Reading from June 16, 2010
A Different Place
July 12, 2006 – It’s 7:30 a.m. My wife Carol and I are at the stable of Warner Outfitters, just outside the townsite of Banff , Alberta , Canada . We're here in the Canadian Rockies to take a six-day horseback trip into the remote backcountry of Banff National Park . We'll be making a big loop -- about 75 miles, living in tents. No roads, no phones, no plumbing, no electricity.
We meet our guide, who tells us his name is Kerry. "I'm 41 years old," he says," I know this country well, and I could take you through the backcountry from Banff to Lake Louise and all the way to Jasper. My job is to see that you people are well taken care of and that you have a good time. Kerry says this in a way that makes us like him, and I feel comfortable. With that, he takes our gear over to a packer who loads it onto mules. The packer and the mule train will travel separately -- we’ll meet him at each camp. Besides Kerry, there are just three of us -- Carol, me, and Diane, a fortyish woman from Dublin , Ireland .
We meet our horses; mine, a sturdy bay, is named Waylon. Carol’s on a handsome sorrel. I roll up my yellow slicker, tie it behind my saddle; adjust my stirrups and check Waylon’s cinch. I stuff a couple water bottles into my saddle bags, and I’m set. Kerry takes two mules with us – one is to carry our day gear, the other’s a back-up for emergency. Its tail’s trimmed in a bell, which means it could also be ridden.
With that, we ride out. Today’s ride will be about ten miles to our first camp, where we’ll spend two nights. We’re soon into the wilderness. Ahead, through the trees, and above me, are endless sky and mountains. Patches of sun dapple the trail and light up a profusion of wildflowers -- Indian paintbrushes of lavender-purple, vermillion-orange, and blood red.
Everything I see is natural, wild and untouched. This is why I’m here -- my love of horses and of nature; the untouched beauty of the forest: the majesty of the Canadian Rockies; the peaceful change of pace. It’s doing something unknown, and yes, it’s braving the heights that I still can't handle without some fear. Speaking of that, I’m drawn to the sound of water, and see that it’s a disturbing 500 feet below me.
About 5 PM, our camp appears through the trees. There’s a large corral for the mules and horses, and a tent for their tack and feed. A couple hundred feet away, we find the cook tent, which is big, about 20 by 40 feet. Inside, there's a kitchen with a propane stove and oven, hot water, tables and benches, and a big iron wood stove. It’s going all the time, so there’s always coffee. Ashley, our camp cook, says if the weather turned really bad we could sleep in here.
Outside is a long table with wash basins and mirrors, kind of like I remember from Army bivouacs. A spigot of propane-heated hot water pokes out through the cook tent wall. Nearby, tents are spread out in a big circle around a grassy field. Each tent comfortably accommodates two people. We’re in grizzly country, so the whole camp is enclosed with a solar-powered electric fence that’s supposed to keep predators out. Yeah, right. After dinner, we gather around a campfire and get better acquainted. At 10:00 PM, we call it a day even though it still isn’t dark.
It’s 7:30 a.m. and 42 degrees. The tent has a wooden floor, and we brought self-inflating foam mats, so we slept well. Still, Carol's back is a little stiff this morning. She thinks she's a bit too old for this. Reluctantly, I accept that we’re both on the borderline; in five months, I'll be 70.
Breakfast is good -- no, it’s great; Canadian bacon, eggs, pancakes, oatmeal, blueberry biscuits and good coffee – plus, a squirrel entertained us in the cook tent. Brazen little thing. Life in the woods.
We saddle up and ride out from the corral. For a while, we’re in deep woods and no sun gets down through the trees, so it’s damp underfoot. The woods are silent except for our horses’ hooves pressing softly into the moist, black earth. The cleansing smell of the morning dew mixes with a hint of pine resin. Three thousand feet above me patches of early sunlight are working their way down the side of the mountain. It’s good to be alive.
At mid morning we stop and rest. All around, the ground is covered with tall yellow wildflowers -- buttercups, I think. They come up past my knees. I sit down in them, and look out at the mountains on every side. The sun warms me, and I don't want to leave. The skies up here are a deeper blue, like you never see back home, and the clouds, I swear, are whiter.
We ride on, and enter the forest again. It’s beautiful and peaceful, like a green cathedral -- organ-piped with lodgepole pines and carpeted with moss and wildflowers. We reach the Cascade River, running crystal clear and icy cold. We stop for lunch at its edge. Nearby, we find a Bighorn Sheep skull and horns. We leave it, in the rule and spirit of the Park. It’s another spot where I could have stayed all day. But eventually, rested and fed, we mount up. As we splash across the river. Waylon’s hooves send up tiny rainbows. It’s moments like this that make the trip so special.
This afternoon, we work our way up the side of a mountain and I get a dose of alpine trails and intimidating heights. I find myself riding high along the side of a very steep, very high slope, with only a narrow trail carved into it. I’m doing pretty well, but then Kerry suggests this would be a great place to stop for a group photograph. There’s a little space on the uphill side that’s sort of flat, so Kerry ties the mules to a small dead tree and gets us to bunch up on our horses for the picture. I think we’re entirely too close to the edge, but truly it’s nothing. That is, until it comes time to untie the mules. They’ve wrapped themselves around the tree until they’re snubbed up nose to nose. Kerry tries to back them up so he can untie them, but mules being mules, they won't budge. They do, however, struggle and get worked up. The little tree’s dead and brittle, and they have it half uprooted
Carol says, “What if the tree snaps?”
I reply, “What if it does?”
Well,” she says, “it would scare the heck out of our horses.”
That’s when I realize that Waylon, is standing with his rear end at the edge of the cliff. He’s not that close, I figure we have several inches to spare -- OK, it’s five or six feet. Still, I figure, if the tree suddenly snaps, and the mules break loose, they could send the bunch of us tumbling hundreds of feet to the floor below. Kerry finally has to cut them loose.
We reach our next camp, which we’ve been told has a hot shower -- heated by solar energy and powered by gravity, with a nice private shower tent. After three days we are more than ready. Well, the first thing we hear is, Gee, we’re sorry, but there's a problem with the shower, so we have to settle for pans of hot water and a sponge bath in the shower tent. Well I have to say, even that felt absolutely heavenly.
After dinner, Carol and I walk down by a wide nearby stream. The evening air is still. The only sound is the soft gurgle of the water. Far above us, the sun’s last rays crown the mountain with a blaze of gold. The first evening stars have come out. Later, in the night, I’m up for a nature call and the moon is lighting up the camp so I could read a book. Everything is there to see – every mountain crag, every tree bough, every ripple on the stream. As I watch, small clouds pass in front of the moon, and a pewter glow forms around their edges. The beauty here isn’t all in the daytime.
Through the week I've been giving Kerry half-serious reminders that I'm not too crazy about heights. This morning he said he had a choice to make. Today, we had to either ride along a narrow trail with a high, sheer drop-off for an hour or two, or we could go up a series of switchbacks, which he says are kind of steep, but would take less time. Out of consideration for me, he says he's chosen the switchbacks.
We’re soon there and it's a lot steeper than I’d hoped. Even switchbacking left and right it’s still so steep all I can see is the back of Waylon's head above me and a wall of mountain. I have to lean so far forward there’s nothing under my butt but air. My saddle and Waylon’s rear end are somewhere far below me. I resist the urge to fling my arms around his neck for fear I’ll distract him. There’s no way I’m looking back, or down, or anywhere. I put on my tunnel vision and glue my eyes on the trail directly in front of me.
Kerry and the mules are widening the gap above of us. Waylon’s huffing and puffing now. I’m not sure if it’s the steepness of the trail or if I’m squeezing the air out of him with my knees. He's lurching more and stumbling a bit, sending rocks rattling down behind us. Kerry has disappeared and now there’s only sky -- we must be near the summit. But no, God is cruel; I get there only to find I’m on a postage stamp that’s flat, then it starts again. I thought Kerry said it would be short. Hey, this wasn’t in the brochure.
Waylon's really wheezing now so I give him a moment to catch his breath. With that, Carol shouts from right behind me, "KEEP GOING!" My throat’s dry and there’s no way I’m going to answer her, let alone look back down, so I nudge Waylon back into action. I zero in on his hooves again, grit my teeth and concentrate on leaning forward. Waylon wheezes to a stop a couple more times, and Carol's "KEEP GOING!" becomes more commanding. I try not to think about what’s going on below me.
An eternity later we run out of mountain and Waylon and I finally find ourselves crowded onto a semi-flat space with Kerry and the two mules. We’re still uncomfortably close to the edge, but I steal my first brave glance out into infinity. Far below me swims a blur of green and I don’t look down. I concentrate on the distant mountains. None, I note, are as high as we are. I urge Waylon further back, where I unclench my teeth and relax my grip on the reins. Finally, my heart begins to slow and some of the rubber goes out of my knees. Carol, Diane and Kerry, totally relaxed, are still back at the edge, marveling at the view. Carol says, "Now that view’s what I call a TEN!" I wish I could have seen it.
It’s late afternoon now. We’re down off the plateau and into deep forest again. I like being in the woods. When there are trees on both sides of me I know I can’t fall off a cliff. But I’ve ridden out of the frying pan and into another fire. The last hour has been the most punishing trail I’ve ever ridden. We started at 7000 feet, and it’s been downhill all day, rocky, steep and twisty, so every step is a lurch and it beating the hell out of my knees. What did Carol say about being too old for this? But, hey, like they say, “No pain, no gain.” And I’ve braved a few heights that I never thought I could. So while I still can't handle them without some fear, I’m ready to try again…I think
It’s our last morning -- day six, and we’re saddling up for the ride home. There’s a field of wildflowers by the corral, yellow, like the ones yesterday. The morning sun shines through them and turns them into a kindergarten of Happy Faces. We start out following a river on our left. I take a last look back over my shoulder and see the sun, still low, is sprinkling the water with diamonds.
We’ve been truly alone out here. We haven't seen anyone else on the trail since we left Banff . It’s quiet; we don't talk much. Occasionally one of the horses will blow, a saddle will creak, or a horseshoe will clink on a rock; but most of the time there's just the wonderful solitude. I’m where I want to be – I’m in a different place. Being here, miles away from the crowded, artificial world I’m used to, there's a spiritual feeling, an essence that reaches my inner self. Being here speaks to me through each of my senses. It comes to me in the fragrance of the trees and the pine needles. I see it in the incredible blue of a sky that's never known pollution. I feel it in the gentle caress of the pure air on my face, and the warmth of the morning sun on my back. I can smell the rocks and the mountains. I get a hint of the oil in my gloves, and of the leather reins, It’s in Waylon’s sweat and his warmth between my knees. I hear it in the soft crunch of gravel under his hooves, and in the dull clonk of his teeth on the bit. I breathe deeply, shut my eyes for a moment, and savor the lingering taste of breakfast coffee, and the tartness of a blade of grass between my teeth. I’m glad I’m here.
When we ride like this, just the four of us, quietly and slowly, there's a humbling, reverent feeling that comes over me when I look out and see the bigness of everything…the incredible sight and smell and touch of literally hundreds of millions of trees… forests that are so vast; and mountains so powerful…flowers so delicate and streams so pure -- and it all fits together so naturally, and in such harmony. It's so beyond the works of man. A line from an old song comes to mind, "...how I ever doubted if there really is a God." This is my church..