Magic in the Mountains
By Lisa Schmidt
We planned this for a year. Friends had already been there, but I had missed out. Two prior attempts had been nixed.
One of the premier geologic formations in the vast Bob Marshall Wilderness beckoned. My brother and I were going to the Chinese Wall.
On a hot Sunday afternoon, my husband, Steve, and daughter, Abby, helped us load two pack horses and then we swung into our saddles. Steve and Abby would put up Graham Ranch hay until they met us at the other end of our 60-to-70 mile trip.
It didn’t take long to fall into a rhythm of the horses’ footsteps and rocking packs. The forest scents refreshed my brain even as sweat dripped under my sunglasses.
Still, I was a bit anxious. A twinge of guilt at leaving Steve to put up hay while I stepped away from the ranch nibbled at the back of my mind, even though I was pretty sure he would remember Abby’s swimming lessons each day. I checked and rechecked the horses’ shoes – yep, all 16 were still on. Checked packs, too — all were even so far. Did I remember to bring everything we might need?
Unease stemmed from more than just forgotten forks and potential mayhem.
My older brother and I were an unlikely pair.
Mark, a Marine from the 1980s – once a Marine, always a Marine – is tough and savvy, but never spent much time around horses. As kids, I’m sure he was nice to me, but it is easier to remember the times he wasn’t. By the time he was home from the service, I had moved away. Our visits as adults were always short and crowded with other demands. This much time alone and without distractions was new to us.
This was an adventure in geography, self-reliance and family dynamics.
As we rode higher and higher, I felt my spirit and confidence rising with the trail. The Bob Marshall mountains insist a person pays attention to the moment. We – both humans and horses – were just fine.
Then, my first glimpse of the Wall.
Rising 1000 feet straight up from the forest floor, the immensity and power of the 20-mile enormity of granite diminishes a person, allowing the might of the natural world to flow around and into her.
The faces watched us.
Mark and I rode in silence, yet both of us saw hundreds of faces in the Wall. Were they faces of those who came before us? Those who will come later?
We slept at the bottom of the Wall that night, serenaded by thunder and a lightning show.
As we visited over coffee the next morning, three curious mule deer bucks investigated our camp and horses. They circled us, unconcerned, until we began to pack up.
We had a 3-day ride out through wildfire burns, spongy forest and conversation. Mark and I talked about so many things that needed to be said. We realized we are a team, both in the mountains and in our family. We are a pretty good team, too.
Teamwork helped as we climbed the last pass before the end of the trail. Usually, a rider can see where she is going to cross the mountains, but Route Creek Pass keeps a person guessing until the final pull. The top of the rocky, treeless pass makes her feel as if she is standing on top of the world.
About 20 feet from the top, the trail down splits. Which is the mountain goat trail and which is safe for pack horses? The “safe” trail is narrow, built on shale, and steep. No room for error here. This was a cumulative test of packing skill, horsemanship, cooperation and courage. Mark and I were glad the pack saddle cinches were tight.
Steve did not get to go on this trip, but he made it happen. He told me that my birthday present was shoeing four horses for my trip.
Really, he gave me the magic in the mountains.
Lisa Schmidt and her husband, Steve Hutton, raise grassfed beef and lamb at the Graham Ranch near Conrad.
She has two children; Will, 16, and Abby, 7.
She can be reached at L.Schmidt@a-land-of-grass-ranch.com