The following story is dedicated to the men in my life, my grandpa, dad, uncle, brothers, and friends that continue to answer the call the mountains ring out; the ones that share a passion for a well-matched mule string, a fine lead horse, tidy packs, a campsite next to stream brimming with cutthroat trout, campfire coffee, and the sight of a high, wide and handsome mountain pass stretched out for miles ahead…
It’s late spring hedging into early summer here. It’s that time of year at the ranch where maintenance beckons hard working hands. There are fences needing mended, tack needing repaired, trails needing cleared, and always fresh horses needing a shake down. And as all of this culminates, I look around at the calling mountain passes still shrouded in snow, and a smile etches across my face. It’s almost time to cross over those passes and mountain streams swollen with spring run off with a loaded mule string in tow, and watch the rhythmic bob of the packs, listen to the snuffle of a good-working string horse steadily trudging along the trail over the pass. The rebirth of an old way and tradition…
And as much as I love it, I look over my shoulder at my Uncle Jack repairing a decker pack saddle with skilled and tough hands, and I know he loves it even more. He has generously shared his passion of this generational lifestyle with countless others. And he’s anxious to see what those familiar mountains have in store for the season. He knows every intricate detail of miles upon miles of trails, and he’s about to teach a new group of youngsters that same appreciation for this land and way of life.
It’s pride in a uniformed and tightly mantied pack, a load that can ride for miles. It’s looking out over the corral of horses and mules, and lining them out just so; a horse that holds steady through rough terrain and keeps a level head in tense moments; a quiet strength. It’s a lead mule with a good mind and a steady pace, the youngsters that are learning from the veterans, the popper mule that steadily anchors the back. When the packs are loaded accordingly and the string is lined out ready to work, blowing noses and stomping feet, he throws his leg over his pony, and picks up that rope on his lead mule, gives one last look over his shoulder, and calls out “alright boys, heads up”. Long ears pricked and alert, they line out just like they always do, ready to work another backcountry season rocking packs down those familiar mountain trails. It’s art in motion.
It’s a feeling of “home”, a man, his horse, his mules, and a mountain trail calling his name. There is nothing like summertime in the backcountry of Montana.
So, here’s hoping our trails cross this summer, and if so, tip your hat to those hard-working mules and horses you meet along the way, and smile at the man or woman leading them. It’s a good and honest way of life…
One thought on “Heads Up Boys”
It’s 30 years August 1 this year since I left Montana. My best memories are pack trips with CB & Helen, Jack, Belinda and the family! I shared one trip with my sister, son and a dear friend. It was epic in rain and swollen creeks but made great memories. After I moved to Kentucky, I went back one more time with my son who was about 12 and we took three of his friends who had never had an experience close to the Bob Marshall pack trip. Nearing 70, I doubt I’ll get to ride those trails to Leota Peak again and stand in awe of the beauty that is Montana. I thank the Lord for folks like the Rich Family who hold dear to heritage and stewardship of the land!
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