We were all sick. That typical and expected byproduct of men coming together from all corners of the country, getting their immune systems mixed after being suppressed from being in a new environment full of stress. Not that the stresses weren’t something that we couldn’t and didn’t handle, but it’s still a system shock nonetheless. Sitting at the trailhead parking lot, horses saddled, packs weighed and measured and tied to our mules and pack horses, with a big green hogback wall to our east, we waited nervously to start riding into the wilderness.
Mark Bishop, the patriarch of the Bishop family out of Longmont Colorado gathered us men one last time. Mark offered us a prayer before we embarked. Mark is a stoic man, over 6 feet and maybe about 4 lbs of fat on a frame that has been forged over years of working their herd of houses, numbering in the high hundreds, at Sombrero Ranch in Colorado. Mark is not a man of many words, or prone to outbursts of silliness. Mark quoted the Bible and gave us well wishes while choking back emotion that we hadn’t seen before. Not one of the students can tell you that it took all our effort to hold it together seeing that side of that man.
Freda “Mama B” Bishop, Mark’s better half, gave me a hug and handed me her multi-tool for the road. “You’re going to need this cookie”. My job on the trip was going to be the camp cook. I volunteered for this job because we already had a “class medic” with one of the students being a Navy Corpsman and full-time firefighter. That was fine with me. I had spent my time in the Army as a medic, and I was looking forward to focusing on other tasks. I had a lot of experience cooking in backcountry settings through my experience with the Forest Service, my own experiences, and from being a graduate of NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) as part of my Wildland FireFighter Apprentice Academy with the USFS.
I knew that I could serve my brothers not with medicine but with food, hot, and ready. All the food out in the field is dehydrated, and basic, which I knew I could get creative with and ensure we had full bellies. That was my way of serving and I was happy to do so, though 3/4th of the way through our second pack trip, I was getting over it. With prayers said, cinches checked and rechecked, rain-resistant slickers (“Dusters”) rolled up at the ready, we made our way east with our nerves disgusted with high levels of enthusiasm and nonsense conversations and jokes to pass the time.
Throughout the course of that first 8-day pack trip, I would say that we covered anywhere between 115-130 miles, which at first glance might not seem like a lot of ground to cover in 8 days. 10 miles in the saddle in that terrain with weight constantly shifting, loads needing repacking, animals bickering with each other and not wanting to work, trails and direction becoming ambiguous, downed trees requiring bypasses or to be cut in half and dragged by the animals will wear you out.
Your core is engaged the whole time and you are using muscles I promise you, you’re not accustomed to using. Being saddle sore wasn’t a real issue for anyone except one of our poor brothers whose saddle pad was made out of stingray skin; it looked and felt super cool, but… the man’s poor behind was raw as raw can be by the end of that 8 days. We would average, I’d say, about 12-15 miles per day. Ethan Forester, our badass head wrangler, was our primary point man and he brought us to some of the most beautiful places, my favorite being Ramshorn Peak and it’s a beautiful lake with nearby Fortress Mountain to the north of us with BigHorn Sheep keeping tabs on us from above like a team of stalking Blackfeet Indians waiting to attack, our ever move in their sights.
The weather, for the most part, stayed in our favor those 8 days. It would rain almost every day, but just enough to keep things slightly weight and muggy. It was still just cold enough to keep the skeeters from eating you alive. By the end of those first 8 days, you could see a dramatic change in the abilities of all the students with their riding.
Yes, you’re mostly on trails during your time in the wilderness. Staying on trails keeps you from 1) getting lost (mostly) and 2) from causing unnecessary damage to the ecosystem as your heavy animals with shoes on tearing the soil up quite a bit. But there are some stretches of these trails that are real-world dangerous. I had my mule, Abby, get bumped by my horse C-star, and she rolled end over end about 30 feet down a steep slope, and all I could do was watch in horror, but thankfully Abby is built like a brick shithouse and she just shook it off, climbed back up, let us completely repack her, and get her back to work.
After 8 days we made our way back to Jumping Horse Ranch confident and accomplished and ready to download gear and shower. We downloaded our gear and tack and threw our dirty clothes in trash bags to be washed and made our separate ways to get phone calls home and showers done before we headed up to the lodge for some much welcomed warm chow that I wasn’t responsible for. I was talking to my soon-to-be best man on the phone when I heard a loud POP, that I knew as a gunshot. I didn’t think much of it, because earlier during our first week, a bull had gotten injured and had to be put down.
A few moments later, guys from Class 1 and Class 2 (my class) made our way back to the show barn to get picked up. Everyone was standing around talking about a horse that got shot after being injured. I heard the name “C-star”. My heart immediately shattered. My horse, C-Star, was standing in the corral when another horse kicked his leg when all his weight was on it, snapping it in half. The only humane option was to put him down. And so, they had to make a fast and difficult choice but to end his pain in the most common way with stock on a working cattle ranch.
I’m embarrassed to admit, but I couldn’t do anything but openly cry. I couldn’t stop myself. We drove up to our lodge, with my brothers comforting me. I was met at the lodge by CEO Micah Fink, Ethan, Bryan Roberts, and Doc Shannon to inform me of the news that I had already learned. I had gotten a lot more control of myself by that time. I explained to them I understood. I think the reason it hit me as hard as it did was that how much I cared for that animal after those 8 days. We had truly bonded and I knew that he was working for me and with me and not against me.
He was looking out for me, because he knew I was constantly looking out for him, giving him lots of love and dried apricots. Even typing this now, I am fighting back tears, which again, surprises me 6+ months after the fact. Brian did one if the most sincere and kindest gestures by giving me a length of his braided tail hair to be used later however I felt appropriate (still need to have Ethan make me a hatband or integrate it into a pair of chaps).
Yes, this place is real. My horse was now dead and my confidence was now at an all-time low there. C-star was the 3rd horse assigned to me after experiencing difficulty with the first two. Now I didn’t want to get back on a horse because I had to start all over again, but I had no option at this point. My next horse was a gorgeous grey named Parrot; a handsome, great horse. 2 of us students would stay at Jumping Horse while the 6 others would go south to another Ranch for a week for “Ranch Week”.
Ranch week consists of, well, ranch work.
Building and tearing down fences, clearing timber, feeding and sorting stock, pushing cows, learning how to work a ranch and what goes into it. To most, it’s not glorious and exciting, but I loved it because it was work. Work fairly similar to work I found in the Forest Service by just being a steward of the land. Just taking care of your land. You learn a tremendous amount during that week (if you haven’t noticed a theme yet, you spend a lot of time learning at H&H). While tearing down some 3k feet of barbed wire fence in a local Rancher Bob Beck, whose land we were working, came by and gave me and my partner some iced lemonade and brought us over to his property and taught us some of his championship team roping skills.
Once the gang got all back together at Jumping Horse, we started our next block of instruction and began Phase 2, where we implement a lot of the skills we had learned over the weeks and made our way to Russ Lewis’s property North of Helena, the state Capital. We had to push a good amount of cattle from his land over to the continental divide on Forest Service land. That experience and the view on top of the mountain were incredible and hard to describe if you weren’t there. It was at Russ’ that we spent our only night with a roof over our head in his garage after eating the best elk burgers and homemade fudge brownies ever made on earth. Russ’s wife spotted a couple of bears off in the distance foraging for moth grubs in the dirt, and we just watched.
After pushing the yearlings we made our way back to Jumping Horse, again, and started learning roping skills and other utility skills with the horses, like teaching them how to work around logs, and using your horse to drag logs and other obstacles while mounted. Like anything, some students took to it better than others. I was one of the “okayest” ropers, landing only one loop on the dummy that was dragged by a quad. It is and isn’t as hard as it looks. It’s definitely not something you’re going to pick up in two days.
Doc Shannon, before being a renowned veterinarian, spent a lot of time as a farrier and taught us a lot of blacksmithing and metalwork, and with Ethan, a lot of work with shoeing horses. I am not a farrier, that’s for sure. After, we did a lot of animal care education. Doc Shannon is an absolute master of his craft. And at age 50+ looks better and is in better shape, than most Special Operators I’ve known, which yeah, blows your mind. The guy is a stud.
With all this out of the way, the last task awaits 11 days packing in the Beartooth-Absaroka Wilderness, a couple of mountain ranges to the east of us. This pack trip was going to be longer and in more wild country. The Beartooths are undeniably beautiful, but you’ve got to earn it. With little fan fair this time, we embarked into the crags and trees once again. We would cover some serious distance and terrain more intense than the previous pack trip. For whatever reason, we had a lot of rust to knock off in the first couple of days. Ethan could sense that we needed a day to get ourselves straight, and picked the most incredibly beautiful lake to make camp.
There we fly fished and caught enough cutthroat trout to break up the monotony of rehydrated beef and canned chicken for a night. A few of the boys took the chance to jump in and swim, and you can imagine the hoots and hollers coming from them as they made their way into that frigid water; it was hilarious. Me, I’m not much for freezing my parts off, so I fished, smoked a couple of backwoods, and wrote in my journal, and took it all in. During that trip, I’d say we covered 150 miles easily, though I need to retrace the map that I saved, that I can still draw our route on.
Again, out here the consequences and environment are very real. One of our newer pack horses, Marv, was just having a string of back luck. Within the first 500 yards of our first day on the trip, he got his ropes caught up on a dead and downed tree. Ethan and I had to do some very fast intervention with knives to cut him free, and thankfully he got him uninjured, but I’ll tell you, we were nervous at first. Later, that same horse would throw a shoe, which normally is no big deal. Most of the animals would throw at least once a day, sometimes more.
Ethan, Deek, and Ben would stop the team, and re-shoe the animals. But one day, the instructors headed out a little bit ahead of us, to allow us to work together to get to our next camp. Marv threw a shoe with about 5 miles left to go, and with the skills we learned from Doc Shannon, we were able to fashion an emergency “boot” for Marv that didn’t want to stay on. The risk here is you can lame the animal over the rocky terrain. By the time we had made camp that night with our instructors, poor Marv’s foot was blasted and he did not want anyone to fix it. But, we had to.
There were no roads to take him to. If it didn’t get fixed, he could have been lamed to the point where he would have to be put down if it was bad enough. So some cowboy ingenuity went in, and we were able to tie him down, put all our body weight on his head to hold him still, and slowly, slowly, put his shoe back on. Deek Simcox has big, brass Ranger balls, I’ll tell you.
Near the end of the pack trip, I was getting frustrated with the fellow students that I felt weren’t pulling their weight around camp with camp duties and I was sick of making dinner and breakfast while guys hung out and sipped coffee. Deek and Ethan could tell I was getting pissed off. Deek and I talked while in a gorgeous meadow, the mosquitos no longer ignoring us. He told me that “you’re still living the Ranger Creed and representing Hotshot crews well out here.
You’re showing what kind of person Rangers and Hotshots are. So instead of spending energy being pissed off about others, be proud of what you’re representing and look around you, this isn’t going to be someplace you get to spend a lot more time at. You’re missing the view”. That conversation stuck with me. I couldn’t control others, only myself, and I was wasting energy being angry. I wish I had realized that earlier.
After 11 days, we were back at Jumping Horse one last time. We would only be here for about 3 days before we went home. After tearing down and cleaning up, showering, eating, we had the night off to take it all in. I didn’t want to go home. But I absolutely wanted to get home to my girlfriend and our kids. I missed them. I really ached to have Kacie with me again. But I didn’t want to trade Montana for Bakersfield.
Kacie had been a single mom while I was away, relying on real estate escrows to close to provide over those 40 days. The women at home holding it down while we were away playing Lonesome Dove are serious unsung heroes in all of this. I know she wanted me home, not another day longer. But we still had a couple more days.
Graduation was the night before we went home. Tecovas was generous enough to donate boots, jeans and ball caps to all the graduates. Really nice boots and jeans too. Thankfully, I had lost 15 lbs up there, so my rear end looked great in them. One of our brothers lost 45 pounds in 40 days… yeah…. Insane right? Very clean eating and work worked wonders for him. We all gathered in the “Hall of Wisdom”, a big round yurt we gathered most nights to talk about the books we were reading, “The Obstacle is the Way”, or just to have some cell phone charging while talking to our families back home. Micah, Rick Franco (the outgoing COO), our wranglers, and Chris Bova (the incoming COO) brought our graduation bags and spoke to us parting words.
“Turn the chessboard” was the focus. It was all about perspective. If you change your perspective on things when they are going poorly, a learned and practiced skill, you might be able to see things you couldn’t earlier. Turning the chessboard and looking at it from a different angle. I am paraphrasing a long conversation, but that is the biggest takeaway. It’s something that has been echoing in my head ever since. You have to turn the chessboard and observe it from a different angle, and you might see something you couldn’t see before. Opportunity.
We wrapped up graduation by handing out a couple of awards. Top Hand went to our Navy Corpsman classmate, while I got the “Golden Spoon”, which was basically a rattle canned large spoon as my award for being the camp cook. I laughed my ass off, I loved it and it hangs on my wall today. But the big prize was our big ass belt buckles made specifically for us. It is hard to explain why that belt buckle is one of my most prized possessions.
Cowboys have to earn their buckles, normally won at the rodeo, although other areas too. You’ll see an old boy who still wears his “Cheyenne Days 1977 Ranch Bronc Champion” buckles. It’s a status symbol in most circles. The other, and the probably biggest reason why it means so much to me, is that as a Hotshot you will get awarded a belt buckle after (typically) two seasons on the same crew.
Some crews vote on if someone is getting one, some don’t but generally, for most crews, you need two years. Between being moved as an apprentice after a season on Bear Divide Hotshots and breaking my femur at the end of my first and only season at Texas Canyon Hotshots (on the Angeles National Forest), I never got, and would never get, my buckle. That really made me sad when I would think about it. All the men I respected on the crews and on the forest had a buckle, but I didn’t. But now, I got mine. And it’s a big shiny beautiful dinner plate. And, we earned the shit out of them.
I can’t begin to thank The Havok Journal and the readers for their support in allowing me to tell my story. It’s been hard trying to cover it all, even with multiple 1500 words on the topic. I also can’t begin to thank Heroes and Horses for many things, but also for the opportunity to raise the flag and represent them through my story.
I believe in this program down to the very whiskers on the face of Parrot. This program changes lives. It absolutely does. The horse is one of the greatest teaching tools out there. Coupled with being away from home for 40 days where you’re only focused on these tasks is the only way to get this level of results. If you or a loved one is struggling with PTSD or depression, they need to apply to this program now, because the window for 2020 closes April 1st.
I miss everything about that place and I hope to one day return and help others and continue the message. I highly encourage you to check out the short documentary 500 Miles if you haven’t already. There is a change out there. I am currently writing more and in-depth in hopes of writing a book about it, to truly get into the details and depth that this program and programs like it deserve. I found something out there. I’m still not sure what the words are to describe what it was that I found, but I found something. I found my way home.
“The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man” – Teddy Roosevelt