Headin’ for the hills on horseback

Published 11:02 am Saturday, November 28, 2015

by James. D. “Archie” Howell

Meeker Park Lodge offers a variety of horseback excursions. Some are a few hours; some extend into the evening with a cookout. We think an afternoon, or less, in the saddle is about our limit, and book a day trip into the mountains.

We show up at the stables along with a small group of others, ready to escape for a while. Our wrangler does introductions all around and we are assigned to our mounts for the day. The horse’s names are mundane — Daisy, Laurabelle, etc., until the last horse is assigned to a shrinking violet out for a first riding experience. Her mount is, of course, Devil Woman. We all laugh at the obvious. All except the intended rider. It takes her a little time to accept the fact that it really is a joke. But she mounts in good spirit and we single file it across the road into the woods on the far side of the main lodge.

The trail is well known to the mounts; each follows in the sequence of departure without wandering from the path. We begin the climb. Our destination is a water reservoir a few miles distant, but the destination is far less significant than sightseeing along the way. The trail is quiet — no traffic or other mechanical noises, just a little chatter among the guests, a few words from our wrangler and horse’s hooves muffled by a dirt trail. A peace settles over our group, and as familiarity grows with the rhythm of riding, our eyes stretch upward and outward.

It’s a wonderful experience. The sweetness of fir trees mixes with the scent of horses. A natural earthiness, recognized by my primal self, along with the others, fills a moving cocoon around us, isolating us from the past, insulating us from the future. Time is slowed to the pace of horse’s hooves. Vision is restricted to our path, then opened to vistas of distant mountains — green fir, brown bark, grey stone, blue sky, white clouds. Wildflowers peek from rocky niches on sunny ledges. Columbine in full blossom paint a blue overlay onto green backgrounds.

This area is still a part of the Rock Mountain National Park. The southern boundary extends a few more miles south of here and is probably better known to hikers and back country skiers than summer visitors. The terrain is rougher here, and no roads to the interior other than old logging trails are a general hindrance to the average visitor. Several hiking trails are fairly well marked, and these horse trails are kept clear by frequent summer use. Even then, in the spring, all the trails are inspected to see if snowfall or freezing has changed the landscape sufficiently to cause a rerouting.

Mother Nature is a powerful force in these mountains; she does not consult with mere earthlings as to what changes will be made.

The far end of the trail stops at a lake named Sandbeach. We dismount, to give the horses and our bottoms a rest. I think the bottoms need more relief than the horses.

It’s a nice overlook from the beach edge across the blue water into the hills beyond. The water surface reflects the color of a mostly clear sky. Banter is light among the riders and wrangler; conversation is a little difficult when riding in single file. There is a hitch set up to tie the horses and it feels good to stretch our legs free of the saddle.

The ride home is a little faster than the ride up. The horses, from long experience, know that it’s the homeward leg and their pace is noticeably quicker. Our wrangler also knows this pattern and she changes position in the line a few times to keep the a pace acceptable to the riders.

She also notices the typical afternoon showers arriving on this side of the mountains and we stop long enough to don the slickers attached to the back of the saddles. The bright yellow is sharp contrast to the darker foliage and horses. The shower is brief, just enough to wet the earth, not enough to cause runoff.

The smell changes on the trail; the shower washes a layer of dust from everything. Tree green becomes more vibrant; the increased humidity makes the air seem heavier, harder to breathe. Somehow the brief excitement raises the groups spirits and conversation is livelier.

We reach the forest limits, cross the highway and ride the hundred yards or so back to the lodge stables. It’s a pleasure to dismount and leave the care of the animals to the staff. A little stiff but happy, we return to the lodge.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at archiepix@kingwoodcable.com.