THE MOUNTAIN MAN
Snow was gently falling as we made our way down the hill toward the warmth of a wood stove. The silvery breath from my horse and the crunch of her feet on the snow were all that broke the silence. The sun had just settled below the mountains to our west, and the air was as cold and motionless as the snow on the ground. It seemed as if the year was irrelevant, and it could easily have been 1796 instead of 1996. There were no sounds or signs of civilization other than my small house on the ridge below us, which did not distinguish itself as being modern or civilized. Faint wisps of smoke from the chimney embellished the roofline, along with some lodge pole pines and aspens that sheltered it on the west. Except for an old abandoned log cabin in the valley below, there were no neighbors save the four-legged kind the best kind to my way of thinking.
My horse and I had just returned from an early November ride into Colorados Arapaho National forest that borders my property on the east. The area is mountain wilderness, and the views are frequent and spectacular. We headed east along the high side of Monument Creek, climbing steadily until reaching the high ridge overlooking the east branch of Troublesome Creek. We followed this ridge north to Grimes Peak, which is slightly above 10,000 feet. Travel had been difficult, even for early November, because the snow got steadily deeper as we went higher. Black Jack was born and raised as a mountain horse, but she still occasionally struggles when the snow gets above two feet, as it did in many of the smaller drainages that we crossed.
It took about two hours of riding to reach Grimes Peak where the panorama is breathtaking. The large valley to the east is totally uninhabited and not accessible except by horseback. Thousands of pines accompany the east branch of Troublesome Creek as it meanders northward through its valleys meadows of snow, disappearing in its headwaters at the base of the Rabbit Ears Range. Beyond it to the north is the state of Wyoming.
The east side of the valley is defined by a smaller mountain range comprised of Elk Mountain, Grouse Mountain, and a number of smaller peaks. Beyond that, some 50 miles away, are the 14,000 feet peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park, along the Continental divide. To the west, Antelope Creek snakes through Gunsight Pass toward the Gore range, which runs north toward Steamboat Springs. Names like Blizzard Pass, Buffalo Creek, and Wolverine By-Pass add mystery and excitement to a vista that, by itself, saturates one with emotions.
In spite of the 50-plus mile views in an almost 360 degree panorama, nothing man-made could be seen or heard. I could project myself into another time long past, knowing that what I was seeing had not changed since before man first viewed it. The timelessness of the mountain wilderness is one of the primary attractions for those of us who aspire to be mountain men and escape the trappings of modern civilization, if only for a brief while. In my case it was for fifteen months, so I was one of the more fortunate.
Even real mountain men get cold, and aspiring ones probably get even colder. The body heat from Black Jack provided me some comfort, and was maximized by my riding her bareback. However, the temperature was approaching zero and daylight was diminishing, so we turned around and headed down the 2200 feet descent toward warm shelter. On the way we saw a few deer and elk that had survived the bows and guns of the hunting season and were foraging for their dinner, but it is unusual to encounter wildlife this high up once the snow starts getting deep. Most of the grazing animals move down to the lower elevations where the grass is more easily uncovered.
I thought about Winnie, a young female brown bear I had befriended during the summer. I missed her daily visits, which ended in late September, and wondered where she had gone for her winter slumber. I wondered about the bull moose who had visited my cabin, and hoped that his life had not been unnecessarily cut short by one of the many hunters who stalked the woods from September to November. I looked for evidence of the coyote pack that frequently serenaded me and kept my dog from getting a sound night's sleep. I saw none of these things, but mountain life cannot be experienced like city life. The mountains do not bustle and blare and compete for your attention. The experience is soft and gentle, gradually presenting itself to those few who have the time and patience to allow it to happen.
Back at the house I gave Black Jack some grain and refilled her heated water bucket, which seems to get as much traffic from deer and elk as it does from her. My dog Ben was glad to see us and eager to go inside, so I grabbed an arm full of firewood and followed him up the steps. Once I had reinvigorated the fire in the wood stove, I shed my boots and sat facing it with my feet propped up. The warmth of the stove slowly eased our discomfort and allowed my mind to wander back to my ride and to view the mountains and valley out my window as the day finished its descent into darkness.
I was content and happy at having traveled back in time seeing and experiencing a part of what Indians must have seen long before white men reached this land and attempted to civilize it. I looked forward to what the next nine months would bring, satisfied that this day had more than fulfilled my expectations of wilderness life. I was not lonely, although sharing the experience with someone was something I missed so perhaps I wouldn't make a good mountain man after all.