October 4, 2017
I open one eye and look at the alarm clock as it sounds, my body not wanting to leave the warmth and comfort of bed. My brain starts slowly processing the day’s task at hand. Ten hours in the saddle, thirty miles to ride into the wilderness to our hunting camp and back out, the rugged, rocky trail, the mules loaded with hay. Damn. No. I can’t force my body out just yet. Ten more minutes of useless sleep…
The lights are on at the barn. I hear hoof beats running in the dark and my cousin calling “come boys”. It’s time catch up the stock and saddle. Headlamp lit, I find my way through the dark, the cold, frosty dark, searching for familiar faces. My roan horse, Twist, greets me first and nuzzles me for his treat. He knows what’s in store today; my best friend for the last six years. I catch him, lead him to the barn for his grain, and head to halter the mules, Bart, Ranger, Cecil, Matt and Luke make up one string. Otis, Kitty, Spice, Betty, and Delilah, the other. Ten head today is all to be packed. I brush them, give a little extra love to Spice, my favorite girl, taking in the warmth of her winter hair that is now in place against my cold hands, and saddle them up.
I turn behind me to watch the packs settle in, listening to the sound of the hooves beat down the frozen turf, they crunch as they connect with ice and rock. I hear the mules breathing and noses blowing as they start to set a steady pace knowing the climb that lies ahead. I face forward in my saddle, look out over my roan’s ears and do the same. I give a glance overhead and pray for safe travels and an open mind and gracious heart. I just ride.
My teeth are chattering. I’m shivering violently as my body aches for some shred of the sun’s evidence on the snow covered northeast draw. I can see it above me, thawing the peak as a few orange rays slowly trickle their way down from the opposing side. I remove my gloves from frigid fingers and reach in under my horse’s mane to rob some heat. It’s the coldest morning I can remember riding. I look one last time at the sun as the trail makes its crossing through the draw and finally up the western, warm slope. I look back at the mules again, watching the rhythmic bob of the hay loads riding down the trail on sturdy backs, giant ears working to and fro and perking gently as we cross the narrow, slick bridge. I talk to them. “Easy boys. That a girl, Spice.” And as we meander our way up through the exposed red shale and mudstone, the sun finally greets us with its ever-loving presence. I close my eyes, breathe deeply inhaling the musty smell of wet tag alder and aspen leaves, the aroma of pine mixed with earthy mud, the scent of horse and mule sweat. I smile. There’s nothing like it. You can’t jar this scent or buy it in a can. I open my eyes and let the sun warm me until the shivering stops.
We’ve crested the pass. I look to my right to see the familiar glacial cirques and craggy rock faces of the Swan Range. In the remains of the last snowfall, I see fresh grizzly tracks reminding me my horse, mules and I are not the only travelers on this corridor. I follow the tracks for a mile or so, watching them stop and feed and smell, no doubt readying itself for the onset of winter’s hibernation, the Hyperphagia stage. I realize how much I’ve come to love this pass. What once was an acquaintance has become an affair. I’ve come to know every detail, slope, slide, and nuance of this trail. The sun continues to thaw the cold, and melt the smattering of snow on the nearby bear grass clumps. High country. God’s country. Big Sky country. We descend down out of the alpine basins, watching the river drainage stretch and wind below. One and half more hours to camp… Eleven miles down, nineteen more to go.
There have been some long days accumulated lately. There have been dark nights. There has been frustration and plenty of cussing, like the air out both of your lungs type of cussing. There has been laughter and jokes told and teasing and a steep learning curve packing mules this fall. My mettle has been tested. Tears have fallen. But not one, single regret. Because I found a piece of me in all of this, a bit of strength in this solitude and perseverance. I found memories and heard my grandpa’s voice speaking to me, and the words of his Outfitter’s Prayer ring in my head with a resounding impact. It’s with a longing hope, I can reflect back at 90 years old, Lord willing, and know I really lived, that I took in every moment and let it seep into every fiber of my heart, and etch a strong memory, one that makes me momentarily feel alive again.