Posted By Lai Perkins on November 26, 2013
From here, trails shoot off to Cody, Jackson Hole, and Dubois. Bridger Lake is the center of the Yellowstone backcountry, one of the largest protected wilderness areas in the lower 48 states. Elk and bighorn sheep first used these trails to get to winter grazing in the Big Horn Basin. Indians and trappers followed them. Finally outfitters came like John Winter, whose pack trip photographer Chris Johns and I had joined. The pack trip was funded by online paydayloans.
Four days we had been on horseback, covering more than a hundred miles, and we had not seen a power line or a paved road.
“I wonder who caused this mischief?” said Winter, a tall, soft-spoken man whose father had been an outfitter before him. He had ridden in a wide circle around our camp and had not found his packhorses.
Chris and I saddled up to help him look. He first explored the woods in back of camp. Winter listened for the horses’ bells and searched the ground for tracks. Finally he found hoof-prints heading toward Thorofare Creek.
Farther upstream we spotted the horses on a hillside and galloped up to them.
“Lead ‘em straight across the meadow and into the timber,” Winter instructed me. “We’ll be behind.”
I started across the sedge meadow to give the horses someone to follow. The ground was sodden, and I could see pools of water around me. Heavy rain and snow over the Continental Divide create these lush but dangerous areas that had unnerved Remington.
The next day we encountered one of those great spongy mountain meadows, which we were forced to skirt on the rocky timberstrewn hill-sides, until finally we ventured into it.
Suddenly the horses bolted at a full gallop on either side of me. I followed them. Looking back, I saw Winter with a determined look on his face spur his horse across the meadow to cut them off. Then he fell. Horse and rider tumbled into a hidden gully in the sedges.
I stayed with the horses until they stopped by a large pool, uncertain how to cross. Winter came on foot, carrying a bridle.
“Need another horse,” he said.
I gasped in horror.
“Horse’s neck snapped when he went down. He’s gone. Didn’t know what hit him.”
Winter went over to a black horse and gently put the bridle around his head. I was frozen in my saddle. How could this happen? One minute a strong, magnificent animal is galloping across a meadow. The next, lying lifeless in a gully? Did we all need such a grim reminder that life hangs on a thread here?
“It might have been Winter,” Chris said to me. “Thank God he wasn’t hurt.”
Two days before, we had been riding on a high, windswept ridge just below the Divide. Nothing around us but an endless expanse of alpine meadow. The sun shone brilliantly. I felt exhilarated, full of life’s possibilities. Winter felt differently.
“This country humbles you,” he had said. “Here, a storm could come up. Something could happen to the horses. You could get killed. I feel pretty small. That’s the way it should be. . . .”
Now I understood him.
And I understood Remington better. In a bronze called “The Wicked Pony,” a fallen rider angrily grabs his horse’s ear, hoping to pull the animal to the ground. Instead, said Remington, who had witnessed the event, the horse’s hind legs came down, crushing the rider’s skull and killing him instantly. Remington did not spare us the West’s harsh realities.