with hard work and saddle time, with mountains and creeks and wildflowers
growing in damp corners of wilderness meadow.
|© Peggy Savanick
She arrives without announcement, as you’d expect her to arrive. She has
a cub — a cub of the year — and it sprints past her and then stops.
She gains on him and passes, and the cub sprints past and stops. It goes on and
we watch. We were talking about something funny or important, or unimportant,
but whatever it was, it flies out of our minds and is lost forever. Everyone
watches, mouths agape and silent, as the sow grizzly moves far out in the park,
right in the middle of it. She stops and digs occasionally, then moves on, heading
northwest toward the national park, her cub shadowing and sprinting forward,
moving, moving. And then gone.
We ride for another week yet, up into some of the
finest country left on this planet. We ride to
the sound of waterfall and river, in narrow valleys
see only a half dozen people each year. We ride, but even though we leave that
sow and her cub far back in Fox Park, she stays with us. At the end, I ask
my horsepackers what they thought of the trip,
what memory clings tight and will
be remembered long after all the hard work has faded from tight muscle. It
is unanimous. It is her. And she embodies the
word like nothing else we see in that
two weeks of wild country. She is it and it is she. Wilderness.
This essay was partially excerpted from Great Wyoming
Bear Stories by Tom Reed, Riverbend Publishing
Co., Helena, MT, 1-866-787-2363, www.riverbendpublishing.com