Trekking in the Tetons, on nostalgia’s creaky trail
BRIDGER-TETON NATIONAL FOREST — “Don’t worry.’’
The outfitter’s voice behind me was low and calm, the twang of a Western accent playing around the edges. “A horse would much rather stay on the trail than stumble over the side and fall to death in that ravine down there.’’
This was very good news because I was worried. Very worried. I sneaked a glance and peered down the abyss that fell off from the rocky, foot-wide trail my horse and I were traversing up the steep side of the mountain.
They say a horse’s eyes show flashes of white when it is terrified. I couldn’t see my horse’s eyes since I was clinging to the saddle for dear life. I didn’t know whether his eyes were rimmed with white, but I was certain mine were. And that my face was ashen as well.
A question flashed through my addled brain about halfway through the day’s eight-hour ride: What in God’s name was I doing on this gut-wrenching track in the wilderness, my tired old body snapping back and forth with every step of the creature beneath me?
The answer was simple and harebrained: I was reprising a similar adventure I had taken with my children when they were much, much younger, and I was, too.
Back then, they were in their teens, and I was middle-aged. Now they were in their 30s and I was in my 70s, my Medicare card safe in my wallet.
Once again, we were trekking through the wilderness of the Teton Mountains — along with eight horses, four mules, tents, sleeping bags, fishing rods, rain gear, and enough trail mix to feed an army: London, my daughter, 33; her husband, Dave Herring, 34; my son, Sasha, 39; and my childhood friend Jim Dean of Berwick, Maine. We were accompanied on the five-day trip by a cheerful Wyoming outfitter named Dustin Child, a loquacious trail cook named Barry “Bear’’ Shaw, and Rogelio Belarde, a friendly trail hand.
As it turns out, taking a trip like this in your 70s is quite different from taking it in your 50s.
For one thing, when you’re a septuagenarian, the horses are a lot taller. Previously, I was able to put my foot in the stirrup, and swing up, over, and on. Now that maneuver was gone from my repertoire. If there wasn’t a large rock or stump nearby to stand on, forget it.
Take-along medications also change. On the first trip, the only pills I brought were vitamin C to ward off colds. This time, I brought baby aspirin to ward off heart attacks, glucosamine to lubricate my aching back, and an assortment of other pills to soothe my stiffening joints. None of them solved another physical problem: No matter how spectacular the views — I still yearned for a nap at 2 in the afternoon, just like home.
But naps or no, there’s nothing more exhilarating than riding through this forest with your family on a sunny day in mid-July: the sky a deep blue; the wild flowers daubing the slopes with brilliant yellows, lavenders, and reds; the mountain peaks in the distance glinting white with patches of snow.
The sights and sensations of both family trips remained the same, a testament to the eternal grandeur of the American wilderness and the laws designed to preserve it.
We trotted past stately groves of aspen, their rounded leaves twinkling in the early-morning sun. We rode through ghostly stands of dead fir trees, their majesty cut short in midlife by fire. We crossed crystal-clear mountain streams, our horses leaning against the current, pausing on the far side for a drink of the icy water. We pushed our way through the marshy willow bottoms that frequently gave off the sharp, delightful fragrance of peppermint, and we rode through enchanted spruce forests, with lichen known as “old man’s whiskers’’ hanging from the limbs and the air heavy with the scent of pine.
Every afternoon about 4, after eight hours in the saddle, Child gave the word and we would look for an appropriate campsite. The saddles came off; the horses wandered away to graze; the younger members of the family debated the best place to pitch their tents; and Jim and I hobbled away to sit on a log and nurse our creaking bodies back to life.
Shaw was a wilderness chef who could produce the most amazing full-course dinners on an open fire. Afterward, sitting around the glowing embers, came the best part of the trip.
If there is a better place to reconnect with your children than on a pack trip by horseback in the Wyoming wilderness, I don’t know it. Without cellphones, television sets, or Internet access, you meet them in neutral territory in the stillness of the night, the sky awash with stars. There are no interruptions, only the sweet sounds of their voices and their whispered laughter. By the end of this trip I had come to appreciate, once again, my son’s gentle personality and infectious sense of humor, my daughter’s quiet confidence and quick wit. Over the years, I had lost track.
We crossed streams and made our way up ever-steeper mountain trails, camping at higher and higher altitudes. By the third night, we were at 9,000 feet and I began to experience the occasional shortness of breath that comes with altitude. By then, our horses were our dearest friends, carrying us wherever we asked without complaint.
One day they carried us up to a snow-fed lake at 12,000-plus feet, a long, hard climb on a narrow, rock-strewn trail. The horses sweated from exertion; Jim and I sweated from the sheer terror of our proximity to the edge of the cliffs.
For the next two hours we watched the silver flash of speckled trout as they rose from the water to hit the artificial flies we cast. Then, with our dinner packed in snow, we gingerly made our way back to camp. (And, yes, going down a steep trail next to a cliff on horseback is every bit as scary as going up.)
On our second day out, Belarde emerged from his tent shortly after dawn and found himself face to face with an enormous bull moose. Motionless, he stared at the huge animal with its large rack of antlers a few feet away. The moose, eyes dark and unblinking, stared back for several long minutes, then turned and ambled slowly away.
Later that day, as our horses picked their way over tree trunks in a boggy area full of marsh willows, London’s horse suddenly shied and danced to the right, ears back. “Hey!’’ she shouted in alarm. Ahead and to the left we saw the three large wolves — black against the lush green foliage — race away and disappear into a thicket. An inspection on foot revealed the half-eaten carcass of a cow moose they had waylaid a few yards off the trail.
Survival in the Wyoming wilderness can be challenging — both for vacationing old men and the animals that live there. But if you want to experience an unforgettable adventure with your children, whether they are teenage or adult, there’s no family trip quite like it.
Timothy Leland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.