The Direction of Water



Winner of the Wyoming Arts Council Fellowship in Creative Nonfiction



Note:

This excerpt is the beginning of Jayme's memoir manuscript.


1

We had trudged nine miles up that mountain, panting, sweating, and leaning uphill postholing through snowdrifts for the final two hours. Beneath my coat, sweat drenched my shirt. Snow had made its way down the shafts of my boots and soaked my socks. Woof lay down to gnaw at the snowballs on her pads.


On top of the pass, I clamped hands to knees and gasped for oxygen. The wind kicked up. I shivered, drew my collar tight around my neck, and leaned the brim of my hat as a break to the wind. My horse Concho and mules Big Mama and Snuffy Smith stood slumped and lathered. Their sides heaved in and out. Half of Montana, 578 grueling trail miles and forty-seven straight days of snow, sleet, and rain were behind us. In the distance below, the green East Fork Valley stretched to the next line of snowcapped peaks, the last mountains between us and our next supply box just over the Montana-Idaho line. Woof sidled up to me, wagging her tail, and I stroked her head. "We made it, girl."

The crossing had been a gamble. I had risked it because not enough food remained for me to ride 180 miles around. Anticipating failure, I had ignored my twenty-five-pound weight loss and had limited myself to two meals per day totaling about 850 calories.

The previous night I had pitched my tipi under a massive ponderosa pine next to a creek and agonized over a possible crossing. The full moon shone on the valley and illuminated the stock grazing, for a change, on knee-deep grass. The midnight sky drew my eyes to the southern mountains, a jagged silhouette that stood between hunger and satisfaction, between continuing or turning back.

We had ridden out at dawn and had not stopped except to catch our breath. Atop the pass, the sight of the emerald valley filled my legs with new life. I wanted to raise my hands in the air and dance a jig, but the sinking sun allowed no time for celebrating. Storm clouds were percolating up from the west. We needed to get off the mountain and set camp. I led the stock, tied together in a line, down the trail that emerged from beneath the drifts, and headed downhill. Concho followed, but Big Mama and Snuffy planted their feet and pulled back against their lead ropes.

“You mules want to camp up here in the snow?” I asked. “A storm’s coming. We have to get down from here.” I didn’t bother checking the map.

When we descended into the valley, I mounted Concho and led the mules down a muddy logging road that followed a meandering creek. Woof trotted along, wagging her tail to the joy of my singing. The sun slipped toward the horizon.

Right about dark, we reached a grassy meadow dotted with pines. A creek gurgled by. I can’t believe our luck, I thought. Two nights in a row we score the perfect campsite. Plenty of grass and water and another huge ponderosa under which I could make camp. And then I saw the large circle pressed flat in the grass precisely the size of my tipi.

My body went so limp that I nearly fell off Concho. I dismounted, not bothering to tie the stock. Who cares if they run away? I thought. I leaned back against the ponderosa and scraping bark against back, slumped to the ground. In several years of backcountry guiding, I had never gotten lost or ridden in a circle.

2

A month earlier, on the eleventh of May when the valley snows had barely melted, I had unloaded Concho, Big Mama, and Snuffy Smith, waved goodbye to the last familiar person I'd see for months, and ridden the quarter mile north to the Roosville Port of Entry that separates Montana, USA, from Alberta, Canada. I hadn't wanted to cross into Canada; instead, I needed the Canadian authorities to stamp my journal before I turned back and rode south toward our destination—Mexico. Pack mules Big Mama and Snuffy Smith followed like train cars. Woof trotted up to the drive-through. To her, it must have looked like a bank window. She looked through the glass and wagged her tail, begging for a dog biscuit.

The guards scurried to their positions, readying for action. For what, I didn’t know. Perhaps they believed the mules were transporting cocaine, a nuclear warhead, or counterfeit copies of Two Mules for Sister Sara. Several crammed into the window, and one guard opened it and shot me a puzzled expression.

“I’m heading to Mexico,” I said. “Will you stamp my journal?”

The guard stared. “You riding all the way to Mexico?”

“Yup.”

He nodded and searched my face for dishonesty.

*

The last time I had been at the Candian border, I was four years old, standing on the front seat of my father's '67 Barracuda. Lights flashed, and police cars blocked the road.

“Get down on the floor,” my father said.

I scootched onto the floorboard, covered myself with a blanket, and the car eased to a stop. My father, a man I barely knew, rolled down his window. His friendliness sounded forced. In a few seconds, the car began to move.

"It's okay," my father said. "You can get up now. They're Canadian." His voice sounded giddy as if we were free.

*

The border agent reached out and stamped my journal. Woof danced in place, and I flipped up the collar on my slicker, snugged down my Resistol, and touched heels to Concho’s ribs. “Time to go, horse. Git up.”

We followed the barrow pit south toward the Mexican border, a place I had envisioned for three years. I dreamed of being the first person to ride a horse the entire Continental Divide National Scenic Trail in a single season, an accomplishment that would jar my life out of a rut and into a groove, would turn me from a loser into a winner. I pictured my arrival: Family, friends, and a few reporters would clap, cheer, and toss confetti. The locals would smile and nod, and I would dismount, lead the animals to the border, and raise my hands in victory. I would kneel and kiss the earth.

To the east, foothills rose toward the peaks of Glacier National Park, my intended starting point on the Continental Divide from which rains, depending on which side of the Divide they fall, either flow east to the Gulf of Mexico or west to the Pacific Ocean. From Canada to Mexico, the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) twists, turns, rises, and falls three thousand one hundred miles along a loose connection of Rocky Mountain ranges, snaking its way through some of the wildest and most remote wilderness in the lower forty-eight. The trail, if you can call it that, follows the thin line that challenged Lewis and Clark, who traversed it twice. In the next two and a half months, I would cross it thirty-one times.

The key to riding the route south in a single season is staying healthy and making it through the San Juan Mountains in southern Colorado within the narrow window of time a rider can pass before snow blocks the way.

I departed Roosville already off-route and frustrated. Because the snow lay the deepest in fifty years, the ranger in Glacier—through which the CDT ran—had denied me an entry permit. I skirted the park on the highway, searching for a way to enter the mountains and reach the trail. We rode toward Eureka, Montana. Gray clouds cloaked the mountains, and State Highway 93 faded into the mist. A spring clipper had whistled in cold from British Columbia, and the land seemed to linger in limbo between winter and spring. A hint of green tinged the grass, but snow still covered the mountains almost to the valley floor. For me, a native Alabamian, these Rocky Mountain springs lasted too long. The green of summer always loomed around the corner and out of reach.

Two miles south of Eureka, I dismounted, tied Big Mama’s lead rope to Concho’s saddle horn, and led the string on foot. Aluminum cans, plastic, and glass bottles littered the roadside. It would only take one bottle to slice an animal’s pastern. As best she could, Woof tiptoed over and around the glass, but the stock plodded along, crunching aluminum and cracking glass under their steel shoes.

On the other side of the highway, a rusty Chevy pickup pulled over. In the bed of the truck sat an old riding lawnmower and two 2 x 10s. The driver waved as if he knew me. When I acted as if I didn't see him, he got out of the truck and headed straight for me without looking for traffic, waving his arms like an octopus and mouthing something. I considered making a run for it, but how fast could I flee with a horse and two pack mules?

The man stepped close and leaned into my space. “Where are you going?” His tone suggested he was more concerned with where I had been.

I thought about lying but couldn’t come up with anything believable. “Mexico,” I said.

He looked confused. “You’re going to Mexico?”

“Yup.”

"No kidding. To Mexico?"

“Yup.”

“Do you know the way?”

I wasn’t exactly sure what he meant, so I pointed south. “I think it’s thataway.”

“No, no. Do you know the areas you’ll be traveling through?”

“Not really, other than what’s on the map.”

The man's chest swelled, and he stuck out his hand. "My name is Fred. My son's a state trooper, so I'll phone him and get him to call down the line and check on you. You be careful now. A lot of people around here don't know what they're doing, but I'm running for judge, and when I'm elected I'm going to do something about it."

I had no idea what he was saying. “I appreciate it. I plan to follow the road south until I can get into the mountains.”

Fred stepped closer as if about to tell me a secret. “I travel up and down this road every day, so I’ll check up on you.”

“Do you know the next creek that crosses this highway? My stock are mighty thirsty.” Fred rattled off creek names and distances, but all I understood was that we would cross water if we kept going. He slapped me on the shoulder, and the animals and I continued south.

The clouds thickened and the rain began to alternate between drizzle and downpour. Five miles farther we reached a small creek, but the stock refused to drink. The water’s edge was too marshy. Like me, they were afraid of anything that restrained their feet, and they became so thirsty that they sucked from mud puddles along the way.

Ten miles past Eureka, dusk was descending. The mules began shaking their heads and nipping at one another. Public land for camping was unlikely, so we stopped at a rise in the highway and camped in the forest inside a barbwire fence. Without permission, would we be discovered and forced to leave at the point of a shotgun? The knot between my shoulders tightened. Not a soul on Earth knows our whereabouts, I thought. I wondered if God saw us, if he knew.

From the tarp covering the saddles and panniers, I scooped up a handful of rainwater and drank. Its bitterness settled heavy on my tongue. The stock needed grass, so I picketed Concho and Big Mama with two thin ropes in a small clearing and turned Snuffy loose, knowing he would not leave the others.

Standard open-range horse management requires a cowboy to keep a “night horse” tied and saddled in case the others run away, but this trip was so physically demanding that no animal could stand tied without eating. Concho, Big Mama, and Snuffy Smith needed to consume calories every minute we were stopped. If they didn’t eat enough, their bodies would steal energy from their muscles. After three or four weeks of overexertion and malnourishment, their muscles, ligaments, and joints would “lock up,” as the old-school outfitters describe it. Then no amount of food and rest would heal them. I would have to shoot them far from any trail so that hikers would not encounter bears feeding on their carcasses. My ambitions, I fretted, might kill my animals.

Big Mama and Concho swallowed almost without chewing, tearing and ripping grass and pulling their picket ropes taut, grazing in circles to the left like clock hands turning back time. Snuffy meandered among the timber, eating only the tender grasses. Woof rolled in dry pine needles and licked herself like a cat. A squirrel chirped, and Woof sprinted after it.

I thought about my late brother Dwan (“Dewayne”), who after his divorce many years earlier had moved to Montana to, I had assumed, reset his life and forge a new path. I wondered, Did he find what he had been seeking? Will I? Oh, how I wished he was camped with me to talk about it all. But it was too late for that, too late for a lot of things.

The air smelled stale as if spring had not erased the residue of winter. I raised the olive-green tipi by the center pole, staked down the hem, and spread a tarp under my sleeping bag. Soon, the heat from my collapsible stove dried my gear and warmed the tipi. Cotton balls saturated with petroleum jelly had started the fire, which, despite the wet pine twigs, burned hot. Smoke wafted through the stovepipe jutting through the top of the tipi. Beside the stove, Woof lay curled up with her nose tucked between her legs. I hung my wet clothes on a clothesline above the stove and lay naked on my sleeping bag, listening to the rhythmic sound of water plinking from my clothes onto the ground. Otherwise, the forest was silent. Woof’s chest rose and fell as she slept, steam rising from her coat. Periodically, the sound of car tires, ever faint, would pierce the silence. The volume would increase, and then headlights would fan through the forest above our heads, around the curve, and then fade with the sound of the tires. Silence again. I counted the minutes between cars passing on the road. Two, eight, seventeen.

*

I remembered my father driving his Barracuda through the darkness, humming “Bad Moon Rising” and exhaling smoke rings into the roof liner.

I always dreaded his arriving for Saturday court-appointed visitation. My mother had told me what a bad man he was. I cared nothing for him and would have hated him had I been old enough to know how. At first, he didn't come to the door. He sat in his dark green 'Cuda, his wrist cocked over the steering wheel, staring at the windows through which Mom and I were peeking. As minutes passed, my heart pounded waiting for him to skulk up the sidewalk, and when he knocked, I flinched. Following him to the car, I kept space between us, hoping he would not place his hand on my shoulder or tussle my hair.

The first words out of his mouth were always, “Ask me where we’re going.” I never did. I just stared out the car window because he was going to tell me anyway. That Saturday felt different, though. After he asked, he smiled, waited, and asked again. When I didn’t reply, he said, “We’re going on a trip.” I didn’t ask where. He laughed, slapped the seat, and put the car into gear.

During the flight to Canada, I didn't have to ride on the floorboard often. When I did, the motion made me sick, and I threw up down my shirt to keep from staining the carpet.

Three months later, after my father and I returned to the States, I peered out the window of a mobile home in Houston, Texas, not knowing whether the men in the dark sedan and suits were good guys or bad. When they rapped on the front door, I hid behind the couch. My father opened the screen door.

A voice carried a tone of authority. “James Fuller Henderson?”

“Yes?”

Something banged into the door, and feet crowded through. Tussling. The movement stopped on the far side of the trailer, and I peered around the couch and saw my father with his cheek pressed against the wall and his hands behind his back. I slipped back behind the sofa and heard several feet walking through the trailer. Closet doors and cabinets opened, and a pair of shoes clomped around the living room. I squeezed under the couch, and the shoes approached. The toes nearly stepped under the skirt, but they paused and then walked around the end of the couch. I felt it sliding above me, and I shimmied with it. The shoes then turned and walked away and out the front door. The piston on the screen door hissed until the latch clicked, and the trailer fell silent.

I wiggled from under the couch and peeked out the window in time to see the sedan driving away. My father sat in the back seat bookended by two men. Whoever they were, they had seized him, but I had gotten away.

Somehow I landed at my father’s sister’s house across town for a few days. My cousins and I dueled with wood swords. Every so often I looked out the windows as the adults did. They seemed to be waiting. For the men in the dark car and suits, I thought. I played with my cousin’s set of toy car keys, rolled them around and around in my hand because I needed something to hold.

One day a sheriff's cruiser stopped in front of the house, and a deputy marched up the sidewalk and rang the doorbell. He told me to come with him and swept me into his arms and carried me to his car. The back door opened revealing my mother, the terrible woman about whom my father had ranted. I didn't let her hug me, didn't cry, just crowded away from her against the far door watching Houston pass in a blur. A few miles down the road I felt the toy keys in my pocket and felt a flood of elation over my escape and despair over being unable to go back.

*

All night I rose every hour to tie the grazing animal to the highline and release another to eat. The practice reduced each animal’s grazing by two-thirds, but as the old packers say, “It’s better to count ribs than tracks.” Thin horses are better than missing horses. Most packers travel for only a week or two before returning home for extra hay and grain. We would be on the trail for six to seven months. If I didn’t find a better grazing method soon, I’d be counting carcasses instead of ribs.

Inside the tipi, Woof curled up into a ball on my sleeping bag. After kicking her off several times, I finally gave in and lay next to her hoping for morning. For three years I had worked and scrimped, skipping meals to save enough money to purchase animals, equipment, and supplies. Now I wondered why. What had I been thinking?

The rain had stopped, but droplets dribbled off leaves and limbs, plinking in symphony onto the forest floor. It’s a long way from here to Mexico, I thought. In my head came words that felt like my thoughts but sounded like someone else’s. KEEP RIDING. DON’T STOP.

3

My previous ten years had been a bust, and I no longer knew myself—or perhaps I did and wanted to forget. After my divorce and closing my management consulting practice in Tampa, I had escaped to Wyoming to write a business book while working on a ranch. Never finished it; never got past page forty. Instead, to my friends and family back home I penned long letters about my Wild West adventures. The stories poured from a well deep inside me, a place I hadn't known existed. I couldn't stop writing. One summer in Wyoming stretched to ten years, and I turned forty years old having no goals or direction. I had cycled through a plethora of menial jobs—landscaping grunt, photographer's assistant, dude wrangler, house caretaker, horse packer, retail clerk, dog fence installer—and my financial reserves had long since played out. The locals perceived me as another Jackson Hole outdoor-lifestyle bum, looking through and past me as if I were invisible.

At first, I shrugged. Soon I would remake myself, and people would again perceive me as a person of value. But as a decade whirred by, my failures mounted. I had no home, no career, no health insurance, no retirement savings, and barely enough money to eat. My spinning in circles began to rub a hole in the ground, and I started to see myself through others' eyes.

My aha moment came, of all places, in Teton Barber Shop. Betty spun my chair, draped the bib over me, and asked the usual question. “What are you doing these days?” Excited, I was readying to explain my plan for a last-hurrah horseback ride along the Continental Divide before launching a new career, but I had barely begun when she held up her hand. “Wait a minute. Don’t tell me,” she said. “I don’t want to hear about it until it comes to fruition.”

Fruition. She had no idea about the rawness of the nerve she had struck, but for weeks her words reverberated. Like an odometer that passes some milestone and can’t be reset, something in me clicked. I promised myself I wouldn’t say another word to her about my goings-on until I achieved something noteworthy.

On the surface, the facts supported others' opinions of me. Maybe I needed to accept the truth. But what was the truth? Since my late teens, I'd been blessed and cursed with the belief that I was meant to do something meaningful with my life. Perhaps narcissism, rationalization, or vanity drove me, but I needed to keep the shards of my self-image gathered into a neat pile. Whatever the reason, I needed to stare at the pieces and hope, however thinly, that somehow I could reassemble them. But maybe some things cannot be made whole. I thought, Can I still have the life I want, or must I find contentment in the life I have?

4

In the morning a hole in the fog allowed a glimpse of the mountains, which looked as if someone had sifted flour over them. The snow line extended down a couple hundred feet above the valley floor. I checked the map for possible routes into the backcountry, but the mountains were buried in snow for at least a hundred miles south. This trip had not started as I had imagined. Woof wriggled out from under the hem of the tipi and stretched as if practicing yoga. The mules brayed, pulled at the highline, and pawed.

“What’s the matter with y’all? Can’t you wait five minutes for breakfast?”

While the stock grazed, I downed a granola bar and shoved the damp gear into the panniers. Again, Concho would be my saddle horse. I had purchased him for $1,500 locally from my friend Pam, a ranch woman and single mom who, after learning I was looking for a strong Morgan, said she had the perfect gelding. She said she loved Concho and hated to part with him but could use the money. Would I give her the option to repurchase him if I ever sold him? Sure. Although he wasn't a polished saddle horse, he immediately impressed me with his strength and athleticism—the jock, the strong one. A barrel-chested chestnut Morgan, he was powerful enough to climb any mountain and stupid enough not to argue. We spent three summers and falls getting ready. If I were to point him at a cliff and squeeze his sides, he would walk right over the edge. Unlike Concho, the mules would plant their feet at the precipice as if saying, "If you want to kill yourself, go ahead. We aim to live a bit longer."

There’s a big difference between riding a horse and a mule. A horse’s rider, like a bachelor, can make his own decisions, but a mule’s rider, like a married man, has to consult the mule about everything. Having an opinion earns the mule the reputation “stubborn as a mule.” It’s a myth. Most mules are amiable and willing to please, and although they are generally healthier and can survive on lower-quality feed, they have an inner drive for self-preservation. If a mule perceives danger, neither coaxing nor dynamite will change its mind. But when riding in rough country, who wouldn’t want to ride an animal genetically programmed to avoid trouble?

Still, along the highways I had more confidence in Concho. Big Mama, the easier of the two mules to lead, continued as the lead pack animal. When buying her, I had violated Equine Purchase Rule No. 1: Never buy without seeing the animal in person. But a friend, who had driven six hours to look at Big Mama, had said, “If you don’t buy her, I sure will.” From photos, I had seen she had the build and size I needed, but she had never been started under saddle. No problem, I thought. I’ve started plenty of horses. The first week I worked with her, she kicked me in the thigh while trying to escape a pair of hobbles, and dropped me in a heap. When I finally dragged myself out of the round pen, I had to tape a walking stick to the clutch pedal to drive to the emergency clinic. So began our relationship.

Snuffy Smith, ever in his own world, continued as the caboose. After my mistakes with Big Mama, I had selected him from a friend's experienced herd but had violated Equine Purchase Rule No. 2: Ride before buying. At home, the first ride went well. Snuffy walked, trotted, loped, and stopped like a real pro, so I was too relaxed when dismounting. When my right leg passed over his rump, he shot to the side as if someone had shoved him. One second I had been riding him, the next, I hung in the air like Wile E. Coyote in a Road Runner cartoon. That night I called my friend for more information. She said, "We don't know a lot about him. We bought him from a blind trainer in Texas." So began my relationship with Snuffy.

The rain fell again—in sheets. It had come up quickly. No use donning my slicker. My clothes clung like wet towels, and water poured off the brim of my hat. The whole world was wet. Not yet green and growing, the land smelled musty, like a load of laundry left too long in the washer. Perhaps the rain would flush winter away. In the saddle, I shifted from side to side, but the muscles in my legs and lower back ached. Woof bobbed along, shaking off the water. Too far away for me to control, Snuffy kept pulling back from Big Mama. I leaned forward with Big Mama’s lead rope and drew her toward me to pull Snuffy along. Stretched from both ends, she pinned her ears back and walked down the side of the road with a put-out look as if saying, “I ain’t gonna put up with this for long.”

To avoid the mud, Snuffy kept easing over onto the pavement. A tractor-trailer rumbled toward us from behind. “Get off the damn road, Snuffy!” The semi honked, and Snuffy tucked tail and scooted off the road, slamming into Big Mama. The rig shot by, and two minutes later, Snuffy eased back in the lane. Most drivers saw him and moved over, but a few blasted by within a foot or two. After a few miles, Snuffy didn’t even flinch. He walked the white line, nibbling grass along the roadside. With dry feet and a steady supply of grass, he would have walked to Argentina.

By midafternoon, the rain subsided. Lodgepole pines, straight as a plumb line, stretched uniformly toward the sun streaming through openings in the clouds. An orchestra of birds chirped. Wildflowers not yet in bloom poked through the topsoil in the fields, and cows chomped on new grass.

A rusty pickup truck pulled to the side of the road. Fred. “How are you doing?” he asked.

“Pretty good.” I was walking to rest my legs. “Just trying to keep from getting killed on this highway.”

“Yeah, it gets pretty narrow. But you’re making great time.”

“You think so? I guess things feel slower at three miles per hour.” I shrugged. “I’m going as fast as this train will go.”

“Yep. But in another day you’ll be past Whitefish.” Fred held up a small bag. “Look. I brought you something.” I separated the stock and tied each to a tree. Fred handed me a State of Montana sticker.

I chuckled. “Aren’t these the kind of stickers people put on the back of their motor homes?”

Fred grinned. “Yeah. I saw it in town and thought you might like it.”

I peeled off the backing, rubbed the mud off Snuffy’s pannier, and affixed the sticker. “What do you think?”

“Perfect. Now you need one for every state.” Fred laughed. “How was your first night out? The rain give you any trouble?”

“Not really. The only real problem was the stock breaking their tethers and running off. I packed picket ropes that were too thin. Trying to save weight, you know.”

“What kind of rope do you need? I can stop in town when I pass through tomorrow.”

“Oh, I couldn’t ask that of you.”

“You didn’t. I offered. Now, what do you need?”

“Well, it needs to be lightweight and something soft enough not to burn the animals’ legs. Cotton’s the best. I need maybe a hundred feet.”

“You got it.”

“I appreciate that.”

“When you get to that cutoff road I told you about, you look around for a sign.”

A road sign? Farm sign? Manna from above? Fred’s expression said I’d recognize it.

“I don’t know how to thank you.”

“You don’t have to. Just do something for someone else sometime. I’ll tell my son the trooper to look in on you.” Fred shook my hand, jumped into his truck, and drove off.

5

Eager to pull camp before first light, I skipped breakfast. In the glare of my headlamp, Concho's and the mules' ribs seemed pronounced, and I released Snuffy to graze. Watching him feed, Concho and Big Mama pawed and pulled back on their ropes, but they were too hungry and tired to muster much of a fight. As fast as possible, I packed by the headlamp's light, stuffed the frost-covered tipi into its sack, and loaded up. Concho and Big Mama each grazed briefly. Woof watched the loading; she bounced on her back legs like a pogo stick.

Tacking the horses had always excited her, and she loved the backcountry even more than I—digging for mice and voles, swimming rivers, treeing squirrels, scenting wildlife, rolling in pine needles, and running free as a dog should. I had adopted her from the Jackson-Teton County Animal Shelter after her owner surrendered her before vacationing in Europe. Named Lulu then, she and I had walked around the parking lot for all of three minutes before I knew she was my dog. The first few days when something or someone new came around, she would give a quick, low bark, a "woof" sound. I told her, "If you don't learn to pipe down, dog, I'll have to name you Woof."

Of course, she never stopping woofing, and she learned to push cattle, horses, and mules. She has been kicked into somersaults and knocked out cold, has trotted in front on trails, and has turned aside a runaway mule that may have hit me head-on. Every morning with tongue lolling and ears flying she helped me herd horses on the ranch where I worked. When a stranger drove into the ranch or a bear strolled into camp, she woofed. For her, life began when hitting the trail. The backcountry was her domain.

We moved out along wide, gentle roadsides, me riding Big Mama and Woof bounding along with her tail flagging like a fox. The morning sun, that glorious light that makes every color seem more brilliant, streamed over the mountains and warmed my face. Fred had promised to deliver the map and picket ropes today, but I wasn't counting on it. He had said he would leave the supplies at the intersection of the highway and the bypass around Whitefish, but Fred was nowhere to be found. Then just inside the barbwire fence, I saw a rock weighing down a scrap of folded paper on a stump. I unfolded the note and looked around to see if Fred was watching from afar. "Look in the corner of the pasture. Have a great trip. Fred."

A pile of grass clippings hid a plastic bag containing a book of maps and a rope made of interwoven nylon—sure to burn the animals’ hocks but better than nothing. I wished Fred were around to talk for a while and to tell me about himself and his life. I ripped out the maps I might need and cut the rope in two, melted the ends, and tossed each length into a pannier.

In Whitefish, trees lined residential streets. Highway 93 widened to five lanes bordered by restaurants and strip malls. Aromas of hamburgers, fried chicken, and tacos wafted from restaurant exhaust fans. At each restaurant, I stared ahead trying to ignore the urge to stop and eat, but the smell of Wendy’s hamburgers broke me. I tied Snuffy and Concho to a tree in an empty lot behind the restaurant and released Big Mama to graze. She would not leave the others, and the grass would interest her too much for her to run into the highway. Woof lifted her nose and looked at me, begging to follow. “Stay, Woof. You look after the stock.” She cocked her head and watched me trot toward Wendy’s.

Hamburgers sizzled on the grill and fries gurgled in the fryer. Gawking customers broke my trance. A modern-day Jeremiah Johnson lookalike with soiled clothes and body odor. I carried my order for a #2 Combo with extra cheese to the far end of the restaurant and gulped it. Because of a shrinking stomach, I could eat only half the burger and stood at the garbage bin debating whether I should carry the leftovers in my saddlebag. Bear bait, I thought. Better throw it away. I sauntered back to the counter. “May I speak to the manager, please?”

A clean-cut, potbellied man appeared wearing a tie printed with multicolor hamburgers. I held up my camera. “Sir, if I ride through the drive-through with my pack string, will you take our picture?”

With his mouth open, he stared and looked out the drive-through window at the stock. "I guess so," he said.

I strung the animals together, mounted Big Mama, and cut in front of a car ordering at the speaker. The driver glowered but pulled in behind, shaking her finger and mouthing obscenities.

Oh crap, I forgot Woof. She was still in the stay position in the grassy area. “Woof, come.” She rocketed over and stood between Big Mama and the drive-through, making eye contact with the attendant and wagging her tail. I couldn’t believe I had forgotten to save the leftover hamburger for Woof. “I’m sorry, Woof. I’m so sorry,” I said. As if a dog can understand English.

“What a sweet dog,” the attendant said and leaned out the window offering a Wendy’s bag. How nice, I thought. They’re giving us a parting gift. French fries? A Frosty?

The manager held out the camera, stepped here and there, and pressed the shutter, and the attendant handed me the bag. It felt light. Empty, a prop for the picture.

Leaving the drive-through, we headed down the sidewalk. Ahead, Whitefish fizzled out. A few open spaces stood between strip malls and businesses, but the map showed no public land. Where could we camp for the night? A pickup cut in front of us and a man with purpose and a stern look got out and stalked toward us. “You looking for a place to stay?”

The headline in the newspaper might read, “Anti-government militia kidnaps cowboy, dog, and equines.”

I wasn’t sure what to say. “I was going to look for a campsite when we got south of town.”

His face showed no expression. “We have a place near here.”

“I don’t want to put you out.”

“Follow me.” Without waiting for a response, he hopped into his truck and sped off. Weaving three equines and a dog across five lanes to the other side of the highway, I trotted the string to keep the truck in sight. We passed a school and rode through a subdivision. On the far side, each large and well-landscaped house sat on a small parcel of land. The truck turned down a blacktop driveway toward a matching barn and a house surrounded by flowers. Several warmblood horses and two pairs of matching mules trotted along the fence line whinnying. Concho whinnied back, but Big Mama and Snuffy feigned disinterest.

A woman smiling from the driveway greeted us, and the man got out of his pickup and stood beside her. "I'm Mike Foster, and this is my wife, Karen. We can throw the horses in the corral and toss them some hay."

"I sure appreciate it. I won't know what to do with my animals inside a fence. I might sleep through the night."

The bathroom smelled fragrant like a woman’s. I soaked in the tub until my flesh hung on my bones like stew meat and the water turned cold. We had circumvented Glacier National Park, had ridden parallel to the first section of the Continental Divide Trail on the highway. Even if I were to ride the CDT the rest of the way to Mexico, I couldn’t claim to have ridden it entirely. From day one I had failed in my attempt to be the first person to ride the length of the CDT in a single season. When I pulled the plug, black scum ringed the tub. I needed to avoid busy Kalispell, to turn east and take my chances heading toward the Divide. But first, I had to find the best way to cross the mighty Flathead River.

The Fosters’ kitchen smelled like pork chops and green beans.

“You sure you don’t want something?” Karen asked.

My body had been telling me to eat, to fatten like a bear, but the Wendy’s meal still sat in my stomach like an anvil. “Sure smells good,” I said, rubbing my stomach. “But I’m still full from lunch.”

Mike finished his dinner and pushed his plate back. “Years ago I packed for the Forest Service in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. I know a route that will get you through the mountains.”

“Is the snow too deep?”

“Yes, but snow won’t be your biggest problem. The runoff will be running high. If you don’t follow my directions exactly—if you make one wrong turn—you’ll be in trouble.” Mike watched my face to make sure I was listening.

“How will I cross the Flathead?”

"You'll cross it twice. The first, a wide bridge, will be a piece of cake. The second is a bridge just this side of Hungry Horse. It's old and narrow, but it's the only way. Once you cross it, you're almost to the backcountry."

Backcountry. The word soothed me. No traffic, noise, or people. Only scenery, adventure, and wild country—but snow-covered. I wouldn’t be able to ride high along the Divide. I’d have to stay low until the snow melted enough to climb to the CDT.

During the night, I kicked off the sheet and bedspread. The stuffy indoor air wouldn’t allow me to rest, and I cranked open the window and crawled onto the floor, trying to sleep with my face to the breeze.

That night I marveled, as I would many times in the coming months, at how strangers had helped without even knowing who I was.

*

Forty years old, I had phoned Vital Statistics in Alabama to obtain an original birth certificate, a requirement for renewing my Wyoming driver’s license. The man on the phone said, “Mr. Feary, this is odd, but we have no record of your birth.”

I chuckled. “Someone has made a mistake,” I said. Then it occurred to me why he couldn’t find my record.

Ten years old, I had sat alone with Judge Holmes in his chambers in the Birmingham courthouse. He pulled up a tufted chair to the corner of his expansive desk and invited me to sit. My legs hung without touching the floor, and I faced His Honor. He asked me if I wanted a Big Orange soda, and I shook my head.

“Son, do you ever go fishing with your stepfather?”

By the time I turned three my mother had married my stepfather, Tom Feary, whom I called “Daddy.” I loved biting into his burgers hot off the grill, camping in a tent near the beach at Gulf Shores, and accompanying him to work at the University of Alabama Medical School, where he was a microbiologist, and where he let me peer through microscopes at mysterious splotches of pink and green. I loved fishing alongside him with cane poles in a jon boat on Smith Lake.

"Yes, sir. We like to fish." I understood the purpose of Judge Holmes's questions: He and the two other judges on the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals needed to decide if I belonged to Daddy or my biological father, Jim Henderson. Two years prior a lower judge had ruled my father, Jim Henderson, had abandoned me, and he had approved Daddy's petition to adopt. Now my father argued that for eighteen months job loss and a forced out-of-state move had kept him from visiting and paying child support. The judges had to determine the merits of my father's appeal to reverse the lower court's ruling and remand my adoption or let the earlier ruling stand.

When Judge Holmes summoned everyone into the courtroom to announce their decision, my father sat on the opposite side from Daddy and Mom. I felt like I should sit with them both, but couldn't split myself, and half of me wouldn't satisfy anyone. Years of resentment and anger on both sides compounded the tension in the room. I picked at the tacks on the arms of my chair and searched Judge Holmes's face for their answer. According to the law, he said, my father had not abandoned me. "The adoption is reversed." My surname reverted to my birth name, and I became a different person with a different father of record—again.

But by then Daddy seemed like my real dad. I didn’t want to change my name, so Mom, Daddy, and I ignored the judge’s decree. I continued using my adoptive birth certificate and social security card in the name of Feary, which matched medical and school records changed at adoption. Everyone knew me as Jayme Feary, so no one ever questioned the name. In time I forgot the adoption reversal. Until the good man at Vital Statistics.

Our ignoring the court’s order means that for thirty-six years I lived a lie. To those persons who knew me as Jayme Feary, I apologize. My real name was Jayme Henderson. I think.



Story Behind the Story...


This manuscript, which took me thirteen years to write, started out as a simple adventure story, but gradually I realized it wasn't worth publishing because it offered nothing deeper. Slowly I accepted that I must open up and write about the rest of my life in a way that helped readers understand why a person would take off on such a crazy expedition.

© 2020 by Jayme Feary, Teller of Stories