GUNNISON NATIONAL FOREST — The only sound is the soft clop of horses’ hooves on the dirt trail and the swish of their long tails. Aspen leaves rattle quietly in the breeze and winged insects snap loudly above us in the bright sunlight.
Then I hear my brother on the trail in front of me singing to his son, 4, sitting snug in the saddle with him. I hear my cousins behind me talking about their respective childhoods growing up on a pig farm and a cattle ranch in Nebraska. My niece, 8, riding a horse she has dubbed Prince Freckles, turns and waves, giggling, always giggling.
Fifteen of us are on the trail, plus a handful of guides, riding deep into the West Elk Wilderness in Colorado’s Gunnison National Forest near where I grew up. My mom organized the early July trip for family members and friends: my younger brother and his daughter from Missouri; my older brother and his family from Australia; a few cousins from Nebraska and Wyoming; an uncle from Denver; and my boyfriend, Richie, who had never been on a horse in his life.
We are led on our four-day trek by Dellis and Linda Ferrier, the husband-and-wife owners of Bar Diamond Ranch, and several of their grandchildren. My mom, an experienced rider, used to work for Dellis’s parents, helping out on pack trips like this one.
My mom and cousins and I had been on several pack trips into the West Elks before, so I knew we were not going to be exactly roughing it. The guides saddle our horses, set up camp, and cook our meals. But it’s far from luxurious: Lunches are ham and cheese sandwiches we make ourselves with Miracle Whip; the bathroom is a box with a toilet seat on top, positioned over a pit. We sleep on ratty old foam pads and keep our beer cold in a spring.
Yes, there is beer — supplied by us — as well as boxes of white wine and bottles of schnapps and whiskey hauled into the mountains by mule.
We make the initial 12-mile trek up to camp on a sunny Thursday morning. My horse is Dollar, a steady, speckled sweetheart who grabs a mouthful of grass whenever he can and has a fondness for Chips Ahoy. Richie gets Streke, a pretty gray horse who prefers Butterfingers. “Every once in a while he throws somebody off,” says Dellis, 71, who wears suspenders and a black cowboy hat and spurs that jingle when he rides.
We’re pretty sure he’s joking.
We ride up to 10,000 feet through groves of ferns and aspens, up shady wooded slopes and into sunny meadows with curving streams and stands of spruce and fir on all sides. Craggy mountain tops break through the clearings in the trees, and delicate wildflowers bloom all around: purple lupine and larkspur, red paintbrush, yellow flowers the Ferriers call sneeze weed. Bear claw marks scar the slender aspen trees in surprisingly high places.
On a pack trip, it’s all about the journey — conducted at the slow, steady pace of a horse’s gait, and that leaves plenty of time for catching up. My cousin Jeanne describes how her daughter’s boyfriend proposed — down on one knee on a shamrock painted on the street in the middle of a St. Patrick’s Day parade.
That night in the cook tent, we sit at tables covered with red checked cloths to eat second and third helpings of sweet corn and roast pork loin made by Dellis and Linda on two propane burners and a wood stove.
We get up each morning with the light — some requiring more coaxing than others — to find coffee already made and pancakes being cooked on the lid of an old Maytag washing machine.
The first day, we ride a few miles to Sheep Lake, a tiny body of water nestled beneath rocky bluffs with steep green hillsides and cottony clouds reflected on its glassy surface. My older brother’s 4-year-old, Davey, immediately pulls down his pants and pees into the water. A few of us walk around the lake, making our way over fallen logs and stopping to admire delicate bluebells and pink brushy blooms. Another group catches a half-dozen speckled cutthroat trout with brilliant red bellies — a sign they are ready to spawn, Linda tells us.
On the ride back, she points out a dead tree hanging in midair between two trees. “That’s been there since 1988,” she says.
Nothing mechanized is allowed in the oldest part of the wilderness, not even a bicycle or an electric razor, so Linda rides with a handsaw on her saddle to cut trees that have fallen on the trail.
The trout taste like mud, just as Linda said they would, but we eat them hungrily alongside heaping helpings of spaghetti and salad and canned green beans. After dinner, we gather in the cook tent, where my little brother Chris leads a rousing card game and my Uncle Dick recites slightly raunchy poetry by the light of a propane lantern.
Outside, the stars hang low and bright in the velvety black sky. People are snoring in their tents by 10 p.m., while the horses roam the mountainside with bells gently tinkling around their necks.
The next day we ride up above 12,000 feet to a ridge where we can see almost 360 degrees of rocky spires and majestic mountaintops. Someone spots an elk across the valley. “Stone elk,” Dellis says, deadpan. “You see them every time you come up here.”
Wildfires raged in Colorado earlier this summer, and it was too dry to have a campfire at first, but on the third day a hail storm pummels our camp, bringing much needed moisture. Everyone scatters to find dry sticks and branches; Jeanne hacks at the inside of a dead tree with an ax. Finally, with the help of a few pieces of paper from my notebook, we get a fire roaring — then keep it going to roast marshmallows as we pass around bottles of schnapps.
The hail, scooped into a trash bag, provides a perfect way to chill the beer.
In the cook tent, Dellis and Linda prepare our final meal of chicken cutlets fried in lard, coleslaw, and mashed potatoes. The two of them met on the trail as kids in the early 1960s while they were working for their parents, who also guided pack trips in the West Elks. “I grew up right here,” says Linda, 58, a red mesh baseball cap perched atop her head and long gray ponytails hanging down her chest.
She and Dellis used to lead about 10 pack trips every summer and tend to almost 500 head of horses; in recent years it has dwindled to just a few trips and about 140 horses. “The recession knocked that in the pants,” Linda says.
But the recession isn’t the only factor. People are softer than they used to be, they say, too reliant on creature comforts and technology to consider camping in the wilderness.
“The kids are pansies nowadays; there’s no ruggedness, or as my grandfather would say, the ‘hard twisted,’”Linda says. “If mama can’t stay in a bed and have hot running water, and the kid can’t have a computer. . . . It’s just gone.”
Their main money comes during hunting season in the fall, when they take hunters out to shoot deer and elk, rising as early as 1 a.m. to feed the hunters and saddle the horses and get out by sunrise.
Dellis has two titanium hips; Linda has bad knees. They aren’t sure their grandkids, who are in college, will continue the family business. When Dellis and Linda can no longer get on their horses, Bar Diamond Ranch may be no more.
We ride home in the rain, the horses’ hooves sucking in the mud and the green, earthy smell of the mountains permeating the air. Along the way we cross paths with the only other people we have seen in four days: a young couple on foot whose pack horses bolted when they got off to adjust their gear.
“No walk-home knots,” Linda calls out as we tie up our horses for lunch.
Back at home, one flat tire and 15 showers later, we eat takeout ribs and talk about the trip on my mom’s flagstone patio. The most memorable parts weren’t the sweeping mountaintop panoramas, we agreed, or the time my cousin Nancy’s horse galloped away as she tried to get on. It was the laughter around the campfire, the half-asleep huddles around our first cups of coffee, the jokes bouncing from horse to horse.
It was family, from all around the world, out in the wilderness with nothing to do but be together and ride from one beautiful place to the next.