Wilderness Time

Sunday, September 20th, 2020

At the end of our summer work in Wyoming, the Guy gave me what may rank as the best birthday present ever: a pack trip into the Washakie Wilderness, part of my old fieldwork area in the Absaroka Range southeast of Yellowstone National Park. Just the two of us, his four horses (two for riding, two for packing), and a stretch of glorious days away from cell phones, internet, news, and other humans. (We did see three other people on our last night as they rode by our camp.)

I haven't been on a backcountry pack trip in decades, since the years when I traversed these mountains in my work for the Shoshone National Forest, before graduate school and meeting Richard and Molly. Who--bless their hearts--did not have the same need for time away in wild places as I do. As I write in Bless the Birds: Living With Love in a Time of Dying, my forthcoming memoir:

We managed just one family backpacking trip, a weekend outing to the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area, for my birthday that fall in West Virginia. Richard and four-year-old Molly were so miserable that I took pity on them after the first night, and we packed out. On the way home, we stopped for “real food,” in Molly’s words, and Richard’s favorite dark-roast coffee. I never tried backpacking with them again.

For me, this trip into the South Absarokas, home to more grizzly bears, wolves, and elk than people, was a dream--and another step in reclaiming the part of myself that I had set aside during my nearly three decades with Richard and Molly. I never expected to get back into the wild country I learned so well over the miles of hiking and riding for my work back then, and came to love so deeply that it has been the home of my heart ever since. 

When the Guy and I first started talking about taking a backcountry trip last winter, we imagined something more ambitious, a through-ride that would trace the route of a solo backpack trip I took in my mid-twenties, cutting through the Thorofare Valley in Yellowstone. But as the time for the trip got closer, we scaled back those plans, deciding that for our first pack trip together, it would be wise to plan a shorter and less rigorous route. 

Me on Cookie, ponying Sal, on a wildfire-smoke-hazed day ride into Dundee Meadows.

So we did some day-rides into the mountains to hone our skills and to get the horses in shape. Then we picked a drainage were we could ride in, establish a base camp, and explore from there. We scouted the area first, riding the trail we would take, and found a meadow that looked perfect for our basecamp: big enough that it offered abundant native forage for the horses, a creek tumbling through, and several good sites for our tent and cooking areas (which needed to be far apart so that we were not sleeping next to anything that smelled like food). 

Once we knew where we were headed, we went into trip-preparation mode: pulling together maps, food, emergency supplies, and pack gear; we checked the tent, and pulled together our sleeping bags and pads, and personal gear. The Guy inspected the pack saddles and supplies, and did a test-pack of the panniers and bags, and weighed everything to make sure we weren't giving the horses too much to carry. The night before we were to leave, we loaded the gear into big horse trailer. 

The next morning, we fed the horses early so they would have time to finish their hay before we left, and then finished preparing. We were on our way by the time the sun began to warm the late-summer air, and reached the trailhead at mid-morning. It took about an hour to get the horses saddled, the packs on and lashed down, and then we were off, riding up the valley toward the distant peaks and high plateaus, and away from people and wifi and cell phone reception. 

The view from near the trailhead. We were headed toward the far peaks.

At first, the horses were jumpy, starting at deadfall, and hopping sideways when some ducks took off from a nearby pond in a rush of feet slapping the water's surface. But pretty soon we all settled into a good trail rhythm. The sun was warm, the breeze cool, and the forest smelled of pine sap interspersed with musky threads of other animals.

The lake on the trail in--no roads, no cars, no pings. Just the breeze in the pines, the ducks in the marsh, and the horses munching grass.

We stopped for a snack near a lake with a marsh full of birds, and lupines, pussy-toes, and other wildflowers blooming in the forest. The horses grazed the lush grass hungrily, and when we rode on, they were all still munching. I led our small string on the way to the lake, and the Guy took the lead from there on. 

Onward toward camp. (The green panniers are grizzly-proof food containers, and I can attest that they are difficult for people to open too!)

We reached the meadow where we planned to camp by mid-afternoon, unsaddled the horses, arranged the tack on a log where it could air out, and then set up the highline for the horses, the overhead line where they would be secured at night.

The tack log... 

Horses on the highline... 

Once the horses were settled, we ate a late lunch, pitched the tent, set up our camp kitchen area, and relaxed in our camp chairs in the shade of a big lodgepole pine tree. I wrote and the Guy meditated, and then studied the maps. We both absorbed the quiet. 

Camp journaling... 

Around dinnertime, we unhooked the horses, put hobbles on their front legs, and let them graze the meadow, keeping an eye out to make sure none hopped far enough to get to the trail. The Guy got out the stove, boiled water from the creek, and I "cooked" dinner, pouring boiling water into a pouch of freeze-dried Thai-style chicken dinner, and adding some fresh vegetables. Ten minutes later, we shared a surprisingly delicious hot meal as the pink light from sunset faded from the peaks and then the clouds, and the moon sailed across the evening sky.

Sunset from camp... 

Before dark, we hooked the horses on the highline, and then we each brushed our teeth, took one last foray into the woods to pee, and headed for the tent and our cozy sleeping bags. 

And so our days went: Up with the sun, set the hobbled horses to grazing, make breakfast, decide on the day's ride, catch the horses, saddle up with lunch in our pommel bags, and hit the trail. Back by late afternoon, set the horses to grazing, relax in our camp chairs, make dinner, hook up the horses, and crawl into the tent and curl up together. 

One morning we woke to rain pattering on the tent, so we didn't start our ride until ten, but we still had time to explore the big meadow at the head of the valley (the photo at the top of the post) and the smaller meadows above it, green and boggy and filled with elk sign--wallows, scat, and tree-bark scars where the bulls scrape the velvet from their antlers. We rode past the end of the trail, forded the creek multiple times, ducked under branches and worked our way around deadfall timber as far as we could go, just seeing what was there, and then headed back to camp. 

Another morning we got an early start and took a steep trail that zigzagged up a side valley, climbing up and up and up and up through the forest, and then traversing a narrow ledge of trail high above the cascading creek. "That's real mountain riding," commented the Guy when we were safely past a particularly vertiginous stretch. 

We stopped to let the horses graze in a sedge and hairgrass meadow surrounded by dead whitebark pine trees (killed by white pine blister rust, an invasive pathogen). I commented that this was prime grizzly bear habitat despite the dead forest. Just above the meadow, I spotted one of the largest piles of grizz scat I've ever seen smack in the middle of the trail. We stopped to look, and reassured ourselves that it wasn't that fresh--only later did we admit to each other that it had probably been no more than an hour or two old. 

"Size nine grizzly-bear poop," the Guy said, comparing it to his boot!

We rode on, listening and looking for bears, and saw none. Just more piles of scat, berry bushes everywhere--raspberries, elderberries, gooseberries, and currants; and a several-month-old kill of an elk calf, with not much left but some pelt and scattered bones with tendons attached. I'm pretty sure that big boar grizzly who left the poop knew exactly where we were. We rode with all senses alert, in the knowledge that we could be lunch if we weren't careful. 

That trail took us high into an alpine basin above tree-line, where we stopped for lunch and let the horses nibble alpine turf while we ate. A golden eagle soared above the high ridges, and a peregrine falcon whizzed by on the hunt. Far in the distance we could see the next mountain range to the south. The wind whistled among the rocks, and storm clouds began to built overhead, our signal to head downhill. 

Lunch at about 10,000 feet elevation... 

That evening it rained and then hailed, pea-sized pellets hurled on chill winds. The next morning, we woke to frost on the meadow. We ate breakfast as the horses grazed, and our tent dried in the sun. Then we packed up and headed out, the horses frisky because they knew we were on our way back to the trailhead. 

By the time we reached the truck and trailer, the weather had shifted and the wind was gusting hard, and we were ready for a shower and a good dinner. The next morning, snow dusted the peaks above where we had camped, a foretaste of fall. 

Cathedral Peak rising over our meadow camp...

I call that trip my birthday present because the Guy provided everything: his horses, the packing gear, even the food. All I had to do was show up with my personal gear, ride well, and be good company.

And because it brought me something I had forgotten how much I needed: time away from the hustle of the human world, the bad news that deluges us every day, and the pressure to respond to every signal in our culture of instant communication. For those days in the wild, my system returned to solar time, and my senses tuned to the weather and the shape of the landscape, the sound of elk bugling and the smell of bears.

(On my actual birthday last week, the Guy gave me another perfect present: an increment core for sampling trees, but that's another story.)

I came away from our wilderness time tired but happy, feeling competent and alive. The trip reminded me of what matters most: living with love and kindness, and practicing stewardship of this Earth and we who share it. I needed that time to refresh my spirit and strengthen my heart for whatever comes. 

Pleated gentian, one of my favorite fall wildflowers in these mountains