By Rebecca Young
The descent from dusk into dark is tender-footed and shy, a lone fox slipping through the woods and out of sight. I know these nights, their silence and sentience; their stars watch me. If I gaze back long enough without flinching I will see slashes of burning meteorites and hear their crackle and roar inside myself. I am leaning against the SAR-5 rescue truck, its red-white-and-blue emergency lights flash silently throwing jagged shadows and splashes of color over the gravel parking lot. Behind the truck the nearest evergreens are cloaked in wooly shadows. The woods are deep black.
Two other search-and-rescue team member, our mission command leader and I are waiting for horses and a wrangler. A hasty team of four members deployed up the mountainside about thirty-minutes ago. I scuff my boot in the gravel and check and recheck my pack. I am thinking about the last time I rode a horse, over two years prior. We are out here tonight to rescue a seventy-five-year-old man. That morning he summited Mount Elbert, a fourteen-thousand-foot peak just outside Leadville, Colorado—an amazing accomplishment for anyone of that age, but he began to weaken during the descent. He and his two adult daughters continued descending all afternoon and into evening, his strength sapped, their progress too slow. Now it was after 9:00 p.m. and they were still miles from the parking lot where we lingered. One of the daughters called 911 to report her father could no longer stand and that they didn’t have the equipment, warm layers, extra water, tents or bivy sacks, to spend the night. Wanting to avoid a litter carry, which would have taken all night, and worried about the man’s deteriorating health, the SAR team’s mission commander called for horses. When they arrive I will ride up the mountain to the patient. Together the hasty team and I will get him on the horse. Then I will ride behind the saddle with my arms wrapped around the patient to support and hold him up as we ride back down the mountain. If this plan doesn’t work the whole team will begin an all-night litter carry operation. I am the only person on the team with riding experience and the only person light enough to ride double without creating unacceptable burden for the horse. I am anxious for the mission ahead, but below the fractious nerves a deeper foreboding is lurching through me.
I have not always lived in Colorado. Before I moved permanently to the mountains two years ago, I had been a horse trainer in Illinois. I trained expensive jumping horses, traveled around North America competing, and had a number of wealthy clients. My family had always made their living in the equine industry and it felt natural that I should, too. However, the several years I spent as a horse trainer were defined by discontent and a nagging understanding that I could never be happy in this profession. I had ached for a simpler life in the mountains and to use my Bachelor’s degrees in English and teaching. I left the world of horses behind when I moved to the mountains. I never thought I’d use my riding skills in this way—to help someone in need—and as I contemplate getting on horseback again it feels as if a part of me has grown back. I cut it out years ago, excised like a tumor, but suddenly I could feel it again under my skin: a tenseness in my calves, the weight of calm and confidence in my fingers and palms, the tenor of my voice smooth and gentle like singing a lullaby. I am unnerved now, not by the task ahead, but because I thought the rider was gone. As I wait for the sound of an approaching truck and trailer—a sound I will still recognize like a face—I brawl with the understanding that we cannot kill our past selves. I buried the rider deep under sandy soil and submerged granite, feet hooked helplessly under roots, and left her there to decay. But those marauding mountains like scavenger beasts unearthed her and now I see to my horror I interred a thing still living. The frost and the water will leave a mark in the rock; our past will grow into our muscle and bone and memory. We contain many slumbering selves. But they will stir. I linger between joy and grief, grateful, though burdened by this newly awakened ghost.
Joe the wrangler arrives with two horses. He’ll ride up with me so there will be two sets of hands for handling the animals. Everyone on the team calls him Horse Joe. This is my first meeting with Horse Joe and I see why the moniker thrived. Joe wears dusty jeans under worn leather chaps. His spurs giggle and clink like the sound of iced tea and I notice they are not separate additions but are built into the heels of his cowboy boots. He wears a cowboy hat around which he affixes a headlamp. The brim sends the light upward so he must bow his head to shine the beam along the trail. I don’t ask him if it would be easier to remove his hat because I can sense he’s no fool: he wears his cowboy hat with the same commitment that we wear pants in public. I can see dirt in the deep creases of his face and his scruffy beard is graying. The mission command leader shares the plan with Joe while I stand behind and try to appear competent. Joe looks at me. His face tells me he’s unimpressed.
“How long you been riding?” he asks me then turns to unload the first horse before I can answer.
“My whole life,” I call into the trailer.
“And how long has that been?” Joe leads an already saddled chestnut off the trailer.
“Twenty-six years, sir.”
Twenty-six years. It feels strange to say it out loud and for a moment the rider has the truer claim over me. It must be the mountain dweller who is false, an invasive species. I don’t specify that I was a show-jump rider. Western wranglers see show-jump riders as sissy and spoiled, who can’t ride a horse outside of a manicured arena and show-jump riders see Western wranglers as tactless riders with barbarian methods. While there are those on both sides that fit the stereotype, most of the discrepancies between camps come from the difference in horseflesh. The quarter horses and mustangs preferred by wranglers are often thick-minded and calm. Show-jumpers, by contrast, are bred to be sensitive and reactive. Good trail horses are bred to ignore the signals to which a good show jumper would react. Different horse—different style of riding.
Wind moves through the tree tops yet doesn’t touch us on the ground. The proud mountainside murmurs. Joe leads the second horse out of the trailer and hands the lead to me as he walks to the chestnut tied to the side of the trailer. He talks with his back to me.
“That’s Smokey. You’ll ride her. She’s a good mustang. Best I ever had.”
Smokey is the color of sooty smoke. Her legs are short and thick. Her feet are unshod and obviously toughened by rocky trails. She has chipped dinner plate hooves, having been kept trimmed by trodding on rocks rather than by a farrier’s rasp. Her face is long with a wide space between her eyes. Old wives’ tales say long-faced horses are more trustworthy and harder workers than short, “pony-faced” horses (for ponies are notorious mischief-makers and work-shirkers) and that a wide space between the eyes connotes intelligence. A skinny-headed horse is sure to be impulsive and flighty, not wise and patient like a long-headed horse. While I don’t usually put stock in old wives’ tales in any other aspect of my life, I believe these for they’ve proven true again and again. I automatically notice these things about Smokey, a habit of assessing thousands of horses over the span of two decades. Like past selves, old habits are unyielding to death. I look into Smokey’s round eyes and gently blow my breath into her nose so she will know my smell.
The body never forgets. It is the most honest form of the self we have, staying quiet, not seeking attention except when exhaustion or injury or appetite require it. The body stores its own form of memories, laying them deep in the nerves of muscles and tendons. When you tie your shoes or write your name, you are experiencing living memory. As I ride up the trail my body remembers and I do not need to think about what to do. I am aware, too, that my body will take this newly lain seam of physical remembering into my stratum; so close to the surface is the rider now, so prominent in my flesh.
The trail winds through the trees in the eye of my headlamp. Characteristic of Colorado soil, the trail is tawny compressed sand accentuated with rocks of granite and loose pebbles. Branches from scaled-bark lodgepole pine occasionally crowd me. The living needled branches I can brush back as I ride by. It is the naked dead limbs that I have to dodge or break, for in their dying they have lost all elasticity and now jut out from the trunk as brittle spears. Smokey climbs the trail dutifully and negotiates the rocky steps and steep switchbacks without issue, choosing her path with care and precision. Joe rides behind me and I can feel him watching me. He wants to know if I can really ride. Discomforted by his presence, I try to chat.
“Are you from Colorado originally?” I ask him. I throw my voice up and out and don’t take my headlamp’s beam off the trail ahead.
“Oh! I’m from northern Illinois originally. Another escaped Midwesterner,” I quip.
“I wasn’t the first. You won’t be the last,” Joe says.
I nod and wait but he doesn’t offer anything more. I listen to the clumps and thumps the horses make as they work up the trail. They’re not quiet travelers. We’d climbed the first bump away from the trailhead and now the trail stretches out before us in a relatively flat, smooth line. Fine, I think, no talking. Let’s make some distance. I bump Smokey’s sides with my heels, first gently, but then give her a good thump, and she breaks into a brisk trot. How utterly delightful it is to be moving a pace through a wilderness country! The night air is crisp and cold, but leaning forward to give the mare more freedom, I smell the deeply mingled odor of dirt, horsehair, and heat rising off her neck. This is a childhood smell, an emanation from the days when my mother used to press me against her stomach in front of the saddle and we’d ride across the family farm’s open hay fields and for a moment I am taken with a child’s glee. There, too, is the smell of living pine, of musty forest-floor mosses, and of ancient lichen and granite, their cold, bitter odor redolent of time spent among living mountains, of joy engendered.
My radio chirps and a voice breaks through the static. I slow Smokey to a walk and listen to the message. Patient contact made. Standby for assessment. The hasty team has found the patient and now they’ll complete a medical assessment. Up ahead the trail begins to climb steeply. Trail crews have placed rock terraces every ten feet or so to reduce erosion but parts of the trail have still eroded, leaving large rocks to scramble over and grooves to negotiate. Joe rides closer behind me now; I can hear his horse blowing.
“What brought you to Colorado?” I throw the question behind me.
“My pickup truck,” Joe says. His voice is teasing but his delivery is deadpan.
“You’re a bit of an ass, aren’t you?” I turn in the saddle to smile at him.
“At least I don’t ride one,” he says and chuckles, pleased with himself.
I relax my legs and lean forward to take my weight off Smokey’s back and let her negotiate the steep slope at her own pace. The hasty team comes on the radio again as we climb and I listen to the medical assessment. I am relieved to learn there are no specific issues reported, but the patient is very weak and unable to stand or hold himself up. I glance up the trail again; it’s crawling straight up now and it’s rough. The horses doggedly scramble through the rocks, but it is not a smooth or easy ride. How will I ever get him down through this? I wonder. Anger flairs up in me. What were these people thinking? The arrogance of them to think a seventy-five-year-old has any business being on this mountain. The accessibility and popularity of Colorado’s backcountry areas are also their danger. On a clear trail with people all around, many assume there’s no risk. This assumption becomes the largest danger as unexperienced and unprepared people venture into the backcountry. Once there, rapidly changing weather conditions, negligent route finding, and the exhaustion from gaining and losing elevation at high altitude waylays and sometimes even kills hikers and climbers every year. SAR teams in Colorado are volunteer organizations and have the right to postpone a rescue if the mission command leader so chooses. We discussed postponing this rescue until first light tomorrow morning because they were not lost and there were no injuries reported. Mission command ultimately initiated the rescue tonight because, in his words, “He’s seventy-five and he can’t stand. If I leave him out there overnight there’s a good chance we’ll be recovering a body in the morning.”
The patient’s name is Dan. When Joe and I arrive on scene Dan is sitting on a rock along the trail with his head bowed into his hands, elbows propped on knees. Two SAR members sit on either side of him. He is tall with an athletic-looking build and he looks fit even at his age. He looks up at me and I see a tremble in his hands and in his calves as he shifts his feet on the ground. White hair curls out the edges of his black stocking cap. His eyes are hooded and the skin about them sags as with a heavy weight. I look back at him but something in his gaze eludes me; like small chips of high blue sky peering through rain-laden cloud sheets, his eyes are distant and receding from me. Dan doesn’t say anything when Joe and I ride up, doesn’t say anything when he looks up at me.
How many years had his body served him before it let him down tonight? How strong had he been—was he even now—to resist laying down to sleep? The body dies a slow death, dying many times before the final giving in. That it still remembers the life before the decay is no solace. Would I turn aside from steep mountain paths at his age? I no longer feel any anger, only pity at this man mourning for a self that physically no longer exists. I was wrong. The sleeping self can die. The luckiest among us die only once. As for Dan, I wonder if this is the first of his many selves to perish. Can we become accustomed to our own decay? Shed parts of ourselves like clothing until there’s nothing left to do but hobble buck-naked and wild-haired through the twilight?
“I’ve got a friend,” Dan said finally. He sucked breath in and let it out. Every word was an effort. “Offered to take me fishing.” He lowered his head again, ashamed. “I shouldn’t have come up here. I thought I had it in me.”
So do we all.
Joe doesn’t like the plan. While the team breaks down Dan’s pack and divvies up his gear to be carried out, Joe stands off the trail and frowns. He catches my eye and motions me over with a nod.
“You like this plan? You think this is going to work?” he asks me. They’re leading questions. Joe obviously doesn’t like this plan and doesn’t think it’s going to work.
“It’s the only plan we’ve got so it’s going to have to work,” I tell him.
“You ever ridden like this before?” he pauses, then adds, “in this terrain?”
I had never ridden double, behind the saddle, down a steep and rocky mountain in the middle of the night holding up a one-hundred-sixty-pound exhausted man. Is this something wranglers do often? Seriously, Joe?
There are so many things of which I am unsure like how to write a sentence right up to the period that marks the end of it. Some days I truly wonder what in the hell is wrong with me that I chose this life of isolation and poverty in the Rocky Mountains over a career of sleek horses, wealth, and modest industry fame. But this much I suddenly know to be true: I was a rider before I took up any other garment. Before I learned to read and write I could stride out a stubborn pony. This is my first self, my core self, the one that my sinew will still remember when my naked flesh sags in the failing day’s long shadows.
“I can ride Dan off this mountain,” I say to Joe. He shrugs and walks off toward the horses, who have been dozing, tied to a tree.
Dan moans and grunts with each bump along the trail. As we head down a steep section I feel him waver and tense up.
“You got me, Becky?” his voice quick and anxious. I wrap my arms around his chest, my wrists crisscrossing over his heart, reins pinched in my fingers, and lean back pushing my hips into the back of the saddle to anchor myself against the downward pull.
“I’ve got you,” I assure him.
I ride with my legs held out, not wanting to grip Smokey on her sensitive flanks, and keep my weight balanced over my thighs. Riding over her back legs is like riding on a set of springs. The back legs reach up under the horse and the rump is tucked and lowered. When Smokey steps over or off a rock she does so one back leg at a time, which drops her hips to one side and the other. Keeping my weight centered requires constant shifting and shuffling while I keep my arms strong and steady around Dan’s core. Dan leans into me for balance and support. My core burns with the weight of him. Smokey would like to stride out; she knows we’re headed home. I work the reins gently, like squeezing a sponge, to ease her pace without jarring or lurching Dan. All told it is exhausting work. Every so often I check in with him.
“Fine, just fine,” he says after we’d been riding a while, “I’ve got my guardian angel behind me.”
It was a cool, clear night. We could see our breath rising misty from our mouths and with Smokey’s heat rising to us, we were warm as if we had been sitting close and bent around a robust campfire. The other SAR members walked behind us, chatting and talking rescues they all remembered from summers or years past. Joe rode in front, silent except for the occasional bark of “Branch!” to warn us of a low-hanging impediment.
At the trailhead I slide off Smokey, my legs sore, the back of my pants caked in a solid inch of horse hair and grime, and help Dan to dismount. He grabs my shoulders to steady himself as he reaches the ground then pulls me into a hug. His daughters help their father into the passenger seat of their truck and mission command does one more medical assessment. Then they step tentatively about the little circle of headlights and thank everyone they see. These are good people. I hear a chorus of don’t worry about it, happy to help, glad everyone is safe and I can tell from their voices that everyone is pleased with the outcome. I turn away and lead Smokey over to the trailer in the darkness. Suddenly Joe is by my side and he is tickled.
“That was some riding. Real riding. Listen, you want to go riding anytime you call me,” he says to me.
Maybe I should tell him I was a show-jump rider, but I only smile at my private joke and thank him for the offer.
“Now that the job’s done I should admit I haven’t ridden in over two years. Thank you, truly, for letting me ride again.” I tell him.
Joe is abruptly bashful. He adjusts his hat and looks to his truck. “Well hey,” he says, “that was some riding,” and with that he goes to attend to his chestnut.
I take Smokey’s bridle off and halter her, handling her face with a delicate appreciation. I scratch behind her ears where the crown of the bridle has left rutted sweat marks in her coat. I don’t want to leave her; I want to somehow repay what she had given me. She would never know all she’d done for us tonight. If she is happy it is because a night’s work is behind her and her trailer and home in front. I stroke her neck, tell her she did well, but her black eye is unchanged as the night canopies us all.
Rebecca Young's work has appeared in Aife Magazine, Literally Stories, and The Chronicle of the Horse Magazine. She is currently pursuing her MFA in fiction and nonfiction with Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in the mountain town of Leadville, Colorado, where she enjoys all that the Rockies offer.