Oct 1: Day 1 of Non-Trail Life
And so our days will forever be divided. Yesterday in a cold rain we rode to the foot of the Big Horn Mountains, which had been rising higher on the horizon for a week. We brought this stretch of the trip to a close as we pulled off the pack saddles and unloaded everything into a barn. As I write this, I’m sure the horses are munching frantically to get their fill, thinking that we will call them in tomorrow morning for another day’s ride. Luckily for them, they’ve got a little while to get to know their pasture. There’s a great little stream that runs right through it, a shed for cover when it snows (which it happens to be doing right now), plenty of deer to spook them into a trot, and lots and lots of grass. Pearl even has the most perfect sandhole to roll in.
Having a moment to begin to reflect upon the last 3 months, I am absolutely floored by all of the kindness and generosity we encountered while on the trail. We were welcomed so seamlessly into so many homes and invited to share so many meals and to be part of so many beautiful lives, if only for a few days, and our horses were offered hay and green pastures. I know that none of us ever smelled all that good, so it truly is a remarkable thing. It does something to a person, to look towards the horizon and be able to go see about it. There is an openness about the prairie and its horizons that has been imprinted on my heart. I know that I will crave that sense of being fully alive, fully a part of my environment, drinking from the same watering holes as pronghorns and weathering the same storms, for the rest of my days. Feeling entirely at home in a creekbed or meadow or open prairie flat. With the least nuclear looking family you could imagine, Pearl, the horses, Sebastian and I found home, along with a deep sense of belonging, wherever it was we pitched camp for the night. That sense of place, discovered and rediscovered every day on the trail, is one that will continuously affect me, even now that we’ve hung up the slickers for the winter.
In fact, we haven’t hung them up just yet; this morning I pulled mine out during a hailstorm that peppered us as we moved 242 cows from one side of the ranch to the other. For a little while at least, we’ll be helping out here, and as the horses rest up, our real work will begin to share the stories we found while on the trail. We cannot begin to thank everyone who took part, in some way or another, in this trip with us. Your encouragement and support and well wishes meant and mean so much to us. We surely never would have set out without them, so thanks for getting us out the door and onto the trail. I imagine it won’t be long before we’re back on it.
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Whether it was Randy Claybaugh who brought out his refurbished sheep wagon for us to stay in on a bend of the Powder river, complete with a cooler of ranch raised beef, elk steaks, beer, and sweet corn, or the families who cooked us hot meals in the mornings: eggs, bacon, biscuits and gravy, or the kindness of a stranger we met who dropped off cheeseburgers, cold cokes, a dozen eggs, cookies, sausage, steaks, and m&m’s on the side of the highway, we are so grateful for every meal, bed, floor, shop, sheep wagon, sheep shed or pasture offered so thoughtfully to us. As travelers, you gain a new respect for the thoughtfulness of hosts and hostesses, the care taken to take care of their exhausted guests. I’ve never felt more cared for in my life.
When we started the trip, Robin and I had no real way of being sure how our horses would hold up on the trail. Considering the challenge, they did amazingly well. Nonetheless, they are due for a long rest. With saddles on for nearly three months, their backs were getting sore and their enthusiasm waning. Despite their cranky attitudes at being saddled recently, the amazing thing is how they took to trail life, and still enjoy our company. When we turned them out to run free yesterday, they ate the grass all around us for hours, even when we whooped and hollered to get them to run for a good photo. Now those are some tired, happy horses. Perhaps a better test was walking out to meet them today, and they all came trotting up, Pearl insisting on an ear scratch as usual. They followed us as we walked away. It’s been so wonderful to see a bond form between the horses, the mule, and the two of us that goes beyond treats and training.
After we arrived here, turned the horses out, and headed for the house, we hesitated. Shouldn’t we be setting up the sleeping bags in the pasture? We almost did. Life has become the tone of belled horses, the snap of cold air inhaled from a warm sleeping bag, and steaming cups of cowboy coffee and hot oatmeal as the sun warms the day. Life has become the nomadic rhythm of daily moves; eating, packing up camp, riding, riding, riding, setting up camp, eating, sleeping, repeat. Every day to a new spring, a new cove, a new bend in the river. Every day to new grass. No two days were the same. To those who think the Great Plains are monotonous, try horse packing through them. All you have to do is slow down a little to notice how incredibly different every single mile is, and every single hour. Every day is unique. Every minute new. Maybe it was the linearity of the trail that made time seem new and precious. Appreciate this here now, because soon you will be passed it, and the next stretch will be different.
With the coming fall feeling like winter already, the warmth of sunrise has been eluding us. The key in the last week of the ride was to stay dry as grey clouds hung low and autumn winds blew rain and sleet against our slickers, stinging hands and faces. That sort of weather made the transition back to sedentary life, and the decision to sleep indoors, a little easier. So does the snow today. A hot shower and warm bed feel awfully good at the end of a day like that.
Now, some of you may have noticed that we didn’t make it to Oklahoma, or Missouri, or Eastern Kansas, or any of the potential ending destinations that we originally set out for. For some, that may be a major disappointment. I hope not. We may be able to continue on next spring toward one of those geographic goals. For us the physical distance traveled and the end location was never the most important goal at all. Our goal (careful what you wish for!) was to slow down. To slow down enough to see and understand the landscape, to learn from and share with the people that we met, to learn the local flora and fauna even as it changes from county to county, drainage to drainage, to notice the precise way the sunlight gleans off different bends in the river, hear and see and recognize and celebrate the wildlife we passed, the changes in vernacular of the families we visited with, to notice the change in soil types, rainfall, management practices, and to relish, fully, the prairie. We originally thought that we would be able to meet a family one night and hear their story the same evening and begin riding again in the morning. Once we started we found that usually we had to stay for at least two nights and a full day in between if we really wanted to begin to get to know them and learn something about their relationship to the land. So we slowed down. We had heard it was possible to average 15 miles a day riding 5 days a week, but we didn’t realize what and who we would miss riding 15 miles a day 5 days a week. That wasn’t slow enough. So we changed schedule, making new objectives to accomplish our larger goal. We think it was a worthwhile compromise, one that made our journey that much richer, and enabled us to dive a little deeper into the country we rode through. And now, with a roof over our heads and internet at our fingertips, we’ll be able to share what we found with you.
Thank you everyone for everything.
All the best,
4 thoughts on “Off The Trail”
Love your writing, the intent of and unfolding of your journey and look forward to your and Robin’s reflections over the winter. Thanks, Sandra
Great story… Looking forward to seeing you again. Maybe a lunch date????
Tony is still missing Carmen
These photos are gorgeous. Your stories are so heartening and a much needed counterpoint for all the sad news we are bombarded with every day. Thank you for living life to the fullest and sharing it with the rest of us!
What a wonderful undertaking! I saw something about you in the Westonian (I’m class of 1970) and have a life long interest in the prairie…I grew up in Laramie, Casper and Jackson Hole, and horses have been a part of my life since we moved west in 1957. More power to you! If I can be helpful in some way, I’d like to be. I truly believe people and animals, wildlife and wild places can be part of one healthy web and woof, if we take time to slow down and understand.