Early morning coldness lingered in the high mountain valley slowly giving way to the rising sun. Pat and I had spent the night in a small log cabin on the edge of the Wind River Indian Reservation. The welcomed sun warmed our faces while we watched the Wyoming sky gradually turn turquoise blue. The day held great promise and adventure. After breakfast and camp coffee, we saddled up.
“It’s a long ride up there,” our outfitter said, gazing west at the Wind River Mountains. Leading a pack horse carrying our camping gear, we rode toward granite peaks that thrust upward over 13,000 feet. Our destination was a mountain lake not far from the Continental Divide said to be teeming with brook trout. I couldn’t wait to try out my new fly rod.
Pat, an Arkansas native and former Huntsville surgical nurse, was a single mother of two daughters when I met her following my divorce in 1985. Two years later she said, “Barksdale, I’m the prettiest thing in Southeast Huntsville, maybe Southeast United States, and you need to stop looking around.” She was right, of course. A brown-eyed beauty with long raven hair, she was fully equipped with all the accessories that a man likes. And she had a wicked sense of humor. I took her advice and married her in 1987.
Earlier in the week we had flown to Jackson Hole, rented a car and drove near Dubois, turned onto a dirt road, and bumped across the Indian reservation to a small cabin and corral of horses on the edge of the national forest.
Stuffed inside two Army duffel bags was a tent, air mattress, sleeping bags, novels, flashlights, and our kitchenware. Mama’s old No. 7 blackened cast iron skillet was just the right size for frying brook trout. We had potatoes, Wesson Oil, cornmeal, and plenty of Maxwell House. Coffee, coughing and gurgling in my dented and smoke stained camp pot would bring great joy to our cold mornings. All we needed was good weather, hungry trout, and a little luck.
As we rode toward the high country, the only sound was clanging horse shoes and creaking saddles. As we climbed higher into thin air, the horses blew and caught their breath. We would be dropped off at a lake and picked up several days later. It was grizzly country. No radio, no phone, no problem, I could outrun Pat. I did have a Marine fighting knife for dressing trout and peeling potatoes. If I got in a knife fight with a grizzly, I wouldn’t hesitate to use it. If that didn’t work out, I’d put on my glasses. Down South a gentleman never assaults a man wearing glasses. Well, that’s what Mama always told me. I wasn’t sure grizzlies knew that Southern custom.
“Look!” Pat pointed toward a pinkish red field. As we rode closer, I saw that it was a small glacier inhabited with algae. We began a steep climb around switchbacks. The sorrel mare I rode and the pack horse I led were blowing and snorting. The trail was narrow, a wall of granite on our left and a deep chasm on our right. One slip and airborne! At the bottom of the abyss, I noticed a line of white bones strung out in row. “What’s that?” I asked our guide.
“I was hoping that you wouldn’t see that,” he said. “A cat spooked pack horses that were tied together. One slipped and pulled the others over the edge.”
Midafternoon, we arrived at a small blue lake and set up camp. When the last clanging horseshoes died out, I realized that we were totally alone.
Pat organized the inside of our tent like it was her kitchen, got a fire going, and made coffee. By late afternoon, I had caught a mess of trout. I chopped off their heads, gutted, and cleaned them; battered them in cornmeal; and dropped them into the sizzling skillet. We ate them like corn on the cob, washed down with camp coffee. Greasy and delicious. When the sun dropped behind the peaks, coldness came. We sat around the campfire watching as it turned to glowing coals. Pat zipped our sleeping bags together so we could share body heat. About the time I stopped shivering and got warm, my enlarged prostrate grew larger. I had to pee. I crawled out of the bag, unzipped the tent flap, and walked into the freezing night and peed. I was like an icicle. I scrunched close to Pat. She jumped. “Get away!” If we even went to divorce court, I’d remember that. Something was crawling on me. Was it a tick? Then I heard animal sounds nearby. My imagination ran wild. Was it a grizzly snooping around looking for dinner? I finally got warm and was almost asleep when I had to pee again. I crawled out; it was even colder. After crawling out a third time, I remembered the coffee pot. Hmm… The following day wind howled incessantly, and we remained inside the tent, read and slept.
I followed a clear mountain stream that fed the lake and saw trout. I made a few casts and caught my line in a willow bush. As I worked to untangle it, I noticed large paw prints in the soft earth. Bear tracks! No doubt about it. Between getting up to pee and thinking about a bear eating me, I didn’t sleep much that night.
I lay awake thinking about a TV program I’d seen several years earlier where a Department of Interior employee drugged a grizzly for tagging when suddenly the bear woke and mauled him. He drew a 44 Magnum and killed the bear. When and if I ever returned to bear country, I’d be packing a .44.
The following day got real spooky. Three men appeared and set up a camp nearby. They weren’t the standard skinny, pig-tailed, trail mix-eating hikers. They looked more like escaped cons. They looked at Pat with interest. I sensed danger. Thereafter, I carried my fighting knife on my belt. I lost interest in fishing. Pat and I were packed and sitting on our duffel bags when we heard horses approaching. It was the outfitter. Thank the Lord.
“Did you guys have a real adventure?” he asked.
“Yep, that’s an understatement.”
When we returned to Huntsville, I purchased a Smith and Wesson .44 Magnum at Larry’s Pistol and Pawn. The next time I went to the mountains I’d be packing it, just in case. I’d also be carrying an empty fruit jar -- my version of a camper’s bed pan.
By: Jerry Barksdale