35 years ago Joy and I passed through Jackson Hole, Wyoming, on our way back from one of our very first vacations together. Even though Joy and I have been to 50+ countries and lots of amazing places, one of my favorite trips was this long-ago Wyoming vacation: a horse pack trip with “Uncle Charlie.” We’re back in Jackson Hole — a stop on our six week driving trip around several western states. This blog post recalls that long ago adventure.
Joy and I started this trip by driving 17 straight hours from the San Francisco Bay Area to Meetseese, Wyoming. That’s the thing you do when you’re in your mid-twenties.
Meetseese is in northernmost Wyoming, so by definition, in the middle of nowhere. Even though its largest-ever recorded population barely topped 500, Meetseese may sound familiar. In 1979, six years before our trip, the town claimed its 15 minutes of fame when the last known wild population of black-footed ferrets was discovered. The ferrets had been declared extinct for decades until the day a Meetseese dog brought a dead one to her owner’s door. Since then, the ferrets have fared better than Meetseeseans. As of 2018, the initial population of a few dozen ferrets has grown to over 1,000 individuals spread across five states. The human population of Meetseese, in the meantime, has dwindled to 325 souls. On the bright side, I suspect all 17 town bars there in 1885 are still open and serving thirsty locals.
We didn’t drive to Meetseese to study ferrets. Our goal was to spend a week with “Uncle Charlie”, highlighted by a three-day horse pack trip that Charlie would lead through the Teton mountains. This was very exciting but also unnerving. I’d only ever ridden a horse a handful of times and those were horses accustomed to carrying children along the same hour-long route several times every day. We would ride horses that expected experienced riders, and we’d be blazing our own trail along mountain ridges, meadows, and streams.
Uncle Charlie was not Joy’s uncle. He was related to Joy’s college best friend. Charlie and his niece were from “family money” and this would be my first brush with wealthy people. It was also the closest I’ll ever come to meeting Ernest Hemingway. If Charlie and Ernest weren’t cut from the same cloth, it was only one batch over. An Ivy League-trained lawyer, Charlie lived in Meetseese partly because it called to his love of nature. As a younger man he had been a big game hunter in Africa, but had gotten (some) religion and was now an active proponent of bringing wolves back to Yellowstone, just a two-hour drive away. Even though Charlie had migrated towards hugging trees, he wasn’t totally there. He had designed his house to highlight several trophy heads and two separate displays of magnificently large pairs of elephant tusks — reminders of Charlie’s youthful days.
By the time I met Charlie he had “settled down” from his days of psychedelic drug experimentation, but he was still a far cry from a teetotaler. When we arrived at his ranch Charlie poured me a tall glass of Wild Turkey and offered me what I initially thought was a small cigar. I declined the pot but accepted the drink. I’d never tasted Wild Turkey before, let alone tried to drink what was likely a triple. I’m sure the drink was some unspoken test of my manhood. Part way through, I realized my lips felt numb. I don’t know if it was the alcohol or the 17 hours of driving. Determined not to “fail”, I resorted to surreptitiously using a finger to make sure I’d correctly positioned the glass between my lips. The Wild Turkey turned out to be a daily ritual and by the end of the trip I could drink one-handed.
Although Charlie led the ride, his full-time ranch hand, Tad, handled most of the horse wrangling. Although he was our age, Tad’s face and hands belonged to a man twenty years older. Tad wasn‘t very tall, but the way he hefted saddles and tack, you could see he had the strength and grace you only get through years of heavy physical work. Tad had a lopsided grin, made even more lopsided by a bulging cheek permanently filled with chaw. As the saying goes, the bullshit was on the outside of Tad’s boots.
One of Tad’s tasks was to round up the horses we’d be riding. Tad asked me, the man, if I’d like to help. Joy, Charlie’s niece, and another college friend, all being women, weren’t asked. Joy, of course, invited herself along.
Tad, Joy, and I set off walking along a dirt road in search of the horses. After about thirty minutes Tad announced, “We’re here!” “Here” was a nondescript fork in the road. I was happy to stop walking as I was tired of fighting the urge to mimic Tad’s bow-legged walk. Little did I know that hours later I would find a similar gait put the least pressure on my tender testicles. I spent the rest of the trip walking that way.
Tad explained, “Mah horse’ll be easy to ketch. But t’others won’t want it. Thay’ll come through the trees here.”
“Don’t let em head that way toward the second field,” he said, pointing at the fork that ran up the hill. “Force em to the left, toward the corral.”
“How am I supposed to divert seven galloping horses?” I asked Tad.
“You gotta be firm and not let em git past you. Jus wave yer arms ’n look big.”
Tad paused. At twenty-four, I was still playing a lot of soccer and so skinny people worried I wasn’t eating enough. He considered me further. “Lemme see if ah can fand you somethin’ to wave at ’em.”
Tad walked up and down the road, scanning for something to make me more imposing. He settled for a frayed pink piece of twine roughly six inches long. “Tra wavin’ this.”
Tad jogged off through the trees in search of the horses. Joy and I looked at each other, and then at the limp twine. We both shrugged. Not until I’m writing this, nearly thirty-five years later, did it ever occur to me that I could have taken off my shirt and used that to wave off the horses.
After a short wait we heard horses approaching. We couldn’t see the horses through the forest, but we could feel and hear the pounding of their hooves. We both stood our ground. I began waving my pink string. As the thunder of hooves grew louder and the vibrations in my chest grew stronger, it occurred to me that I might die on my first vacation with Joy. The locomotive of horses arrived and the seven horses exploded out of the trees and onto the road. I was terrified but waving for all I was worth.
The horses rushed past us without slowing, neighing and snorting as they went. I suspect a horse whisperer would have interpreted their vocalizations as laughter.
We watched the horses charge up the hill, leaving behind a billowing cloud of dust that coated everything, including my face and brand new cowboy hat.
We turned back toward the trees when we heard a single horse galloping towards us. Tad, riding bareback, reigned his horse to a stop when he spied the escaping horses.
“What happened?” Tad asked, genuinely surprised it hadn’t worked.
“I think I need a bigger string.” I showed him the piece of twine, just in case he’d forgotten.
“Let’s try agin. This time, really wave an’ look big.”
Tad rode off after the escaping horses. A short while later, we heard the horses coming down the hill. Maybe Tad asked the horses to be nice. Maybe the horses felt bad. Either way, this time the horses turned and headed toward the corral. I was relieved, thinking we were done. Instead, the painful part was just ahead.
Tad saddled three horses and tied the others to our own. “Now, we move ‘em to our startin’ point for tomorra. We’re runnin’ behind ‘cause we had to try to ketch em twice so we’ll need to gallop most o’ way.” Joy, an experienced rider, was excited about galloping. I had never ridden a galloping horse before but I was game.
When I woke up the next morning, my testicles still hurt and I was decidedly less than enthusiastic about several full days of riding. Before I could come up with a good excuse for staying by myself at the ranch, we were on horseback off into the wilderness: an experienced outdoorsman, four city slickers, and a cowboy leading two pack horses loaded with whiskey, food, and camping gear.
The pack trip itself caught me off guard. I’d been so focused on the horses, I wasn’t prepared for the beauty of the Teton wilderness. Riding where there are no other people or signs of human impact gives you a sense of what our country must have been like before we fenced, farmed, and cemented over so much of it. We set up camp by a mountain stream and cooked fresh-caught mountain trout over a wood fire. As I sat around the campfire sipping Wild Turkey and staring up at the Milky Way, I felt the tiniest connection to people like Lewis and Clark.
I had done my share of backpacking, but after several hours of lugging a hefty backpack up steep trails that require a diligent attention to rocks and roots, I find that I usually spend most of my time starting at the trail just ahead of where I’m trudging. I have to remind myself to stop and take in the view. Atop a horse, you have time to examine the terrain, the jagged dragon teeth peaks, the gyring hawks, and the dark, dark rain clouds— that is, when you’re not concentrating on staying in the saddle or finding a position that’s more forgiving on your nethers.
On a horse you are traveling so much faster and farther than you can by foot— most of the time. Our adventure took us up inclines so steep we had to dismount and lead our horses by the reins. It turns out it’s tough to scramble up a slope and still keep control of your horse’s reins. But that was easy compared to descending those same slopes. Tad told me I could either lean as far back in the saddle as possible or dismount and lead my horse. Staying in the saddle turned out to be terrifying. I spent the entire time juggling between trying not to pitch forward over the horse’s head and trying not to fall off sideways as the horse lurched from side to side with every step. Dismounting and leading a thousand pound lumbering horse that’s struggling to keep its own footing turned out to be a different, but preferable kind of terrifying. I was amassing a long list of all the different ways that horses can be terrifying.
I’ve ridden a horse a few more times since that Wyoming adventure. None of those subsequent rides was as exhilarating (or scary). I remember these later rides as dry facts: for so-and-so’s birthday that year we went horseback riding. I feel lucky to remember even that much about those subsequent rides. I feel even luckier to have had a sneak peek into our country’s wild west past and the kinds of characters you only ever read about. Thanks, Uncle Charlie!