A Rocky Mountain high on horseback Tall in the Saddle

January 30, 1994|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Staff Writer

We had already spent four days horseback riding through the Colorado Rockies before we realized how dangerous this was for beginners.

At the top of a steep and muddy cliff -- somewhere around 14,000 feet above sea level -- all eight of our horses suddenly turned tail and refused to go down.

Until that moment, blind faith in these animals had been all that was getting most of us up and down those narrow, treacherous trails at what seemed like the top of the world.

Now, we had no choice but to prod and switch our balky steeds into carrying us down the several hundred foot drop, or get off and lead them -- thereby putting ourselves on the gravity side of 1,000 pounds of horseflesh.

If we had known in advance it would be like this, we might never have come. And we would have missed one of the greatest adventures of our lives.

"That's the whole point of these trips: you are not in control," said Anne Rapp, who with her husband, Jerry, runs the packer and guide service that managed our six-day stay in the wild. "You go into an area where there's no electricity, no phones, no mechanized vehicles . . . and you are working with animals who have minds of their own.

"You assume risk in everything you do in life, but you are much more aware of it there," she added.

What we wanted -- when my friend, Mary, and I planned a trip that would eventually include two other women, one adult man and three youthful male offspring -- was an escape from workaday stress. We figured if we got to a place where the vistas were so large, the scenery so dramatic and nature so close that all else paled in significance, it would bring serenity.

Last August, in the Weminuche Wilderness between Silverton and Durango, Colo., we got that and much more.

We got meadow after meadow of wildflowers, small but brilliantly colored in the clean, thin, mountain air. We got lush forests, waterfalls, rushing mountain streams, and rock formations that have served as landmarks since more than a century ago when the region was bustling with gold miners.

We got cowboys: Jerry Rapp and a three-man crew of college-educated packers, wranglers and cooks whose battered chaps, hats and boots fit our fantasies of the Old West. The sight of them leading their 12-mule pack train across the horizon just as it might have been done 150 years ago was itself worth the price of the trip.

We got eagles, hawks, deer and marments. We didn't see much of the elk that are supposed to be so numerous in that section of the San Juan National Forest. And we didn't see any of bears that also live there, and that was fine with us.

We got camping and camaraderie in a place so private there were few other signs of human life. We spent five nights out on the trail, making camp twice at spots nestled in clumps of trees. No wimpy cabins or cots for us. We pitched tents on the cold, hard, inevitably slanted earth, and used holes in the ground for latrines. The more fastidious among us could take a washcloth to a nearby stream and manage a breezy sponge bath, but we all went the week without full emersion in a hot bath or shower. After a while, funkiness became a badge of honor.

Our evenings around the open fire were an unexpected treat.

The food was remarkable. Never hot dogs or hamburgers or cold beans from a can. The cowboys cooked and served us T-bone steaks, grilled sea bass, barbecued chicken, fajitas and French toast. Jerry Rapp even baked us a couple of cakes -- putting hot coals on the top of a covered pan sitting on the fire to make a kind of Dutch oven.

We'd brought our own wine and cognac in plastic bottles and passed that around while Mr. Rapp kept up an almost constant patter of "Saturday Night Live" jokes from the '70s -- apparently the last time he watched television.

And despite our occasional moments of panic, even we beginners developed a passion for horses. Mine was a patient but tough Navajo-trained animal named Rio. I talked to him constantly as I do my dog.

Mary and I had chosen to go on horseback partly because it seemed more civilized -- and less tiring -- than backpacking. We didn't think we'd have to do much more than just sit there. But once we got the hang of it, we wanted to do more.

It seems that many women secretly harbor the spirit of that little girl in "National Velvet," who is just waiting for those few brief magic moments when she amazingly finds herself loping along in harmony with one of these huge animals. We discovered an adrenalin rush that made us wish we actually knew what we were doing. We decided to sign up for riding lessons as soon as we got home.

Of course, the guys in our group all identified with the cowboys. Mary's friend John even bought a fancy hat like Jerry Rapp's when we got back to Durango. We all wanted one. The younger men -- Matt, 23; Pat,17; and 11-year-old Tim --helped out with the wrangling and taking care of the mules, who were allowed to run wild at night with the horses near our remote campsites.

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