That being said, when hauling for several hours with a trailer of five horses, loaded up with camping gear and night fastly approaching, “unplanned” was not the “plan.” Two faculty chaperones and three eager freshmen headed to the Buffalo Peaks Wilderness for a weekend trip of riding, exploring and camping in the mountain forests. The park service had been called in advance since the area had been hit by the Weston Fire earlier in the year. Trail conditions were discussed and all seemed smoothly underway. The happy crew had been interrupted by Colorado Springs bumper-to-bumper traffic, but soon saw smooth sailing the rest of the way. But best-laid plans “often go to naught.” Now a mere 10 minutes from the campsite, land manager and seasoned trip leader Tyson Phillips pulled into the driveway where we were waylaid by a large orange barrier reading "CLOSED."
Our fearless freshman adventurers, English riders Campbell B. and Eliana M., along with Western rider Ellie B., were worried in the back, matching the feeling of dread in the front seat shared by Mr. Phillips and me. The trip hadn't even started and yet it seemed that turning back to campus was our only option.
Trips with horses have to be carefully planned. We need space for grazing, water for the horses and room for a campsite, the kind of planning that couldn't easily be sorted in the waning hours before dark falls. Phone calls were made, Google searches were searched, and the group took a leap of faith. Mr. Phillips and his wife, Mrs. Phillips, had recently gone hiking up on Weston Pass, which was just a bit further away. We thought that with a stroke of luck, we may discover a campsite and new trail for our pack trip. We communicated back a possible updated location and without a hitch, off we went with fingers crossed.
Before too long, we found ourselves out of cell service and hauling down the narrow, bumpy and winding road that is Weston Pass. The fall colors of aspen and the deep green of pine danced as we trekked up the road. Each possible campsite we passed filled us with worry as it was deep in elk hunting season and most of the sites were already taken. Yet, we marched on. As dusk approached, finally a large grassy meadow appeared at mile seven. We wasted no time. Eliana, Ellie and Campbell began setting a grazing paddock for the horses, pitching tents and hauling water from the steep decline to the creek below. Before too long, we all sat gathered around a small fire enjoying a hot dinner and the brisk night air. With the air holding the promise of winter and an early morning ahead, we all adjourned for the warmth of our sleeping bags.
Morning brought with it unusual splendor in the nature of a warm, quick sunrise and a bluebird day. We tidied up camp with efficiency and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast. It was the golden hour, warm but lovely with the light chill of fall. Once again, the magic of such trips was apparent: no phones to interrupt, no time-keeping to hold to, no pressure, no rush and very few worries to disrupt the morning air. In this age of technology, those moments seem to exist on a separate plane and the three friends who were braving their first pack trip together seemed to feel the weightless of the experience to its fullest. They laughed easily, told stories of home and took care of the horses with an alacrity that is rare in their age group.
We loaded up horses into the trailer and drove the final mile to the "trailhead" from where we would depart. Western rider Ellie helped her two friends who ride in the English program tack up their horses. Without further ado, as the packs were packed, horses readied and hopes lifted, we began our ride up the trail. We would follow the trail for less than half a mile before continuing into land that immediately sprung the song “Fields of Gold” into my head. I hummed, snapping pictures of a wide-open landscape high above the tree line, granting us views of the valleys, towns and forests below in stunning display. We rode together, drifting apart and closer—miles stretched in open glory—and the girls mused on how lucky they were to get to see this. I could not disagree.
The ridgeline seemed endless and our path was our whim as we ventured toward the crest to the east. I rode near the back of the troupe, and cries of absolute glee reached me before the source did. The overlook was incredible, gifting us with a look at the land below: Leadville, reservoirs, roads and mountains that stretched for miles. It was a photographer's dream, and the girls had smiles wider than the whole mountainside as they scanned the land below. I mused at how few people in this world get to see such sights. We were well off the beaten path at over 12,000 feet. How lucky we were indeed!
Minutes pass and we slowly, painstakingly dragged ourselves away from the view. Thinking of lunch, water for the horses, and perhaps a good mid-day nap, we move back west toward a lower peak that offers trees and a mountain stream nearby. We chatter happily as we amble along and by noon-thirty reach our lunch site. Once again, the scenery is to die for and we tie off our horses, loosen the girths and settle on the side of the ridge for a lunch of fruit, nuts and, our favorite—chocolate. In what is fast becoming a pack trip tradition, Mr. Phillips calls for silence and we all settle down in the sunshine listening to nothing more than the breeze, birdsong and nothing else. Only the mountain sound. Time drifts by undisturbed, until I, unable to resist, break the silence with the fast click of the shutter on my camera.
We settle back onto our horses and head down the crest to a small mountain stream below. The horses, which have been nothing short of amazing, happily drink their fill. Then without further ado, we all knew that it was time to head back to the trailer, back to civilization.
The ride back is quiet but heavy in a wholesome way. We each are digesting, not only our lunches, but the gift we all received. I watch Ellie, Eliana and Campbell quietly pet their horses, thanking them for the ride, for being the "absolute best." The love of horses brought these girls here and now I’ve seen each of them grow a little as young adults and horsewomen. How perfect it was to see them appreciate their horses for giving them such a magical day.
The pack trip was, as it always is, an adventure of wonderment and dynamic thought. It always reminds me of the transcendentalism movement of Emerson and Thoreau. And with that, I end with a parting thought: We not only need to protect our wild spaces for wildlife, but also for ourselves and our children. It's hard not to depart from experiences like these unchanged and for the better. When you see the whole world spread out before your feet, no technology can compare.