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Monday, June 3, 2013

Sometimes in the end we learn something of more value than the test we took.....

Several years ago, while working as a mountain trail guide, I had one of those days...

     5 AM: We awoke to the sounds of a trailing thunderstorm, still rattling the bunkhouse windows in their frames. Knowing that we had seven riders plus their gear going up into the high pass, we scrambled to get our selves ready to start bringing in the heard of riding and pack horses. Finding the coral muddy and dank from rain and horse droppings, the meadows still marshy by the all night rain, our spirits had already begun to sink. Then we heard about the mountain lion that had been in the valley all night harassing the horses and mules. ( One of the neighbors lost a horse due to it being chased off one of the cliffs by that same lion.)

     By 6 AM the horses had been located and herded into the coral twice, only to break away and charge the wranglers who were lucky enough to have gotten a mount drawn. Leaving the rest of us on foot, pacing the flank of the now highly energized and aggravated herd, trying to keep up without pressing in on them too soon or too hard. Tired beyond my belief of ability, I finally caught my preferred wrangling mount and quickly bridled and saddled him before he decided to dance away with his herd mates.

     At 7 AM, the bosses wife had passed through the lot, which scattered the 8 head of still skittish horses I was trying to push into the wrangling coral. (Mind you that now we are an hour late for breakfast and still not ready to ride up the mountain with our guests, who were gleefully watching the wranglers round up these all to excited animals, without realizing the hardships we were going through, nor the fact about the mountain lions actions earlier in the night.) She shouted at me to turn those horses back in and get them saddled...even though her stepping out in front of them had spooked them and made them turn out and charge past me and my now exasperated mount. I in return, informed her to let me do my job and get out of the way so I can... then I offered to let her mount my horse and do it so I could catch my breath. See how this day was quickly going down hill?
     Around 8:00, we had them in, saddled the riders horses, got the pack animals loaded up, and realized that there was not enough wranglers assigned for this large group to proceed up the trail. We have to have one wrangler for every six animals, and there were seven animals being ridden, and ten being used to pack with, and we had only pulled 2 wranglers. (The riders would be dropped off leaving 2 wranglers tethering 17 animals plus their mounts back down alone. We could handle it, but the guide laws said otherwise. Not only that, in the mood we were in, and already exhausted, the boss and his wife decided to send one more rider/wrangler along to make sure we brought back the unruly animals...)

     By 9:15, off we proceed, lead wrangler in front of the 7 guests leading 1 pack animal, 2 wranglers trailing with the remaining 8 pack animals. At least the weather cleared and the sun was out, and we had time somehow to swallow a few bites of breakfast leftovers and a cup of coffee while changing into drier clothes. The ride up would take us 4 hours or better depending on trail conditions and how the riders, and animals, acted. And this being in the Wind River Mountain Range, in the middle of the Bridger-Teton Wilderness, all bets were off on that going well today by us wranglers, yet we kept that from our riders.....A long ride ahead up, and we were only focused on the return ride, hot food, and our bunks...and it wasn't even noon.

     We rode until the guests needed a break, so we stopped in a semi clearing along the trail, only an hour or so from our destination. Securing the pack lines and the saddle horses, we sat down for a quick lunch of sandwiches and an easy stretch of the legs. After everyone had eaten and worked the morning kinks out along with some new found saddle sores, we mounted up and began once again up the trail. Talk began to flow between riders, and we were all feeling a bit better about the day.
     At our destination,I looked at my pocket watch, having not wanted to look at it since leaving the valley floor, and discovered it to be closer to 3 pm than 1 pm as was our schedule. The ride up went well, except...except that one of the riders horse took a mis-step and fell, dropping him off hard on the rocks. His ankle was banged up and bruised, but nothing broken. We tended to the scratches received from the rocks, and bandaged the ankle to help ease the discomfort of riding. Then within minutes of getting back underway, my horse slipped on the still wet rocks and fell to his knees, busting his chin wide open. That wasn't too bad, but in the process of this, the pack animals in both lines had become entangled in the leads, creating what we like to call a mountain train wreck. Delays like this can take hours to get settled, and it seemed like it did, but in reality the wreck gave us only a 10 minute delay, and another few minutes to get going again, with a bit more spacing and a slower pace due to the rock trail becoming more obviously slick as we climbed.
     We hustled best we could to unload all the pack animals and ready the saddle horses to be tethered and lead back down. The horses and mules alike decided that they were going to graze and spend more time watering than we hoped, and were not going to be deterred for it. Knowing that they had been pushed hard early in the morning, and had taken us up the mountain without rest or water, we decided not to argue, but we did push them to the edge of their good nature about it. (You can argue with 1700 pounds of horse flesh, but you can't win a fight with it.) Saddled, we began our decent, lead man riding with 6 in tow tethered behind, a wrangler with 5 more, and I in the drag pulling 6...a long way to go...I looked again at the watch, almost 5pm now, and daylight is in short supply in these deep mountain valleys.

     The weather decided to turn on us within an hour of the return ride, from sunny and 70 degrees, to just above freezing with sleet and rain, and as normal for us, wind....and lots of it, from every direction at once it seemed. The trees in the dead burn area of the mountain we were riding through, were tossing back and forth threatening to snap like tooth picks and fall down on us at any moment...and one did, smacking across the back of one of the pack horses, sparking a bucking twisting of tangled lead ropes and tether lines, entangling horses and riders both....train wreck number 2, and a bad one. It took more time to settle the startled animals than it took to get the lines back in order, still it cost us almost half an hour...and the storm was only just brewing for us. The wind picked up if anything, and the rain left only to be replaced with more sleet and bits and flurries of snow, wet snow.
     Passing the cliff face we call the slide, we negotiated the hairpin cut-back trail along the face, fully exposed to the driving winds and increasing snow/sleet mix. Once we got back into a draw, and began our turn to the next pass, we were pressing hard on the horses for better speed trying to make up time, yet they were having nothing of being rushed and wanted only to head for the tree line and huddle from the storm. For once I would agree with them, but I was trailing the lead, and he was not going to let up and only wanted to keep pushing, almost to a trot down these slippery rocky trails. By now, Nature played an even more sinister hand on me...I HAD TO PEE!!! and I mean right then. However hard I called out, the wind ripped my words over two states, as neither rider ahead of me heard my calls for a stop and kept riding on, leaving me behind and pulling up to dismount.
     Now those who do not know, when horses tend to heard and work together, they like to stay together. Meaning, that my mount began chomping the bit to get moving the moment he realized that the lines ahead were not stopping when we did. As I was trying to get my clothing back arrayed, he nudged me trying to get me to start walking so we could keep moving, which only made me slip and almost fall and loose my hold on his reins. Frantically I start to remount as I realized what could happen if he bolted... and bolt he did, just as I was swinging my leg up and around. I hit the ground flat on my back so hard that it actually knocked me out...

     I opened my eyes to rain and sleet pelting me. I laid there, coat wide open, shirt and pants soaking wet, no hat, my glasses gone....not only my glasses gone, but my horse and his tethered charges were no where in sight. The shock of the cold almost unbearable, I stood up, located my glasses about 10 feet away, drew my coat closes, and saw my hat laying muddy and soaked just a few steps from being blown over the trail side and down the ravine below. Yep, this day just got worse, and I knew I only had about 2 hours of daylight left, about 10 miles of trail to get through, my body temperature was falling and my saddle bags had my only food, drink, and emergency shelter....and it was gone.
     Here I stood, contemplating finding some sort of windbreak and trying to light a fire, or begin walking down this mountain in hopes of finding my mount or any of the horses along the way and get off the mountain. I lit a cigarette, swallowed my pride, rejected my growing fear of hypothermia, and began walking....
I walked about a mile, and found my horse, all tangled in his reins and lead rope along with the rest of my charges. I don't know how happy they were to see me coming, but I was relieved that they were there. I got them untangled, checked them all for any rope cuts or sores, adjusted the saddles and even got remounted without a single upset. We rode only a few minutes before we caught up to the others, who had eventually discovered that I was no longer behind them and had drawn up to wait. Pleasantries were not exchanged, only harsh words and gruff comments. Apparently pit stops were not going to be part of the return trip and I cost them time, and if I could not keep up or in the saddle I would be left behind. (mmmm...now I am feeling the burn of that even to this day)

     I rode, in silence, through the waning daylight, into the twilight, and on into the darkness. In the wilderness, without Moon nor stars (due to heavy clouds) when I say darkness, I mean pitch black. Flashlights only startle your horses, and can attract curious night predators, so all you have is your best guess at what you think you see, and rely on your horses ability to see the trail to get you home. And still I remained silent. Another tangle-up/train wreck happens due to hurried attempts at a cutback in the trail and two tethered animals trying a short-cut. Then within a half hour we detour due to a down tree across the trail, and blaze a round about way around, again tangling up in the trees and branches which are happy to snag anything they can, this also spooks one of the lead pack animals and starts a whole new wreck. But, I remain silent.

     9 PM; the valley floor trail opens up and our humble bunk house and lodge come into a faint view by the lights left on for our return. Relief washes over me, passes through my mount and is transferred along the lead ropes and tethers to the other animals. The day is all but done. We ride that last 1/2 mile, horses dragging hoofs, riders slumped and thoroughly exhausted, all in silence, all thinking the same thoughts, of warm clothes, warm food, and warm beds.
     We dismount, tie each animal to the hitch, pull saddles and packs, trying to get this last bit done before our strength fails.  The lead wrangler decides that now was the best time to address me about the waste of time, and to impress his point that it was only my fault that this ride took so long. (Mind you he set the pace up and back, pressing for speed and causing 3 of the 4 wrecks along the days ride.) I had about all I could handle of the blame game, and turned away, grabbed my saddle bags and began to walk away. Now this was not acceptable to him, as he stepped in-front of me and made it a point to remove his gun holster from his mount.
     Intimidation does not bode well with me, and I looked him in the eye and said; "I don't know if you noticed or not, but I quit about 5 miles back up that trail. I am going to bed." This must have made an impact upon him, as he (to this date) has never spoken to me since.

     The next morning, the boss asked me what happened, and I told him knowing that the other wranglers had already spoken to him. (I did not bother to get up and wrangle horses, feed, nor any other morning chores or even go into breakfast and decided to sleep in instead.) He asked if I still worked for him, and I said that was totally up to him. He asked if I would ride with the lead wrangler up the mountain again, and I said yes, but he might not come back. So with that all in mind, he said he needed me to stay on, to take a day off, stay away from the wranglers and he'd see to me later about rides going up later in the week and the return of the group I had just went up the mountain with.
     I spent the day on the bunkhouse porch watching the herd, listening to the wind, and peacefully enjoying hours. That evening, a young wrangler approached me and said that he had heard the other versions of the previous days ordeals and wanted to hear my telling of it. So we sat down and I told him how it went from my point of view.
 After hearing it, he looked at me and said;
 "Ya know, it was all in all a bad day for you, hell, for most of us that morning it was bad. That trip was pushed, could have been delayed a day. But all in all I guess, it was the worst day that you made the best out of. You made it back, everyone is alive, the horses are okay. You did good."
     Those words have come to me a lot since that day, during many ordeals, through trials and tribulations, and in reflection of what I did or how I acted or reacted to them. Many times, I have had those' worst days I ever made the best of'.



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