A story by Thomas McGuane
Gene was sure there were enough horses. When I called him I said my friend Scott wanted to come and we would need another horse. I told him I had the saddles: a Mexican roping saddle; and an A-type, marked Montana Territory, in case we met any antiquarians in the mountains.
I drove south in the Yellowstone Valley the next morning; Scott got the gate and we headed up the road to the ranch that Gene stays on. It was a cold late November day; Gene and Keith were putting the horses in the stock truck to take them up to the trailhead in Tom Miner Basin. Gene had a bandanna tied around the crown of his hat to ward off nimrods and was wearing green chaps he won bull riding in Williston, North Dakota, in 1965 (it said so on the chaps). He was wearing a gun.
Keith was dressed in his National Park Service coveralls and it was he who discovered we were shy a horse. Scott and I were hikers, though not so committed that we’d forgo the one horse. So, I said we’d take that and they could pack our gear in the panniers and we’d meet them in camp.
Keith had secreted his little camp up some sixinch creek in the Gallatin Range; so, we all hunkered around a clean piece of bare mud and scratched out directions. I made sure Scott and I had matches. We were going through an area of some grizzly concentration. I don’t know what you bring for that unless it is Librium and a glass of water.
We put the territorial saddle on a bunchy short mare that jumped every time you took otf your coat, though Gene said she was “a good little bitch”; and I noticed she tipped up her left hind hoof when you walked around her. She pulled back all the time when you tried to use her in the pack string; and when Gene had tried to cure her by securing her to his pickup truck with a logging chain instead of a rope, she rared until she broke the logging chain. Then didn’t go anywhere.
“What kind of logging chain, Gene?”
“Just a damn logging chain.”
I wanted to wear my John B. Stetson hat with the big feather in it; but my ears hurt already; so I put the hat away and with it a certain portion of my self-esteem and pulled on a woolen hat instead.
Keith and Jim (another fellow from Bozeman) headed off in the pickup carrying the pack saddles, panniers, and all the gear. Scott and I went with Gene in the stock truck. When we got halfway down the ranch road. Gene spotted his dogs following us in the rearview mirror. He hit the brakes, jumped out of the truck, drew his gun, and fired. The dogs hightailed it for the house. I looked at Scott.
We crossed the Yellowstone and headed up Join Miner Basin, struggling for traction on the long, snowy canyon road. We parked the trucks at the top. Somebody had a tent there; and there was a small corral with four bales of hay in the snow.
Jim said, “Can you throw a diamond hitch?”
“Not hardly,” I said.
Scott and I led the five saddle horses and the two pack horses up to the corral and tied them. There was a lot of snow and we were going up another three or four thousand feet, Scott and I trading off on the antiquarian saddle, being too big to double-team the twilchy mare.
Some hunters came up to the head of the road in a little Jeep, packed inside, all guns and hot orange hats.
“I don’t see nothin’ hangin’,” said the driver.
“We’re only startin’ out,” one of us said; though the truth was Scott and I were just going to make a bloodless round trip to see the Gallatins under snow.
Gene knew where Keith’s camp was for sure. Scott and I knew where it was on the mud map back at Gene’s place; but there was more snow than we thought there would be and trails would be obscured. So Gene went ahead to cut a trail. Jim and Keith agreed to pack up and follow when they were done; and meanwhile, Scott and I would start, trading off on the mare.
We started up the easy grade along Tom Miner Creek, Scott getting the first ride, up through the bare aspens and gradual snow-covered slopes dotted by dark knots of sage. We could see the snowy Absaroka range across the Yellowstone.
Then the canyon steepened during my turn on the horse, as I saw Scott fade trudging behind in six inches of snow. The trail contoured around high on the north side, really quite steep; and I remembered two years before in the summertime with Keith, taking two riding horses and a threeyear-old that had never been packed between us, me in front. The young horse banged the plywood panniers on a tree and panicked, chasing my horse headlong down the skinny mother of a trail, the creek sonorous in the deep canyon below me. Finally, my horse swerved up on a short leveling of the slope and stood crixked and not half so unnerved as me. The young packhorse shot on through, bucking and emptying the panniers of everything from sleeping bags to Pepsodent and a German chocolate cake.
Today it was relaxed with the snow muffling the horses’ hooves; and the altitude beginning in the cold air to produce the radiant and astringent combination of air and light that is year after year lucklessly pursued by the manufacturers of beer calendars. I noticed that riding was colder than walking; my toes were a little numb as were my nose and check points; my ears, thankfully, were warm, due entirely to the abandoning of my High Lonesome hat down there at Headquarters. I stopped and waited for Scott.
When Scott caught up, he confessed to thinking about grizzlies. “If one came after me,”he said, “I would dodge around in those aspens, in and out, in and out, until somebody came and rescued me.”
I trudged along behind as he gradually disappeared ahead. I noticed the snow getting deeper; and now the sky was deeply overcast and snow was beginning to pour down the canyon in a long sweep. After a while, I could see it streaming into the horse tracks, obscuring them. I transferred the matches to an inside pocket and mentally reviewed Jack London. I thought, when I get back, I’m going to buy a whole mess of horses so we never run out.
My eyes flicked to the brushy creek bottom for grizzly sign; just like one of those fang mongers to come on a man having a hard enough time as it was. I had the strange thought that nothing could happen to a person by way of grizzer charge or vanishment beneath snowbank who had as many magazine subscriptions as I do. But it was getting to be Grimsville-on-the-Rhine out here. I could see about fifteen inches ahead of me.
The snow was deep enough that it was a struggle to walk and my boots were full. If I had stayed home, I could have watched the Colts and Dolphins play, up in my room with snacks and the Sunday Livingston Enterprise and cozy telephone calls to my friend the writer down the road as to the relative greatnesses of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Or I could read a Zap comic from San Francisco.
I caught up with Scott in about half an hour. I climbed on the horse, not describing to him what he was in for as to wallowing. I noticed, though, that my boots disappeared into the snow, stirrups and all, making wakes. Scott remarked the horse looked like a cocktail waitress. So, it was beginning to get to him too.
In two trade-offs, we made it to the top. We looked back into the immense valley of the Yellowstone and rode (or walked) through the trees on a kind of plateau, Buffalo Horn Pass, where the Indian hunting parties crossed; and then to the Western slope and a tremendous view of the Gallatin drainage with white, jagged ranges angling in from the north.
The snow let up and we were in deep powder. When it was my turn to ride, I started down a long switchback that ended in the trees. Scott on foot decided to run straight down. At about the point I reached the trees, Scott was pinwheeling in a cloud of snow. Then the horse fell; though fearing getting hung up in the stirrups, I ejected U-2 style, before she hit the ground. The snow was so deep and soft that Scott and I and the horse wallowed around and made no very great attempt to get to our feet again.
The sun came out and the raucous birds of the high mountains started in with some brazen appreciation of the general improvement.
The horse was getting silly. When one of us rode ahead and the other reappeared, she jumped back in horror as though from a representative of a dogfood concern. And on the steep switchbacks, she slid down the snow on her haunches. I felt she was stunting and might pull anything next, an Immelmann turn, for example.
Then Scott galloped off through the trees, the trail making a soft white corridor and the speed of his departure producing a sun-shot curtain of powder snow. The laden boughs poured white powder in the sunshine; whole sections of snow dropped from the treetops onto the trail with a soft concussion. Suddenly we were in camp: a wall tent half buried in powder and a pole corral.
Gene was cutting “standing dead” for the sheepherder stove in the tent; and we took turns splitting it. (You had to have all your terms straight if male self-respect was to survive in a hostile world. When you went fishing, you went “out”; when you went to the mountains, you went “in.”)
Keith and Jim arrived almost immediately with the pack stock. Keith complained that Gene had cut the trail too close to the trees; so that the pack animals banged the panniers all the way up; then, to Scott and me, he allowed as how the snow had been unexpectedly deep.
“Did the horse fall?”
“I saw the place. See any game?”
“Gene saw two moose.”
Jim said. “The sorrel packhorse fell and slid forty feet on its stomach and got up straight without spilling anything.”
We all admired that.
“How many of these horses you want to picket?" Gene asked Keith. Keith looked around and shared with us the idea of losing horses in all this snow.
“All of them,”Keith said. “Then let’s butcher up a good mess of wood. It’s going to get cold.”
The sun was starting to go down at that. We had one more tent to put up. It took an hour to shovel the snow out of the site and get the ridge pole in place. The pile of split wood, fresh and lemony-smelling, was building in front of the first tent. And by about sundown, the second tent was up, the heater in place. We threw in two shovelfuls of dirt so the bottom wouldn’t burn out; put the sheet metal tubes together to form the chimney and ran it up through the asbestos hole in the roof. We built a fire in it; and the snow inside started to melt in the warmth and form the mud hell that was necessary until the tent had aged in a few days.
We went to the other tent about sundown. It was very cold; and we started to work on making dinner, spacing the job out with bourbon and one of those ersatz wines that is advertised right in there at half-time with Gillette razors and the Dodge Rebellion. Some of us were swaggering around with cigars.
Scott and I peeled potatoes and onions. Keith and Gene cooked some elk, sliced up a head of lettuce with a hunting knife. Jim explained how he had expelled Allen Ginsberg from a coffeehouse for running down America.
We ate, greedily, for the first time that day. The mud was starting to deepen in the tent.
Somebody hauled some feed to the horses; I looked out the tent flaps and saw them picking precisely through the snow with their front hooves for the pellets.
I was pouring bourbon into cups full of powder snow; Keith would drink half a can of Seven-Up and pour whiskey down through the triangular hole into the can and say, “Right on!” to no one in particular.
Gene rose imperfectly to his feet and began doing six-guri tricks, whirls, drops, spm-and-draws, fanning back the hammer.
“Is that loaded?” I peeped.
We all backed away into the corners, fearing a general O.K. Corral. Finally, Gene, winded, put the gun back in its holster.
Jim dropped his elk steak on the floor. When he picked it up, it was covered with mud and had a few mothballs stuck to it. “Go ahead and eat it,” everyone encouraged him. He said he wasn’t hungry.
Jim took the bucket of heated water off the sheepherder stove and started washing the dishes. In passing, he explained that Dave lirubeck liked to pinch girls’ bottoms.
“Where’s Keith?” I asked.
No one knew. After a while, I went to look for him. He was asleep in the other tent, laid out in the mud in his sleeping bag next to a pile of saddles. I put a couple of pieces of wood into the heater and the base of the chimney glowed cherry. When I walked back to the other tent, I stopped in the cold, still air and, needless to say, looked up at the stars. They seemed to swarm a matter of inches over my head.
Scott came out. “That’s Orion,” he said. “See the belt and the sword there?”
I said I did; but the truth is I never could make those things out much beyond the Big and Little Dipper and the North Star if I didn’t take my eyes off of it. I heard a coyote. I thought, I am on top of the earth and I don’t work for the government.
I went back in the tent. Jim was telling Scott that his recollection of jazz in the fifties was too good for him to tolerate these rock ‘n’ roil creeps. We told him to listen to Eric Clapton, Sugarcane Harris, and Mike Bloomfield; Jim dutifully wrote it down in a notebook, commenting as he gazed sleepily into his breast pocket that he had left his altimeter at the house.
Jim, Gene, and Keith all slept in the same tent because they were going to get up before dawn to look for elk. Scott and I rolled out our bags on the floor and turned off the Coleman lantern. For about half an hour, we could hear the bankeddown stove crackle and see the rectangle of bright light around its door.
When the stove went out, the mud froze. I wished I had flattened out some of the mud under my bag because it froze in shapes not reciprocal to my body. I pulled the drawstring up tight around my face. I was warm in the good Ibex bag; but my head felt like it was in a refrigerator. I put on my wool cap, feeling for it among my frozen, boardstiff socks and the hiking boots that were as rigid as building blocks.
I could hear when I woke up the next morning the other three crunching around outside, wrangling the horses and falling silent as they drank coffee in the tent. It was insultingly cold.
Scott said, “Oh, no!” from the interior of his sleeping bag.
“I have to go to the bathroom.”
We got up shortly and had a crackling fire going in the sheepherder stove. We made a pot of coffee and lazily divided a vast sheet of Missus So-AndSo’s breakfast rolls. I thawed my socks and boots in front of the stove; rivers of steam poured from them into the stove’s open door.
When I stepped ouLside, I aiuld see where the snow was trampled from the morning’s wrangling. Their trail led across the small open meadow and over the rim, a soft trough in the perfect basin of snow. The light was tremendous and the sky formed an impressive light-shot blue dome, defined on the side of our camp by a row of snowladen pines; and opposite us the glittering range of the Gallatins. A big lone spruce stood between us and the newly risen sun; full of snow and ice crystals, it exploded with the improbable brilliance of an Annunciation. There weren’t words for it.
We put the bags in stuff sacks, straightened out the tent, and let the fire die. I printed a note and left it on a pannier, weighted with a jackknife.
We’re going to work our way on baek. We’ll leave
the horse in the corral at Tom Miner Basin.
—Tom and Scott
We got the bridle and saddle and headed out for the mare. A pine bough had shed its load of snow and her back was white and powdered with it as she stood in the glittering mountain light. I swept her dry as Scott warmed the bit in his hands.
We saddled the mare and took the long way home. □
- Thomas Met inane is the author of three novels. The Sporting Cluh, The Hushwacked Piano, and Ninety two in the Shade.↩