Into the Back Country

Richard J. Severson

Recently, I went on a horse packing trip into the back country of Yellowstone National Park.  It was a five-day excursion that nevertheless called to mind the mysterious expanse of eternity. 

There were seven other paying customers like me, and three guides.  Shane was the head wrangler, a quiet, purposeful man who had equal gifts for handling livestock and telling stories about the early days of discovery in the Park.  He was also a skilled campfire cook and wildlife observer.  His passion for Yellowstone was as palpable as his earnest blessings before the evening meal. 

I was invited to go on the trip by a friend who had lived in Denver for most of his adult life.  We both grew up in South Dakota, a windswept prairie landscape that helped bend and shape us into fairly decent human beings.  The other six guests were all from Colorado.  I, on the other hand, have made my home in Oregon.

We fished for the native cutthroat trout using barbless hooks, following the catch-and-release etiquette of the devoted fly fisherman.  A raw beginner, I managed to catch one of those beauties in a pristine alpine lake on the next to last day of our journey.  As always, there were plenty of reminders that we were trespassing through grizzly country.

I learned that horses, like mules, can be stubborn creatures that require a firm hand.  Reliable companions and laborers, they carried us through the wilderness and its unanticipated challenges.  On the last day ride out of the mountains, back to our cars and trucks, we rode steady and true through a brief thunderstorm with pea-sized hail.  My horse, Misty, liked to groan when she had to put forth extra effort.  She was a sneaky lass, always trying to grab a mouth full of grass as we plodded along.  It seemed like a dangerous habit on the day we were riding down a series of switchbacks into a pristine valley from a ridge that reached upwards of 8,000 feet.  I had sore ribs from a fall I took trying to chase down the herd one morning when they decided to scamper away from camp.  I winced every time Misty broke into a trot in order to close the gap with the horse ahead of us. 

One of the guests was a former Colorado governor, a storyteller with a memory for people and places that was nothing short of supererogatory.  “He never really got the West,” he said about Barack Obama, the former president whom he was asked to advise about energy, water, public land management, and myriad other issues that have shaped this country once you pass the 100th meridian.

Another guest was an inveterate helper who was up in the predawn twilight hauling water to the makeshift kitchen before any of the rest of us had crawled out from our tents.  He told me he was preparing himself for the next adventure in his life’s itinerary: a walking pilgrimage from Portugal to Spain known as the Camino de Santiago.  It seems like the perfect activity for a service-minded man with a contemplative disposition. 

Except for me, all of the older members of our transient community were attorneys, some retired, others not.  They were a sharp bunch, with a knack for making witty puns.  They were also good mimics, reproducing the voices and mannerisms of famous actors and rodeo broadcasters.  Law school, I was told, is a good preparation for discerning real problems amidst the background noise of life.  The art of practical reasoning is the bailiwick of a good attorney. 

Yellowstone is like a cathedral that demands reverence, and silence.  It reminded me that I am a small creature, not the be-all of the universe.  A stand in for the fecund Earth itself, Yellowstone is a classroom for learning one’s place, which is the definition of humility.  It is a timeless place, Yellowstone, eternal-like, yet each day represented a new set of challenges for our little group of pilgrims.  It is more than fitting that we spoke of the mysteries of existence on this journey. 

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that you can’t step into the same river twice.  Yellowstone is such a mystical river, new yet ever-the-same.  Like descendants of John Muir, we came to realize that a sojourn in the mountains is a healing experience, a spiritual renewal that not only enlivens the soul but actually gives birth to it. 

Several of my fellow adventurers were young men.  Thoughtful, energetic, inspiring; they made the trip special.  We talked about almost everything imaginable: Zen koans (What is the sound of one hand clapping?); the intimacy of time and human self-identity; books, authors, and movies: Four Thousand Weeks, Consilience, The Story of Earth, A River Runs Through It, Being and Time, A New Stoicism, Blazing Saddles, The Monkey Wrench Gang, Angle of Repose, and on and on.

What was the best vacation you ever took?  That was a question that one of the young men asked all of us at dinner.  Shane, the Yellowstone savant, said that a camping trip with his wife to the very spot we were sitting upon was his favorite because the hip disease that had kept her away from Yellowstone for many years had finally been healed.  That same young man asked me what human being—living or dead—I would most like to share a meal with.  Without hesitation, I said, “St. Augustine is my favorite dead person.”  Another wit piped up: “What about Jesus?”  One last “if you could…” question that I recall: Who would you most like to repeat this trip with?  I gave the only answer that a rational human being should ever give: the very same eight people, of course. 

To want to step into the same river twice is the summation of human desire.  I might never get back to Yellowstone again—into the back country on a Montana steed named Misty—but I am already dreaming of doing so. 

Dan Shea, whom I described as an “inveterate helper,” is also a wonderful poet.  With his permission, I am including the poem he wrote about our unforgettable experience in the back country of Yellowstone.  Dan is the good looking man on the far right of the photo that is included below. 

Eight Horsemen Visit A Cathedral Called Yellowstone

Yellowstone, our oldest National Park
Established 150 years ago
Full of tall peaks, forests, grassy meadows and running waters
Welcomed eight horsemen and their outfitters
For five days in August

Shane, Abbey and Kat led the way
To the upper Gallatin River, Fan Creek and Sportsman Lake
Where weary riders traded their steeds for fly rods
And stalked wary cutthroat trout
Who finally abandoned their cautious ways during an epic mayfly hatch
Inviting spirited competition among the Ritters, Bill, August, Abe and Sam

Reid Godbolt, despite being allergic to horses, rode like a rodeo cowboy
Dan Shea rose early to enjoy each day’s fiery sunrise
Rick Severson, our wise philosopher, reminded us of our place in the vast universe
John McDermott who read about Yellowstone in Field & Stream as a teen
Organized the trip and was our group photographer and inspirational leader

Shane led us in prayer each evening and told us about the Park’s founding
And man’s manipulation of its ecological balance over the decades
But most of all he shared with us his reverence for Yellowstone
As a result, we left no mark other than a box of flies Reid left at Sportsman Lake
Yellowstone, however, left an indelible mark on all eight of us
Baptized in its cathedral full of majestic spires, timbers, grassy pews and holy water.

Dan Shea
September 2022

The gang of pilgrims