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!
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.
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.”
“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.