single file, our horses carefully picked their way along the rocky
ledge. Puffs of dust from their hooves curled off the trail's edge
like smoke from tiny signal fires. Hugging the mountain like a narrow,
twisting ribbon, the catwalk cut through massive rock slides and
dropped off dramatically on one side, affording eyebrow-raising views
of the south fork of the Shoshone River as it snaked its way through
the canyon far below. Hardly a place for agoraphobics.
the deep valley, white-plumed waterfalls plunged over tortuous
descents to join the river. It was easy to imagine the end result
if the roan
mare beneath me was to take a wrong step: the release form I'd
signed months prior suddenly came to mind. "On trails like this, you
learn in a hurry to trust a horse you don't even know," one
guest observed. Fortunately, the horses and mules to which we
entrusted ourselves and our possessions were remarkably sure-footed.
had signed on with Bliss Creek Outfitters of Cody, Wyoming, for a
long-awaited five-day horse packing expedition into the Washakie
Wilderness area of the Shoshone National Forest in the Absaroka Mountain
range. Including outfitters Tim Doud and his wranglers/guides, there
were 13 of us; if there was any portentous meaning behind this number,
I tried not to think about it that morning on the trail.
over nine hours and 22 dusty miles later, exhaustion had reduced
most of us to silence as we finally rode into the base camp at Bliss
Creek Meadow. At that particular moment, the grandeur of our surroundings
was competing with the overwhelming desire for a hot meal and sleep.
were free to fill the next three days with as much - or as little
- activity as we wished. Covering some 2.5 million acres, the Shoshone
National Forest is the seventh-largest national forest in the continental
United States. Numerous hiking and riding trails led out from camp
in all directions. Trout-rich waters beckoned, while petrified wood
and eye-catching rocks of all descriptions could be discovered in
shallow streams. The high altitude made afternoon naps sprawled on
a warm rock an irresistible temptation. Evenings included campfire
tales and a few ghost stories, among them one mysterious account
of the spirit of murdered horse thief Jack Bliss, for whom the meadow
is named. Our trip coincided with a brilliant full moon, which rewarded
those of us who stayed up late with standing-ovation-quality displays
as it rose over the mountains each evening.
were taken in the cook tent where the camp cook stirred up plentiful
and surprisingly varied dishes using only propane and a wood stove.
With guests and camp hands dining together, animated conversation
ran the gamut, from wildlife encounters and hunting adventures, to
hilariously ribald tales recounted by Seldon, a well-traveled cowboy
who was surely a stand-up comedian in another lifetime.
trout dusted from cornmeal and fried to delicate perfection enticed
us to eat "just one more". Hearty chili fortified with
elk meat, accompanied by slabs of warm sourdough bread, satisfied
our appetites. Those with sweet tooth's voiced no complaints;
dessert was a staple each night.
took a day ride up to the Shoshone Pass (elevation more than 11,000
feet), traveling along steep mountain ridges shrouded by lacy veils
of snow, even in August. The trail meandered through alpine meadows
punctuated by abundant wildflowers, imparting a bright chorus of
vibrant color and fragrance. Atop Shoshone Pass, we sat like royalty
on wind-caressed rocks and gazed for miles in all directions as we
devoured the lunches packed in our saddle bags. On our return, the
three lead riders were treated to the sight of a large black bear
as he lumbered gracefully over a mound of rocks and disappeared into
the timberline above the trail.
two of us wanted to ride the following day; the others were determined
to ensure another bounty of trout for the evening meal. With roaring
winds and an impressive display of thunder and lightning, a storm
raged through camp before we saddled up. As in deference to our plans,
however, it had the decency to pass through in barely half an hour,
quickly restoring the skies to a brilliant shade of azure.
a particularly sharp incline on the trail out of camp, we had to
pause on numerous occasions to let our horses catch their breaths.
(Had we continued on another hour or so, we could have crested the
Continental Divide.) We detoured around several downed pines, fresh
evidence of the storm that had just swept through.
reaching a ridge known as "The Lookout", we stood on
a rock-studded cliff above the valley that cradles Bliss Creek
Everything about Wyoming is big, and our vantage point only emphasized
this fact. Below us a golden eagle circled lazily, drifting on
invisible wind currents. Gleaming like silken thread in the afternoon
the south fork of the Shoshone made its way through the bottom
land, more creek than river here. The panorama spread before
like a flawlessly painted backdrop on a movie set. I snapped
photos, even as I realized such magnificence could never be adequately
as thunder rumbled ominously and gathering clouds were again
boiling into a gray mass, we spied a large herd of elk grazing
in a sheltered
meadow to the northeast. "How close can we get to them?" we
wanted to know. Ever the big-game guide, even to women packing
nothing more powerful than cameras, Doud led off. We walked our
way, then continued on foot. By this time, blue skies were history
and rain pelted the mountainside. We scrambled over downed trees,
through rock-jumbled creek beds and across stretches of uneven
meadow. The elk finally alerted to our presence, but not before
we got within
100 yards. Reluctant to spook them, I never pulled out my camera.
The image of them - curiously gazing in our direction through
rain, mist and blue spruce - is firmly committed to memory. It
there, along with the recollection of the vivid arc of shooting
stars across blue-black skies, an uncommon symphony of mule bells
darkness, the chilling serenade of coyotes beneath the weight
of a full moon and the comfort of shared laughter around campfire
All combine to ensure this will not be my last visit to this place.
creek Outfitters was recognized
in 1993 as Outfitter of the Year by the U.S. Forest Service,
and is among the industry's leaders in low-impact camping
techniques. Summer pack trips run only the last week of July
and the month of August, so it's wise to book nine to 12
months in advance. Hunting trips (elk, moose, bighorn sheep)
run September through November, though tags must be applied
for as much as a year prior. Bliss Creek Outfitters, PO Box
2776, Cody, WY 82414; (307) 527-6103.