This Side of Wild • CHAPTER ONE •A Confusion of Horses, a Border Collie named Josh, a Grizzly Bear Who Liked Holes, and a Poodle with Three Teeth
First, a hugely diversionary trail:
Very few paths are completely direct, and this one seemed at first to be almost insanely devious.
The doctor diagnosed various problems, some lethal, all apparently debilitating, and left me taking various medications and endless rituals of check-ins and checkouts and tests and retests. . . .
Which drove me almost directly away from the whole process. I moved first to Wyoming, a small town called Story, near Sheridan, where I kept staring at the beauty of the Bighorn Mountains, accessed by a trail out of Story, and at last succumbed to the idea of two horses, one for riding and one for packing.
The reasoning was this: I simply could not stand what I had become—stale, perhaps, or stalemated by what appeared to be my faltering body. Clearly I could not hike the Bighorns, or at least I thought I could not (hiking, in any case, was something I had come to dislike—hate—courtesy of the army), and so to horses.
My experience with riding horses was most decidedly limited. As a child on farms in northern Minnesota, I had worked with workhorse teams—mowing and raking hay, cleaning barns with crude sleds and manure forks—and in the summer we would sometimes ride these workhorses.
They were great, massive (weighing more than a ton), gentle animals and so huge that to get on their backs we either had to climb their legs—like shinnying up a living, hair-covered tree—or get them to stand near a board fence or the side of a hayrack (a wagon with tall wheels and a flatbed used for hauling hay from the field to the barn) so we could jump up and over onto their backs.
Once we were on their backs, with a frantic kicking of bare heels and amateur screaming of what we thought were correct-sounding obscenities—mimicked from our elders—and goading, they could sometimes be persuaded to plod slowly across the pasture while we sat and pretended to be Gene Autry or Roy Rogers—childhood cowboy heroes who never shot to kill but always neatly shot the guns from the bad guys’ hands and never kissed the damsels but rode off into the sunset at the end of the story. We would ride down villains who robbed stagecoaches or in other ways threatened damsels in distress, whom we could save and, of course, never kiss, but ride off at the end of our imagination.
The horses were—always—gentle and well behaved, and while they looked nothing like Champion or Trigger—Gene’s and Roy’s wonderful, pampered, combed, and shampooed lightning steeds (Champ was a bay, a golden brown, as I remember it, and Trigger was a palomino, with a blond, flowing mane and tail)—we were transformed into cowboys. With our crude, wood-carved six-guns and battered straw garden hats held on with pieces of twine, imagined with defined clarity that the pasture easily became the far Western range and every bush hid a marauding stage robber or a crafty rustler bent on stealing the poor rancher (my uncle, the farmer) blind.
Oh, it was not always so smooth. While they were wonderfully gentle and easy-minded, they had rules, and when those rules were broken, sometimes their retaliation was complete and devastating. On Saturday nights we went to the nearby town—a series of wood-framed small buildings, all without running water or electricity—wherein lived seventy or eighty people. There was a church there and a saloon, and in back of the saloon an added-on frame shack building with a tattered movie screen and a battery-operated small film projector. They showed the same Gene Autry film all the time, and in this film, Gene jumped out of the second story of a building onto the back of a waiting horse.
We, of course, had to try it, and I held the horse—or tried to—while my friend jumped from the hayloft opening in the barn onto the horse’s waiting back.
He bounced once—his groin virtually destroyed—made a sound like a broken water pump, slid down the horse’s leg, and was kicked in a flat trajectory straight to the rear through the slatted-board wall of the barn. He lived, though I still don’t quite know how; his flying body literally knocked the boards from the wall.
I personally went the way of the Native Americans and made a bow of dried willow, with arrows of river cane sharpened to needlepoints and fletched crudely with tied-on chicken feathers plucked from the much-offended egg layers in the coop, which I used to hunt “buffalo” off the back of Old Jim.
Just exactly where it went wrong we weren’t sure, but I’m fairly certain that nobody had ever shot an arrow from Old Jim’s back before. And I’m absolutely positive that no one had shot said arrow so that the feathers brushed his ears on the way past.
The “buffalo” was a hummock of black dirt directly in front of Jim, and while I couldn’t get him into a run, or even a trot, no matter what I tried, I’m sure he was moving at a relatively fast walk when I drew my mighty willow bow and sent the cane shaft at the pile of dirt.
Just for the record, and no matter what my relatives might say, I did not hit the horse in the back of his head.
Instead the arrow went directly between Jim’s ears, so low the chicken feathers brushed the top of his head as they whistled past.
The effect was immediate and catastrophic. Old Jim somehow gave a mighty one-ton shrug so that all his enormous strength seemed to be focused on squirting me straight into the air like a pumpkin seed, and I fell, somersaulting in a shower of cane arrows and the bow, with a shattering scream on my part and hysterical laughter on the part of the boy with me.
“You looked like a flying porcupine!” he yelled. “Stickers going everywhere . . . You was lucky you wasn’t umpaled.”
Which was largely true and seemed to establish the modus operandi for the rest of my horse-riding life. I do know that I couldn’t get close to Old Jim if I had anything that even remotely resembled a stick for the rest of that summer.
Horses are unique in many ways, though—and I know there will be wild disagreement here—not as smart as dogs, certainly when it comes to math.
I knew nothing of them then and perhaps little more now. But one of those summers I experimented with rodeo.
I was not good at it, to say the very least, and for me it was a particularly stupid thing to do because I was indeed so incredibly bad at it, and I did not do it for any length of time.
I tried bareback bronc riding for a few weeks. I learned some things: I learned intimately how the dirt in Montana tasted and learned that next to old combat veteran infantry sergeants, rodeo riders are the toughest (and kindest and most helpful) people on earth.
But I learned absolutely nothing about horses. I rarely made a good ride, a full ride, but even if I had, you cannot learn much in eight seconds on an animal’s back. . . .
And so to the Bighorn Mountains.
• • •
It is probably true that all mountains are beautiful; there is something about them, the quality of bigness, of an ethereal joy to their size and scenic quality. And I have seen mountain ranges in Canada, the United States, particularly Alaska, have run sled dogs in them and through them and over them and have been immersed in their beauty as with the old Navajo prayer:
Beauty behind me
Beauty before me
Beauty to my left
Beauty to my right
All around me is beauty.
But there is something special about the Bighorns in Wyoming.
I found a small house at the base of a dirt track called the Penrose Trail, which led directly up out of the town of Story into the lower peaks and a huge hay meadow called Penrose Park.
If memory serves, it is twenty or so miles from Story up to the meadow, then a few more miles to an old cabin on a lake and the beginning of a wilderness trail through staggering beauty; the trail is called the Solitude Trail—among other nicknames—and it wanders through some seventy miles of mountains in a large loop.
Older people who lived in Story, who rode the mountains before there were trails, told me of the beauty in the high country, and it became at first a lure, a pull, and then almost a drive.
I wanted to see the country, the high country, as I had seen it in Alaska with dog teams; the problem here was that it was summer, too hot for dogs, the distances were much too great, and my dislike of hiking much too sincere for me to even consider backpacking through the mountains.
And so, to horse.
Unfortunately, I knew little or nothing as to how one goes about acquiring a horse to ride on potentially dangerous mountain trails.
And then another horse to pack gear on those same possibly dangerous mountain trails.
For those who have read of my trials and tribulations when I tried to learn how to run dogs for the Iditarod, you will note a great many similarities in the learning procedure, or more accurately, how the learning processes for both endeavors strongly resembled a train wreck. It is true that I have for most of my life lived beneath the military concept that “there is absolutely no substitute for personal inspection at zero altitude” when it comes to trying to learn something. While functional, the problem with this theory is that it often places you personally and physically at the very nexus of destruction. Hence both legs broken, both arms broken more than once, wrists broken, teeth knocked out, ribs cracked and broken, both thumbs broken more than once (strangely more painful than the other breaks) and—seemingly impossible—an arrow self-driven through my left thumb.
Among other bits of lesser mayhem . . .
I had read many Westerns, of course, doing research, and had even written several, had indeed won the Spur Award from the Western Writers of America three times for Western novels. This is perhaps indicative of excess glibness, considering how little I apparently knew. But I had read all those books and seen God knows how many Western films and knew that people had used packhorses. I had run two Iditarod sled-dog races across Alaska, and I thought—really, it seemed to be that simple—that if a person could do one, he could do the other.
The problem was that I did not know anyone involved with horses and so—as God is my witness—I went to the yellow pages for Sheridan, Wyoming (the nearest town of any size), looked under “horse,” and near the end of the section, found a listing of horse brokers. (This was before there was a viable Internet to use.)
Perfect, I thought. There were people who bought and sold horses—exactly what I needed. The first two names I called were not available, but on the third call, a gruff voice answered with a word that sounded like “haaawdy” and then asked, “Whut due ya’ll need . . . ?”
“It’s simple, really,” I answered. “I need two horses. One to ride, one to carry a pack. I want to go up into the Bighorn Mountains. . . .”
“Why, sure you do.” There was a pause, a long pause. I would surmise later, when I knew more of horse brokers, that he either thought I was joking, or, if he were very lucky, that I was uncompromisingly green, bordering on being perhaps medically stupid, and he had a chance to make his profit for the year on a one- or two-horse deal.
It was, of course, closer to the latter.
“Where do you live?” he asked.
“Story.” I named the small town at the base of the Bighorns, near where the Penrose Trail comes out, or down and out. I had purchased a small house there with a few acres of thick grass, and I was surprised to find it vacant. I was to find later—and there were so many “laters” when dealing with Wyoming—near the end of October, why this was to be, when the first late-October snow, a crushing thirty-two inches, came in one day, followed two days later by another thirty inches.
But back then I was wonderfully innocent; it was a grand summer day and the mountains beckoned, pulled, demanded that I come to them as I had in winter in Alaska with dogs during the Iditarod. “Where should I come?” I asked.
“No,” he said quickly. “I’ll come to you with the horses. I have two that are perfect for you.”
“Well, let me . . .” I was going to say, “Let me get ready for them,” as I had no idea what one did, really, to have and keep horses. The property had a small pasture with two feet of grass and a three-sided shed, was surrounded by tall ponderosa pines for shade and little else.
But he hung up before I could get another word out, and it seemed that I had just turned around when a large, gaudy pickup hooked to a flashy two-horse trailer pulled into the driveway. It’s difficult to describe it without lapsing into poor taste; indeed, the truck and trailer alone were a monument to the word “god-awful.” The color was an eye-ripping red with black rubber mudguards, and on each mudguard was a chrome silhouette of a nude woman, and across the front of the hood was—I swear—an actual six-foot-wide longhorn mounted in a silver boss with an engraving (again, I couldn’t make this up) of another nude woman with impossibly large features, which was, in turn, matched by the mudguards on the trailer and a large painted silhouette of a nude on the front of the trailer cleverly positioned so that a small ventilation opening for the horses to put their heads out . . . Well, you get the picture.
And if the truck and trailer were in bad taste, they were nothing compared to the man. Tall but with a large beer belly covered by an enormous silver and gold belt buckle with RODEO engraved over yet another silhouette of a nude woman, on top of tailor-cut jeans tucked inside knee-high white cowboys boots with (a major change in art forms) a bright blue bald eagle stitched on the front.
On his head was an impossibly large cowboy hat with a silver hatband, which I at first thought was made of little conchos but turned out to be little silhouettes of, right . . . more women.
He shook my hand without speaking, turned and opened the back of the trailer, and let two horses step out at the same time, which meant they weren’t tied in, nor did they have butt chains on—two major mistakes that prove he knew little about trailering horses and hence little about horses themselves.
Not that it mattered. I had already made up my mind that looking in the yellow pages cold for a horse broker was Very Wrong and that I wouldn’t buy a horse from this guy if he gave them away.
And yet . . .
And yet . . .
A thing happened, something I had never seen before.
The horses were simply standing there, at relative peace—no nervousness at all—and there was something about them that seemed, well, inviting. And I thought, felt, that I should go to them and touch them, pet them. I know how that sounds, and I have never been all “woo-woo” about animals, especially horses, of which I knew little except that they were big, huge, nine hundred to a thousand pounds, and potentially dangerous. Very dangerous. Decidedly so if they were startled or panicked or surprised. At that time I had had two friends killed while riding them and knew of several others permanently in wheelchairs. (This was years before actor Christopher Reeve, who as an excellent, Olympic-level rider, was permanently completely disabled—which led directly to his later death—when falling on a simple training jump.)
I actually took a step toward them—worse, toward their rear ends, which is never the way you walk up on a strange horse—before stopping.
Josh, my border collie, my friend, had been at my side watching, and before I could move farther, he rose from a sitting position, trotted forward, and without hesitating at all, trotted between the back legs of the mare, paused beneath her belly, then continued up through the front legs. At that moment she lowered her head and they touched noses, whereupon Josh turned to the right, touched noses with the black horse, who had lowered his head, trotted between his front legs, paused under the belly, through his back legs, then back in front of me, where he sat, looked up and—I swear—nodded.
Or it seemed that he nodded.
Or he wanted to nod.
Or he wanted me to think that he nodded.
Or he wanted me to know something. Something good about the horses.
What we had witnessed—the broker and I—had been nothing less than a kind of miracle. Dogs, perhaps many dogs, had been killed simply by getting too close to the back feet of a horse. Years later I would acquire a horse who had mistakenly killed his owner, a young woman who was checking his back feet, when a dog came too close. As it kicked at the dog, the horse caught the woman in the chest with a glancing blow. The force was so powerful it severed her aorta and she bled to death before help could arrive.
For Josh to so nonchalantly trot through the mare’s legs, as well as the legs of the black cow pony, then back to me, came in the form of a message. . . .
And I listened.