I don’t remember the horse’s name, but I’ll call him Tripp for the sake of this story. It seems a fitting name, considering what he put me through.
The first time I saw him was in a dusty graveled parking lot at the edge of a sage field at the foot of a ridge that descended from a bigger ridge in Northwest Colorado. Tripp stood tethered lamely between two seasoned geldings, glancing sideways at each as if they’d eat him if he made the wrong move. The geldings simply looked annoyed that he’d come along. He was a good 500 pounds lighter than each of his compatriots, green broke, meaning he was just fresh from learning to have a human on his back. Hired from a nearby horse-renting outfit, this would be his first outing.
I was 15 or 16 and the second-lightest of our hunting party, which consisted of my kid sister, me, several men in their early 50s, including my dad, and several of my cousins in their mid-20s, who were tough enough to walk the trails. The horses were not meant primarily for riding; their job was to pack in gear and pack out the hundreds of pounds of elk flesh we planned to return from the hills. But before we killed any elk, their backs were less the heavy ungulate meat and could each bear a rider. The heavy elders of the group would take the larger, more experienced horses, and my sister and I would take turns riding Tripp.
The lower parts of the ridge were marked by heavy buck brush. As it gained thousands of feet in elevation, that brush was replaced by looming black timber interspersed with deciduous aspen stands, known as “quakies” for the way they dance in the wind. (Quakies are part of the largest living organism on the planet. Every tree in a stand is connected in one root system. The largest quaky stand, known as Pando, is visible from outer space.) This vegetation was cut by treacherously exposed switchbacks. The earth fell away from these deer trails to an expanse of air that hung silently over a vast and desolate network of lower-lying hills and arroyos stretching past the sage fields that surrounded the parking lot where we started. From here, the lot was a speck in the distance.
The horses, including Tripp, kept sure footing on the ascent.
We found a campsite in a brake of evergreens, bordered by a quaky stand, on one of the shelves that cut flat into the mountainside as we neared the crest. The site was occupied by the corpse of a black bear that we dragged into the brush. The flats of the top were a tangled of deadfalls and suck holes.
Scouting on maybe the second day, two of the men guided the two older horses through a deadfall, and I followed on Tripp. I remember wearing my .30-30 deer rifle across my back. The trail split. To the right, the horses would have to hop a downed evergreen, maybe a foot thick. To the left, the trail passed beneath another fallen tree that was suspended just high enough for a horse to walk under with no rider. The men took their horses to the right, and Tripp, eyeing the tree he’d have to clear, cut to the left preferring to go under. The evergreen on the left scraped me off onto my back into a pile of leaves. Tripp panicked into the underbrush.
The fall knocked my breath out, and I felt my back to find no rifle. A cousin ran over to see if I was okay, and he was holding my gun. I’d probably handed it to him before I mounted the horse and forgot to put it back on, but I took it in the aftermath of the incident as a Christian miracle that I wasn’t wearing it. Could it have broken my back? My cousin, a budding evangelist, did not hesitate to agree.
I was told to get back on the horse, and I did.
The rest of the expedition remains something of a blur. I don’t even remember if I killed an elk. I don’t really care.
Hunting, by tradition, is supposed to be enjoyable act. But it is a fraught exercise in my family, polluted by a decades-long string of bad experiences, each different, each worse from certain perspectives.
The next time I went to the same place with horses I was 24. My dad had convinced his sister’s new husband and the husband’s brother that they needed to kill an elk on this land. We camped in two RVs – one theirs, the other ours – in the parking lot and planned to hike to the top of the ridge every day.
The trail to the top of the ridge was bordered by private ranchland, and it was imperative to be aware of the borders as trespassing can yield heavy fines and jail time. But worse, public enforcement of private property rights can be overshadowed by a more immediate threat. People in the West idolize private ownership of things and to shoot someone for trespassing is not to eschew convention. It’s an accepted and inherent danger of being in mountains, and if one is not careful of boundaries she risks death.
The first day of the hunt, Dad convinced his enlistees that an elk they had spotted perhaps three-quarters of the way to the top was on public land, a legal kill. We were all badly hungover from a debauch the night before. They shot the elk, and it died on ranchland. To get to it, we’d have to trespass. Expressing discomfort, Dad’s brothers-in-law suggested we leave the elk to avoid being ticketed or shot. Feeling insulted, Dad took the horse and stormed off into the brush to harvest the elk alone. I tried to follow, and he told me to stay with the others. So we made our way back to the dusty lot over a period of several hours. It was almost dusk. Dad, having arrived long before us with the animal, had been drinking. He raved about loyalty and brotherhood, casting deep moral aspersions on their character for not having participated in the crime of harvesting the elk.
“Brothers don’t do that to each other!” he declared. He was so upset that he tripped and stumbled through a campfire he’d built. They gave no ground.
“You’re a belligerent asshole!” one of the brothers-in-law concluded to Dad.
We split to our respective RVs, them with a bottle of Scotch. Dad guzzled a quart of tequila and insisted I go on a drive with him. I did, and, behind the wheel, he fumed the entire time about his convictions regarding trust between “brothers,” to Dad a hotly Christian concept.
I told Dad it was the drinking, and he’d probably not remember why he was upset in the morning. Morning rolled around and he did remember. Everyone woke early with drawn faces and agreed to part ways. Dad would stay by himself and keep hunting. His brothers-in-law would return home to the Front Range, near Denver. They wouldn’t talk for years until my aunt’s husband offered to help Dad install some wood flooring and they swallowed their differences. They didn’t solve them. They swallowed them.
The previous mission comes back into focus in my brain when we were packing up camp, loading provisions and whatever meat we’d harvested onto the horses. Dad had me climb onto Tripp carrying a five-gallon water container that had a block of ice knocking hollowly around inside it. I was halfway on when Tripp, spooked by the rattling of the ice, bolted into the bordering quaky stand at perhaps 20 miles an hour. I latched on, sticking out sideways from the horse, and wouldn’t let go. Dad chased after us as the trees whizzed within inches of my skull, screaming for me to jump. After maybe 10 seconds that spanned at least 10 minutes, I did, rolling, sliding to a stop on the ground. I dusted myself off, mostly uninjured aside from some scrapes and bruises. We took it as a Christian miracle that I wasn’t knocked unconscious or killed by a passing aspen.
Dad had me back on the horse in a few moments, and we made our way back to the lot.