Today some talented hikers came through. Listen to them jam.
Where are the other talented hikers?
Today some talented hikers came through. Listen to them jam.
Where are the other talented hikers?
Hungry hikers eat
Honey’s lovely lasagna
The sun is scorching
I graduated from 3 programs at The Colorado Outdoor Adventure Guide School (https://guideschool.com/) and worked for a short time for the school’s owner. It was October and the snow had begun to fall on the Grand Mesa and Battlement Mesa where my adventures were located. That particular adventure may have been ending, but as Robert Earl Keen says, “The Road Goes on Forever and the Party Never Ends”. Before my introduction to the world of Rocky Mountain outfitters and guiding, I was living on a ranch with a family on a mesa in south west Colorado. The woman who I was dating at the time said that she was putting the teepee up that we were living in and moving back into the house with her son, but that I could keep camping if I wanted to.
On my way home to the ranch, I stopped at the Cabela’s store in Grand Junction, CO. I was very excited to be purchasing the (Cabela’s Big Horn III Tent – Swan Hikes) tent that I had dreamed about for a few years. The old man who grabbed a cart for me shared in my glee at my new home. It was nice to be standing there with a fellow outdoorsman who was happy for me. Although a store employee, he was not making a commission, he works at Cabela’s because the outdoors is his passion. We talked for a bit as I also picked out my new Colorado Mesa Stove. The store employee told me about a Cabela’s tent that he had recently purchased. It was a great day for an outdoorsman with a paycheck in hand.
When I got back to the ranch, everyone was excited. The ranch hand and the foreman’s brother-in-law and nephew came down to help me set it up. Once it was set, I added a mattress, portable wire armoire, some black and yellow totes from Home Depot, rugs, and then off to work. It was October and I had no firewood. There was a couple down the road who had a lot of wood that was starting to rot. There was also a lot of pine that they would not burn in their house. I spent days going back and forth in my light, short-bed truck picking up 3 or 4 cords of wood to get me through the winter. Soon, the snow would have everything covered up.
I stacked the wood on the north west side of the tent to protect it from the cold winds that blow across the Mesa. On the other side was a stand of scrub oak that made a nice wind block. The family that I lived with, regularly had people come to camp and had made tent pads. It was the perfect spot. The rugs on the floor and my Cabela’s 0-degree flannel and canvas sleeping bag helped to take the edge off of the freezing cold.
It was lonely when I was camping by myself. I still took pride in the fact that I was trying to live outside through a Colorado winter at 9,000 feet elevation. I had been working at 10,000 feet. There is a big difference that 1000 feet can make. The foreman of the ranch had become my EX-girlfriend, but I continued living there because I got along with the family. I was part of the circle. That was nice, because I greatly respected her father who I learned a lot from. I am very grateful to her and her family. Never-the-less, an ex-girlfriend is an ex-girlfriend and I felt the need to get away.
In January, I moved across the state to a small mountain town on the front range. I was couch surfing at high elevation, but spent some nights sleeping in a mine shaft, because my new room-mate, a stranger, was doing some things that did not groove with my conscience. Around the same time that I met him, I began dating another woman who wanted to move, but needed a room-mate. We got an apartment in the city together and broke up a month later, which was right on time, because I did not like living in the city.
I didn’t know what to do. All I knew was that I wanted to be outside and that I did not want to settle down anywhere. Before I bought the fancy tent, I was going to do a winter hike of the Appalachian Trail, but my ex-girlfriends father convinced me to stay with them and wait until Spring for such a journey. Most of my stuff was still on the ranch. I took the tent down, but was unable to pull it up due to the frozen ground. My friends at the ranch used the tractor to pull the stakes out of the ground and I met with them down in Montrose to get it. It would have been difficult for me to get a 2-wheel drive box truck up that Mesa. It was a scary drive taking a box truck across the frozen continental divide twice. I drove straight through a winter storm front that had my booty puckered like all-get-out! Hah!
I made the 2000-mile journey home to a storage unit in Georgia, packed my backpack and got dropped off at Amicalola Falls State Park on April 1st 2019 and began hiking north. I didn’t know how far I would go. All I knew was that I could not sit still. Before heading out, I sent my resume’ out to several Rocky Mountain outfitters hoping for employment as a camp cook. I thought that I would hike to Pennsylvania and then turn around and walk back to Georgia, unless I got hired, in which case I would go west again. I got dropped off at the top of the falls and set out on the busy approach trail. To read about my hike, please start here: The Walk-A-Bout Continues – Swan Hikes. Thanks for reading!
I have worked for three different Western Big Game and Fishing Outfits in different capacities for three seasons. I also learned a little in guide school about the business. These outfitters, who are often unique and colorful individuals, have a lot of difficulty keeping employees. They usually chalk it up to it being “hard work” as though they are the only people in the country who know what hard work is.
Most recently, I did a 5 day work-for-stay at an Outfitters lodge in Wyoming. They had the same issues as many others. I was not attached to the job, it was just to give me a place to heal up and do something good for someone else. Seeing and hearing their issues inspired me to write an Application To Employ A Camp Cook. It is doubtful that any outfitters will read this, but if they do, hopefully their ego is smaller than their cowboy hat and they can gain some insight into why they go through 16 employees every season just to keep a few who end up staying the longest, but still leave the outfit early.
PART III (Continued from https://swanhikes.com/2020/05/24/the-wind-river-range-part-ii/)
I enjoyed, immensely, being in Cowpoke, Wyoming and The Wind River Range. Sometimes, I can still see the mountain range from Elkhart Park, and smell the aromatic, alpine air. The feeling of walking down the main strip in boots, vest, and hat, after coming down out of the mountains, has a way of making one feel like they have been transported to a modern, real life version of an old western film. Wyoming is “The Cowboy State”, and true to its name.
It is atypical to have any time off while working for a horse-packing/fly-fishing outfit. People normally work until the season is over. In Western Big Game Hunting and Fishing Outfits, if you work an entire season, you are almost a seasoned veteran due to high turn over.
The first few weeks I worked there, I stayed in town in the bunk house and cooks cabin. I cooked inside the house while the crew prepared horse tack and trails. The company also had to rent 50 horses to add to their stock. Shoeing all the horses takes a lot of time. There is hard prep work that goes into getting ready for fishing season in the mountains. There is a 3 car garage with half of the building being the “Cook side”. There are freezers, shelves, and a work table. Canned and boxed foods line the shelves from floor to ceiling. The Sysco truck delivers trailer loads of food here. All of the cast iron and other pots and pans are on shelves or in large totes. Hundreds of broken plastic dishes, utensils, etc. littered the room. Water filters, stoves, and everything you can imagine for the camping trip of a lifetime lives inside. This is an OCD outdoor gear junkies dream…or nightmare if they weren’t up to organizing the mess.
You see, with such a high turn over rate in this industry, Outfitters often have people quitting or getting fired before the season is over. They seem to rarely have anyone left at the end of the season. Trying to break down camp and reorganize is a huge job. Usually, by the end of the season, everyone has quit and the outfitters are left to chunk everything in a corner until they can hire someone 7 months later to clean up their mess from last year.
For me, this is great! I love to organize and keep things that way. If you tell me that I am in charge of these things over here and no one else is supposed to bother any of it, my workspace will be immaculate. There is no need to micro manage me, because having owned businesses myself, I do well at managing myself. I work most efficiently when I understand the job at hand and am left alone to do the work. To my delight, that is exactly what this outfitter did while we were in town. They said, we need you to have this place organized, cleaned, and stocked within 3 weeks. In two weeks, everything was done. The outfit was satisfied with me.
The owner gave me the weekend off as a reward and even drove me to the wilderness. I was ecstatic to be going to the Bridger Wilderness in Greater Yellowstone, alone on a backpacking trip. He questioned me on survival topics and made sure I had what I needed. His wife admonished me not to break a leg, because the outfit needs a cook. I assured her that I would be fine. I was shown a wall map of the area and took a picture of it with my smart phone. He described the terrain to me and asked me to take a route for part of the way, that had no trail. He described a few trees, rocks, and topography to me. My backpacking trip was becoming a reconnaissance mission to see how the snow pack was, in the high country. My personal mission was to walk and acclimate to the elevation, making it a bonus for me that I was able to help out my employer and be entrusted with more responsibility.
On the way to my starting point, I had the most enjoyable conversation with my new boss. He is an “Old School” outfitter and has seen a lot. Something that makes him interesting is that he also has a wildlife biology degree. The amount of knowledge in his brain is impressive. I often wonder what makes highly intelligent people get stuck in ways that are no longer effective. Maybe age does it to us all.
He told me stories from the 1950’s in Utah and “The Winds”, as this swath of mountains is colloquially known. I heard stories of how he persevered through the years in the outdoors industry. Here was a man who had 60 years of experience in a certain field. A man who learned from even older outfitters. His stories had me on the edge of my seat and asking questions. He told me of difficult holidays with barely any food, as well as times of plenty. The dogged determination he had would be inspiring for any entrepreneur.
Early in this mans life, he had a cross country/ down hill ski lodge. There were partners who were no good. As is often the case with business partnerships, my former boss did all the work and put in his money and the other partner contributed money and drama. Ski slopes typically open just after Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, it was a strange year with no snow. How was he going to feed his family and pay back creditors if there was no snow on the mountain?
He knew this local Italian guy who owned a lot of businesses in places like Vegas and New York. I understood the insinuation. The loan he took could cost him fingers and toes for being late. What better motivation does a man need?
He also took a loan from the grocery store for thousands of dollars worth of food. Surely there would be snow by December and people will want to hold parties at the lodge. Unfortunately, none came. The food spoiled. On Christmas Eve, this hard working man sat down to have a humble Christmas Eve dinner with his family. The emotion in his voice led me to believe that this was one of the most difficult times of his life. There was a knock at the door. It was his friend, Tom, the owner of the grocery store. His heart lifted, he thought Tom may have been there to bring a ham or dessert or something. Instead, Tom asked him to step outside and said there would be consequences if he was not paid back immediately. The young entrepreneur and father laughed with exhaustion. “Between you and the Italians, I just don’t care about your consequences. You will get paid when I make some money.” He slammed the door in his friends face and went back to his family.
Miraculously, there was snow. Everyone got their money soon after. Hard times turned to good. The seasons changed. 60 years later, he is still hanging on.
He dropped me off in the wilderness after pointing out some geographical features along the way and helping me learn the names of the peaks in “The Winds”. I was learning to identify every peak and pass from different angles. The first thing I did upon getting dropped off was pull out my compass, binoculars, and a photo of the map. Off I went, starting out at 8,000 feet elevation.
I followed the OHV road to the point where I would cut through the sage brush and make my way to a stand of burnt timber. Once I found the burnt timber, I hiked my way up a spur jutting off of the mountain. I made a live feed video on FaceBook while catching my breath. During the video, I found the horse trail that led to camp.
All in all, I ended up hiking about 10 miles and topped out at 10,000 feet elevation on a hill top. From the vantage point of a boulder sitting atop the hill, I was able to sit cross-legged for 45 minutes, lost in the wonderful beauty of the Wind River Range. I began to notice a mild headache and shortness of breath is why I initially sat down. High elevation begins at 7.500 feet. For me, symptoms of elevation sickness don’t show up until I hit 8,000 feet. At, 8,000 feet, my stamina weakens. At 9,000 feet and above, I can seem inebriated until I am able to acclimate. High elevation can be dangerous. People die and lose body parts, who have not properly acclimatized to the body working so much harder to provide it with oxygen and blood. Pulmonary edema is not a way that I would want to go out.
I have spent a lot of time alone. Many people do not seem to understand the difference between solitude and loneliness. Solitude is being alone and content. Loneliness is deprivation. I was missing my family, missing having a partner, and missing my Tramily (Trail + Family. LINK TO AT STORIES). Spending so much time traveling in rural areas and being in the wilderness, sometimes it is hard to meet anyone of a romantic interest. I had joined a dating site and had been emailing and texting this lady who was a world traveler, wildlife biology grad, and about to take on a job as a park ranger. Feeling the sting of loneliness, I pulled out my phone and saw that I still had service. We spoke for about an hour and I was trying to get her to come to Wyoming from a few hours away to go to the Mountain Man Rendezvous (more on that below). It was nice talking to her for a few weeks, but she moved further away to take a park ranger job the same weekend. We eventually fell off. It is hard to get to know someone new while working 18 to 21 hours a day.
I took pictures of the mountains with my smart phone through my Vortex binoculars. This acts as a great zoom and I was able to show my boss pictures of the snow on the peaks when he picked me up. I gave him his intel, thanked him for the opportunity, and went back to work the next day.
Another notable weekend was that of the Mountain Man Rendezvous. Have you ever seen the movie The Mountain Men with Robert Redford? The scene with the large gathering and the men doing drunken stunts on horseback? That was the first Mountain Man Rendezvous, 150 years earlier. There I was, a modern mountain man, 150 years later, in the same mountains, riding down into town to socialize and trade.
The weekend was filled with parades, rodeos, native dancers, re-enactors, living history demonstrations, and “Traders Row” filled with canvas tents and merchants selling things like hand forged knives, old fashioned soda, animal furs, historical clothing, and hand made jewelry. Up the road, at the museum, there were living history demonstrations. I walked all around town and enjoyed myself. I bought a few gifts for my nieces and nephews at the museum. Also, I picked up some bone and obsidian blade knives that I gave to a stranger who showed me kindness, and one went to a friend.
The most fun of all, I had in my head. I had been reading Jim Bridger: Mountain Man, as I lived and worked in the wilderness that bears his name. At the same time, there was another wrangler/ camp hand that was my coworker, who I have not mentioned. This man, Big Jake, was a short sawed off New Englander who grew up trapping and riding, and made his way out west for seasonal work in the mountains. About the time that hunting season is over in the fall, trapping season begins for him in New England and he travels back east. He once lived in the Adirondaks as a nomad. Now he is practically semi-nomadic, migrating with the fishing, hunting, and fur seasons across this great country. To my knowledge he has no children and has never been married. He doesn’t want to be John Wayne. He wants to be who he is. A man who has fashioned himself after the mountain men of yesteryear, but only 50.
We spoke often about trapping, riding, and camp. He was an avid reader of histories and biographies, as well. For a couple of years, he even worked as a wilderness guide for a wilderness therapy program, something I would really like to be involved in. He was the second person I met who had experience in that field. Although, technically, he was not in a management role in the company, he was a mentor to me. He was a man, happy in his level of responsibility, who was more experienced than me. Yet he was my helper, when MY Boss would let him. Excellent help is a real commodity. I also learned from his manner. There were things he actually meant to teach me and things I learned from watching. The most valuable advice I ever got in a work or school situation was from an ex-girlfriend I can’t stand: “Learn everything they teach you. Also, pay attention to the things they AREN’T trying to teach you (to have a full understanding).” If I see a person who is my elder and they do things that I want to do. I watch them like a hawk. It was a blessing to meet that guy.
The whole time I had been fantasizing about buying some horses and riding from Wyoming down to Doc Campbells Post in the Gila Wilderness come autumn. It sounds crazy, but over the course of a month, I planned routes that would keep me out of the high country and able to resupply. Locals were keeping there eyes on horse sales for me. It would be an epic trip that I would still love to take. I have yet to get my partner on a horse, but she is excited to try.
(Continued from https://www.swanhikes.com/2020/05/23/the-wind-river-range/)
On the next trip, we had another new guy. This one seemed great. He didn’t know much, but was strong, intelligent, took direction, etc. It was a relief to have him in camp after the last two “Camp Jacks”. I really respected the guy. Unfortunately, his third day on the job, his mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and he quit. Thankfully this guy was driving down to Texas and liked me enough that he let me ride with him from Cowpoke, Wy., down to Colorado Springs where I spent two nights and then flew back to the Appalachian Trail. The main reason for my departure is explained below:
We were camping near the base of Mount Baldy. Being 20 miles from the nearest road and hours from town, you had better be prepared. Remember the story about the stove pipe continuously falling on the tent? I let the outfitter know that, for days, I had been dealing with a cook tent that was filling up with smoke to the point that I couldn’t cook. It would be great to get this resolved in between trips The stove pipe was rusted, cut, and improperly fitting. One of the legs was broken and I had to wrap tin-foil around a stick and attach it with bailing wire. This is the first day of our second pack trip of the summer:
Me: Sir, we really need to get this taken care of. I thought it would happen over the weekend. How am I supposed to work if I am literally trying to put out fires???
Boss: What do you want me to do? Run to the f****ng 7/11 ????
Me: Sir, obviously we can not do that. That is why I said something before we rode back in camp. Perhaps, when we get back to town in a couple of days, we could get a new one. Maybe I could call in to base and let them know we need one.
Boss: We have one!
Me: Yes sir and it is going to burn down your tent! I am literally putting out fires!
Boss: Once again, What do you want me to do? Run to the f****ng 7/11?
Me: No sir, but looking at everything that was packed for me… I don’t have enough eggs for this trip! Someone is going to have to come up here anyways.
Boss: Why don’t you have enough eggs?
Me: I don’t know, Sir. I told your wife and daughter (who did the packing) that I only had one tray of eggs left. I use one tray of eggs per day. It is not my job to go to the grocery store and pack. I just give them my inventory and they are supposed to give me back what I need.
Boss: Are you saying that my wife and daughter don’t know what they are doing??
Me: No sir, I am saying that I can not help it if the eggs are not here, because I told them how many I needed and it is their job to go get the stuff. What else can I do?
Boss: I NEED EGGS! I Want eggs! How can we be in camp without eggs??????
Me: WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO DO, SIR? RUN TO THE F****NG 7/11 ??? I want a stove pipe so I don’t die of Carbon Monoxide poisoning. I would like a stove pipe so I don’t have a head ache every day from smoke inhalation at high elevation. You are worried about eggs? Why don’t you call a wrangler to bring in a new stove and stove pipe along with some eggs?
The next day, a rider rode in with a new stove, stove pipe, and eggs. Two days later, we all rode out of camp for the weekend. The owner asked me to ride with him back to the lodge. I was peeved and did not want to be near this guy. He did not like it when I spoke to him the way he spoke to me and had not stopped pouting since the day before. I had been getting 4 hours of sleep a night on top of all the other issues. The outfitter became instantly insecure as we rode down the road together.
Boss: Those clients were nice people.
Me: Yes Sir.
Boss, 5 minutes later: The Mexicans have been working hard on the fire mitigation.
Me: …well I said nothing, because I was tired and a statement was made that did not require a reply.
Boss, 5 minutes later: WHATS YOUR PROBLEM???
Me: What do you mean, Sir?
Boss: YOU ARE IGNORING ME!!
Me: What did you say, Sir? That the Mexicans are working hard? Yes sir, it appears that they are still working just as hard as they were when you made the same comment last week when we came through here. There is no need to yell at me. What’s my problem? I am very tired. I have a headache. I did not have the things that I needed in camp. I was literally putting out fires all week. Now you are getting a freaking attitude with me and I worked my butt off. Obviously, the clients had a great time or I would not have made $500 in tips in three days off of a family of 3. How about the week before when I got a trophy knife and $800. I am sorry that you had a bad week and didn’t catch any fish. Maybe instead of yelling at me, you should thank me for showing the clients a great time.
Boss: Yes! You made lots of tips! The clients loved you! You are being rude as hell to me right now!
Me: Sir, I am not sure how I am being rude. You literally will not leave me alone. You keep yelling at me. I am exhausted physically and mentally. I HAVE HEARD ENOUGH!!
Boss: FINE I DON’T KNOW WHY I EVEN TRIED TALKING TO YOU! When we get back to the lodge, I don’t need you to do anything else. Just go shower and go to bed!
Me: Yup, that is what I intend to do.
As much as I love that kind of work and being in the Wind River Range, I decided to quit, and did so the next morning. I walked into the kitchen with a stack of things to return to the outfit. I walked up to the owner and his family to quit and they said they needed to talk.
Boss: Swan, I did not appreciate the way you spoke to me. Also, you forgot to take out the trash the night before we left on our last trip. There was some broth that spilled out in the bag and got on the floor. My wife had to clean it up. WERE YOU TRYING TO BURN DOWN MY HOUSE?
Me, with a chuckle: Burn down your house, Sir? With broth??”
Boss: YOU THINK THIS IS FUNNY??
Me: NOPE! I think it is sad. I walked in here to quit anyways. Here’s your paper work back. Here is the current camp inventory. I need my checks.
Boss: Here are your checks, SWAN. I’m watching you on your way out. You better not steal anything.
Me: Well, Sir, considering that my checks are short, it looks like you are the thief!
He corrected the checks and I left out with the camp hand. What the camp hand was going through was an awful thing. The outfit had been talking behind his back and saying that it was just an excuse to quit, but there is no way. That guy talked to me for a while about his mothers pancreatic cancer. His mom told him that she knew how much this job meant to him and for him to stay. His dad called him and said she did not have long to live and if he wanted to say goodbye, that he had better come home. It had me tearing up from thinking about when my own mother had cancer. Thankfully, mine pulled through OK. The prognosis for pancreatic cancer is not very good. I hope that she made it through and that he went on to better adventures. I am very grateful for the ride to Colorado.
(Part III is coming next with a Mob tale.)
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.