Today I learned how to take a pack saddle apart and put it back together again. Talk about a sense of accomplishment! That’s some complicated rigging.
It was my third wilderness outfitting and packing course with Smoke Elser. I am delighted to be learning from a horseman of his caliber. Smoke’s been guiding backcountry trips and teaching packing since before I was born; he’s also co-author of “Packin’ In On Mules And Horses.” I’m not sure if they make cowboys like him any more.
Some of my friends expressed surprise when I announced I was taking a packing course — several even assumed I was doing it to meet men. Honestly, that hadn’t even occurred to me. (Although once it did, I thought it was brilliant.) Here’s a little secret: I have been a wannabe cowgirl for about as long as I can remember. My dream of dreams has always been to own a stableful of horses.
In Smoke’s 100-year-old stone barn — warmed by a woodstove and strong coffee — I’ve been learning everything from horse and mule anatomy to basic veterinary care to leave-no-trace camping techniques. Not only is Smoke parting with a ton of hard-won information, he’s a master storyteller. He reminds me of my Grandpa Acey, an old Nebraska cowboy who bought me my first pony, then my horse.
I’ve met some roadblocks and wrong turns on my quest for cowgirldom, and I may never be the genuine article. My roughing-it days are probably behind me as well — I like my morning showers too much to seriously contemplate the backcountry. But I still love horses, and the smell of leather, and the swagger in my steps when I’ve gained a measure of competence.