Hoping to get back in the saddle and make some memories with her teenager, Peggy Orenstein headed straight for the Wyoming wilderness.
B.J. Reed stood on a granite outcropping just west of Grand Teton National Park, a barren, windy spot that, at an altitude of nearly 10,000 feet, felt like the top of the world. Her sun-bleached hair hung loose under her cowboy hat, its brim throwing her weathered face into shadow. She placed her hands on her hips, planted her feet wide, surveyed the snowy slopes and flower-studded meadows far below, and began to sing:
She might not show up,
She might not call,
She loves to ride horses and that’s about all.
I glanced over at my 15-year-old daughter, Daisy, and grinned. We were on the third day of a four-day horseback camping trip. My tush was killing me, and I’d discovered muscles in my legs that no amount of yoga had ever reached. Even a short walk at this altitude left me breathless. And yet I was elated, my spirits higher than the mountain; I never wanted this moment to end.
I have always fancied myself a daughter of the West. My great-grandparents fled czarist Russia at the turn of the 20th century to become homesteaders in a new world, pursuing the frontier promise of freedom and reinvention. Theirs was not the typical Jewish immigration story, but neither was it unique: Nearly a thousand of their Eastern European compatriots joined the land grab around that time. Given the harshness of the conditions, few stayed long, but my relatives stuck it out in the Dakotas for nearly two decades. I grew up on my Grandpa Sam’s yarns about picking chokecherries and blackberries, about clearing fields and raising barns. My favorite was about the time he was a young teenager and a horse he was breaking for saddle bolted on him, running straight toward a clothesline. He might’ve been beheaded, but he thought quickly, yanked the reins hard to turn the bronc’s head, and steered it into a plowed field. His mother, who was outside hanging laundry, saw the whole thing, and—he would add gleefully—was scared out of her wits.
My horse, Mud, a brown Appaloosa with a white star on his forehead, was a good six inches taller than everyone else’s, which, when you’re looking down from the saddle, may as well be miles. On the trip’s first day, it dawned on me—too late!—that I hadn’t ridden in years, and that maybe this old gray mare (me, not my mount) was not what she used to be. “Nice horsey,” I said, gingerly patting Mud’s neck. In his glory days, I would learn, Mud had crisscrossed Wyoming, the proud bearer of a rodeo queen. Now, he flicked an ear—an obvious, and perhaps understandable, gesture of contempt. We engaged in a tense, silent negotiation.
Mud: I’m not going anywhere.
Me: Oh yes you are.
Me: Please? Come on, dude, don’t make me look bad.
Finally, we fell in line behind Daisy, who was riding the aptly named Blacktail. B.J., our cook and second guide, was in front, and Melissa Pangraze, the trip’s lead guide, followed with three pack mules—July, Peach, and Janey, each named for a character from Lonesome Dove—that were carrying all our gear.
We’d booked our trip through Linn Outfitters, based in Wilson, Wyoming, a family operation that has worked these parts for over a century: Bennie Linn homesteaded the clan’s original spread outside Jackson, Wyoming, right around the time my family was breaking ground in the Dakotas. The first day’s ride though Wyoming’s Teton Canyon would take us into forests and across meadows, alongside creeks and waterfalls, then up to the Alaska Basin at 9,400 feet. We would pitch camp in an alpine meadow below the basin and take day rides along a chain of lakes and up to Mount Meek Pass on the border of the national park.
We set out along a dirt trail through evergreens, traversing streams and wooden bridges, the clip-clopping of our horses’ hooves like the soundtrack of a Roy Rogers film. I tipped my hat to the day hikers we passed, their plodding, two-legged pace making me feel equal parts smug and guilty. (They were obviously getting more exercise than I was.) The balance tipped entirely toward smug, however, once we stopped at “lunch rock,” a flat slab of granite conveniently tossed up by some ancient glacier. Unwrapping my meal, I got the first hint of exactly how we would be “roughing it”: with a sandwich on homemade bread, piled high with turkey, bacon, avocado, lettuce, and the freshest tomato; potato chips; cherries; and a homemade “cowboy cookie” studded with white chocolate chunks, macadamia nuts, and coconut flakes. B.J. sat next to me in her leather chaps, warming herself in the sun. She popped into her mouth a few huckleberries she’d picked from the bushes surrounding the rock, then ripped open the wrapper of a Hershey’s bar, which had liquefied in her saddlebag, and drank it down.
Of course I know the myth of the West is just that. The history of our country is complex, blood soaked, and frequently shameful. My family found refuge at the expense of others. Our homestead was just north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, where the Lakota and Dakota Sioux had been corralled to make room for those white settlers. During World War II, Japanese Americans from the West Coast (among them my husband’s father’s family) were imprisoned at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center, a few hours northeast of where we were riding. I noticed Daisy was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the early, critical lines of the Declaration of Independence, the part about truths being self-evident and everyone being endowed with certain rights. I don’t know that we’ve always lived up to that ideal. In fact, I am quite sure we haven’t. But I value the attempt. Resilience in the face of oppression, discrimination, bigotry, sexism—even when those evils are perpetrated by fellow citizens—says something essential about the American spirit.
The wildflowers seemed to have erupted across the meadow where we made camp that afternoon: crimson Indian paintbrush, purple asters and lupine, protuberant cone flowers, sticky geraniums, flame-shaped fireweed, flat-topped cow parsnips, spiky columbine, a zillion varieties of daisies. It was the first day of August, the peak of summer, but it felt like spring on the mountain had just begun, and the snow would fall again within weeks. To the south we could see the slightly flattened peak of Buck Mountain; to the north, the snow-mantled middle Teton. “Grand Tetons” means “large breasts” in French. I don’t know whether that’s a tribute to Mother Nature or the wishful thinking of French trappers desperate for female companionship. (The Shoshone who lived in the area are said to have referred to the range as the “hoary-headed fathers” or “many pinnacles.”) Either way, I felt enfolded in their bounty.
We hobbled our horses by loosely roping their forelegs together so they could graze freely without wandering too far away. They still seemed to move plenty fast, their hooves thumping as they headed across a stream and out to pasture. Melissa unloaded the mules, and Daisy helped her pitch our tent and inflate the sleeping pads. I gathered wood for the fire while B.J. set up her kitchen, unpacking more food than I’d buy for a month back home, let alone drag by pack animal into the wilderness. (It is a truism that everything tastes better by an open fire, but the way this cowgirl cooked? Steak! Salmon with pineapple salsa! Stir-fried chicken with basmati rice! Fudgy brownies! Blueberry pancakes! Hors d’oeuvres, people, hors d’oeuvres! Plus: margaritas! By any measure, we feasted.) She filled a mason jar with wildflowers and set it on a table covered by a bright-patterned cloth, then decorated a windscreen with solar-powered party lights that glowed red, blue, and green as the sky faded to black.
We hunkered by the fire as the temperature dropped, eating and drinking and swapping stories. “You can’t check your cell phone out here!” I said to Daisy at one point, in what I thought was a lighthearted way. She glared at me without speaking, as only a teenager can.
I opened my tent in the morning and gasped. America the Beautiful indeed—right down to the purple mountains’ majesty. You have to believe in the divine on seeing this, though maybe less in the Judeo-Christian version than in the animism of the Native Americans. Clearly, spirits inhabit the sun, the flowers, the trees, the lakes, the mountains. How could anyone think otherwise?
We spent the next two days exploring this landscape. We never rode quickly—there were too many rocks and hoof-size holes that could badly injure a horse. It was not the horses’ gait but the terrain that challenged us as riders. We scrambled up and down seemingly vertical rock walls; along narrow, cliffside trails next to sheer drops. Melissa, ever patient, instructed us to lean forward toward the horses’ withers on the upslope, grabbing the mane if we felt tippy; that would help the animal along, shifting the burden of our weight. Going down, we did the opposite, leaning as far back as we could. She also reminded us to set our gaze forward, especially along the ledges, to where we wanted the horse to go (meaning Don’t! Look! Down!). I remembered how much of riding is about trust—trust in your horse and trust in your guide. I fixed my eyes resolutely ahead and believed.
There are all kinds of critters in the Tetons—wolverines, moose, elk, grizzly and black bears, bighorn sheep—but while we saw some tantalizing evidence, the only animals we directly encountered were marmots, who sat back on their haunches and whistled as we rode by. That was fine by me. I’d faced down my share of hungry black bears during summers in Yosemite and had no interest in further run-ins. The only beast I was really concerned with was my horse, Mud, who, perhaps recalling his regal history, was distinctly bossier than his equine peers. He insisted on walking in the grass next to the dirt trails, picked alternative routes down rocky slopes, tried to cut corners on switchbacks. He dawdled far behind the others, ignoring my repeated commands to “Walk on!” Eventually, I got over my citified qualms, gave him a sharp nudge in the ribs with my heels, and loosened up on the reins. That brought us closer to mutual respect.
During a ride on our second day, we hit the snow line at 10,000 feet, and the air became abruptly cooler. We jumped off our horses to check out the melting drifts, which were streaked pink and red: watermelon snow, Melissa said, a byproduct of algae. We scooped up a handful and sniffed. Sure enough, there was the fresh, clean smell of its namesake; eating it, though, would have made us sick.
We looped back toward Mirror Lake, the biggest in the basin’s chain. Rounding a bend, I pulled up short. Daisy and Melissa were up ahead, Daisy in a tank top, her hair tied in a bandanna; Melissa in a red cowboy shirt and hat. Daisy turned back to face me, framed by the mountains, the snow, the flowers, the sky, all of it reflected so distinctly in the lake that for a moment I thought I might be upside down. Then it struck me: This was what I wanted her to know about the West. It wasn’t nostalgic memories of her great-great-grandparents, though I still love those stories. It wasn’t even the injustice done to my husband’s community, though she needs to know that, too. It was the presence of this beauty, this sublimity, the potential for awe even when our country is at its most fractious. I wanted her to witness what the earliest inhabitants saw 11,000 years ago, what the European fur trappers saw in the 1800s, what her ancestors saw at the turn of the last century; what had made all of them want to call this place home.
I don’t know why I brought my bathing suit—forgetting would have been such an easy out—but after lunch on the granite banks of Mirror Lake, Daisy began to goad me into going for a dip in the 48-degree water. “Come on, Peggy,” she teased. “It will build character!”
“Peer pressure!” I yelped.
A little advice: Be careful what you tell your children when they’re little, because it will come back to haunt you. What my daughter finally said was, “Mom, you came all the way to Wyoming! You need to experience everything!”
And that, my friends, was game, set, and match—the precise logic I have used for years to wheedle her into activities she initially resisted. So I changed into my suit behind a tree and dived in (well before she did, I might add). The water was liquid ice, nor did it get warmer, though eventually my body numbed enough to enjoy it. We splashed around, floating, flipping, digging our toes into the mud, laughing together. Then, refreshed and invigorated, we hauled ourselves back onto the rocks, me admitting she was right: It would have been wrong to chicken out on this.
“That was a nice day,” Daisy said, later that night, as we slid into our sleeping bags.
“Do you think you’d ever take your child on a trip like this?”
She paused in the darkness. “I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe. I’m glad you and I are here.”
Blacktail threw a shoe on our last day, and the spare Melissa had brought didn’t fit. So Daisy rode B.J.’s horse, Pumpkin, down the mountain, leading Blacktail by a thick rope. B.J. rode Melissa’s horse, Lorie Darlin’ (also named for a character in Lonesome Dove), and Melissa walked with the mules. A few hours later, at the trailhead, Pumpkin realized she was close to home, and with Daisy’s hand loose on the reins, decided to pick up the pace. As she went from a trot to a canter, my jaw dropped and I felt my eyes widen, but before I could yell, Daisy dropped Blacktail’s rope and pulled Pumpkin around to a perfect, one-rein stop.
“You scared the wits out of me!” I sputtered when we caught up with her, but she just laughed. Grandpa Sam, I thought, would have been proud.