A horse packing trip in the mountains had been on my bucket list for a long time when I read an article about an outfitter. Three months later, I was driving down the Chief Joseph Scenic Trail, alongside the Yellowstone River, then through the park.
In Cody, Wyoming, I saw a sign that made me stop for a meal at the Proud Cut Saloon. The name made me chuckle (look it up if you don’t know the term). A sign over the bar read, “Some people are alive only because it’s against the law to kill ‘em.” My kind of place. A place where folks have a sense of humor.
Spent the night in a small cabin in Jackson. A driver in a small van picked me up the next morning. I was the first passenger, but expected at least six more to join me. I had been promised a full excursion into high-elevations in the Gros Ventre wilderness area with a group of experienced horsemen from New Mexico and Colorado. Two of my soon to be companions were hunting guides.
I had been riding all my life, but had little experience riding in the mountains. I expected to learn from a group of rough and tough hunters and horsemen. The brochure described treacherous switchbacks, perilous canyons, rock slides, mountain vistas. But it was the picture on the brochure of six grizzled horseback veterans that brought to mind “The Magnificent Seven” (I saw myself as the seventh) that really got my attention. It was described as “A Real Man’s Ride”.
I frowned a little when the van stopped to pick up a couple from Minnesota. The small green rabbit felt hat worn by the wife with a stampede string tucked tightly under her chin and the way the husband stumbled along in boots two sizes too large gave me an uh-oh feeling. Maybe they were going with another group.
By the time we picked up the remaining passengers, I had a real sense of trepidation. When we unloaded at the trailhead, I approached head outfitter Phil, nodded my head toward my riding companions, and asked what happened to the tough guys he had told me about. I was disappointed and angry enough to ask for my money back.
Phil stepped off a big red roan, put his hand on my shoulder and guided me away from the others. He explained in whispers that the six other gentlemen scheduled to ride with me had cancelled at the last minute and these riders were on a waiting list. Said I had already left home before he could notify me.
That was possible, because I had left a few days early to conduct some business. But I still wanted a refund.
Phil told me that he had no choice but to take these folks to the same places he had planned to take the magnificent seven. He said I could have my pick of the horses; could ride alone if I wanted to; would be treated as a member of the crew, not a guest; guaranteed me the experience of a lifetime. If I did not have it, he promised a refund at the end of the trip.
I didn’t believe him. “You’re really gonna take these folks on the same ride you promised me? The ride for experienced horsemen only?”
His face held a pained expression. “Got no choice. Plans already been made. Camps already set up. That’s why I may need your help.”
I felt my leg being pulled. Phil was one of those people who had an obvious knack for fooling you and making you smile at his effort. I looked up to the mountains for a few minutes, walked over to the van, got my saddlebags, tied them behind the red roan’s saddle, and mounted. Phil put a hand on the roan’s hip. “That’s my horse.”
I nodded. “You said I could have my pick. Did you mean what you said, or not?”
He removed his hat, ran his finger around the sweatband, and grinned. “My friends call me Buck. I’m short a hand since both of my brothers are staying behind to pack the food, cook stove and other supplies. You mind bringing up the rear in case one of these dudes falls off?”
I called after him as he ambled away. “Mind if I adjust the stirrups?”
He never turned. “You a cowboy. Do what you think’s right.”
I thought Buck was pulling my leg about dudes falling off, but we had traveled less than a quarter of the way up the mountain to our first campsite before one did fall. Six horses jumped across a spruce that had fallen across a stream without losing a passenger, but the seventh drug a hoof and stirred up a hornet’s nest. Hornet stings on a horse’s belly will cause him to buck.
The man in front of me had talked non-stop to his horse since leaving the trailhead. “Okay, can we leave now?” evolved into things like, “Would you mind catching up to the others?”
His legs, feet and arms were useless appendages and the horn was his only means of steering. He had no idea what to do with the reins. He seemed to believe that he could make friends and negotiate with his mount in human speak.
I shouted a warning when I saw the hornets, but he could not hear me over his ceaseless prattle. Soft mud in the stream broke his fall. I helped him up and he bravely remounted, whispering to his horse, “I know you didn’t mean to do that.”
An hour later, the dude and I were becoming friends and I was enjoying some of the most beautiful, pristine scenery I had ever seen. The temperature had dropped twenty degrees and I could see snow in the Grand Tetons in the distance (this was August). I could also hear, see and feel the mist off a waterfall.
The narrow trail sloped off steeply on our right so that we were eye-level with the tops of gigantic whitebark pines. The serenity and quiet had really enveloped me when I heard a squeal from the woman in the green hat and saw her husband tumble down the deep slope. He tumbled for what seemed like a long time.
The base of a lodgepole pine about fifty yards down finally stopped his descent. I saw a solo boot against a tree trunk about halfway down.
Part 2 next week.
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