Rocky Mt. High (part 2)

After all the preparation, an entire morning of packing and waiting, it was still a thrilling moment to ride across the wooden bridge that crossed the Sun River and enter the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The walls of the canyon that housed the stream were steep, and the water that rushed below was clear but tinted an iron brown. The horses and mules took no notice of the height or the roar of the water, but then they’d been crossing this span for years by now in all sorts of weather and seasons. The riders, however, were excited. The wilderness beckoned.

There were weathered wooden signs that welcomed us on the wilderness side of the bridge and others that reminded us that bicycles, motorized vehicles and power saws were not allowed in the area. Only hikers and animals were permitted entry.

The air was warm, but we were shaded by tall firs and pines as the trail followed the course of the river below us as we continued toward the interior of the wilderness. It was a bit nerve wracking as my horse walked along the narrow trail on the edge of a cliff several hundred feet above the rocks and river. Ben seemed to take no notice of the height and kept following Rango, who plodded along following Chase on his mule. 

The sound of the leather parts of the saddle had a tranquilizing effect on me after a while. I started hearing nonsense songs that reminded me of riding when I was a kid riding on my horse, Paint, as I herded cattle. 

“Squeekity squeak, squeekity squeak. Pet the cat, pet the cat. Squeekity, sqweekity, pity the kitty, pity the kitty. sqweekity squeak, pay the bill, pay the bill . . ..”

After an hour, Will on the lead mule, called for a break after the trail veered away from the river, there was a small clearing where we could stop for lunch. It gave me an opportunity to test my ability to dismount without assistance, an exercise that gave me a little more confidence. I managed to slide off my horse without falling down. It wasn’t the most graceful dismount, but I was pleased to not be sprawled in the dirt, or worse, horse manure.

The vet, although he’d been riding a month prior to this trip, managed to twist his hip as he got off his horse, and the physician needed two crew members to haul him off his mount. Sheila, with a little help from Brenden, slid off Rango without a problem.

The horses needed to be tied to a tree while we rested and ate, and Will showed me how to do a quick release hitch. Well, he tried to, but it would take a couple of stops before I finally learned the trick. Pull the rope around the tree, cross the line to the other side making a numeral 4, pick up the left point of the 4, make a loop by pretending to check the time on a wrist watch, pull the loose end of the rope with a loop through the loop of the 4 and pull end attached to the horse tight against the tree. 

“Simple, right?” Will asked.

I felt like it was advanced calculus.

Will

Sheila and I retrieved our sack lunches from our saddle bags and found a fallen log where we sat down to eat. The bags resembled bandanas like the one on my neck so that the neckerchief could be pulled up when the trail got dusty. The first thing I pulled out was a rolled tortilla, but instead of retried beans or taco meat it enclosed something that looked like red sausage. Sheila was of the opinion that it was pastrami. It was something that was not supposed to be served at ninety degrees inside a tortilla. The red slab was extremely salty and tasted rather rancid.

Also inside the bag was a plastic sack containing bbq flavored corn chips, a container of M&Ms and a small, spotted apple. To be honest, I was jealous of Sheila’s lunch. She had the same wrapped thing, but she also had unflavored chips and a pack of peanut M&Ms. I admit, also, that I pouted and wondered if all our meals would be so mediocre.

The group was called to order by Will, and we went to mount our horses again. Some of us found logs to step up on so that it was easier to get in the saddle, while others attempted to step up on the stirrups and pull their bodies over the horse. It was a matter of learning the coordination of using legs and arms rather than strength.

It took about an hour to get through this lonely part of the valley where the only wildlife to be seen was a bald eagle floating from one side of the burn to the other. The guests were momentarily distracted from the burned trees and hot day as they all shielded their eyes to watch the bird soaring through the blue sky. Even the wranglers were impressed.

It was time to head into an area called the “Big Crispy,” where the green, tall, shade-producing foliage gave way to a barren landscape of black and grey trees, victims of a forest fire several years ago. The trail, since it was no longer protected by shade, was dry and dusty. The mid afternoon sun was hot, and the top of my bald head became wet with perspiration under my cowboy hat.

The verdant view of Pretty Prairie (yes, that is really the name) could be seen almost a mile before the riders reached the end of the burn. The guests had been told that the real scenery started after leaving the Big Crispy, and the change was like going from a black and white movie to full color. The green vegetation and blue color of the stream refreshed and beckoned us.

We rode for another mile or so after we reached the prairie that had not only tall grass, but several varieties of wild flowers such as asters with purple petals and golden centers, sunflowers, white daisies, multilayered petals of cream pearly everlasting with sunny yellow centers, lavender fire weed, and bright orange paintbrush to name a few. The number of evergreens was small, and they grew mostly alone, not in groves like we saw in the upper forest. Here also were scrub willows and small stands of birch with the spotted white bark and broad leaf maple. The spears of grass were not so green as they’d seemed from the distance, but were already turning yellow, gold and brown now in late summer.

We came to a small brook that flowed with clear water. The horses in front of Ben took little notice of the little stream, but he decided to study the situation for a bit before surprising me as he leaped across. Not expecting the sudden lunge, I almost got tossed off the back of the saddle. Of course everyone that saw the jump was quite amused, and I heard cruel laughter behind me. I thought I should deserve applause for my horsemanship. 

It was another mile and late afternoon when we stopped along the river. Will advised the guests to get their water bottles and come with him to the water’s edge where he used an ingenious device containing a bacteria filter and pump to refill our containers. My own container had to be refilled twice as I still had a lingering thirst and the unpleasant remaining taste of lunch remained.

It was announced, to my relief, that the spot next to the river was where we would spend the first night. Sheila suggested that we pitch our tent where we stood, on the bank overlooking the bubbling water, a few feet from the rough path that led to the stream. 

Next, our tents and cots were distributed, and I was rather disappointed that we were expected to erect the tent ourselves. It wasn’t that difficult, but I was tired and feeling stiff and sore from riding most of the afternoon. There was a bit of self-pity in my aura, but it came even more evident when we went to put the cots together. They reminded me of a large Chinese puzzle constructed of canvas and aluminum tubes. It was embarrassing once we found how easily the pieces fit into each other.

In spite of my trepidations, based on the deplorable lunch experience, dinner was quite nice, meatballs with scalloped potatoes and mixed green salad. The surprisingly good meal restored my expectations of Will. The portions were large, so I passed on the dessert and from the look at the offering, it was just as well. Some kind of white slime with a glop of red in the middle.

The pack animals were turned out to graze with many of the horses hobbled on their front legs so that the more adventurous could not wander far. Surprisingly the horses that were shackled found a way to get around by stiffly moving with a modified canter, raising their front legs and propelling themselves forward with their hind feet. They would graze for 10 or 15 minutes, and then one of them would decide to hurry to another area in that inflexible hobbled gate.

The pack animals were turned out to graze with many of the horses hobbled on their front legs so that the more adventurous could not wander far. Surprisingly the horses that were shackled found a way to get around by stiffly moving with a modified canter, raising their front legs and propelling themselves forward with their hind feet. They would graze for 10 or 15 minutes, and then one of them would decide to hurry to another area in that inflexible hobbled gate.

The mules needed no such limitations as they tended to stay in the area of the horses in spite of having the freedom to explore. Chis explained it was the mares to which the mules where attracted. He said that the mules would not wander too far as long as there was at least one mare close by.

The hybrids acted differently from the horses, and exhibited a delight in being released from duty by jumping, running and kicking up their heels. Every so often one of the mules would race down the bank to the river, drink its fill and then race back to join another as they grazed among the tents. They wore bells, so that the crew knew where to find them in the morning, and it was a comforting sound to hear them munching and the sound of the bells throughout the night. It was also the absence of bells that would awaken the crew to go out into the night and look for the pack animals.

When my nightly urge woke me, I found an Ansel Adams moon above the southeastern skyline, and the Milky Way extended itself across the night. Over the western edge was a broad splash of light that I did not recognize, but after a few minutes I realized that it was a comet. It was Neowise, the celestial body that had been on the news, but until now, I’d not been able to witness because of clouds, city lights or other obstructions. I was tempted to wake others, but then, in the chilly night, my enthusiasm would probably not be appreciated by others. In the end, it was a beautiful few minutes that I enjoyed by myself. I heard the river, smelled the clean air that was part of the magnificent night around me.

To be continued.

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