“When I look out at the meadow and see my horses just getting to be horses… nothing makes me happier.”
Max, the operator of Hoback Peak Outfitters, cracks a smile and wipes his bacon grease streaked hands on worn-in Wranglers. He wears a wide brimmed hat, a silk neckerchief, and a huge copper belt buckle adorned with an obsidian chip he plucked from the earth, deep in the Wyoming backcountry.
“I love this country,” he grins.
From the trees behind us, Max’s Palomino whinnies. He is anxious to rejoin the rest of the horses, who were let free to graze, roam, and “just be horses” overnight. Day’s first light pours through the spaces between distant peaks and the scent of fresh coffee eases the chill of morning. Seth, Max’s right hand man, saddles the Palomino and rides into the meadow below with Meeka the blue heeler following closely behind. I watch him gallop away from camp until he is a distant speck of black and dun in the endless Eden of grass and riverbed.
Later, bellies full of coffee, eggs, and bacon, Seth tells me, “When you wake up and wrangle horses…. Lead your horse out on the meadow and greet the morning… it’s hard to have a bad day.”
Pack trips have been a popular way for tourists to enjoy the Wyoming backcountry since the heyday of dude ranches in the early 1900’s. In recent decades, with so many high-octane summer activities to choose from, they have lost popularity. Max particularly enjoys leading summer pack trips that focus on camping and backcountry horsemanship, and he seeks to teach people the simple pleasure of “the cowboy way of life.”
“We are trying to do more pack trips, “ he tells me. “We just need the clients to come.”
Dale Sharkey and his young sons, Orion and Bronnie, are Max’s first pack trip clients of the season. Although Dale isn’t feeling well towards the beginning of the trip, he powers through it to spend some quality time with his sons. “Being out here… is the best medicine I can think of,” Dale tells me.
Over the next three days, we ride horses through fields of feather-light daisies, bright pink geranium, defiant Indian paintbrush, and deep purple lupine stretching its way towards the heavens. In the heat of the day, we search out shady trees, poke the earth for obsidian arrowheads, and fish for native Cutthroat trout along Soda Creek. We patiently explore a minute corner of the vast swath of public lands for which Wyoming is famous.
On our last night at camp, my tent fly whips against its walls, and dark clouds gather over the nearby Smokehouse Peak. Thunder growls from the mouth of the mountains and the guides stop splitting wood to take shelter under the cooking fly as fat droplets begin to fall from the wide-brimmed sky. I listen as Max and his guides talk about the things they love, the women they miss, and of course, their horses.
They talk about Josh.
Josh Roth, the founder of Hoback Peak Outfitters, passed away tragically in a snowmobiling accident this past February. He was Max’s best friend and mentor. Max recalls how Josh found this hillside campsite years ago, and how much joy he found in sleeping stretched out underneath the limitless night sky. His presence remains in this place. The horses down in the meadow bear his brand, the same brand that is etched in ink on Max’s forearm. He is here, in the way Max calmly, passionately, and willfully guides Josh’s legacy forward, staying steady and positive through all the obstacles that come with running on outfitter.
We pass around a whiskey bottle as the fire sputters and the clouds begin to clear, revealing a wrinkle of stars. “Cell phones and computer screens have ruined us,” Seth laments. “No one wants to do this anymore.”
If screens are the affliction, backcountry trips on horses must certainly be the medicine we need. We must find out for ourselves what Max and Seth already know, what Josh knew. We all need the meadow, the steady rock of a horses gait, the river, brownies cooked over hot coals, dew on our shoes in the morning and the sound of rain on our tents at night.
Whiskey’s warmth clouds my head, and I say goodnight and wander back to my tent without bothering to switch on my headlamp. The stars are brighter out here.
I sleep better than I have in a long time.
Words and Photos by Michelle DeLong