Two Things I Learned Horseback Riding Through Rocky Mtn Natl Park
It is never a good idea to enter – and win – an Eat 50 Wings in 30 Minutes contest the night before a five-hour horseback ride through the Rockies.
I understood the inclination, though. My brother’s friend Kat works as a server at the West End Tavern on Pearl Street in Boulder, and the night before our trail ride, the restaurant was having a viewing party for the season premiere of that classic ode to gluttony, Man v. Food. The episode had been filmed at the West End, as fat-cheeked host Adam Richman attempted to win the Wing King crown. Richman, his piggy face slimed with grease and buffalo sauce, failed.
But even as we watched the broadcast of his sad downfall, we bore witness to Gunnar’s truimph. It wasn’t easy, and it sure wasn’t pretty, but he managed to consume 50 wings in under a half-hour.
The next day, we arrived at Glacier Creek Stables just after 7 in the morning. Gunnar, who had ingested copious amounts of Pepto-Bismol, Immodium and Tums, started out decidedly frisky despite both his meal the night before and the early start. But around about hour three, the color left his cheeks and he began moaning very softly.
“You ok there, Gun?”
“I am am going to puke right over the side of this horse,” he replied, surprisingly calm.
“Hang tough, there, big guy, “ I answered, carefully but quickly guiding my horse away from him. “Breath deeply. Through your mouth,” I called over my shoulder. “That’s it…”
(It should be noted that Gunnar, in a heroic effort worthy of the most lauded and loved Roman gladiators, managed not to hurl.)
When descending a switchback trail 1,000 feet down the side of a Rocky Mountain, it is crucial to make your horse stay on said trail, lest your guide turn white-faced and apoplectic.
I must admit when we emerged from the tree line into a clearing on a mountaintop and our guide announced cheerfully, “We’re gonna be taking that switchback right down to that road down there” – and that road looked like a piece of grey yarn it was so far below us, and the trail didn’t look much wider – I got a little nervous. The mountainside was so steep it might as well been a cliff, really, and we were sitting on big animals that could quite possibly take a wrong step, plunging us horse over human over horse over human down a mountain.
But before I could muster a protest, we were on our way, the view spreading out unencumbered and unending around us almost unbearably majestic. Our guide, who was riding first in line, with Gunnar just behind him and me behind Gunnar, pointed to a range of snow-capped peaks to our right.
“That’s the Continental Divide right there,” he said. Tears filled my eyes, and a smile slid across my face. “Ok,” he continued, “It’s gonna get trickier from here on out. There will be a lot of boulders and rocks on the trail now. It’ll be easier for your horse to lose its footing.”
I kept snapping pictures because if I plunged to my death, I wanted to be able to at least share the wonderful scenery with my grieving parents. Moments later our little line halted. Gunnar’s horse, a massive draft, was refusing to advance between two boulders. As the horse bucked his head and snorted, the guide said, “You have the control, you have to force him.”
And then the horse began to back off the tiny path. The ground beyond seemed to plummet almost straight down, but he managed to place one enormous hoof on it. Time stilled and it got very quiet. I glanced at the guide. He jaw was hanging open. He appeared to be trying to speak, but no words were coming out. The horse, impossibly, took another step into what should have been thin air. I looked at Gunnar, pretty sure he and the horse were about to fall spectacularly off the side of the mountain.
But very suddenly, the horse was around the boulder and back on the path. No one said anything for a while, until the guide, a sweet-faced 19-year kid, muttered, “Wellll, that was close.”
And yet, despite the threat of projectile vomiting and falling off of mountains, I have no regrets. And, in fact, I’d encourage anyone with a taste for adventure to trail ride through the Rockies because honestly and truly and cross my heart, it really is the best way to experience it. We saw elk and mule deer and raging streams and quiet fields…and that view from the switchback trail? I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.
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