For most of my life, horses have played little if any role, so my first experiences with my friend Vera’s 12-year-old gelding, Patience, were a bit intimidating. Patience, you see, was half-Percheron, and he was big. He’d also once been a wild mustang—something that raised thoughts of bucking broncos and undomesticated beasts with a penchant for kicking through walls.
Actually, he was quite gentle—a relief, since he weighed in at a lean 1,300 pounds. Vera acquired him through the federal government’s adopt-a-horse program, training him herself and choosing his name because, she declared, “that horse is going to teach me patience.”
It was a lesson that came to include me one Fourth of July weekend when the three of us—Vera, Patience, and myself—attempted a 50-mile packing trip.
Like all really good camping disasters, it started out with a fine idea. Vera loves to hike, but isn’t so keen about carrying a backpack, especially since we’re both photographers and have been known to march off into the wilderness with multiple lenses, tripods, and camera bodies, plus enough film to keep Kodak in business for a month.
The plan was for Patience to carry the weight while we walked unencumbered. At first, I had dreams of 20-mile days, but as the trip took shape, it settled into something more reasonable in Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness, a wonderland of lava flows and cinder cones beneath a trio of 10,000-foot volcanoes.
But rigging a packsaddle, I discovered, is more complex than loading a backpack. For starters, I never plan on trying to ram my backpack into anything, so I don’t have to be overly cautious about padding fragile equipment. A horse has no such scruples. We had to think about the fact that half ton of muscle might attempt to squeeze the panniers between trees that aren’t quite far enough apart.
Then, there was the issue of lashing it all down, using a knot called a “One-Person (Two is Better) Diamond Hitch,” based on a drawing that looked more like a bowl of spaghetti than anything I would intentionally do with a rope.
Our first attempt, done at Vera’s stable while various onlookers unhelpfully kibitzed, took an hour. The resulting shape was at best a diamond in the rough, and the whole process was an exercise in such conversations as: “We need to take up some slack,” “No, not that rope, the other one!” “Who’s ‘left’ side? Yours, mine, or his?”
The horse lived up to his name. We didn’t.
Re-tying the One-Person (Two Is Better) Diamond Hitch at the trailhead was a repeat of the first experience, compounded by a fearsome cloud of mosquitoes that seemed immune to bug repellent, even when we practically drowned them in it. Their favorite landing spot was Patience’s belly, where he couldn’t reach them with his tail. They carpeted it so densely that like airplanes circling a major airport they had to wait their turns to find open landing spots. Patience was stoical. Vera and I did a little dance, and again yanked on the wrong pieces of rope.
Above treeline, mosquitoes were no problem but we began to run into snow. Vera and I could walk over the top of it, but Patience randomly plunged through. On one occasion, we watched with our hearts in our throats as he sank belly deep into a snowfield we knew was underlain by jagged, volcanic rocks.
We’d planned to camp by a creek where we hoped to find forage for Patience. But we ran out of daylight in a lava field, two miles shy of our goal.
We spent the night practically in the middle of the trail, surrounded by sharp, angular rocks, without a sprig of vegetation except a scattering of weather-beaten pines. It was cold and breezy, and the air was damp with the threat of rain.
Vera and I could huddle out of the wind in the lee of a big rock. Patience couldn’t. Vera and I could light a stove and cook dinner. Patience had nothing to eat but a limited supply of grain. Vera and I could pitch a tent and stretch out in our sleeping bags in semi-comfort. Patience spent the night tethered in the middle of the trail.
Vera suffered on behalf of her horse. I suffered on behalf of Vera. Every time Patience moved, Vera woke up, wondering if anything was amiss. It was a long night.
The next morning, it was time to reassess. We decided there was no choice but to hike out and try again some other month, when the snow would be long gone.
“Well,” said Vera, a few hours later, as we drove out of the mountains in a pouring rain, “that was a learning experience.”
I thought of diamond hitches and horseshoes, mosquitoes and snowfields. Patience, I thought. Patience.