(by Dan Shore, age 38)
“Doesn’t this look like fun?”
Now, as readers of this blog may surmise, although I am the one who kills the spiders in this household, I am definitely not the one who makes the decisions. So when Meredeth looked up from her computer and asked, “Doesn’t this look like fun?” I already felt an acute tightening in my stomach.
And, as it turns out, for good reason. She had stumbled upon the website of an outfit called Blue Sky Sage, which promised “horseback adventure vacations” on an extremely remote site in the mountains of Wyoming. As part of her early-onset midlife crisis, Meredeth had been taking horseback riding lessons for almost two years, and I knew from a glance at the website that the target audience here was women over 35. In my mind, I imagined a remake of City Slickers, maybe with Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, and…let’s see…how about Andrea Martin?
I was welcome, Blue Sky Sage assured me, as a “Non-Riding Traveling Companion.” Now I have been on a horse before—a short trail ride, appropriate for an eight-year old (though taken only last year), during which I was treated to the angry barking of our Australian-born guide “Johnny,” who seemed convinced that it was somehow due to my supreme arrogance as a horseman that little Paprika, or Coriander, or whatever-his-name-was refused to follow the other horses on the trail. But the Wyoming adventure promised several full days of riding, far beyond my minimal capacity, and it was agreed that I could spend the time breathing in the crisp mountain air and indulging in that traditional frontier activity, orchestrating an opera.
If all this sounds idyllic to you, let me point out that we would be CAMPING. In a TENT. And the Shores are not, have never been, and never will be a camping people. Meredeth had done some camping as part of her Basic Training, but the letters she wrote home did not indicate any particular fondness for the experience. My last stint in a sleeping bag was about nineteen years ago, when a much-younger me left the music conservatory for a semester to live in a 23-foot sailboat for a few months. Now, almost two decades later, I found myself pulling my old gear out of the closet: the thick sweatpants and sweatshirt, the green rubber raincoat and pants, and the battered, grizzly “Viking hat,” which would indeed have kept my head warm in Medieval Iceland. Who knew I still even had these mementos of a wayward youth? But there they were, stuffed into a purple suitcase, all so Meredeth, the English horn soloist for the top-ranked band in the United States Army, could live in a tent and ride horses all day in the middle of nowhere. This was, without a doubt, the single stupidest thing we had ever done.
The sum total of my knowledge of Wyoming came from a single source—the old western Shane. If you don’t remember Shane, it’s the one where the young boy runs after Alan Ladd, the original metrosexual cowboy, piteously wailing “SHANE! SHANE! COME BACK!” But I also knew that people there were tough. My friend Lance Horne, a brilliant songwriter, grew up on a ranch in Wyoming. Once a gang of hoodlums in New York brandished a baseball bat and demanded his wallet. Lance—a classically trained pianist and Juilliard graduate—grabbed the bat, swung it around a few times, and then, when the kids ran away in terror, threw it after them in disgust. All in all, a good guy to have on your production team.
And I had once before looked at a map of Wyoming, when my sister, driving across the country to San Francisco, had been told by the police that I-80 was closed up ahead due to snow and that she would have to stay in Laramie for a week until it was cleared. She called me to ask if I could check the map to see if there were another road she could take. The answer, of course, which you can easily verify with a Rand McNally Road Atlas, was no.
Our trip began, as all trips inevitably do, with some massive flight delays and a 90-minute, hysterical phone call with the airline. But after many hours, a new itinerary on a different airline, and a whirlwind tour of the Salt Lake City airport, we made it, very late, to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. (Oh, and did I mention that the “bling” on the back packets of Meredeth’s brand-new “Q-Baby” Wrangler jeans set off the metal detectors? Always a good sign.) If you’re a drunken, twenty-something college dropout with wealthy parents and desperately trying to prove your manliness by growing a feeble beard, you may know the town of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. If not, let me just say that if your idea of Heaven is an overpriced motel and several blocks of Western-themed souvenir stores selling all conceivable moose-themed tchotchkes, then Heaven is indeed a place on earth, elevation 6200 feet.
But the culture shock going from the east coast to Jackson Hole was nothing compared to the culture shock going from Jackson Hole to the Blue Sky Sage campground. We were picked up—me, Meredeth, and an affable, denim-clad nurse named Rebecca from South Carolina—by Mike Wade, who was to be our guide for the week. Mike was precisely the type of guy you’d imagine would run a horseback adventure outfit in Wyoming, only more so. He leaped off the pages of cowboy history with his hat and bandanna, his dark black hair and beard, and his bright Western shirts, which we later discovered were specifically tailored to fit impeccably his lean, trim build. It was obvious after about five seconds of conversation that there was little he hadn’t seen, and even less that he wouldn’t know how to handle. In the event of the apocalypse, you definitely wanted Mike around (along with Alberto, the handyman who fixed our apartment door, and Suzy, who runs the Herrera’s burrito stand at the food court in Boston).
After driving a half an hour or so in the van, we stopped at a little outpost called Hoback Market. Mike advised us that if there were any snacks or liquor we wanted to pick up for the trip, this would be our last chance. And when a man like Mike says “last chance,” by god he’s not lying. We loaded up on nuts and trail mix, and supplemented our collection of tiny plastic bottles of Bailey’s with a much larger, glass bottle of red wine. Rebecca purchased a cup of coffee and a 24-pack of cans of PBR. Okay, so now we knew, she was a force to be reckoned with as well. A little over an hour later, after passing through the two thrilling blocks of Pinedale, we reached the town of Boulder, population 75. Boulder consisted of a motel, a post office (!), and a gas pump outside of “Boulder Store,” so named because, really, it was THE store in Boulder. We turned left and still had a very slow 42 miles to go on what it would be a gross exaggeration to call “the road.”
By the time we pulled into our new home after passing absolutely nothing else for over an hour, we might as well have been on a different planet. We saw two campers and a small number of tepee tents: one for me and Meredeth, one for Rebecca, one to hang the small plastic bag of creek water optimistically called a “sun shower,” and—in a generous concession to those of us roughing it for the first time, not one but TWO “toilet tents.” If you’re interested, you can make your own toilet tent at home: dig a hole, and put up a tent around it.
But we were met by the kind and reassuring presence of Mike’s lovely wife Bobbi, who seemed as much the quintessential frontierswoman as he did the quintessential frontiersman, and who also quickly revealed herself to be an indispensable member of the post-apocalypse survival team . Also on hand was the third member of the team, the bubbly cook Julie, who had perhaps the most incredible Minnesota accent I have ever had the pleasure to hear. (And yes, gentle reader, she even used the L-word: “lutefisk.”) And finally there was Julie’s extraordinarily energetic and hungry dog, Sweetie, who promised to protect us from any ne’er-do-well scraps of food that might threaten our little community.
The first evening consisted mainly of dinner (“Dan, I know you’re a vegetarian, but this is BUFFALO meat!”) and a long orientation and discussion of Mike and Bobbi’s philosophy and riding style for Meredeth and Rebecca. I pulled up a little blue canvas chair and settled in to a strict work regimen of reading Owen Wister’s The Virginian and trying to remember all of the verses to “Trail to Mexico.” I might add that, although I’m not a particularly visual person, this was far and away the most breathtaking country I’d ever seen; even more incredible than it looked in glorious CinemaScope.
The evening being over, and the sun setting around 9:30, Meredeth and I brushed our teeth with water from our canteens (labeled “F” and “G,” or as we referred to them, Fred and Ginger) and snuggled together in our little tent. All was peaceful and perhaps even a little romantic. And despite the tell-tale droppings a mere stone’s throw away, nary an elk disturbed our slumber.
But then the temperature dropped to the low 30s. And my bad back, a generous and thoughtful inheritance from both my mother’s and my father’s side, began to notice that not only was it literally freezing, but it had been lying on dirt for eight hours. And I could not move. As in, I could not move. Lest this be at all unclear—I WAS LYING IMMOBILE IN THE FREEZING COLD IN A TENT IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE IN WYOMING SO MEREDETH COULD RIDE A [long string of expletives deleted] HORSE. Friends, although the poet once wrote, “Seldom is heard a discouraging word,” let me assure you that the Lord’s name was taken in vain—loudly—a goodly number of times.
Well, perhaps not entirely in vain, for after a long, profane, and excruciatingly painful struggle, during which time I might have moaned “I think I’m going to pass out” two or even thirty times, I managed to sit up a little. After more prolonged struggle, I managed to totter out of the tent, leaning heavily on the aforementioned Meredeth, who was undoubtedly counting the seconds until she could saddle up her horse and ride as far away from me as possible.
So began Day One. Now, had we been back in Boston, or Washington, or New Orleans, or really anywhere else in between, I probably would have gone straight to the hospital, or at the very least a vaguely reputable massage parlor. But this was Wyoming, and as previously stated, we were over an hour away from the nearest “town,” population 75. Bobbi floated the idea of taking me to the horse chiropractor, and when it became apparent that this was not in fact a joke, my back became sufficiently terrified to begin moving—slowly—again.
But this was, of course, only the beginning of the day’s trials. As the sun came up, and I was able to stagger around on my own a little bit, it was suggested that I lie down on my back, prop my feet up on the beer cooler, and “stretch the psoas muscles.” You might think to be suspicious of any medical advice that contained the phrase “beer cooler,” but my options were limited. Besides, Julie had started mentioned the horse acupuncturist, who apparently was not the same individual as the horse chiropractor, and all of a sudden I was envisioning a dreadful assemblage of horse exorcists, horse witch doctors, and most frightening of all, horse aromatherapists.
So I awkwardly lowered myself down on the ground, put my feet up on the beer cooler, and prayed to salvation. What I got instead was Julie’s dog Sweetie, who, possessed by the spirit of Satan, came charging towards me. Now I have been attacked before, but always by angry ex-girlfriends, for whom the behavior was possibly—POSSIBLY I say—ever-so-slightly justified. And snide remarks aside, none of these has been a dog. But here I was, lying on the ground, unable to move, getting bitten. In the face. Yes, I flew to Wyoming and slept in a tent so that a crazed, buffalo meat-eating dog could bite me in the face.
Maybe it was the 8000-feet altitude, or maybe it was the two aspirin I had taken, or maybe it was the fact that A LARGE DOG BIT ME IN THE FACE, but the blood just poured and poured out of me. And all over my flannel shirt. Which reminds me, you want your flannel shirts to be red, in case you spill salsa on yourself, or tomato sauce, or YOU GET BITTEN IN THE FACE BY A DOG.
All in all, things were going well. And it’s such a cliché, I won’t even go into the story of How My Glasses Were Broken. But, you know, my glasses were broken. Like you even had to ask.
As always, though, the human body and the human spirit prove remarkably resilient to anything the world has to throw at them. My back got used to the cold, hard, frosty ground. My facial hair started covering up the gash on my face. And it turns out I can still see pretty well without my glasses—well enough to spot the occasional elk as I tramped up and down the long dirt road that led across the Little Sandy Creek (here pronounced “crick”). A passing bicyclist, riding from Portland through Missoula and down to Mexico, casually mentioned to me that I was, in fact, hiking along the Continental Divide. And the wooden post Bobbi told me I would find along “the two-track path, after you pass a big ditch with water in it” showed me that I was standing right on the Lander Cutoff of the Oregon Trail.
And as I stood there, my hands on that post, and nothing but mountains, blue sky, sagebrush, and an occasional red flower for miles and miles in any direction, I thought of those pioneers, who had come through this very spot with their covered wagons and livestock and sickly children and nothing but some flour, some beans, and the hope of a brighter future to sustain them. They suffered much worse than a stiff back and a playful bite from a domesticated, fully vaccinated dog. They did not tread this road as part of their summer vacation; this was life or death to them and their future generations. So much of American history is the story of these migrations—migrations compelled by either external force or an internal spirit of promise. And all who traveled bear witness to the astonishing power of human beings to endure any trials, once they have decided that they have no choice but to persevere.
I think that moment on the Oregon Trail made my trip to Wyoming worthwhile. Or maybe it was sitting around the campfire in the morning as the sun came up, listening to Mike tell stories and drinking from a pot of black coffee so delicious it would put Starbucks out of business if even a single Brooklyn hipster tried a sip. Or maybe it was listening to Bobbi softly strum the guitar and sing, “Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys.” Or maybe it was the huge plate of nachos with freshly made guacamole that Julie magically produced out of the kitchen camper by way of apology for Sweetie’s aggressive play.
We experienced the most acute culture shock of all when we drove back to Jackson Hole, although with a sunburn, a new beard, and a gash on my face, I probably fit in a little better than before. I bought a pencil with some moose on it, which I’ve been using for the past few hours to write this. Meredeth is already planning next year’s trip to Blue Sky Sage. And although I could swear up and down that there is no way on God’s green earth that I will ever spend another night in a tent again, I was sure I could make out a faint, lamenting voice calling after me as I boarded the plane home: “SHANE! SHANE! COME BACK!”