Zero five-hundred comes early. Burgers, beers, friends, and whiskey quickly turn twenty-three hundred into zero two-hundred pretty quickly as well. I guess that is why I drank coffee. Or maybe it was because that is what is expected.
It was just Jane and I, so basically it was just Jane. None the less we loaded the horses from the corral in the predawn dark. Of course I needed coaching on right versus left and how to tie the knots. Yesterday she had done all the prep work of loading. Saddles, rations, tarps, ropes, bridals, etc were all somewhere in the big white Dodge pickup or its accompanying trailer. The fifth wheel horse trailer was all set to go. A telephone rings. It is Ivy. She’s just leaving Jackson and will meet us at the trailhead. Rocky in the backseat, two humans in the front seat, five horses in the trailer and we are ready to go. It is still dark as we pull eastward onto the pavement and make our way onto the Muddy Speedway. The rising sun lightens the land, spreading its light first across the Wind River escarpment to the north and then out on to the open, rolling, sage brush covered plains. The pavement turns to smooth dirt and then rough dirt. Jane navigates the Dodge 3500 truck trailer combo through tight turns and over rough roads. We wind upward through aspen, spruce, lodgepole, all interspersed with open parks and meadows.
I have long said that all I really want to do for NOLS is to ride re-rations and make students happy, then leave. Today I got that wish.
I first experienced the NOLS horse packing re-ration in the fall of two thousand. It was then too, that I was introduced to the Winds. I went to the range for my NOLS instructor course. I don’t remember much about our first re-ration, but it came from Three Peaks and was on the west side. I think my maps and journals show that it was at Ration Pond. The second one though captured my attention. Our food came in to us at Klondike Creek, some eighteen miles into the northern Winds. We hiked several miles down from a camp in the Dunwoody Cirque and at that now familiar place, I first met the venerable Shari Kearney.
Shari, a longtime NOLS instructor, defies description. After a storied career in the vertical, Shari transitioned to horses, packing, mountains and, more specifically, the intersection of all three. I remember my instructors, Dee and the Jims telling us about her. She took on mythical proportions. Now, sixteen years later I am still in awe and still honored when Shari rides up with my food and supplies. And always a carton of Oreos. In turn she gets a speedy re-ration and a bottle of coffee. I only hope someday I can ride with her.
I am not entirely sure where or when the idea of riding re-rations ever came to me, but I imagine it was on some rainy, cold, re-supply day which saw my students still well in the grip of the storming phase of group development. They probably were challenged by the re-ration but were excited enough by the prospect of new food to pull it off in some reasonable fashion. No doubt, I wished that day, as I watched the packers ride away, retuning to God-knows-what, that I could just leave and head home, knowing that I wouldn’t have to deal with these conditions and students much longer. I can see Haynesworth now, counting the cheese and Keck off chasing fish around Big Sandy Lake.
Over the years I have seen a few different re-ration styles. There has been the cache and go of the Waddington, the boats and cars of the Cascades, and the carry it all yourself of the India mountaineering. Yet it is the packers, both in Patagonia and in Wyoming that have captivated me. Even the helicopter pilot can’t quite compete with the image of a mountain horseback rider. Maybe it is the lifestyle or the magic of working with horses or the tradition. Whether Shari, the legendary character Clayton Voss, the former Miss Wyoming, or any of the innumerable, indefatigable Three Peaks Ranch staff, I am always in awe when they ride in and steal my heart away. And these things doesn’t even begin to touch on the horses themselves; incredible beings of superb complexity. Maybe it is the work, these days often contrived, but real honest work none-the-less.
Our re-ration, much like my presence, was wholly unnecessary. We were dropping off groceries for the Alumni Winds Traverse, an eight day hiking course. That meant three people, five horses and one lucky, former Belizean street dog, carried in four days worth of food. We rode from Big Sandy Opening to John Day, terrain I know well, though mostly from foot. It went faster on horseback, even with the slow, meandering Cola, my trusty mount of the day; a horse perfectly immune to my stupidity, inexperience and overall novice-ness. Steve Whitney and Lindsay Nohl were the two instructors. Whit, some twelve years earlier, had been the course leader on my first ever Wind River Mountaineering course. This, what I believe to be one of the quintessential NOLS courses, set the stage for another twelve summers of them and ultimately laid the groundwork for an ongoing love affair with this timeless range and the re-ration I was riding.
The day ended much like it started: a long bumpy ride, mostly in silence. 101.1 The Pine out of Pinedale provided the sound track to a westbound, sunset lit drive. The mountains streaked pink, the sky faded to baby blue, white, purple, red, and everything in between. We unloaded in the pasture, dumped our gear and grabbed leftovers and Coors in the kitchen.
With the day’s ride I fulfilled a goal and checked something off the list; in the process though I think the list got a whole lot longer.
Featured Image: Heading toward John Day to drop off the groceries. August 16, 2016