With two feet of packed snow on the ground, temperatures averaging around ten below zero each morning, and the only visible dirt hiding under the big Spruce trees, summer seems a long time away. Tales of shirt sleeves, and getting ready to plant, and early calving starting elsewhere get you thinking ahead. Far ahead, in our case. We have a few more months of winter up here, no matter what the calendar says. There are some things I begin to long for, and I suppose riding tops the list. Instead, I occupy myself with reading horse related books and magazines, braiding halters, splicing ropes, replacing saddle strings, oiling tack, repairing bridles, and reminiscing of days gone by… riding.
Yesterday I took the afternoon off and headed out on a solitary snow shoe up one of my favorite horse trails, a narrow hidden recluse of a trail just a little more than a game trail, switch-backing precariously up the side of Finger Mesa to one of the most beautiful and breathtaking overlooks you could imagine.
The trail yesterday remained elusive beneath probably two feet or so of snow which had slid and wind blown to a smooth sideways slope. This trail, created well over a half century ago by Bob’s father and grand father, leads not only to the over look but to stories, tales, memories. It is this very trail that I dream of so often in my musings of horses.
This trail has tales to tell. Of fish eggs carried by Bob’s forefathers to and from the hatcheries. Of sheepherders leaving their flock to sneak down the mountainside for resupplies. Of hunters (and their unsuspecting wives) riding up in the dark early morning hours in efforts to sneak up on a prize bull elk at the start of hunting season.
More recently and for Bob, Forrest and me, the trail tells tales of sharing the mountain with guests – and horseback for me is the best time to sit (even though while moving on a horse) and talk and get to know our guests. Tales of a woman so afraid of heights learn to let go, breath and trust her horse as he safely carries her across the unforgiving drop offs. Tales of wonder as a young boy from the city sees his family’s magical world of their high mountain vacations stretch before him, below him, in one huge eye full. Tales of snaking pack horses with a full load up this trail, huffing and puffing, to a secret hidden paradise of a campsite. And tales of chasing horses in the pitch black back down this trail as they “escape” from camp and figure back home at the ranch would be a better place to spend the night. That, of course, was our dear Quattro.
But this summer, Quattro had another special journey on this trail. I suppose it will remain as the biggest challenge of Quattro’s career. Not because of the terrain, which by many accounts would be considered “challenging.” But because of another factor we were not used to dealing with: 150 riders.
We’re accustomed to guiding small groups of 5 or so riders, and although it may not be the most practical choice business wise, I even love to take just one or two riders on trails like this. I always thought that was the best way to experience the peace, solitude, beauty and awe of these mountains. But I figured 150 wouldn’t be that much different than 5. The only difference might be that “solitude” is replaced by “camaraderie.” And I learned that’s a decent variation.
Bob and I and were honored to guide this Big Ride. I won’t make light of it – it was a big deal for us, as we’d been working for four years with the leader of the group in preparations. We had, over these four years, grown to care very much for this man and the group he represents, and did not want to let him down.
The Big Ride involved a lot of preparation, a lot of exploring, adventures and pretty fun times. I’ll tell you more about it later, but for now, I want to tell you just a little about the trail because that is where I was yesterday. Trudging along the side of the mountain in the deep and slick snow. Yet my mind kept wandering to other times, other days, other rides…
The route is a grand one, starting with a steep and narrow switch back trail carving up the mountain below our ranch, crossing bogs and shale hill sides with precarious drop offs, then to a breathtaking overlook as beautiful as anything Mother Nature could possible dream up. From the overlook, the trail slides on down a short slope, around the beautiful lake, and up a heavily treed hillside where we only managed to take the same route twice – thanks to finally taking the time to get off our horses every 25 yards or so to pile small rock cairns, our bread crumbs to guide us through these woods.
The woods lead up through a variety of open parks, each one still looks exactly the same to me as the one before; and then up a steep slide onto the bare slope above tree line. From there, we rise to the top of the mountain, the top the mesa, crossing the rocky, windy, exposed summit, reaching heights as great as 12,500 feet in elevation.
There is no trail up beyond that overlook, only a few game tracks and familiar markers from our previous trips and explorations to guide us. I did not want to get lost up there. Remember, we had 150 riders behind us. What on earth would I have done if I led this ridiculously long string of horses and riders down the wrong game trail or met with a dead end? Talk about feeling like a fool! (“Ah, OK everyone, let’s back up from here a little ways…”) No, that would not be good.
Fortunately, I did not lose my way. However this was due to the fact that Quattro recalled the route perfectly, down to each hoof step. And of course the fact that Bob was riding right behind me for most of the day.
Down the other side into the protection of the trees again we then go, and along an old elk trail until we meet up with a logging road. We feel like we’re home free.
It was a special day for us and our horses, I’ll share more of the story with you later. I’m trying to stick with tale of the trail…
Quattro and I alone returned to the trail the week following the Big Ride. I was certain I’d see a terrible impact created by all these hooves. I’m not sure what I expected to find – deep ruts, a widened trail, tons of horse poop, litter left behind? I can not say I notice anything different. Our little horse trail winding up the mountain looked like there were riders there recently… but I can’t say you really could tell any difference between 150 and 5.
And yesterday, there was one. Me. Alone in the wind, the deep snow, the glaring sun, the white wide expanses before me, and the memories.