We watched the leaves put on a little more ochre and heard the elk’s bugle grow a little louder this fall from such a beautiful spot in Sheridan, WY. We’d come home all the time to the very best surprises: a moose, with his enormous ears all a-swivel, dipping his nose into our horse’s trough in front of our cabin.
Or better yet, Smokey, with all his belly, enjoying a peaceful moment on our front porch.
And too, in the mornings sometimes we’d hear Smokey clomping on up to the door to push his nose through to wake us up. The soundscape around us shifting from songbirds to the honk of Canadian geese, signaling the coming frosts and turn of season more clearly than any other sound does for me. On our rides, if we hit the timing just right, we’d happen across literally hundreds of elk as they made their way from spot to spot, and when they caught sight of us they’d funnel, 4 or 5 wide, into what seemed to be a giant river of elk, moving as if one entity as they snaked their way across a drying landscape. You could feel the hammering of their hooves on the hard ground from hundreds of feet away. (Excuse the video quality, taken from the back of a somewhat antsy horse. Video by R.J. Connor)
For both of us, I think, the very best part of this summer and fall was a ten day pack trip we went on up into the Big Horn Mountains. It was the first big trip we took on after Viper broke his leg and had to be put down, and I, for one, was just short of a nervous wreck, anticipating every worst-case scenario. In character, Sebastian was calm and sure. As we rode into Penrose Park at sunset on the first day, with a beautiful view of pink clouds billowing out from behind Black tooth mountain, things started falling away: worry, fear, nervousness, and I felt everything slide right into place, as they so often do when you are sitting on top of a horse.
We wound our way alongside a roaring white Little Goose Creek for some time, and made camp at Winnie Lakes, (and I assure you Winnie the dog couldn’t have been more excited about staying at Winnie Lakes).
We eventually made our way up into Highland Park, loud and persistent in its beauty, as we followed the sound of an elk’s bugle ricocheting off sunlit scree.
Wind whipping cold against hands and cheeks, we worked our way across the park and down the other side, where we lost a shoe, put a shoe back on, unpacked and packed our boxes three different times, snaked our way through yellow aspen leaves, and finally heard the sound of water crashing down rock as we came across the best campsite yet, tucked right under Sawtooth falls, where streams of glacial water came cascading down the side of the mountain. The best visitor of the night was a moose who came to see about an evening drink at the river. We woke up that morning to something of a dream: a waterfall the backdrop to four beautiful horses, their place so graceful and sure in this world.
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At the beginning of the month Sebastian and I went on a trek to drive the route we hope to ride in the Spring. We started out in the tallgrass prairie in Oklahoma and through the Flint Hills of Kansas and stitched our way west along the back roads, traversing some of the more complicated stretches of the trip and stopping along our way to check out some of the projects we hope to highlight in the Spring. The fall is a beautiful time to see the prairie. If you look in the right spots, you can find native grasses that stretch across the horizon, host to the many many creatures and plants that call this grassland ecosystem home. And too, you can see what they’re up against.
After taking a walk through a tract of unplowed tallgrass prairie, through big bluestem 9 feet high and the 70+other species of grasses that thrive here, the space between each permeated by the chirrups of birds and grasshoppers, and then hop back in the car, a funny thing happens. As you drive past field after field after field after field of monoculture crops—soy, wheat, corn— and you make a connection between the percentage of remaining tallgrass prairie in the U.S.—estimates ranging from less than four percent to as little as one tenth of one percent—and the tract you just walked through, you go back and forth from being just so disheartened, unable to imagine how that number has dwindled so small, to holding on to some small hope that we might be able to reverse a course of destruction that has put this entire ecosystem on the verge of collapse. That we might work towards transforming our relationship with this vast landscape, striking a balance between production and conservation, and learn how to produce our food, fuel, and fiber in such a way that does not compromise the vitality of the land from which it grows. This hope sometimes feels naively optimistic, but it is easy to be inspired by the growing number of individuals and organizations that make their life work searching out ways to preserve, protect, and restore the prairie, not only for its value to us—which is immense—but for the landscape itself. Teetering between disappearance and perseverance, the prairie occupies such a fascinating and fragile place in history right now. Its future quite literally depends on our decisions, and I hope we learn to make the right ones.
We’ll put up more photos and thoughts from the road trip in the coming days, so be sure to stop back by the website for a visit. For now, we’re posting up in Bozeman, where we’ll spend the winter as we continue to prepare for our trip. I am about to set out into the mountains on a couple week pack trip into the high Rockies to help out a local outfitter. I hope I don’t freeze.
Robin + Sebastian