I began my second season as a wilderness cook the evening I got to Cowpoke, Wy., at the house of a certain outfitter. It was a really cool place. The owner has a wildlife biology degree and grew up in the outfitting business under his grandfather. There is a lot of really interesting history with that outfit and in the Wind River Range. Even the small town of Cowpoke is super interesting for anyone who loves history. I was very excited to be there. Little did I know: I was being dropped into the middle of a wild west family drama, complete with cowboys and Indians, a killer, and the mob.
I was hired to be a camp cook/manager for their summer fish and horse pack trips. We would be riding 20 miles out into the wilderness and I would stay there for weeks to months while the wranglers brought me resupply and clean laundry. It was a dream job for me. I hit the ground running. Everyone was happy with my first dinner – Moose meatballs, in honey garlic sauce, on top of mashed potatoes, with salad. Over the next couple of days, I got to know the crew and company. Before we were able to get up into the high country, we had to stay at the bunkhouse, in town, on the outfitters property. The owners specifically asked me to get the bunkhouse under control. Sometimes, they have clients who need to stay in there. They said they always had problems with dirty cowboys to the point that the owners wife would go into the bunkhouse and rip apart all of the employees beds and even toss their possessions out of the living quarters. I was hoping to take a more mild approach. First step on the plan was to clean the bunkhouse to the point of being passable for a military inspection. Although, I was not required to, I cleaned it myself, because leaders set the example. I cleaned it for 3 days while the crew was out repairing tack. When they came back, I set up a cleaning schedule for them, and let everyone know that they needed to keep their possessions in their personal area so that everyone can utilize the bathroom. I had just cleaned the toilet that still had a turd in it and pee on the floor. The newest camp hand told me that he did not have to clean or pick up after himself.
He said, “I DIDN’T TAKE A WILDERNESS JOB TO BE CLEAN! YOU CAN’T MAKE ME TAKE MY STUFF FROM MY BUNK TO THE BATHROOM AND PUT IT UP EVERY TIME!”
I told him that everybody has to, including me. In the wilderness, hygiene can become even more important than in town. If he didn’t like it, we could take it up with the company owners the next day. He told me that I was a tattletale and pulled a knife out and told me he likes to fight. I pulled my shirt off and showed him the crossed rifles tattoo, the symbol of the infantry, on my back and said,
“These crossed rifles PROVE that I like to fight! Now put the knife down while you talk to me!”
He did so. The next day, he decided that he respected me enough to start talking about his life to me and asking for advice. Then, during the course of a routine conversation, he tells me:
“Every time the owners daughter (a company foreman) gives me any sort of ‘constructive criticism’ I want to kill her.”
I told him that – THAT was not OK. I suggested that when she takes any corrective action with him, that he picture her body with a two year old’s face on it and pretend that she is having a tantrum. This is an exercise I use to deal with people who rub me wrong. I wish I could remember to do it more often.
At first, I thought he was a guy who just did not have control over his mouth. Then I began thinking about the knife situation, the threat, being far out in the wilderness, and the lack of sleep we were about to have for the foreseeable future. I went backpacking that weekend, one of two weekends I had off. It bothered me to the point that I called the foreman and had a talk with her. The following Monday, he was fired. It’s too bad he lost his job, but in the wilderness, you have to be able to have a basic level of trust. It especially bothered the foreman, because she had been put on a hit list.
There was this 17 yr old guy she went to school with who was described to me as being socially awkward and angry. He wrote out a 30 person hit list. This guy wanted to be with the foreman and she didn’t want to be with him so she ended up on the list, as well. He killed some people, but was not able to finish his list before he was apprehended. Every time he comes up for parole, her family lives in fear. What do you do when someone under the age of 18 does horrific things like that? I guess, what they did: Lock him up and hope he doesn’t get out to kill again.
To replace the crew member we lost, they hired a 20 year old kid who had just graduated a guide school that did not have him prepared in the least bit. There will be more about guide schools later. Furthermore, he hates horses. He was hired as a wrangler (Horseman) and camp hand. John – the wrangler, he seemed to be a very polite and hard working person. It was his first camp job, so he wasn’t expected to know much.
We had a long ride up to camp. It was my first ride in 7 months and it was going to be a 20 mile day. They gave me lots of warnings about how steep and rocky the mountains were. This didn’t bother me, because I grew up riding in the Appalachian Mountains and rode hundreds of miles on the western slope of Colorado the year before. They provided me with a horse that did not know anything. Normally, an outfitter wants their cook on a “Dude Horse” (A dude is someone from the city), but I had promoted my ability as a horseman in my resume’, because that is rare for a cook and I wanted to have a competitive edge. Actually, the week before, this particular horse had bolted on a greenhorn and dumped the newbie on the ground. From what I heard, it was hysterical. Honestly, they gave me the horse because I gave the guy a hard time about it. I thought it was in good fun, but maybe I did get carried away. It was my ego. I was a manager and this city slicker kept calling me “Dude”. It was silly on my part. Regardless, I rode that horse like a champ.
As I said, it was my first ride in 7 months. At the beginning of our journey we had to ride up “The Bastard Hill”. Why is it named this? If you ever have the chance to ride down it at night in a hailstorm, you will find out! There is a mental picture that this outfit likes to paint for people to motivate them to use proper riding posture, “Picture a monkey screwing a football.” That would be the wrong way to look while riding a horse. Now picture a large burly man riding up a mountain, looking like a monkey screwing a football. Good! That was me. After that day, I insisted that I be allowed to saddle my own horse.
Half-way up to the ridge, I stepped off my horse and got everything re-situated. It was much better. I was able to ride at max comfort and proper posture. Riding is not just sitting on a horse. Riding is an action you take in connection with that animal. It is almost like a dance. You want your body to move in rhythm with the horse. You keep pressure in the stirrups, thus always using your legs. We got into rhythm together and had a mostly pleasant ride.
She was as spooky as a 10 year old in a graveyard on Halloween night, especially while walking through water. This didn’t bother me too much, because I am an experienced rider. Picture a mule train with three strings of animals. In other words: A man on a horse, holding a lead rope with six mules tied together with string, walking at a slow and steady pace, in a straight line X 3. There is $10,000 worth of gear in each string, plus the cost of the animals. Now imagine a 1,200 lb animal freaking out and running through the middle of all that. She tried to get scared and bolt on me, but I was grounded and centered. There was not a soft place to land. We were in the middle of an alpine stream, filled with rocks and boulders. On each side of that are limbs to get “Clothes-lined” on. I took deep, deliberate breaths and imagined my calm energy transferring into the horse as I whispered, “Eeeeaaasssssyyyyyyy Hoss. Good Hoss. Calm. Calm.” I stroked her neck and her jaw began to soften and her lips quivered. This is a good sign that a horse is relaxed. My heart was racing, but my mind was clear. It was a peace beyond understanding. It is a feeling, that for me, seems to be exclusive to the wilderness: The physical feeling of adrenaline combined with the peace of mind and soul in the wild. At my core, I am wild. It is just a return to my true nature. For me, being in the forest is more sacred than church. I can look at building permits and know who put this church here. People have to go inside that box and invite the Creator in. It seems like a whole lot of extra steps, when I could just hug a tree, instead of cutting it down to build another box to put people in. I am too claustrophobic for boxes.
We made it to camp and set up all the tents (I continued to sleep in my backpacking tent), the high-line, toilet tent, and fire ring. The last thing we did was put an electric fence around the cook tent that did not work. It was to keep grizzly bears out. After the tents were up, the whole crew rode out and I stayed in camp alone for the next few days. I completed a list of tasks that had to be done in camp and setup my cook tent ahead of the clients arrival. Just before the clients arrived, I took a swim in a glacial lake, started a fire, and took a smoke bath to deodorize.
The crew would arrive first. It was late June, but still fairly cold at 10,000 feet elevation. I had the fire roaring inside the wood stove in the cook tent. I was tired and dozing off. Every time I got into a state between awake and asleep, the popping and crackling of the stove would sound like approaching horse hooves and I would jump up in excitement to meet the crew, and grab the 16 coolers and panniers filled with our food for this 6 day trip. This continued for 3 hours until they arrived.
I got all of the food organized. We used a mule train of 20 animals to bring everything into camp. The coolers and panniers had to weigh within 2lbs of each other to balance on the animal. They were packed accordingly. Everything was deep frozen. As soon as it gets to camp, I had to reorganize the coolers so that white meat was with white meat, red with red, dairy on its own, etc. I also had to change the amount of ice in the coolers so things would thaw in the same order as the menu was being served. Meanwhile, the wranglers and camp hands were out collecting water, wood, and solidifying what their tasks would be for the trip.
John was left with me as my primary camp hand while the other two wranglers rode out to get work done. I went over Johns tasks with him, wrote them down, and asked if he had any questions. It was an odd day since no one got into camp until the afternoon, so he wanted to know what to do at that very moment. I asked him to go start a fire for the clients. We were in a rush to get everything perfect for the clients arrival. He was not able to start a fire, so I gave him lighter fluid, as a short cut, to get the job done. We can’t use lighter fluid all the time, because we can only carry so much. He ended up using half a bottle to start one fire.
The next day, I was working my butt off. In camp, the cook often works 18 hour days. We are up before everyone and often times can’t go to bed until everyone else does too. John was going about his tasks when it came time to burn trash. We kept a “burn bag” and a “pack out bag” for trash. Whatever could not be burned got packed out. Every day we burned paper and placed the “pack out trash” inside of coolers, to cut down on smells and bears. I asked John to build a fire so he could start burning the clients trash.
An hour later he walked in the cook tent and said, “Swan, I am still having trouble with the fire thing.”
I walked outside and saw that he had dumped a whole bag of wet, paper trash into the pit and tried to light it with a lighter.
“John, I asked you to BUILD a fire and ADD trash to it. You cant dump a bunch of stuff on the ground and spark a lighter. You have to build the fire, get it going, and slowly add the trash to it.”
Together, we cleaned out the fire pit and I showed him how to build a log cabin style fire and slowly add trash. He got it all done.
The next day, I noticed that even though his tasks never changed, I had to keep asking him to do them. I further noticed that, often, he was nowhere to be found. Tasks were piling up and I was having to do his work and mine. The wind picked up and knocked the rusty, improperly fitting stove pipe down, on top of the canvas tent. The whole tent was filling up with smoke as I tried to get this red hot stove pipe off the cloth tent without injuring myself. I was wearing leather gloves that I destroyed, plus using oven mitts that singed. I was yelling for him to help. It took some time for him to get there, because he was off on a nature hike instead of working. We got the stove pipe back up. By this time, the entire cook tent was filled with smoke and I had to cook for the clients, who were soon to arrive. I would hold my breath as long as I could and run in to do some work, then run back out and manually fan smoke out of the front flaps and try to catch my breath. I did this for an hour.
Meanwhile, John, was supposed to be building a new fire for trash that day. Finally, the smoke had dissipated and I was able to more efficiently do my job. I was in the tent cooking and had not heard from John in a while. I poked my head out of the tent and saw that there was STILL no fire going. John was sitting cross-legged on the ground with his face in his hands and bags of trash beside him. I patiently walked over and asked if he was OK?
He began sobbing into his hands, “I JUST CAN’T START A FIRE, SWAN!!!”
On the inside, I was flabbergasted. How could a 20 year old, who supposedly grew up hunting, went to guide school, and was hired as a camp hand/wrangler NOT know how to start a fire. I said, “OK John, just relax. It’s OK. Yesterday, I showed you how to start a fire by stacking your sticks like a log cabin. Today, I am going to show you how to build a ‘Lean-to’ fire.”
We built the fire together. I went back into the cook tent and resumed the cooking. Silently wondering what this world was coming to.
The next day, a couple clients stayed in camp due to fatigue. This usually means that along with cooking in a primitive setting and running camp all day, I also had to entertain clients. That is no problem. I have always enjoyed having one-on-one interaction with the clients. I had to keep John on task, because he kept wanting to disturb the clients, by asking lots of questions when they were trying to rest and he needed to be working. I asked him to go start a trash fire. He finally and successfully built a fire. I congratulated him. I went back to the cook tent and resumed my job.
After a while, I heard the clients out there and thought it was odd that they would be hanging out next to a trash fire, so I poked my head out of the tent to see what was up and they were watching John try to get the fire going again. He built a little fire and then suffocated it by dumping all of the trash on top of it at once. I walked over with heavy feet. At this point, I was sick of it.
I greeted the clients with a smile and said with a tired voice to the camp hand, “John, good job on building the fire. I think where you went wrong here was by dumping too much onto the young fire. I know this may sound strange, but fire is alive. It is born. It lives, feeds, and breathes. Then it dies. Think about nurturing the life of the fire with the perfect amount of air and food, because you keep snuffing it out. Have some patience.”
He proudly told me that he knew a trick. He asked to see my knife. I handed him my 6 in long Ka-Bar knife with an impressively sharp edge. He rammed my knife into a plastic bottle, dulling my blade. He handed my knife back in an arrogant manner, knelt down by the fire and began blowing through the bottle to give the fire more air. This let me know that he understood better about fire. The problem is, you don’t treat someones prized knife like that. I became furious, but held my tongue. I did not want to break his spirit or his passion for the outdoors. He had confided in me that he was not enjoying the work, and felt that if he continued to work there, that he would lose his passion. I told him that I did not want that and would help him however I could. The clients saw what happened. Being older outdoors-men, they instantly understood what happened. Their eyes widened and eyebrows raised. John handed me back my knife. I pursed my lips, squatted by the fire, and took a breath. I looked up at him, took my cowboy hat off, and lightly fanned the flame as it kicked up into a roar. As I stood up and put my hat upon my head, he said, “I didn’t want to get my hat dirty, Swan!”
The next day, I lost my temper with him. I was dealing with the sub-par equipment the outfitter had me using, and my two camp hands were working hard, but the good camp hand had to work twice as hard to undo the mistakes of John. There was a task that I could not do without them. They were in the middle of moving all of our stock (Horses and Mules). I knew how bad John was with the animals, so I thought everybody could get things done quicker if I went and helped with the animals. John was trying to walk a mule train through an alpine marsh carrying a bundle of 6 manties (tarps that cover the horse pack) in his arms and leading 6 mules at the same time. He kept dropping the tarps and tripping while leading the “string”. A string is a mule/horse train tied together by string that can break in case of an accident so it doesn’t wreck the whole train. I took the string from John and told him just to carry the manties (See main photo for an example of a mantie).
We had to continuously remind John, not to get behind the animals. It spooks them. As I am leading the string down to the new high-line area (High-lining is a way to secure the animals while lessening the chances of them getting tangled or tripped.), John walks directly even with the last mules hind-end. There are 6 mules heads ahead of him and 5 butts. How he came to the conclusion that he was not behind them, I don’t know. He tripped and dropped all of the manties, the mules went from being head to tail, to forming a shoulder to shoulder wall and running as fast as they could towards my back. I heard the commotion, looked behind me and tripped.
I thought, “best case scenario: I get trampled and die. Worst case scenario: I get trampled and spend the rest of my life as a paraplegic or vegetable.”
Miraculously, every single horse hoof missed me. I was terrified and shaken. I stood up and cussed John out.
He looked at me with a tear in his eye and said, “Swan, I don’t appreciate you calling me a ___________________.”
There was a loud apology, “I’M SORRY JOHN… but in moments of near death, sometimes I cuss… HOW MANY TIMES DO WE HAVE TO TELL YOU NOT TO WALK BEHIND THE ANIMALS???!”
He said he wasn’t. What else could be said? I later apologized again, because I began to wonder if this person was legitimately, “A few french fries short of a happy meal.” I felt awful, but other people said that they felt I was as patient as anyone could be with him.
After dinner the next night, I was getting ready for bed. As I customarily do, if the company owner is in camp, I asked him if there was anything I could do for him before I went to sleep.
He said, “Yes, I asked John to dump the dirty dishwater on the clients fire after they go to sleep tonight. Will you just remind him? You know how he is…”
I gave him a, “Yes Sir!” and dutifully looked for John. He wasn’t by the fire, so I went to the staff tent. The other hands had not seen him in hours. I walked the perimeter of the camp and even went to the toilet tent. It was dark out at 10,000 feet in the Wind River Range, 20 miles from the nearest road. Where could he have gone? Immediately, I told the outfitter that he was not in camp. This was a serious cause for concern. At the same time, we can not let the clients know what is happening. The boss asked me to go search for him by the high-line and to climb up the cliff and see if he is up there trying to get cell service. I took my head lamp and searched a half mile radius for this guy, alone. The other staff had a rough day and needed sleep. The boss is old and out of shape. It was up to me. He was nowhere.
Once again, I went to the outfitter and said, “BOSS, I’m sorry, but he is nowhere to be found. I even yelled out, ‘If you can hear me, you are not in trouble and no one is mad. We care about your life and want to make sure you are safe!”
The boss asked me if I had heard any gun shots. “Ohhhhh….s**t. You know, he HAS been depressed and talking about how bad he misses his mom and sister. This is his first time away from home. He was home schooled his entire life, and thinks that he knows all about the real world because after high school, he lived at a Christian camp for a year where he was, ‘On his own’. I didn’t hear a gun shot, Sir, but ya know… he did tell me earlier today that he was feeling very low. I tried to encourage him…but ya know, he did almost get me killed and I lost my temper and cussed at him. Do you think that was it?”
The boss said, “No Swan, I was pretty hard on him every day. You were actually really good to him. He just isn’t cut out for this. He can’t handle the horses. He is a hard worker, but he just isn’t meant for an outfit with horses. Will you go look for him one more time? If you don’t find him, call back to base and let them know to send Search and Rescue in the morning.”
I was off to find this guy. No one was going to get lost on my watch. No one was going to kill themselves. This guy needed to know that we all think he is a good person and a hard worker, but maybe he needed to find a place that would work better for his skills and temperament. I was so worried.
“JOHN! JOHN!! You have been gone a while! You aren’t in trouble! No one is mad! We need to know you are OK!!!! JOHN!!!!”
I walked back to the cook tent where the boss was sleeping.
I hung my head and said, “I couldn’t find him, Sir. I called base and let them know that he was missing. They are going to wait for one more call from me in the morning. If he has not shown up by then, S.A.R. will be out here.”
The outfitter thanked me for searching alone for the past 3 hours. I had now worked a 21 hour day. At 2 A.M., I walked to my little 2 person Ultra-Light backpacking tent (https://swanhikes.com/2020/04/18/featherstone-granite-ul-2p/), unzipped the door and set my knee down on the floor.
A cough. A silhouette.
“Hey Swan, what’s up?? I was on the phone with my sister.”
In a hushed yell, “JOHN! GET YOUR ASS TO THE COOK TENT NOW! WE NEED TO TALK!”
We walked to the tent together to see the boss-man and thankfully, I was excused to get a whopping 3 hours of sleep, before I had to wake up the next morning and start another 20 hour day, breaking down camp, riding 20 miles on horseback to the trail-head, and then an hours drive to the lodge. Their conversation was a short one, but John later told me that it was an encouraging conversation. He went home the next day.
We had 5 clients on that trip. On our second to last night with them, they awarded me a very nice skinning knife in a wood case as a “trophy”. They said that the fishing sucked and weren’t happy with my boss. Normally, they all chip in on a trophy to give to whoever catches the most fish. They said they couldn’t do that this year, but had an amazing time in camp and wanted to give it to me, along with an $800 tip. It was much appreciated. I thanked everyone, except for one of these gentlemen, who was somewhat cantankerous and difficult to be around.
At one point, my boss was giving him a hard time and saying, “you know, some guys can be the nicest guys in the world, but when they get to elevation and it starts getting to them, they become real pricks!”
His friends understood the insinuation, laughed, and interjected, “HAH! Not him! He is a prick all the time! If he starts acting nice, he is sick.”
The only reason I did not thank him at the same time as everyone else was because he was not there.
I sought him out and said, “Sir, I want you to know how much I appreciate this knife. I know that you are not as happy as you were expecting to be, but you just made me very happy with this gift. Is there anything else that I can do for you?”
He said, “No Swan. You deserve it! Thank you for the camp experience!”
I smiled and nodded and helped him on his horse. The best clients that I ever had were now riding away.