May 27, 2020
Author: Chilton Williamson
Horses, like people, are naturally lazy and essentially perverse, habitually unready or unwilling to do what duty requires. Nevertheless, in midafternoon of this hot still day on the desert, mine came willingly enough when I called them, perhaps in hope of double rations or else recalling idyllic mountain parks and alpine basins covered with the sweet green high-country grass. I stiffed them with a handful of grain and loaded them into the trailer, and added a full measure to the mangers for the road.
A horse pack trip is comparable to a minor cavalry campaign, without the shooting. Mostly it’s about logistics–supplies, equipment, climate, and terrain. At the start of the season especially, a two-day venture requires a couple of days’ preparation and the better part of a fifth one to ready the gear for the next trip. Today, we had stowed in the pickup food enough for four days (in case of accident or delay) and sufficient booze for two nights; as much water as we could carry; cooking utensils; a three-man tent; bedrolls; several changes of clothing, including long underwear, wool sweaters, and ponchos; a groundcloth and tent stakes; two hatchets; a small cooking grill; a collapsible bucket; grain for the horses; two 30-foot rosined picket ropes; maps and a pocket compass; a small saw; a good hunting knife and stone; matches and other fire-starting equipment; and a .41 magnum revolver and 50 rounds of ammunition, much of it already packed in the new horse packs purchased the weekend before at A.A.Callister in Salt Lake City.
From Kemmerer to the jumping-off place below the head of the Smith Fork of the Bear River is just over 100 miles, the last 25 by winding gravel road into the mountains. It was midsummer, the temperature in the low 90’s. We rode with the truck windows down and the sliding one in the back of the cab pushed open, letting through straws and wisps of hay lifted from the bed by the windstream. The desert as far as Sage Junction and for ten miles north of it lay burned and brown, giving way at last to the rich alfalfa fields outlying the Mormon village of Cokeville. Between the sagebrush hills, golden with sunshine and lavender in the shadows, central pivot systems hurled silver sprays of water across the green valley of the Bear River enclosed in a faint summer haze. Beyond the valley the snowpointed peaks of the Salt River Range lifted above the mountain country, where spring was still in progress and summer only a rumor. We followed the highway west around Raymond Mountain, climbed north over Salt River Pass, and turned into the Smith Fork road short of Smoot where we had to put the windows up against the white dust boiling thickly behind the trailer, prisming the sunlight in segments of pale rainbow.
The road followed Smith Fork in the narrowing canyon, deeply wooded on the right and descending on the left in steep grassy cliffs to the creek, which foamed clear over boulders and short falls and tunneled under carapaces of compacted snow and ice where they covered the channel over. More snow lay in drifts higher on the steeps; behind these, snow cornices along the high western wall of the canyon curled against the blue sky. We reached the trailhead where the road hairpins to cross the northwestern reach of Commissary Ridge at a little past six o’clock and hurried to load the horses for the short ride up to Sheep Pass.
The air was blue as we started in, and the down-canyon wind gave it an edge that was pleasantly cool and refreshing after the desert heat. We rode in file, keeping to the trail above the creek, across largely open country broken by timber stands and croppings of rock. Arrived below the pass in under three-quarters of an hour, we picketed the horses on good pasture and made camp in a stand of whitebark pine overlooking the valley through which we’d ascended.
“Would you fix us a drink?” Norma asked.
While I poured the drinks and cut them with snow gathered from an outlying snowbank, she brought out crackers and a smoked Alaska salmon sent to me the Christmas before by Doug Kluender in Las Vegas. Doug had mailed the fish to Kemmerer, where it was forwarded c/o Jim Rauen in Belen, New Mexico, with whom I spent a couple of months last winter. Having left it out in the horsetrailer over a freezing night in Moab, Utah, on the way home at the start of February, I was in doubt as to its freshness–the reason why it remained uneaten five-and-a-half months later. Since Norma insisted that the fish, having been smoked, should be safe to eat, I favored her with the first piece, and also the second, and the third. When the fourth seemed to do her no harm, I ate the fifth one and found it delicious. Together, we ate half the salmon with the crackers, drinking bourbon.
Do you want another drink?”
“There’s a man named Alton Windsor in Wisconsin who will write another letter to the magazine if I do.”
Why would he care?”
“I don’t know. But he does.”
“Oh, come on and have another one. He’ll never know.”
“He will if I write about it.”
“All right, I’ll have another drink. Here’s to Alton Windsor.”
“Mr. Windsor. Cheers!”
Admiring the cloudless sky, we left the tent in the pack and spread the bedrolls on the grass at the edge of the trees away from the fire and the snubbed horses. I woke several times in the night and lay with the bag around my ears, staring up at the Milky Way in brilliant cross section and watching the flashing meteors and the buglike satellites pass through it as the Big Dipper slipped slowly northward over the eastern horizon. We rose at a little past dawn, built up the fire for coffee, and worked on the salmon some more. When we rode out, leaving the camp in place and traveling light with only a pair of saddlebags and the canteen on the gelding, the sun was well above the land-line and the red clay damp around the edges of the snowfields.
Beyond the pass the trail descended from 10,000 feet into the first of a sequence of steep basins, partially forested and walled by cirques on their western side. The cliffs were rimmed by snow cornices and streaked by vertical colls, and snow to a depth of four and five feet lay across the forest floor, forcing us to dismount and lead downhill through the trees above Spring Creek to the bottom, where we remounted and rode forward. Even Norma, who has no more horse sense than a cat, observed that Saab Star had behaved like a perfect gentleman for nearly 24 hours now, as he had done the previous summer. Beyond not shying, spooking, and showing his eye whites, at age 16 he has developed a calmness to replace the field of tension that had previously surrounded him like an aura, without losing any of his Arab enthusiasm, strength, and stamina. After ten years of hairtrigger horsemanship, often in precarious terrain, I find the change a welcome one, possibly even deserved.
“Do you remember the first time I tried to pack an elk on him and he bolted over me when I was leading and threw himself over a sidehill and ended up on his feet in the creek with the saddle and the meat under his belly?”
“And you made a beautiful swan dive over a log and got the worst-looking black eye I ever saw.”
“And the time he hung his hind legs up on a log and I let him have his head to buck loose and he bolted into a stand of aspen so that I had to bail out of the saddle when I couldn’t get rein back in time?”
“And came within six inches of braining yourself on the same log, and afterward you couldn’t talk right for several hours and stiffened up so you couldn’t ride and I had to lead six miles out of elk camp, and when we got to the truck at sundown I had to lift you onto the truck seat.”
“And the time I was camped with Bill and Pat Wilson near Elbow Lake in the Winds and he broke his picket line and ran off with Larki, and we had to load the gear we brought in with five horses on three, and walk out 21 miles?”
“I remember you were ready to shoot him when you picked him up three days later with the trailer at Lieberman’s ranch.”
“Then in the Winds we got on bad footing below Lower Jean Lake and he stepped on the gas pedal and tried to bolt through a wet granite trough and I barely stayed with him by hanging onto his neck.”
“Bill Wilson kept looking at him sideways and shaking his head, saying, ‘I don’t know … “‘
“Yes. But he also said later, ‘That little horse has a lot of heart.’ Like his owner, of course.”
We rode up from the bottom and northward above Spring Creek where it bears east through the forested gap to the Greys River, under battlements of rock formed by the outward curves of the cirques coming together, down and up across the shoulders separating the alpine basins filling with snowmelt from the cliffs and draining in steep small torrents into the forest below the meadows. The fresh track of elk and deer imprinted the trail and the ground surrounding the basins, but wide areas of no green and last year’s flattened grasses showed that the snow had been gone only a few days. Driftwood lay across the tails of the little lakes, and yellow buttercups grew in the shallow water. Hunting hawks traced circles in the sky high above the rimrock, but here the songbirds had not arrived yet, and scarcely any jays.
The horses flinched from a strong northerly wind as we pushed on as far as the pass overlooking the wide basin where the trail crosses west to join another coming in from Cottonwood Lake before switching east, then north again to Corral Creek and up the creek to Corral Creek Lake, surrounded on three sides by its palisade of rock. The alpine and subalpine country has a strange formality, as if it had been designed by a multicultural team of English and Japanese gardeners. The grass steeps in their fresh green, the stands of darker pine, even the bare rock seemed diaphanous, suffused with sunlight, as if not rock and soil but light itself were the mountains’ principal element.
“Next time we’ll ride in from Cottonwood and on up to Corral Lake.”
“You wouldn’t guess you could take a horse along that trail, would you? It looks as if it’s slipping off the cliff face.”
“But they’re never as dreadful as they look.”
We rested the horses and rode south again with the wind at our backs and the cliff shadow leaning from the west. At six o’clock we reached Sheep Pass and a quarter of an hour later had crossed over the last snowfield and arrived in camp, where I staked the horses and brought what remained of the salmon from the snowdrift where it had lain buried all day. The coals were alive still at the bottom of the firepit, and plenty of wood lay stacked for the evening fire. While I checked the gelding’s knots, Norma sat among the whitebark pines fixing drinks.
“What was it Faulkner used to say about bourbon?”
“He said thank God for Jack Daniel’s, it never lets you down.”
“Did he ever try Jim Beam?”
“I don’t know. Ed Abbey liked it. Of course, Ed never won a Nobel Prize. But here’s to Jim Beam anyway. It never lets you down either.”
“And here’s to Mr. Windsor.”
“Oh, yes. A toast to Alton Windsor.”
“Remember, you’re not going to write about this.”
“No, I’m not. Unless I don’t have anything else to write about.”
“Look,” Norma said. “Something’s moving up there on the snow. Three of them.”
“On the coll, just below the ridgeline to the left of the trees.”
I set my drink carefully on the grass, trained the field glasses on the west wall of Smith Fork canyon, and moved up to the coll, 800 vertical feet above camp and just under a mile out.
“They’re going over the top now.”
I elevated the glasses slightly and found two cow elk on the ridgeline, in silhouette against the sky.
“There’re more of them to the left, along the top.”
Once you knew where to look, the elk were plainly visible to the naked eye. We sat on a forked pine log Norma had braced to make a bench, drinking whiskey and watching the elk graze south along the ridge through clumps of krummholz pine. On occasion they would turn at right angles to the cliff, taking the red light of the vanished sun on their flanks. From where we sat, they appeared very small and delicate against the failing sky.
“Will we be the last generation of Americans to know this?”
“I don’t care.”
“Yes,” she said. “You do.”
“If I do, I don’t want to think about it.”
“Do you want to have another drink?”
“If you do.”
“All right, then. Let’s both have another drink.”