As I get to the place where there are a whole lot more days behind me than those that lie ahead, I sometimes think of an old cowboy I met once far back in the mountains who then was in that very same late stage of life. I have traveled across this nation and at points on distant islands. My cowboy friend was born in the mountains of Colorado and didn’t believe there could be any place as wonderful, so he rarely wandered.
I was camped alone so far back that motorized vehicles were prohibited and the land had never been owned by anyone until the government claimed it and many millions more acres across the west. So the nearest house was more than a dozen miles distant in every direction where roads exited the National Forest and pockets of private land existed.
I had a very rare visitor in camp. The old cowboy sat in his saddle on his paint horse, a brown and white mare that had seen her better days. Nell not only was the cowboy’s mount, but it quickly became obvious she was his closest companion; she being included in conversation with strangers like me to verify his remarks. Her stoic silence conveyed concurrence with the old man and legitimized his words. “Ain’t that right Nell,” he stopped often to say. The horse never raised an objection. He told me the herd he was tending was missing a red bull and he wondered if I had seen it. I hadn’t.
I sat on my camp stool in front of my tent as we talked. The cowboy never hinted at leaving the saddle, behind which was a small roll – probably a fence tool and a rain slicker. After he told me of the gold in the bottom of Barber Basin which he had mined from Muddy Creek in August, his disclosure seemed somehow to bind us together, because I had hiked into this roadless wilderness and appreciated its remoteness. He was taking enough gold from the creek to earn spending money for the whole year. The gold was so far from a year round road that the cost of mining it was prohibited to companies with large equipment.
“Me and Dad come her in 1936; us and 30 mules. Stayed here a long time. We trapped bears . By the way,” he interrupted himself, “there’s a couple of bears working a carcass just down this ridge the other side of them trees there.” This news piqued my interest and would later affect how fitfully I slept, causing me to take extra precautions around camp to avoid a midnight encounter with foraging bears.
“Yeah,” the old cowpoke reminisced. “I always liked this mountain. I decided I’d just come up here and stay ‘til I died. I got me a daughter in California and a boy in Nevada”, (he pronounced it Nuh-VAH – duh as most cowboys do). “I’m stocking up to spend the winter in here; me and Nell,” almost casually patting the mare on the neck.
“You what?, I thought silently. Buffalo Park, where his trailer sat, gets a couple hundred inches of snow each winter! The one road that winds between Gore Pass and Rabbit Ears Pass, and at its midpoint dissects Buffalo Park, is never plowed in winter! It’s about 30 miles long, and Buffalo Park is mid-way between the two passes. Snow stands several feet deep for five months on the entire road. (I was to have trouble driving through Buffalo Park after a snow a few days later with my 4WD – and it was still October!) No one lives on the road and there is no way out in case of illness or other emergency. I was shocked and could think of no reply.
“Years ago I went into town and cut up a little on Saturday nights. But now after a day of watching this herd, I have to go to bed early and rub these old knees, ain’t that right Nell?,” said the old cowboy. The mare stood patiently. “Well, we better be ridin’ back south”, he said before I was ready for them to go. “If you see that red bull, stop by my trailer when you pack out and let me know.”
“I will for sure,” I said as he turned Nell’s head around and headed her down the faint trail. The two of them moved away as one while the echo of his words was ringing in my head, our brief encounter seeming poignantly valuable. I didn’t hear the sound of Nell’s hooves in the leaves or the squeak of saddle leather. The cowboy sat straight in the saddle, and without a bounce seemed to drift away silently through the aspens. They were gone.
That night as I lay in my tent, a coyote howled in a distant high meadow and one nearby answered. A shuffle in the leaves could have been one of the bears bound for the carcass below camp. I slipped deeper into the warm sleeping bag and thought of the old cowboy and his horse. We had talked of gold and elk and cattle and bears and family and a mutual love for country so beautiful it takes one’s breath; even the breath of an old cow puncher. It seemed our unspoken words had said even more. I felt they spoke of respect and trust and understanding and maybe even brotherhood.
I never saw the red bull and didn’t stop at his trailer when I walked out later that week. I wish now that I had. Here was a man who understood we each have an allotted time here, and he chose to spend his last bit of it on a mountain he loved which held both fond memories and the promise of rewards for his few remaining days.
My busy life kept me from returning to Buffalo Park. I hunted other mountain ranges the next year and the next. Every time I passed over the nearby mountain passes sometimes with snow beside the plowed roads deeper than my truck, I wondered if the old cowboy and his horse made it through that winter and the next. He never told me his name. But he rode a horse named Nell.