the shoulders of giants
We circle the horse trailers around the hitching post at the North Fork trailhead, eight miles north of Ketchum. It is late morning in mid-July and the air is hot and thick with horseflies. The 10-mile stretch of bumpy dirt roads behind us is forgotten as Jo Heiss, Lisa Lintner and I unload our horses and saddle up.
I know Iím in good company for this ride. Jo has been riding in these mountains since childhood. Lisa advised me to carry extra water and a flashlight if I wanted to keep up with Jo.
We assure each other that we have enough water and no one has forgotten her lunch. Horses and riders line up. We apply another layer of fly spray. Itís time to ride.
fabulous four trax
As a flatlander, born and raised on a North Dakota farm, I have ridden endless miles of fields and dusty roads, watching the limitless horizon curve as I dreamed of mountains. Countless new worlds of backcountry riding unfolded like a topographic map seven years ago when I moved to Idaho. Single-track trails looked impossibly narrow, and I fought vertigo looking out at terrain angled in every direction except level. Finding my bearings took time, the help of more experienced mountain riders and the steady performance of my horse, Fabulous Four Trax.
Confidence on the trails is directly proportional to confidence in your horse. Trax, a Missouri Fox Trotter gelding with large intelligent eyes and a calm disposition, is an exceptional trail horse. Trax has taught me to look where he looks, showing me the bull elk I wanted to see, or signaling with his ears the approach of the hiker, biker or motorbike headed our way. But, perhaps the most important lesson he has taught me is to take time: stop, breathe and look around.
Today, as we amble out the North Fork Canyon, the fresh air and fresh horses are an exhilarating combination. Trax and I have traveled many trail miles together and quickly find our rhythm. As we enter the trees and begin to climb, conversation dies. The trail slants steeply toward the North Fork of the Big Wood River.
Multiple river crossings on this trail are deep with rushing water, and we take our time traversing in single file. Water splashes against my legs and I welcome the cooling effect. The banks of the river are lined with willows that brush against us as we goónatureís fly control. The horses drink deeply at the first few crossings. Trax likes to stick his head halfway into the water and clean his nostrils. He seems to be drinking in the scent of the water.
The scale of this place defies my words and my camera. Columns of tall trees are dwarfed by the steep slopes and boulders the size of cars that have tumbled down to grow moss in the sun. In places, the trees are bent and torn from winterís avalanches, their splintered ends resting in the creek where Trax plays with the water.
Each year seems to be the most abundant and colorful wildflower year I have seen. This year, I see flowers I have only seen in pictures. It isnít unusual to count several dozen varieties, and add a new discovery, on each ride.
wading through wildflowers
This ride is no exception: the elegant death camas, the water hemlock, shooting star, valerian and arnica. Returning favorites include the lupine, penstemon and mountain bluebells. The effect as we ride past the wildflowers is wide swaths of purple, red, yellow, white and pink against silvery sage and deep green grass with bronze seed heads. It is a stunning experience.
As we continue, the trail turns through the canyon until we look straight up the steep, rocky banks of the river to the base of a carved granite peak streaked with snow. Jo leads us farther up the trail. Then the trail disappears and Jo continues. "We found a blazed trail up there, years ago. You can cross over that saddle," she explains, pointing to a high saddle that looks like three hours of riding away.
Lisa and I exchange looks and outvote Jo. The deciding factor is the musical ringing of one of the horseís left hind shoes. That loose sound and the lengthening shadows turn us back. Jo frowns. I think she wonders how she is going to get us in shape for the rides she has in mind. She gives in to democracy but keeps looking over her shoulder at the path not taken.
Jo, a local realtor and businesswoman, and her sisters have forgotten more trails than I have ever ridden. They have earned a reputation for long and serious mountain riding. It was Lisa, a master of classical Chinese medicine in Hailey, who introduced us.
Despite the disappointment,
within minutes we are all smiling again. There is just so much beauty
around us. We continue to point out the flowers and views to each other,
dwarfed in this place, yet we sit 10 feet tall and reach for the sky.
The day of beauty and companionship ends with sore muscles and soaring
Each riding season sharpens my senses to Idahoís unique beauty and brings new discoveries. Where my eyes once saw barren high-plains desert, I now see a rich display of texture and color. Each trail seems new and undiscovered, no matter how many times I ride it. In truth, it does change. Weather and use mark the trails, and conditions can change overnight or in an instant. That obvious trail becomes a deer trail, which does what deer tend to do, disappear. Downed trees can mean a detour into unknown territory with unexpected gullies and steep scrambles through sage, thistle and cactus.
Each ride into the backcountry is an adventure. A flat tire or a lost shoe can change plans dramatically. Soaked by a sudden rainstorm and chilled to the bone, riders continue to ride. We do this by choice and sheer stubbornness. We donít like to turn back. We want to see what is around the next bend. It is sure to clear any minute, making it all worthwhile.
a trip to mars
Despite the beauty of the flatlands, like most trail users, it is the ridge view we crave. A personal favorite is the view from Mars Ridge, high above Greenhorn Gulch. In late August, the landscape is weather-beaten and dry. Itís the part of summer marked with the clack and clatter of grasshoppers. Sage scrapes against the stirrups and the dust curls around our horses. I watch with fascination as cloud shadows race up the golden hills, and I forget how they relate to the force of the wind up high. That realization comes later.
On the first saddle, the wind comes up. Itís just Lisa and I on this ride, and we dig out the extra layers from our packs. Trax looks wide-eyed and snorts at the flapping monster that is my jacket. The wind is exhilarating and the views spectacular. Mahoney Butte looks like a left-handed glove from this angle. The clouds are layered and there is the drifting haze of smoke from the wildfires to the north. We ride around the bend and drop out of the wind, and I forget about it.
Once out in the open again, Trax shakes his head against the wind in his ears. I can relate. The wind actually pushes my strapped helmet to the side of my head. We bend into it and push uphill. When I try to take my camera out to shoot, the wind forces my arm back. Mars Ridge is aptly named. It is a foreign landscape, red, rocky and windswept. I love the view of the surrounding mountain ranges, the Smokys in the foreground, the jagged Pioneers within sight and a distant view of the grand Boulders. We are on top of the world. Yet, we have to keep moving. This is not a place that supports life. It is a place that challenges you until you leave.
As we descend, it is a long while before the wind allows us to speak. It is a long while before I want to speak. I am full and empty, blessed and damned. We fight for our balance and just keep moving. When we are back in the trees, relative quiet returns and we regain our equilibrium. We are back on Earth. The clouds are once again high overhead and the mountains out of sight. We are no longer on the shoulders of the giants, merely mortals with a story.
Trails & tails