“Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” Having slept on the hard ground in single-digit Fahrenheit temperatures, tramped all day through a snowstorm at 11,000 feet of elevation against a 40-mile-an-hour wind with a 20-pound survival pack and a seven-pound rifle on your back, and ridden horseback by night out of the mountains, saddle-stiff and numb with cold, behind a dying flash-light, it’s easy to forget an underprivileged soul whose experience in life has been restricted to directing the publicity department of her father’s New York publishing house and helping manage the Conservative Book Club for years.
Not that I’m ever tempted to criticize Maureen, who’s been a brick all summer: allowing herself to be dragged—twice—to the bottom of Nine Mile Can-yon over in Utah, up the slopes of Sheep Mountain west of Laramie, and boosted onto the back of the green-broke stallion I was nervous about mounting myself. Even so, I was astonished, as well as pleased, when Maureen announced that she wished to go along to elk camp in October.
“You really want to go hunting with me? You’re sure?”
“It’s going to be cold at night.”
“I know it. My nephew Danny offered to let me borrow his sleeping bag. He said the last time he went camping everyone was cold, except for him.”
“We can only use the one horse this year, so you’ll have to ride her. I’ll be on foot, carrying my big pack.”
“I don’t mind, so long as you’re also leading her.”
“It’s snowed hard in the mountains already. We’re likely to get stuck pulling the trailer back in there.”
“I can handle it. I’ve been four wheeling before.”
“You’ve been four wheeling?”
“With some of the guys from the office. We went up in the hills behind Ft. Collins. They call it ‘Four wheeling in high heels.’”
“All right,” I agreed, “you can come, if you really want to. I just have no idea why you want to.”
“Because,” Maureen said, “I want to learn why it is you enjoy it so much.”
I spent three evenings lining out gear and supplies in the reloading room down cellar before Maureen arrived on the last night with her own equipment.
“There, that’s all I’m taking,” she said proudly, dropping everything on the concrete floor. “I can bring my pillow with me, can’t I?”
“No. You can’t take your pillow.”
“But I can’t sleep without a pillow!” Maureen cried.
“The sleeping bag has its own pillow. That frilly thing of yours would take up half the horse pack. What’s in the glass jar? It must weigh two-and-a-half pounds if it weighs an ounce.”
“It’s strawberry jam, for our tea time,” she explained.
“Well, put a few spoonsful into a zip-lock bag. I’ll carry it in the top of my pack along with the crackers. And decant the wine from that magnum into those two Nalgene bottles, please.”
“At least I get to take my makeup kit,” Maureen sighed, tucking what looked like a small vanity case in among her clothes and the stowed tent.
The jeep trail wound through streaks and patches of windswept snow across Libby Flats, among stands of pine and rocky torrs breaking from the tawny mead-ow. Plunging and bucking in the ruts and flooded potholes, the horse trailer fishtailed behind the truck as it plowed forward slowly in four-wheel drive through mud and rotting ice. Maureen, bracing herself against the door, looked serene. Instead of high heels, she had on the hiking shoes we’d bought her at the REI store in Ft. Collins the previous spring. Beyond the mud lay exposed rock, dragon teeth of quartzite tearing at the rig’s eight tires. Beside an evaporated alpine pond, I turned the truck from the stony track and parked on an expanse of pale soft grass.
“Better safe than sorry, with just the two spares along,” I suggested. “It’s only a mile on to camp, anyhow.”
I pulled the mare from the trailer by her tail and snubbed her tight to saddle and load her. Maureen, looking less serene, helped.
“You can always walk, if you like,” I told her. “But we do need someone up there to keep the saddle and pack from slipping.”
“I’ll ride,” she said bravely, turning the stirrup as I’d showed her and taking hold of the horn and cantle to pull herself up. Astride the horse, looking out from under the brim of her leopard-skin cowboy hat, Maureen was unrecognizable by anyone from the National Review 40th Anniversary or New York Conservative Party dinners.
I strapped on my own pack and took hold of the lead rope, and we started down the rocky trail as it dropped off the flats into the South Fork of French Creek, the mare sliding a little in the mud between the stones and bobbing her head slightly, as if to say that this was none of her idea. Maureen, if she agreed, didn’t show it.
We reached camp half an hour later, tied the horse to a young fir tree, and drew the saddle and pack off.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” I asked.
“Of everything we’ve done together this year,” Maureen said, “riding a horse is the only one I don’t think I’ll ever get used to.”
There was snow under the trees where I’d wanted to put the tent, out of sight of the high elk pasture across the drainage. Using the edge of my boot sole, I cleared away the stale droppings from the grass behind the trees, and we spread the ground cloth and raised the tent on it. (A woman needs to feel she has a home she can call her own.) When the tent was up, we looked round for a suitable spot to build a campfire and discovered a deep hole, surrounded by a low bank of earth, in the bottom of a small gulley: a natural kitchen and dining area Martha Stewart would have died for.
“And now it’s time for the evening hunt,” I said. “Do you want to stay here in camp all alone by yourself—except for the horse, of course—or would you rather come hunting with me?”
“I’m coming with you,” Maureen said. “Just let me fix my nail, first.”
The habitat was so perfect for elk that what wasn’t there in fact, the mind saw anyway: a large herd grazing across the sidehill parks with the setting sun reddening their flanks and pale rump patches. Stepping carefully on the loud patches of rotten snow, we moved downstream, using the strip of woods between the twin channels of the creek for cover and scanning the hillside on either side of the valley for shape, pattern, movement; a gleam of light on shiny coat or polished horn. But there was no fresh sign underfoot, no clean, sharp tracks piercing the forest duff.
“With elk,” I told Maureen in a stage whisper, “you usually see them suddenly, there in front of you all at once—or not at all.”
The blue shadow lifting from the valley floor reached the Plimsoll line on the flank of the ridge and passed it, rising higher and higher like a still water until the hill foundered in the cold dusk beneath the light-stain on the deepening sky. In camp, we gathered kindling from the litter beneath the fir trees, and I built a fire at the bottom of the wash. The climbing flames, flapping redly against the deepening twilight, seemed to draw the towering spires of the black fir trees nearer. Maureen sat as far from the fire as she could, wearing her new polypro cap pulled over her ears.
“I’m scared of fires,” she explained.
“This one’s perfectly contained,” I promised her. “That’s why we built it where we did. Are you ready for some firewater now, for courage? We established it as fact, a long time ago, neither one of us is scared of that.”
I brought out the Nalgene bottles, and the moon rose almost at once, a bloated platinum sphere squeezing above the flat, black mass of the mountains. Sparks like red fireflies darted upward on the thermal column, and the air within the lighted circle of the fire warmed. Maureen drew closer by inches until we were seated side by side at last on the bank with the bottles and an open can between us, eating smoked oysters with our fingers and drinking red wine.
“Now you really are inside The Hundredth Meridian,” I told her.
She looked surprised.
“I thought I’d been living in it, all last summer,” Maureen said.
“Elk hunting is on a different level from anything we’ve done before together: vintage Hundredth Meridian, the quint-essence of the Rocky Mountain West. Like compressing and distilling an entire vineyard into one single bottle of wine.”
“It is beautiful here,” she agreed. “I really don’t feel the least bit uncomfortable.”
“Anything can happen on an elk hunt,” I said. “And usually does. The horse is awfully quiet tonight, by the way.”
We ate supper under the climbing moon that paled the long valley and whitened the dead trees around until they achieved a dim glow. The mare stayed quiet, seem-ing more attentive than nervous, keeping her muzzle pointed across the creek, uphill toward the dark line of the woods. Once, seated by the fire, I started at what I took for a flashlight being shined on us through the tall firs. It wavered, vanished, and appeared again, when I recognized it as moonlight reflecting from the shifting white rump beyond the trees.
I slept soundly in my 20-below-zero comfort-rated bag, undisturbed by the usual hoof-stamps from the young fir tree 20 paces off; Maureen, in Danny’s 20-above-rated one, not so well. When the alarm clock sounded at six in the morning, she emerged from the bag wearing all the clothes she had got up to put on during the night.
“I told you to wake me if you got cold, and we’d spread the bags out together for warmth.”
“I know what you told me,” she said. “And I very deliberately didn’t do it.”
I unzipped the tent door, thrust my feet through it to lace my boots up, and looked over to the fir tree.
“Oh,” I mentioned. “The horse is gone.”
Maureen joined me in the door to make certain my eyes were working all right.
“She wouldn’t have gone far, would she?”
“I’m surprised she went anywhere at all.”
We hunted horse as well as elk until the sun was well up and returned to camp to pump water from the ice-bound creek, build a fire, eat breakfast, and consider the situation over hot coffee.
“How are we going to get the camp out of here?” Maureen wanted to know.
“It could be she was headed for the rig. I’ll hike back up to the flats and see. If she’s not there, I’ll drop the trailer and bring the truck down as far as I can get it.”
“I’ll have the camp packed in when you get back,” she promised.
The mare was not around the outfit when I reached it 45 minutes later. I hiked farther on foot, glassing the wind-swept saddle above the Little Laramie drainage for a lone, white horse traversing a background of white snow, and gave up the search after an hour and a half. Freed of the trailer, the pickup had no trouble making its way cross-country, down the long tongue of meadow to the point of the woods where the camp, neatly raised and stowed, rested on the grass, with Maureen beside it under the trees.
“You know,” she said, “I think I could have made a pioneer woman after all. I wouldn’t have liked pioneering, but I’d have managed it, anyhow.”
A runaway horse will likely move either up a drainage or down it. We’d hunted downstream at daybreak, I’d explored uphill after breakfast, and the al-pine meadow held no track or sign to give us a clue. If the mare had gone over the top into the headwaters of the middle fork of the Little Laramie River, she might come out in Centennial in a couple of days. If she’d continued down the south fork of French Creek, she ought to emerge, sooner or later, from the mountains in the vicinity of French Creek Ranch—assuming she didn’t catch the trailing lead rope on a stob or rock and die of thirst and hunger.
“Nothing left to do but head back to town and notify the Forest Service we have a horse lost up here,” I said. “Aren’t you happy you don’t have to carry that saddle out on your back, Maureen?”
In Centennial, we stopped at the convenience store. While I pumped gas at $1.89 per gallon, Maureen was looking curiously about herself.
“Is the Trading Post a restaurant,” she asked, “or just a bar?”
“It’s a restaurant. A pretty good one, too.”
“I’m hungry for dinner,” Maureen suggested.
“But we’re not dressed to go into a nice restaurant.”
Maureen had her hiking boots off already and was feeling around on the floor-board for something.
“I brought these!” she exclaimed triumphantly, holding up a pair of heeled black dress slippers.