Just My Dog and Me

 

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It has been almost 7 months since my best friend died in my arms.  During that time, I’ve been walking the line between the need to write this piece so I don’t forget her, an intense fear that I will begin to forget her and a desire not to cry, again, which I know will happen as I write this.  In the end, my desire to honor and preserve her memory in words won.  I only hope it does her justice.

Everyone has one. Or, at least, I hope everyone has one.  That dog that meant everything to you.  That dog that was your sidekick, your shadow, your counterpart, your best friend.

Scout was mine.

On a random Wednesday night in 2004 I found myself on the way to a horse sale in Cleburne, TX with a dear friend of mine, Deana. Deana ran a refuge for forgotten older horses whose mission was to prove these horses still had worth and worked to find them loving homes. We had been to horse sales regularly but never to this one.

As we sat there waiting for our picks to make their way through to the ring, two young girls walked through the crowded bleachers holding tiny puppies.  Blue heeler puppies.  I was still in a somewhat rebellious-blaze-my-own-trail sort of phase and my mom had once suggested that a heeler may be a good choice for me should I ever decide to get a dog. Because of those words, I hesitated.

I hesitated for exactly 0.05 seconds before making my way over to the blue Rubbermaid tub containing 9 tiny, blue puppies. One by one, I picked each one up.  There were boys and girls among the group most of whom had large black patches scattered throughout their little bodies.

Someone had told me once that you could tell if a puppy would turn out to be a good dog by whether they would let you hold them on their backs.  As silly as it sounds, as I held each puppy, I gently turned them on their backs and watched them squirm and wiggle in silent requests to return to their upright position.

The last puppy out of the bin was the tiniest of the crew.  Unlike her siblings, she had a single patch over her right eye.  She sat quietly in the corner of the tub, taking in her surroundings and, when I picked her up, I immediately knew.  Like the others, I gently turned her over and she remained quiet and put up no protest.  She was the one.

They wanted $75 for the puppies and I had brought no significant cash with me to the auction that night.  I went back to where Deana and I had been sitting, explained the situation and we took stock. We literally emptied our wallets, change purses, sifted through every pocket of our purses, I even went to the truck to troll through glove compartments and center consoles. At the end of it, we had $62.37.

They took it.

On the way home that night, she slept in my lap while I shared the news with my mom over the phone.  To my surprise, my mom seemed truly happy and her only complaint was that she hadn’t been there to help pick her out. In her mind, the only logical reprise was to let her choose the name.  Fair enough.

We both loved the book To Kill A Mockingbird and, though I still have no idea how this name came to her that night, she suggested Scout.

It was perfect.

From that day on, Scout was my constant companion.   She went everywhere with me.  She was happier sitting in my truck for hours on end vs. being confined to the house so that’s often where you’d find her.  She was like velcro and stuck to me anywhere and everywhere we went; no question.

When I returned to school in Colorado, Scout happily followed suit.  It didn’t matter where we were, so long as she was with me.  She subsequently accompanied me to an internship in Kentucky, my first real job in west Texas, my second real job in Louisiana and then, finally, back to Colorado where she would live out her years.

Each move she embraced with tentative acceptance by carrying her prized toy or bone to each room as I moved about to pack our things…as if I would forget her or it.

Whatever the activity, Scout was up for it.  I have no idea how many miles we went on horseback together but she was always there.  We hiked, we climbed, we snowshoed and we even kayaked together.  She had never sat on a kayak until she reached 7 years old but happily climbed on as soon as I asked and settled down between my legs.  She trusted me beyond all doubt and never fully understood what I’d done to deserve that.
When she lost her sight at age 11, I was devastated.  I thought that would be the end of our adventures but, boy, was I wrong.  She continued to hike with me, learned to navigate the house, and managed to keep her velcro status despite not being able to see me.  When we went kayaking, she just knew.   I’d unload the boats, turn around for a second only to turn back and find her sitting in our boat, ready to hit the water.

The decision to end her suffering came after a long battle with a fast-growing nasal tumor.  It was becoming increasingly hard for her to breathe and I could tell it was taking a toll on her, both cognitively and physically.  She was losing track of me in the house and would become panicked trying to find me, her respiratory rate was always high, she struggled to take a deep breath, she was constantly sleeping; it was the toughest call I’d ever had to make.

The last night of her life was a sleepless one.  I laid on the floor with her, I stroked her head, I constantly told her how much I loved her and what she meant to me.  When morning came, we took a walk around the yard and laid in the sunshine together.

I am lucky to have the friends that I do and my friend Dora, who also happens to be a local vet, kindly came to our home that day so that she could go in peace, in her familiar surroundings.  I don’t know that I have ever cried so hard.

Deana passed in 2013 and knowing that Scout has one of her very first friends to velcro to makes it a little easier to deal with both losses.

It’s hard to explain what a dog truly means to you, especially when she wasn’t just a dog; she was my best friend.  So many of us have similar stories but it seems that no matter how hard we try to explain, the significance of that presence in our lives is lost on others.  There will forever be a hole in my heart that only she will be able to fill, but I am so thankful for the almost 13 years that we had together.

 

 

She marked our trail,
Up the back bone ridge,
How many times can one dog pee,
She keeps me high as an eagle,
When i’m on the skids,
I guess you gotta come down eventually.

Buddy I coulda gone that extra mile,
For an extra bark or an extra smile,
‘Cause i never felt so free,
It was just my dog and me.

Then she gives me that look,
Like she’d lay down her life,
No doubt she would in a minute, man,
She’d face the bullet,
Oh she’d face the knife,
Just to keep my butt from the fryin’ pan.

Now she’s runnin’ up ahead to chase some deer,
Comes back to tell that coast is clear,
It’s a different world I see,
When it’s just my dog and me.

There’s a rabbit on the run,
Man and beast and sky and sun,
Who’s talking to the birds in the trees,
Why its just my dog and me,

Now it looks like we’ve been makin’ tracks,
From the crack of dawn,
To the end of the day,
So its nice and easy down the devil’s back,
She wouldn’t know,
Any other way.

So its over that ridge for one last mile,
‘Til we’re fast asleep by the fire side,
Dreamin’ these dreams for free,
Just my dog and me.

– John Hiatt

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The Importance of Girl Time

I’m what you’d call the “outdoorsy” type.  I’d much rather spend time in a tent than a 5-star hotel, I prefer foil wrapped meals over an open fire to fancy cuisine and I gauge how good my summer was by how much I smell like horse and the state of my Chaco tan.  The fact of the matter is, its difficult to find women who share the same interests and so I often find myself hangin’ with the boys or going solo.

And that’s not a bad thing.  In addition to being an OG (outdoorsy girl), I’m also an introvert.  A big one.  And that lends itself to alone time quite nicely.

It’s been so long since I’ve spent any amount of time with a group of like-minded women that I’d forgotten how nice it really is to be surrounded by “your kind.”

This past weekend, a group of girls and I made our way to Saratoga, WY for the weekend. 17265175_10155216538029180_3459162084689884485_n One of the girls I’ve known for a bit, one I’ve met a few times and one I’d never met.  I had my reservations about how it would go and, I am happy to report, those reservations went by the wayside 15 minutes into the trip.

When you’re in school, its fairly easy to meet new friends.  Hell, I met my best friend on the playground in 4th grade and she’s still my person.  When you go to college, you live in dorms and become close to the people in your hall, though that’s largely due to proximity, not shared interests.  After college, you meet people at work but those relationships are often hindered by not wanting to disturb your professional image by getting drunk in front of them and having it get back to your boss.

The point is, meeting new people that you could actually create a lasting friendship with is hard as an adult.  Let alone an adult woman with outdoor hobbies.

Last weekend was a chance occurrence, but one that I’m glad I took part in and one I look forward to having again.

I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with Hike Like A Woman as an Ambassador for the past year.  I applied for this program not really knowing what it entailed or how it would change my outlook.

17264464_10155216538444180_4682156587548029843_nUpon joining, I found a community of women just like me from all over the world.  Since that time, I’ve joined several other groups for outdoor women and women who manage websites surrounding the outdoor lifestyle and I’ve been invited to participate in the Wild Women’s Project.  The network of women with shared interests and the effect they have on the outdoor industry (as well as one another) is truly astounding.

I have so many goals for 2017, many of which involve this website, but one of the main ones is to increase the number of strong, outdoor-loving women I surround myself with.  Because of this, when the opportunity arose to host the local chapter of Hike Like A Woman, I jumped.

You can join the Hike Like A Woman Northern Colorado group on Facebook and participate 17202921_10155216538629180_4000046715376695219_nin hikes throughout NoCo with me and (hopefully) many others.

My hope for this group is that it will allow all of us involved an easy outlet to meet like-
minded women.  Think of it as the 4th grade playground.  And, if you want to join us on the playground, our first hike is March 18, 2017 at 9am at the Lower Dadd Gulch Trailhead.  You can RSVP on the Facebook page and I hope to see you there!

 

Horseman’s Holiday Gift Guide

If you’re like me, you’ve managed to leave your holiday shopping to the very last possible second.  Thank goodness for Amazon!  Here are some great gift ideas for the horsey/outdoorsy person in your life and, for anyone keeping track, these are on my wishlist as well…


Big Agnes Helinox Chair

helinox-chair

I’m always at a loss on how to best transport a chair to the backcountry.  Usually, this item falls under the non-essential category due to weight and awkwardness but, at just 1.9 pounds and packing down to 14″x4″x5″, the Helinox Chair from Big Agnes has put itself closer to the top of my list!

 

 

 


Sea to Summit Aeros Pillow

pillow

I freely admit I am a bit of a princess.  I love pillows and feel strongly that you should not have to give up on comfort in the backcountry.  This pillow gets excellent reviews on Amazon and comes highly recommended from my Hike Like A Woman counterparts.  Best of all, it fits nicely into a tiny little stuff sack about the size of your hand and weighs in at next to nothing!

 


Wealers 7 Piece Camping Cookware Set

utensil-kit

 

Again, due to awkwardness and size, utensils almost never make it onto the trail with me.  This little kit provides all the essentials wrapped in a neat little package!  Tongs, spatula, ladle, knife, scissors, rice paddle and even a small cutting board – what else do you need?

 

 


Etekcity Ultralight Camping Stove

stove

 

Let’s face it, having a JetBoil would be nice but not all of us are millionaires!  I got this $10 beauty for Christmas last year and it gets the job done.  This little stove packs into a small plastic case that could fit into your pocket and works with any commercially available propane base.

 

 


Ultralight Camping Hammock 

hammock

 

One word: hammock.  If you haven’t jumped on the bandwagon, you should.  I bought myself one of these ultralight hammocks from Appalachian Outdoor Supply a few years back and it goes EVERYWHERE with me.  And, at just 1 pound and only $19.95, why wouldn’t it?

 


Ruffwear Approach Dog Pack

pack

Our dogs carry their weight when they come with us and the Ruffwear packs are great.  They are equipped with plenty of room for all your dog’s essentials, very adjustable and ergonomic.  With 5 sizes to choose from, there’s a perfect fit for every dog!

 

 


Lawson Hammock Blue Ridge Camping Hammock

tent

As an avid hammock fan, the tent-hammock combo has been intriguing to me, both from a comfort and practicality standpoint.  It’s hard to find tents that fit well into a backpack or in a saddle bag and this tent hammock weighs in at just 4.25 pounds and eliminates the need for a sleeping pad all together!

 


Cashel Medium Pommel Saddle Bag

saddle-bagIn all seriousness, this is one of the best purchases I ever made.  I use this bag every single time I ride as it’s small, lightweight, holds what I need for a day ride and provides easy access while still being out of the way.  There are pockets that hold two water bottles (or 4 cans of bee…coke), an outside pocket for your phone and a clip for your keys so they don’t get lost.  This company makes plenty of options for English riders, too!

 


Diamond Wool Saddle Pad

padLet’s face it, your saddle pad can make or break your ride (and your horse).  I have had incredibly good luck with the Diamond Wool pads.  My horses have never had a saddle sore, ingrown hair and are never excessively sweaty.  Also, these pads dry pretty quickly are easy to care for and don’t break the bank.

Officially Homeless

This is the true story of our evacuation and time spent on Storm Mountain after the 2013 Big Thompson Flood.  We were one of the lucky ones.


Thursday, September 12, 2013:

It was your typical Thursday.  It had been raining much of the day,
not uncommon this time of year, and people seemed pleased to see some much needed moisture after a relatively dry summer.  I worked late that day and arrived home a little later than usual.

We had moved to Drake from Baton Rouge a little over a year ago, into a cute little cabin on just under an acre.  The solitude, beautiful views and access to public land were huge pluses for us but with that, there was a price.  Storm Mountain had just a single road in and out leading to County Road 43 and then Colorado highway 34.

Day After the Flood - Exploring Drake (1)That night, just like many before, I passed through Loveland and continued into the Big Thompson Canyon.

It was pouring rain at this point and I decided that, after being out in the rain all day, I would stop at the grocery store tomorrow on my way home rather than risking it tonight.

The entrance to the canyon, just past the Dam Store, is referred to as “The Narrows” due to its massively steep rock canyon walls and the rushing water below.  As my wipers went at full speed, I thought it weird that there were several cop cars posted at the entrance to The Narrows but continued on my way.

As a contrast, here’s a video of The Narrows on 9/12/13 and here is a video of The Narrows on 9/14/16.

As with my decision to bypass the grocery store, I passed up the small post office in Drake where our PO Box was located in favor of getting home as soon as possible.  I still had to feed horses in this mess.  I made the turn onto Storm Mountain Road and started the steep ascent to our house.

Pat, my other half, arrived home late as well (around 11pm), and also made mention of the cops posted at the entrance to the Narrows.


Friday, September 13, 2013:

I awoke early, as I always do, and went about my morning routine.  As I ate breakfast, the local news reporters were discussing road closures due to the rainfall we received yesterday.  Odd.

Day After the Flood - Exploring Drake (10)Highway 34 was among those listed along the ticker at the bottom of the screen so I secretly thought to myself, “Sweet!  Back to bed!”  I sent an email and text to my boss explaining what little I knew about the situation and set my alarm for a few hours out.

When Pat asked why I was back in bed and I simply said, “34 is closed.”

When my alarm woke me again, I returned to the TV to assess the situation.  Still closed.  Huh.  OK.  Guess we get a day off work.

We kept tabs on the situation throughout the day but the news was focused on the St. Vrain Canyon, Highway 36 to the south and Lyons.  Absolutely no information on Highway 34 and the Big Thompson Canyon other than it was closed.  We’d been through floods and hurricanes before in Louisiana so, happy we still had power, we caught up on our DVR.


Saturday & Sunday, September 14-15, 2016:

The weekend came and we were no better off than we’d been before.  We did manage to learn that County Road 43 to Glen Haven was closed as well so, essentially, we were stuck on the mountain until one of those reopened.

Still, the news had hardly any coverage of our canyon; focusing their efforts on Estes Park and the areas to the south which were hit hard.

Day After the Flood - Exploring Drake (3)It was surreal.  I’d grown up going to Estes Park as a kid and spent my summers there as a young adult working on a dude ranch.  I knew that city like the back of my hand and to see waist deep water running down Main Street was unbelievable.

Mid-day Saturday the helicopters began showing up to evacuate people, giving us our first hint at the severity of the situation.  National Guardsmen on four-wheelers went door to door around the mountain letting the residents know about a 4pm briefing that was to take place at the “T” (a central place on the mountain at the top of Storm Mountain Road).

The lead Guardsman stood on a rock and spoke loudly to our neighbors all gathered around him.  He let us know that the roads were completely wiped out; no way in, no way out.  He told us that several helicopters would be coming throughout the rest of the day and all day tomorrow and Monday to evacuate us.  At this point, evacuation was not mandatory but strongly encouraged as they could not guarantee supplies or further evacuations after Monday.

Little did he know, this was what many of the residents on Storm Mountain live for.

We didn’t know it when we moved here, but the people who live on this isolated mountain are some of the strongest people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.

Not 20 minutes after the Guardsman was done talking, we had assigned a leadership group, established morning and evening briefings at the T for the days to follow, decided on one evacuees house to act as a central pantry (where those leaving the mountain could drop off any food from their houses to sustain the folks who had decided to stay) and established a work crew that would get the Forest Service Road leading out the back side of the mountain up to snuff so that residents could come and go as needed.

I’ve never been more proud to be part of a community.


Monday, September 16, 2013:

Pat had volunteered to be a part of the work crew on the Forest Service road so I decided to check out the situation for myself.  Since Pat had left his motorcycle parked in the small lot at the bottom of the hill, I took that as the perfect excuse to ride my horse down and check on things.

Day After the Flood - Exploring Drake (12)The road itself from the T to County Road 43 is about 2 miles long and gains about 2000 feet in elevation along the way.  So much water had fallen that there was now a small river weaving its way through the road creating unbelievably large ruts.  There was so much water rolling off the edge of the road to the canyon below that half the road was missing in places.  The guardrail still stood but the ground holding it in place was gone.  Massive boulders had fallen from the cliffs above onto the road preventing all but a small car from being able to pass.

I reached the bottom of the road in a little under an hour to find the parking area replaced with a river.  The motorcycle, amazingly enough, was still upright although it now stood about 16” higher than it had before due to the amount of silt and debris built up beneath it.  I tried moving it but couldn’t.

Day After the Flood - Exploring Drake (11)I went on down the road to the bridge that connected Storm Mountain Road to County Road 43.  The bridge still stood but the road on either side was gone.  We were truly on an island.

An old wooden fence that stood along the road days earlier had been swallowed by ground that opened up like a bad SciFi movie.

The North Fork of the Big Thompson, normally passable by foot with a strong hop, now flowed 30-40 feet across, raging like its big brother a block to the south.

Day After the Flood - Exploring Drake (13)The water had receded enough for me to make my way onto the bridge.  Fences, signs, cars, entire roof sections, whole trees and other debris lined the banks of the river and wedged themselves under the bridge.

The two lane road looked like a giant had taken bites out of the pavement and ground below, leaving only half of what was there before.

Halfway back up the hill, I ran into a neighbor, also on horseback, coming down to assist some of the volunteer firefighters in getting supplies back up the mountain from Drake.  I had nothing else to do so I turned back around and rode with her to help.

Getting to Drake was tricky.  We had to go along the east side of the river, skirting the mountainside and making our way through the decimated River Forks Campground.  The water had been so high and flowed so fierce that it picked up RVs and buried them in silt, rocks and rubble.  We crossed the river and found ourselves on what was left of highway 34, just east of the Drake post office.

Day After the Flood - Exploring Drake (5)The owners of the River Forks had placed a white sheet on their roof in hopes of indicating their need for help.  A few of the people camping at the campground had been able to move their RVs to a high spot in the road where the road forks to go to either Estes or Glen Haven.  It looked like a little gypsy haven.  From how things looked, I still have no idea how they made it out alive.

Day After the Flood - Exploring Drake (9)We walked east along 34 and came upon a few other residents who were gathering their things and awaiting the next helicopter out.  They sat on a homemade bench, suitcases stacked next to them, dog waiting patiently in its crate.  They looked exhausted and heartbroken.

Not a quarter mile past them, 34 was simply gone and the same could be said for the road just west of Drake.

Day After the Flood - Exploring Drake (6)We walked back down the road toward the post office.  I figured as long as I was here, I’d check my mail.  There were downed powerlines and poles scattered all over the road and bridge.  The Big Thompson had taken away several homes that used to be here and had completely changed course as it made its way around the post office.

I squeezed my way in through the door of the post office which was held in position by a foot of silt on either side.  Inside, soggy papers and books from the little community library were there on Thursday morning were scattered everywhere.  Our box was on the second to bottom row and when I opened it, water came dribbling out.   I collected my few pieces of mail and squeezed my way back out the door.

Day After the Flood - Exploring Drake (8)My neighbor and I waited on the lawn of a nearby house for the firemen to return.  The firehouse was several miles east of Drake and, since there was no longer a road, they had to creatively traverse the mountainside to get there and back.  The horses grazed as we sat in silence, listening to the river still rage.

Two firemen came over the hill behind the house about 30 minutes later, sweaty and exhausted from their trek.  They immediately collapsed in the yard and chugged what little water they had left while my we loaded supplies onto our horses.

Two National Guard helicopters arrived shortly after and landed right on highway 34 west of the River Forks Inn.  They immediately began loading the refugees from the gypsy camp while the folks up the road made their way toward the helicopter…suitcases and dog in tow.

Day After the Flood - Exploring Drake (2)As the helicopters took off, we waved and silently wished their passengers luck.  No one knew what the next few months would hold.  No one knew when they’d see their homes again.

As my neighbor and I reached the top of Storm Mountain Road, supplies on board, we heard hoof beats behind us.  I whipped around and saw an older chestnut horse tearing up the road behind us, calling out to our horses.  I have no idea where he came from, but he was clearly panicked and happy to see us.

I hopped off my horse and haltered the big red gelding.   Now what?

Surprisingly, a nearby neighbor waved us over and was more than happy to care for the displaced horse.  She was home alone with her children as her husband worked in town and had been unable to make it back before they closed 34.  At the time, she was planning to stay put and happy to provide a safe place for the weary gelding to stay until his owner was found.

Day After the Flood - Exploring Drake (4)At the T, residents had gathered in wait of the next helicopter evacuation.  We chatted with them for a second and discovered that this was to be the last flight out.

At the time, Pat and I were unsure what our plan was but, with two horses, a cat and three dogs, an air evacuation was not an option as we were not leaving our animals behind.  That said, while the dogs and horses could certainly walk out, getting my cat out aboard a horse may prove difficult.

I approached a neighbor I had never spoken to before and meekly asked if she would be willing to accompany my cat to the landing strip in Fort Collins.  Amazingly, she agreed without hesitation.  To this day, I have no idea who this wonderful woman was or why she said yes but am eternally grateful she did.

Day After the Flood - Exploring Drake (14)I galloped back to the house as fast as my horse could run; the helicopter would be here in 10 minutes.  I grabbed my cat, shuffled him into his crate with a towel, grabbed his bowl and a bag of food.  I taped a note on the top of his crate with his name, my name, my number and the name and number of my friend who had graciously agreed to pick him up on the other end.

I walked to the helicopter, carrying my screaming cat and handed him off to my neighbor.  I had no idea how she and my friend would connect when they got to Fort Collins.  I had no idea where to tell my friend to go.  In the craziness of it all, I had even forgot to get the woman’s name.  I watched the helicopter take off, not knowing whether I would see my cat again and thinking how ironic that my cat had now been on a helicopter and I hadn’t.


Thursday, September 19, 2013:

The last few days had brought about a plan of action for our evacuation excursion.  We would ride our horses out via the national forest, cutting off a few miles by bushwhacking through some mountain terrain and meeting up with the road Pat and our neighbors had been working on.  That road would lead us to the Masonville Road and on into Masonville where a friend would pick us up.

Then, we would hike back in before daylight Saturday and drive our vehicles out with the rest of our important belongings in a caravan with our neighbors.  Sounds easy, right?

Evacuating (9)We had to get creative with our saddle bags because the ones we had simply wouldn’t hold what we needed them to.  I’m pretty sure my packing and outfitting friends would’ve cringed when they saw what we rigged up!  But it worked and, right now, that was all we needed.

Dogs in tow, I rode my horse and ponied Pat’s to the National Forest gate about 3 miles from our home.  He was driving the truck ahead of me so that we could pick the truck up on our way back in and save ourselves a few miles.

And, we were off.

Our plan was to make it to a stock tank that Pat had seen from a birds eye view while working on the road and spend the night there.  The horses would have water and grass and the gentle terrain would provide a good spot for a tent.

Evacuating (10)We had a general direction given by one of the neighbors Pat had worked on the road with and worked our way through the brush, trees and hills before finding our main landmark – the creek that would lead us to the meadow where we were to spend the night.

Walking along the creek, it was hard not to feel like this was just another weekend ride and I found my mind wandering back to our yurt trip last month.  Then, suddenly, Pat and his horse disappeared from my line of sight.

In a split second, I looked down and saw his horse struggling in the soft ground, buried in soil up to his shoulder.  I could see Pat’s leg was stuck and he was doing everything he could to get free and stay clear of his horse.  Before I could react, down I went, too.

Evacuating (2)Amazingly, the horses managed to keep their wits and find stable ground without breaking a leg and so did we.  Covered in mud, we took a quick look at each other and decided we were all OK.  I let out an audible sigh of relief.

We reached the stock tank just as the sun was starting to make its way down behind the mountains that surrounded the small meadow.  Horses watered, we unsaddled them and decided to let them graze a bit while we set up camp, but Pat’s horse had other ideas…

He started back the way we had come from, first at a brisk walk, then at a trot, then at a run.  My horse began to follow but I was able to catch him before he got too far.  Pat trailed his horse for about a mile before catching up and retrieving him.
As he came back into sight on the far side of the meadow, I started to take stock.  Two horses?  Check.  Two humans?  Check.  Three dogs?  Ch…wait…no…just two.  Sasha was missing.  She was here before the horses took off.  So where could she be?

I secured the horses and started searching the meadow while Pat retraced his steps from chasing after his horse.  She was nowhere to be found in the meadow and I listened as Pat’s voice got more and more faint as he was calling for her.  Just before dark, he returned…with Sasha.  She’d apparently tried to follow him and got lost.  He found her sitting next to a tree almost exactly where he’d caught his horse not an hour prior.

Again, an audible sigh.

Evacuating (11)All of our family members accounted for, it was dinner time.  We dined on cold, ancient MREs left over from Pat’s time in the Marine Corps although, after today, they tasted pretty damn good.
After dinner, we lingered under the stars, propped up against a pine tree on our saddle blankets, and drank the last bottle of alcohol in our house; a bottle of Makers Mark I hand-dipped at the Kentucky distillery many years prior.  I had no idea what I was saving it for but tonight seemed like it.


Friday, September 20, 2013:

Evacuating (5)After a quick breakfast, we packed the horses and planned our route.  At the top of a steep hill behind us was the forest service road we needed to link up with and, with no reasonable alternate route in sight, we opted for the most direct…up.

And up we went.

Each of us leading our horses, we picked our way over loose rock, around downed trees and through soft ground left behind by the fire a few years prior.  An hour of grueling hiking later, we reached the road; all family members present and accounted for.

Evacuating (8)Along the road, we passed several off-road vehicles carrying supplies and people back and forth from the mountain.  They looked at us oddly as they passed by slowly, asked us if we were ok, and went on their way.

As the forest service road approached the Masonville road, we encountered our first of several similar obstacles to come that we hadn’t counted on…a cattle guard.

Usually, a gate can be found on one side of a cattle guard so that stock can safely make it from one side to the other when needed.  There was no such gate here.  What there was was a small sliver of uninterrupted ground to one side of the cattle guard.  Knowing our horses, and that they would try to drift to the middle when crossing, we took off our packs and created a barrier between the tiny amount of solid ground and the split rails of the cattle guard.

Evacuating (1)One by one, we led them through the obstacle and, with only a slight bit of hesitation, they managed to make it across.  Yet another audible sigh.

Not a mile past that, we reached another cattle guard.  Except this one was also part of a locked gate system that stood between us and the Masonville road and there was no way around.

A private house bordered the forest road we were on and we’d heard on the news that the woman living there was less than willing to let people pass across her property to reach the Masonville road.  Great.  We’ve come all this way and we’re going to have to turn back.

A Sherriff’s deputy was posted on the woman’s property to, I guess, prevent people like us from cutting across.  We struck up a conversation and asked if he thought the woman would make an exception for us.  It’s not like we hadn’t tried the other route, we just hadn’t counted on navigating cattle guards.

He disappeared and 10 minutes passed.  It seemed like an eternity.

Both the deputy and the woman appeared from the front of the house and waved us forward.  Doing our best to keep the dogs close in an effort to be respectful of her property, we crossed through the gate and followed her down the driveway.

I don’t remember how many times I said thank you, but I know it was likely excessive.  She was kind to make an exception for us and I wanted to be sure she know how much we appreciated it.  Out on the road, we waved goodbye to the woman and the deputy and were back on our way.

Evacuating (3)The Buckhorn road is a fairly inhabited one.  Houses with small acreage lined either side and most had been severely damaged by the flooding.  The waters had receeded a good bit by now and people had made it back to their homes to begin assessing the damage.  A few came to talk with us, most just waved with tired, hopeless looks on their faces.

An old Suburban came rumbling up the road toward us.  We shuffled off to the side and pulled our horses up to a halt.  They came to a stop and we swapped stories.   Their house was further up the road and a bridge had washed out so they were unable to get home.  They planned on parking and walking the rest of the way in to check on things.  The woman in the car politely asked if she could take our photo, and we went our separate ways.

It hadn’t really occurred to me until then, but I guess we were quite a sight.

Aftermath (1)As we reached Masonville, we were greeted by two National Guardsmen who immediately took offense at Pat’s sidearm and rifle and asked him to put them both out of sight.  Pat politely informed them that he didn’t have a concealed carry license and doing such would be illegal and he had no intention of shooting anyone.

They then informed us that by crossing the baracade they had set up, we could no longer return to the other side.   Sarcastically, I asked if I could cross the street to get a Pepsi from the machine and come right back.  I got a head nod.

Aftermath (2)We waited on the Storm Mountain side of the barricade for our friend to arrive and it seemed like this was a hub for others doing the same.  The National Guardsmen must have decided we weren’t a threat and began chatting us up while we waited.  They were nice guys, just doing their jobs.

A familiar truck and trailer arrived at the small intersection and we said our goodbyes to the National Guardsmen, loaded up and were on our way to Fort Collins.


Saturday, September 21, 2013:

3am came really early.  I mean really early.

We threw our packs in the back of our friend’s truck and made our way in the dark, back to the same place we’d exited less than 12 hours prior.  We’d made a late night run last night to check things out and make sure the National Guard wasn’t there around the clock; they weren’t.

Aftermath (3)We passed the barricades where we waited yesterday under the shade tree and headed south toward the Bobcat Ridge trailhead.  Rather than risk being seen by the Sherriff’s deputy or property owner, we decided to hike back in a slightly different way than we came out.  Even so, we were going to be going across a lot of private property and needed to make it as far as we could before daylight…hence the early hour.

Atop Bobcat Ridge, we crossed the fences to follow a road that weaved its way in and out of private property all the way to the backside of Storm Mountain.  The sun was coming up and this area was fairly open so, in an effort to make it to the thicker trees as fast as possible, we jogged as much as we could.

It’s important to note that in most circumstances, staying on the road through these properties would not be frowned upon and considered trespassing but, these were not normal circumstances.  We’d heard on the news that property owners had become highly sensitive to people passing through due to the increase of looting and robbery and we didn’t want to become a statistic.

Aftermath (4)When we reached the trees, we heard a car.

We looked at each other in panic and ran to hide in some brush.  I picked a great day to wear hot pink.

The driver stopped his car at the intersection, got out and suspiciously looked around while he inspected our tracks on the road.  When he left, we made the decision we would try and walk on the grass as much as possible the rest of the way.

Pat had laid a waypoint where he left the truck two days before and, in an effort to take the most direct route and stay out of sight, we strayed from the road and headed up the mountain to our right.

A steep climb later, we found ourselves crossing over a fence onto private property again.   We raced across and made it onto a road we thought would take us to the truck.  We were wrong.

Aftermath (5)Just then, Santa Claus arrived!  Only, on a four-wheeler, not in a sleigh.  And he was wearing a Vietnam Veteran hat.  And smoking a cigar.  And wearing an oxygen backpack.

Again, we thought we were going to be in trouble but he just seemed happy to have someone to talk to.  We found ourselves swapping flood stories, discussing service deployments and the neighbors that lived on this part of the mountain.  Somewhere in the conversation, it came out that we were nowhere near where we thought we were but he was nice enough to give us some direction that would help us find out way back to our side of the mountain.

My secret hope that he would offer to give us a ride part of the way on his four-wheeler did not become a reality and, again, we were on our way.

Aftermath (6)It was early afternoon when we reached the gate.  We were on a piece of private property that had been for sale for quite some time and I often found myself daydreaming about owning when I’d ride by.  I was beyond tired at this point and collapsed as soon as we rolled under the gate onto the road on the other side.  We were still over a mile from the house and about 3 from the truck and had no idea how we’d gotten so far off course.

And then, a miraculous thing happened.    A neighbor whom we’d never met happened to be driving by on the next road over and spotted us.  To this day, I have no idea how he saw us given how far away he was but, man am I glad he did.

We told him we were locals and briefly explained our last 48 hours, after which he politely offered us a ride to our truck.  We chatted along the way and shared our stories of the last week.  He grew up on the mountain and, along with his dad, wife and children, intended to ride out the time on Storm Mountain.

Aftermath (7)After saying our excessive thanks once more, we loaded up our truck and headed home.

We’d been invited to a “party” of sorts for those left on the mountain that night at the neighbor’s house I met while riding earlier in the week so, after showering and a quick nap, we headed up the hill to her house.

This party was the ultimate mush pot of people…much like the mountain as a whole.  There were folks that had moved up here in the late 60s to be a part of the Sunshine Community and moved to Storm Mountain when that dissolved.  There were those who just wanted to get away from the massive growth of the Front Range communities and found the simpler life they dreamed of here.  There were a few who had moved here just recently to retire.  There were folks who wanted to live a sustainable lifestyle; to be free in every sense of the word.

Aftermath (8)Again, I found myself with an overwhelming feeling of thanks for having stumbled upon this quiet community of hardy, self-sustaining folks.  To be surrounded by people of such different backgrounds that can manage to come together in a time of need and form a community independent of any found in the lowland.

The Larimer County Sheriff, Justin Smith, had spent time on the mountain prior to our ride out and had this to say about Storm Mountain:

First, my apologies to the residents of Pinewood Springs. I’d hoped to make it to Storm Mountain and Pinewood, but with the complexity of air ops, they weren’t able to drop me in both places today.

Second, because of the change, I had more time to spend with the folks in Storm Mountain. I will post the pics when I’m done. I have a much better understanding, not only for the conditions on the ground, but also the spirit and morale of the residents staying on the mountain. It appears that about 2/3 left and 1/3 have chosen to stay.

I have to say, if you’ve never lived in a remote area like that, you may find it difficult to understand why they are staying. If you have lived in such a location (I lived on Storm 20 yrs ago), you’ll have no problem understanding. It’s a live and let live kind of environment. But, don’t think that means people don’t take care of each other. They care for each other more than you can ever imagine.

I first heard from the emergency responder personnel about their efforts over the last week. The volunteer fire folks have been working non-stop. At my request, they got me down to CR 43 and Hwy 34. It was difficult to see what the floodwaters did. It’s a reminder of why those river canyons are there- Mother Nature has been doing this since our beautiful Rockies were formed.

After I returned to the mountain, I learned that my chopper was delayed by a couple of hours, so one of the residents offered to take me up and show me their work on FR 153. I’d heard that the residents “fixed” the road along the top portions. Bill showed me what 40 determined mountain residents could do with shovels, pick-axes, pry bars and a few UTVs. To be honest, it made me think of the folks who built Fall River Road, mostly by hand.

These folks had done an amazing job. Before I left, I had the chance to speak with everyone assembled and I express my appreciation for the work they’d done and my support for making sure they could survive and thrive in this beautiful place they called home.

This is the most fitting description of this community I’ve found to date.


Sunday, September 22, 2013:

Aftermath (9)At the party last night we’d managed to find out the last caravan was heading out at noon today.  This time, rather than trying to remain out of sight and risking run ins with property owners, a state trooper who lived on the mountain had arranged for our safe passage across private and state property.

Our cars loaded down with belongings we thought we may need or want for the next year, we made our way to the meeting point.  All in all, there were about 12 cars in our little band of misfits.

Evacuating (7)It was funny to see what people felt was important enough to take up precious real estate in their vehicles.  Me?  I had my mom’s saddle, my kayak, important documents, clothes, pillows and our dog food bins.

Most of our neighbors had their animals with them, one even had his chickens and a goat in the bed of his truck.  There were some of our neighbors who simply turned their horses loose when they left.  Just this morning, the little herd of displaced horses was grazing in the empty lot next to our house.

Two doors down, our neighbor had left his pot-bellied pig and two cats when they left.  I knew they’d left so I stopped by to check on the pig before leaving and found she had no food, water or bedding.  I brought a bale of hay down from our house and spread it out under the front porch for her to lay in, not knowing how long she’d be there by herself.  I also cleaned out our cabinets of pig-friendly food and and filled several large tubs of water.

Aftermath (10)While I was there, I heard meowing from inside the house.  They’d left the door unlocked so I decided to check it out.  There were two cats, again without water.  While there was a bag of food on the floor, it wasn’t opened and the cats couldn’t get to it.  I filled every Tupperware and bowl I could find with water and spread the food on the floor.

The drive out was relatively uneventful, with the exception of a blown radiator on the chicken truck and deciding who would be towing them the rest of the way.  It was a welcomed change from the prior week.  When we crossed the through the gate onto Bobcat Ridge, it seemed like it had been weeks since we’d been there when, in reality, it’d only been 24 hours.

Aftermath (11)The Larimer County Open Space folks were waiting for our caravan when we arrived at the parking area.   Apparently, someone had decided that we deserved access to our homes and printed rear-view mirror tags for each of our cars to prove we were actually residents.   With the tag in place and proper identification, we could access Storm Mountain via Bobcat Ridge or the Forest Service road we originally rode out on.

They wished us well and, with that, we were officially homeless.


Aftermath (12)The next few months were spent under three roofs; two, unbelievably gracious friends and a hotel, complements of FEMA.

Just before Thanksgiving and over a month ahead of schedule, we were able to return to home.  I’ve never felt more content in my life than I did sitting on my couch that night.

1174967_10151934875054180_1517969975_nChristmas rolled around and we brought our horses home.  Our family was whole once more.  Our life was whole once more.

We were extremely lucky.  So many people lost their homes, their belongings, their loved ones, their pets and their lives.  Our story seems like peanuts in comparison to what those folks went through but I think it’s important to note the human decency and strength that can come out of these situations.

Before this adventure, I have to admit, my faith in humanity was a bit shaken.  The Storm Mountain community and each of our amazing friends who took us in, fed us and asked nothing in return restored it in full.

Aftermath (13)These hardy mountain folks know how to take care of themselves and help each other.  While lurking under the surface my entire life, it is because of this adventure and these people that my love and keen interest in self-sufficiency and sustainability was sparked.

Not all of you will have the chance to be a part of a community like ours and I think that’s a damn shame.  Take heart in knowing that they’re still out there.

5 REASONS BACKCOUNTRY RIDERS ARE DIRTBAGS, TOO.

dirtbag

A person who is committed to a given (usually extreme) lifestyle to the point of abandoning employment and other societal norms in order to pursue said lifestyle. Dirtbags can be distinguished from hippies by the fact that dirtbags have a specific reason for their living communaly and generally non-hygenically; dirtbags are seeking to spend all of their moments pursuing their lifestyle.

Urban Dictionary 

Who would’ve thought that the term “dirtbag” would become one of endearment?  The ever-evolving term still embraces the above definition but, on the whole, you don’t necessarily need to be unemployed and homeless to be considered a part of the dirtbag community anymore.

1185067_10151949969984180_2103682320_nThere are literally thousands of self-proclaimed dirtbags embracing the term and all it entails.  They live life to the fullest extent they can, honing their skills and searching for the next adrenaline rush.

So, here’s my problem:  Why are backcountry riders excluded?

In fact, its my experience that the outdoor community as a whole tends to exclude riders as members of the dirtbag crew.  While I’m sure part of it is the stigma that surrounds the mounted community (the same one that labels us as gun-toting, Copenhagen chewing, cowboy hat wearing, shit kicking hicks), I submit that we are of the same extreme, gutsy, carpe diem embracing, athletic caliber as any run-of-the-mill dirtbag.

11817279_10153680112749180_6867035685571912994_nYes, I do carry a gun, and wear a cowboy hat a lot of the time, and my significant other always has a dip in, and am often kicking shit off my boots, but why does that exclude me and my kind from the extreme outdoor sporting community?

So, with that, here are 5 solid reasons riders can be considered a legit part of the dirtbag community:

 


REASON #1: WE’RE DEDICATED.

Yes, my fellow dirtbaggers, we riders are just as dedicated to our sport and our lifestyle as you are.  When you get up before dawn to hit the road to the trailhead, we’ve already been up for hours feeding the horses, loading the trailer, checking tire pressure and readying our gear.  See, we have a considerable amount of logistics to take into account outside of our daily goal and that takes time and preparation.

15089_10151984030579180_1310855075_nWhile a few exceptions exist, the majority of riders I’ve met (myself included) have been in the saddle from an early age – some of us were riding before we could walk.  Traditionally thought of as a “rich person sport,” those of us without the steady cash flow to afford it, did whatever we could to stay in the saddle.  We adapt to fill the need for horse hair and dirt – just as you do in order to climb El Capitan.

Unfortunately, while inevitably appealing, the unemployed-I-live-in-my-van lifestyle doesn’t lend itself to our culture.  Much like a child (though arguably more fun), we have a being dependent on us for food, shelter and water.  Most backcountry riders have at least 2 jobs to make this happen (currently, I have 4).  If that’s not dedication I don’t know what is.

REASON #2: WE LOVE MINIMALISM.

940855_10154048180919180_4093242332917061510_nSure, we have a horse and that means we can carry a little bit more than you but, in truth, not much.  The fact of the matter is that, while pack strings are nice, they’re not a logical choice for many of the places we like to go (which just so happen to be many of the same places you like to go).  Having an extra horse or two, or even a llama, can be a definite advantage in certain circumstances but the majority of us hit the trail as a duo; 1 horse, 1 rider.

If you’re spending any amount of time in the backcountry, the same rules apply to riders as they do to backpackers.  Just as you do, we lighten our load, we make important decisions on what to include and what to cut and we do our best to make our packs comfortable.  The difference is, we not only have to pack and make our load comfortable for ourselves, but for our horses, too.

An ill fitting pack can rub, make your muscles unduly sore and lead to a truly crummy time on the trail.  As a rider, if your horse ends up with a saddle sore from an uneven or overweighted load, you’ll be carrying a 50lb saddle back along with your pack.  Needless to say, we’ve mastered the art of minimalism.

REASON #3: WE LIVE THE OUTDOORS.

12079149_10153822412279180_1234049767084560464_nAs a dirtbag, you live for the days when you are miles away from anything remotely resembling civilization.  Backcountry riders do, too.  You relish the anti-social lifestyle and long to be in the silence of nature.  Backcountry riders do, too.  In fact, many of us prefer the company of our horse over the company of people (I know I do).

A purveyor of the outdoor lifestyle, you dirtbags often spend time giving back to the areas you spend time in.  Backcountry riders do, too.  While you may think of us as walking poop machines, riders are actually extremely active in maintaining their local areas and advocates for the wilderness areas we frequent.

REASON #4: WE CAN GO (JUST ABOUT) ANYWHERE YOU CAN.

While my horse may have a hard time scaling a rock face or catching a wave, there are very few places we can’t get to…one way or another.  It can be a challenge to find an equine partner with the balls to take on questionable river crossings, shaky, shale rock trails and above treeline storms without question.  When you do, you know you’ve got a lifer.

200090_10151731143044180_1551779171_nOn foot, all you need to worry about is getting yourself from point A to point B.  On horseback, we’re constantly looking ahead for the next obstacle and determining the best route for our four-legged counterpart.  If you’re lucky, you end up with a “beer drinking” horse who is an expert navigator but, even then, it’s still our duty to know what lies ahead.

When in route, there’s little that can stop a true dirtbag from reaching their goal.  Riders are no different – we might just have to get a little creative.

REASON #5: WE LIVE FOR THE THRILL.

There is little else that can compare to the thrill of grabbing mane and trusting the 1100lb creature under you to carry you up a rocky face to a steep summit.  The 65306_10151633283199180_1170511237_nuneven ground beneath their feet wiggles and gives way between strides, your weight shifts in the saddle with each step and you glance backward for just a moment, forgetting the nearly 90 degree incline you’re on before turning back around quickly.

When you reach the top, you take a deep breath.  Your horse breathes heavy beneath you and you feel weak from the adrenaline coursing through your body.  He shifts his footing a bit as its still questionable and just then you realize if he shifts 2 more inches to the left, you’ll tumble down the way you came.  Oh lord, now you have to get back down…


When it comes down to it, we riders are just as dirtbag as the rest of you; we use the much of the same gear, travel the same trails and seek the same thrills.  So, why then, are we outcasts?  The outdoor community has long been inclusive of people from all walks of life, all backgrounds and all interests…except, seemingly, those of us on horseback.

If a voracious love of the outdoors is the basis of dirtbag life, then consider me, and my horse, a dirtbag.