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The Meaning of the Word
By Tom Reed
July 1998, Fox Park, Teton Wilderness, Wyoming

© Peggy Savanick


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, Tina.”

Maybe, I think, I’ll make packers out of ‘em yet.

I have two young geldings with me, horses that I am raising and training and introducing to big country, 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 they know.

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.

© Peggy Savanick
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 into 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.

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 that perhaps 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

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