1

Even in June the Rocky Mountains tower so high that their caps keep snow year round. For four days and three nights, Faith and her family explored the remote Rockies on horseback with their yellow lab Harley.

I think one of my favorite parts about my job is that from time to time I get to share a little bit about my life with my readers. I’m young, but I’ve done some pretty cool things in my lifetime. This week’s warm and then freezing weather reminded me of an experience I had once, and I wanted to share it with you.

As you all have read before, I’m a mountain girl. I hale from the Smokies, and the mountain peaks and snow caps basically run in my blood. I love adventure. If I’m not swinging from a bridge a mile high in the sky, I’m finding other ways to genuinely enjoy, love and live life.

When I started thinking about this particular trip, I realized I embarked on this journey about 10 years ago. Looking back, it’s kind of hard to believe that time passes by that quickly. However, my memories of my trip are still as fresh as the day it happened. Some things you don’t forget.

It was June 2009. If you don’t already know, I am also a horse girl. I’ve been rodeoing for quite some time. My family and I spent a lot of time on the road, and instead of a camper, we hauled a huge four-horse trailer with living quarters around. The truck and trailer duo was so big that it was only a few feet shy of a semi-truck. But our horses went everywhere with us, and it was the most practical way to travel.

We had planned a trip to Colorado for a week. Normally we would take a winter trip to Carbondale, Colorado, to ski, snowboard and enjoy actual winter weather. Carbondale in the winter is a complete winter wonderland snuggled into the Rocky Mountains where the sunrise and sunset glistens off the frozen ground while the Elk mingle in nearby fields to scavenge for food.

However, this trip was not to enjoy the snow or the slopes. We were driving to Colorado for a much different adventure this time. We were driving more than 20 hours to Marble, Colorado, to go on a pack trip. A pack trip is where we carry nothing but the essentials on our two mules following our trusted horses deep into the Rocky Mountains.

While the pack trip was something I’ll never forget, and something I’ll come back to in a minute, there’s really a lot to be said about the drive up there as well. Even for the 14-year-old girl I was then, I still remember the beautiful – and sometimes unusual – sights I saw on that 20-hour trip.

I don’t think I could ever describe the beauty of the plains when rolling through Kansas. I don’t think I could ever tell you the synchronization the antelope had while they galloped across Oklahoma. I don’t think I could ever detail enough what it’s like to run alongside a steam engine through open Arkansas, and I could never pinpoint the exact colors of the sunset over the quickly changing terrain going into Colorado, but I remember watching it all through the window our Bloomer horse trailer and our Ford King Ranch.

We pulled up to Outwest Outfitters on a really beautiful day. The sun was shining, and it was relatively warm. We were about to pack our mules and head on a full day’s journey deep into the remote Rockies. Our packs were set with the food that we would eat over the next four days, pots and pans for cooking over an open fire and the essential first aid and emergency supplies if we needed them. Oh! Our yellow lab Harley also tagged along behind our caravan. He was in for a rough trip, too. There would be no cell service where we were going, and there sure wouldn’t be an easy way to get to us if something bad was to happen.

We climbed onto our horses and began our trip. I remember our journey into the mountains as easy going. It was quiet. There wasn’t a lot of noise except for the horse’s hooves hitting the ground, or the sound of an occasional snort. The birds were chirping, the sun was shining, there was as stream running beside our trail, and the Maroon Bells towered in the distance.

We rode for a few hours climbing farther into the mountains. I remember having to put my jacket on because as we climbed higher, it got colder. I remember touching snow that still lingered on a rock in the shade. We came to our first nerve-wrecking obstacle.

The snow caps had melted late that year, resulting in rapidly rushing waters crashing down the mountain side. Where we had to cross, the water was up to our horses’ bellies. There was maybe a 5-foot passage that was safe. On one side you had a mountain side, on the other side, you had a drop off. And the water was moving pretty fast. We had tie a rope around Harley like a harness and secure it to our saddle horn when we crossed. If we didn’t, we’d lose our dog. We crossed one at a time, guiding our horses carefully and hoping they didn’t stumble or slip.

We made it to our campsite as the sun was beginning to set. Our guide, Dan – I referred to him as Eagle Eye or Dan-O – was quite the entertainer. While we sat around the fire cooking our dinner, Dan told us stories of his past trips, how he ended up at Outwest Outfitters and why he loved his job.

During our conversation, Dan began to hush everyone. My family and I looked around at each other unsure of what was going on. Dan had heard something, but what? He laid a hand on his gun that was holstered to his hip. He had heard what he thought to be a momma bear looking for her cub. Being that we were at our campsite, this concerned Dan for our safety. He told us to stay around the fire while he checked things out. After a few minutes he returned with a much lighter look on his face. Dan said that sounds travel in the mountain, and he’d just leave it at that.

Temperatures dropped below freezing at night. Our tent was equipped with a wood-burning furnace that had to be checked through the night to make sure we didn’t burn up or freeze. Even when I was tucked deep into my well-insulated sleeping bag, I still shivered a little bit.

Over the next few days we climbed mountains, fished from lakes that were the same color as the sky, we saw elk, mountain lions, beautiful wildflowers and miles and miles of nothing but blue sky and mountain ridges. Dan could spot animal tracks and elk atop mountains from ridges away. He was truly the best at his job.

For four days and three nights, we explored the Rockies on trails that could only be done on horseback. One day we climbed up one mountain so fast that I got altitude sickness, and I had to recover for an hour once we reached the top. We galloped our horses across a ledge that provided us just enough space to have a little race. Family friendly competition, of course. I remember Harley trying to keep up. His tongue fell out of his mouth while he panted to catch his breath.

What I didn’t realize at the time is that that trip was the last one I’d have with my complete family. The man who was like a father to me died in a tractor accident just two months later. My stepsister had to move back to Texas with her biological mother and Harley went with her. As for my mom and I, well, we stayed here and picked up the pieces, but I do remember how happy and carefree we were on that trip.

I think the thing about life is that it’s completely unpredictable. I think the lesson of that trip was to teach me to soak in life. That vacation was years ago, but I could still paint the pictures in my head. I can still hear our laughs around the campfire. I was unplugged from the world and engaged with the people that loved me and made me happy, and that’s the most valuable thing life has to offer.

These bipolar winter days can get the best of us. We cuss the cold; we enjoy the warmth. But what if we soaked in each day so that we’re able to repaint the pictures in our head? What if we cherished time with our loved ones just a little more? What if we just unplug for one hour? I challenge you to get out and do the things you question. Because at the end of life, it’s better to be left with the memories than the “what ifs.”

If you ever do decided to head out West, I highly recommend Carbondale and Marble, Colorado, as destination points. I also encourage you to drive. The West is beautiful. Getting there is beautiful. It’s hard to see 30,000 feet in the air.

For more information on Outwest Outfitters, visit www.outwestguides.com. Also, if you plan on visiting Carbondale, check out www.avalanceranch.com for lodging. They offer cabins, hiking trails (including snowshoeing in the winter) and a hot springs.

Faith Few can be reached at ffew@tullahomanews.com.