The “wilderness” from the back of a horse


July 25, 2013

This morning dawned reasonably clear. I was up early in anticipation of my long awaited horseback ride with wrangler Wild Bill McClain. I wanted a two-hour ride, however, I knew it was probably going to be longer because we were checking out the condition of a trail that Bill hadn’t been on since before the fire. That was okay with me!

I walked down to the corral at 8:30, and Bill was just finishing tacking the horses. By 8:50, I was on the back of Cisco, the horse I’d ridden the last time I was here. Cisco is a good horse, and I trust him out on the trail. Bill was on a little buckskin mare who also did a great job on this ride.

Cisco, getting ready:

We took the KP Rim Trail into the Blue Range Primitive Area. This area is inaccessible except on foot or on horseback, so I felt it was a privilege to travel there. We accessed it on Steeple creek trail, and we seemed to descend forever at first, getting to the bottom at Grant Creek. I thought the trail was fairly technical for the horses because we came down a steep grade, forded a creek, then had to scramble up a steep rocky grade on the other side. I let Cisco do the work and choose where to put his feet. I did what I could to help him, of course, but he is a seasoned trail horse. He is very trustworthy and dependable. On this part of the trail, the vegetation was close, thick, and there were fallen charred logs crossing the trail at several points. The horses either stepped over the logs if they were not too high, or if they were impossible to go over, we had to take a slight detour.

Riding with Bill:

When we finally got toward the top of the Rim, the clouds closed in on us. Fog drifted in a thin veil over the top of us. The burned tree trunks contrasted with the bright green foliage as the fog wove among them. The forest turned ethereal and dreamlike as we passed through, and the silence was complete. We were at almost 10,000 feet in elevation, and the air currents were alternately cold from the approaching storm to the west, and warm from the partly cloudy weather to the east. We were lucky, we passed in and out of potential storm clouds and did not get any rain while we were up on the highest part of the trail.

Fog drifting over the trees. There was more, but this photo showed it the best:

At that point of the ride, we were near the edge of the Rim, and there was a very deep valley below us. We were at a breathtaking height. Across the valley was another high ridge, and Bill teased me. “How are we ever going to get across that?” he laughed. I said the horses might get wings and become Pegasuses (is that a word?), the forest felt magic enough.

I was disoriented for a lot of this ride, and did not realize where we were. It was only later when I looked at the map that I’d realized how much ground we’d covered, and how much we’d gained and lost in elevation. In distance, today’s ride appeared to cover about five miles.

We continued forging ahead on the trail, which was very faint in many spots, and if we hadn’t been paying attention and Bill wasn’t somewhat familiar with it, we would have lost it. There were few cairns and other markings, and since the fire, many areas were difficult passage. The horses were amazing, though, calm and athletic. There were very few times that they balked at some of the places they were asked to go.

Finally, we came out near Hwy. 191, and since I could not see any familiar mile markers or places, I still was confused as to where we were exactly. Then we crossed the road, and got on another trail, which I later learned was called the Aker Lake Trail. We did not see the lake because we were on the far end of the trail, but if I had, I would have been able to orient myself and figure out where I was.

By this time we had been on the trail for quite some time, over 2 hours or more. I wasn’t looking at my watch so I am not sure exactly how long some of these parts took to ride. The sky was darkening and rumbling at this point, and we dove into some more deep forest. There were more obstacles to overcome and negotiate, but the trail was well marked at this point. When the big raindrops started to fall, Bill suggested we put on our rain gear before we got soaked, and totally agreed with him. I knew from experience how quickly a person can get drenched and cold, then the rest of the ride can be a miserable experience. It was a good thing we stopped then because soon afterward, the rain became heavy. We were in a blinding rain and lightning storm for about a half an hour when we finally came out just up the road from the lodge. As we approached, I could see everyone in the packed dining room watching our progress as we appeared like apparitions out of the forest, the rain making us barely visible until we were close.

We emerged from the curtain of rain:

Bill offered to let me get off Cisco at the lodge door and take both horses back to the corral, but I refused. Cisco and I had been a good team for all those hours and I wouldn’t abandon him at the end. We made our way through the mud back to where we’d started, and with the help of the farrier who had arrived while we were gone, we untacked the horses quickly, in the rain. Just as we were finishing, a deafening crack of thunder made us all jump. We found out later when we got back to the lodge that a lightning bolt had struck the meadow in front of the lodge, the same meadow we’d just crossed to get to the lodge.

We led the horses to the muddy corral, and I felt bad because I saw Cisco trudge through the mud, his head down, to huddle under the small overhang of the rickety shelter there. I remembered the luxurious clean (and dry!) box stalls that my horses had when my parents owned them, and wished Cisco had one of those to return to.

Once at the lodge, Hal was waiting on the porch with a cup of hot coffee for me. Despite the rain gear, I was very wet and getting cold. It was impossible to stay dry in that downpour, and it went on for almost an hour. People kept asking me “how was your ride?” and acting surprised when I replied, “wonderful!”

The rest of the day was rather uneventful. We spent time eating a late lunch, then talking to Bill in the dining room, and just relaxing. Later, we went to Springerville, and by the time we got back to home base, it was too late to do any dirt bike riding. Plus, it was raining again, and long past time for dinner!

Tomorrow, maybe more dirt biking, and whatever else pans out. At this time of year, outdoor activities are determined largely by the weather!

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2 thoughts on “The “wilderness” from the back of a horse

  1. You said you put on rain gear, but the photo seems to show you still just wearing blue jeans. Does rain gear not include something on your legs? After all, Wild Bill (WB) is wearing one of those full-length raincoats made famous by countless Western movies.

    You did not say what WB thought of the condition of the trail? Isn’t that why y’all rode it? You did say there were times you had to detour due to fallen trees. So, overall, I guess it was OK since you always kept going?

    • Those are my blue rain pants, Randy. They don’t work very well, as much as I want them to, so I will have to go to the newer rain pants now. Bill thought the condition of the trail was okay, overgrown and needed clearing in some places, but I heard him tell someone at the lodge that he “wouldn’t take a beginner on it.” I agree with that, there are a lot of challenging places for a horse to go through, and if the rider doesn’t “help” the horse a little, shifting weight, holding the reins at the correct length, someone could get hurt. Yes, we kept going on the trail because the parts that were blocked were passable with a little detour around the problem area (mostly fallen logs).
      I think I need one of those cool coats like Bill had, though, don’t you? 🙂

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