The final three miles of the ride,
that part when you drop down into the Cliff Creek drainage,
is mostly alpine meadows.
In early summer the grasses wave and the birds sing
except for one stretch where the forest has taken over, pine and fir from creek bottom to cliffside.
When you come to it you know you’re finally getting close to camp and it’s where
in late summer the evergreens offer cool dark respite from the sun and the heat and the dust
but it’s late fall now and late fall here in the high country might as well be middle of winter in the lowlands.
Trouble with the pack string has me running behind
past sundown and still facing an hour on the trail
thank god for the full moon on the crusty snow--
the world is drained of color, all blacks and whites and greys in-between--
but it’s enough that I can keep an eye on the string behind me and watch that the packs are riding true.
We hit that stretch of pines, though, and everything is different;
the trees eat all the moonlight, drink all the sound and swallow us up.
I’ve traveled this path more times than I can count, I’d thought it a familiar friend
but now I’m desperate to be done with it, to be gone from here.
The darkness has weight and mass and form from which I might never emerge.
Dry mouth and pounding heart.
Reins slack in my hands, I leave it to my saddlehorse to lead us onward
he plods, unconcerned, no thoughts beyond the feed bucket waiting at the end of the trek.
When he and the rest of the string have been unsaddled and fed
And I’m in the cook tent at the stove
warm and dry and tired
I laugh at myself to be so shook at a little bit of darkness.
There was never anything going to reach out at me from the shadows
there was nothing in the forest or the fields turning its attention to my passage.
Years away and miles later, I think I understand why my thoughts return to that night.
I think I’ve come to realize that a country breeze can seem a loving caress,
a storm may appear to be all anger and fury,
but to the wind, to the trees, the rocks, the wilds, it’s really none of it to do with me;
we flatter ourselves that nature notices us but it’s all playacting
on someone’s part.
Plants grow and waters flow;
where the sunbeams and moonbeams fall, there is light and where they don’t, there is not.
With me or without.
That night, I glimpsed the indifference that is the truth of the wilderness.
RK Rugg is a non-Native native of the American West, a Jewish cowboy who spent most of his life wrangling both horses and words in the Montana Rockies and the Great Basin of Nevada. He currently lives in New England where he teaches middle-school writing by day and writes genre fiction, nonfiction and poetry by night. His work has appeared in Utopia, Illumen and Asimov's, among others, and he regularly presents at academic conferences on the topic of identity in speculative fiction. He can be found online at www.raymondkrugg.com.