This is what I experienced on my first pack trip with P.J. Loomer of P Diamond J Outfitters and her Paint Horses into the Pecos Wilderness in New Mexico's Santa Fe National Forest. www.fs.fed.us/r3/sfe/recreation/wilderness.htm.
I'm from the Netherlands. I've been traveling your beautiful country for 15 years or so, trying to find the gorgeous colors of your famous Indian summer, trying to see aspen in autumn foliage as John Denver describes in his songs so well. Most of the time, I was too early, or I was too far away to enjoy the splendour of it all.
Taking the Plunge
I love to ride on horseback, but outside the corral, not at a riding school as is common for not-so-experienced riders like myself. It took a friend of a friend to hook me up with his friend, P.J. She takes clients horse camping in the Pecos Wilderness, where there are deer, elk, bighorn sheep, and lots of other animals around, and no motorized vehicles allowed. All in all, it appealed to me a whole lot.
It only took me a year to go for it. A lot of scheduling was needed before the trip could be executed. The trouble was not only getting there, but also, what to bring on such a trip. P.J. had unknown things to me on the list of what to bring; waterproof duffle bag and long handles were unknown in my English vocabulary.
In 2002, I took a dive and jumped into the unknown. I flew to Dallas, Texas, where I met Janice Hamill and Nancy Blank, sisters who'd been going on this kind of trip for nine years before I joined them. We connected immediately, enjoying the same things and speaking, mostly, the same language.
We drove 1½ days to New Mexico, then waited at the appointed parking lot. At 3 p.m., a line of Paint Horses emerged from between the trees and through a gate. They'd been quite busy all morning and needed a rest before heading up to camp again. During our wait, I finally got to meet this special friend P.J. Loomer in the flesh. We kicked it off right from the start. I found myself another good friend away from home.
An Adventurous Start
My first ride in years was partly in the dark, but my horse knew exactly where to go. Paint Horses, with their white patches, are easy to see when riding in a string in pitch-black surroundings. I just trusted the horses and P.J. to get me safely down the trail.
The trail was well-ridden, but by dusk, we had to avoid tree branches, and cross streams, rivers, and fallen logs. This adventure sure got off to a really good start. I was wondering what else was waiting to happen the coming week.
We arrived at camp, some 10,000 feet above sea level. We all unpacked and unsaddled the horses that did all the work to bring us to this elevation. Bathrooms were behind a tree, some 10 feet higher than our tents were located, and right there I experienced the altitude when I breathed.
After good food and coffee, it was time to get settled for the night. P.J.'s large guest tent was turned into a local "Hilton," with a stove and plenty of wood to burn.
The next morning, we woke up at the crack of dawn, which isn't hard, being in the middle of the Pecos Wilderness surrounded with horses on hobbles neighing to each other, Camp Robbers (gray jays) trying to steal the Australian Shepherds' (Dallas and Denver's) food from under their noses, wind blowing through tall pines, and coffee being brought into our tent by our hostess, P.J.
Breakfast was hot, and there was plenty of it. As we ate, we talked about where we might ride to: Pecos Baldy Lake, Dry Lake, Truchas Peaks (the area's highest point), Cerrito del Padre, Picture Rock, Trailriders Wall.
I didn't mind where we went, as long as we took long rides visiting gorgeous wilderness with possible sightings of deer, elk, bighorn sheep, grouse - just God's country at its best.
We got to choose which horse we'd like to ride for the day. P.J. knows which horses have been ridden, so any one horse doesn't get worked too hard. I'd just ridden Tinkerbelle coming in, so I just had to find a horse with a comfortable walk.
All the horses were as kind as could be; even a person as green as myself could ride these gorgeous animals. They do almost anything you want them to, apart from putting you in danger. And they do stand still when you mount and dismount, most of the time. Dogs and people don't scare them; neither do gunshots. Big, flying bags waved in front of their eyes will make them move, but so would I.
The first day, we took a "short" ride to a lookout over the meadow we'd passed the previous evening in the dark. The spot is at the start of the Powder-Puff trail that leads to the top of Trailriders Wall.
The view was breathtaking. The aspens were just starting to show their colors. Green, orange, and yellow showed between dark-green pine needles and on dry meadows under New Mexican blue skies.
While we enjoyed the scenery, a bighorn sheep watched us from the edge of Trailriders Wall. We moved on a bit farther to visit Pecos Baldy Lake, for lunch in the sun.
It was September, but don't tell the people back home in the Netherlands. They couldn't grasp the fact that despite the altitude, we were taking off our coats and lying back, just relaxing and enjoy the scenery.
Again, we were being watched. This time, a Camp Robber found us. These birds are serious animals, as far as food goes. Before we headed back to camp, I took pictures of Pecos Baldy covered with stray snow.
Ride to the Peaks
The next day, we went to Truchas Peaks at a mere 13,000 feet. Riding Tinkerbelle is sheer pleasure. I'm only 5-foot-3-inches tall, so I had to climb a mountain named Tinkerbelle using rocks or fallen trees, or by placing her on a low point on a sloping trail before I was seated comfortably. But when I did, I didn't want to get off. She felt like my comfy chair back home.
The ride to the peaks is luckily done on horseback, as the horses were already used to the altitude. Me, I still needed to catch my breath just visiting the bathroom. We climbed 3,000 feet to enjoy an even better view than we'd had the day before.
As we reached our destination, we found a sight for sore eyes to behold. There was almost no wind, and the pines were reflected in the still water of the circular mountain lake.
After lunch, I climbed a ridge near Truchas to enjoy a higher viewpoint over the lake and the surrounding area. The trail back to camp follows the lakeshore, and just called out for a picture stop of myself on horseback.
Back at camp after a four-hour ride was just awesome. Coffee was brewing, and within an hour, dinner was on the table. Everything was perfect - nothing but natural sounds. No phone, no polluting cars, just nature at its purest form.
The next day, it rained. It was too slippery for the horses to walk on wet rocks or, even worse, in the mud. You just wanted to crawl in bed with a good book and a log on the fire. But the bed didn't really call that hard. A deck of cards, good conversation, a little "additive" to the coffee, a burning fire, and heaps of laughs at 10,000 feet sure beat a book in bed anytime.
Our last day was to be the icing on the cake that had already tasted great. Our destination was Cerrito del Padre to see aspen's fall colors in their full glory. On the way, a mere three-hour ride from camp, the aspen increased in numbers and the colors became more spectacular with every hill we saw as we closed in on this apparent hotspot of aspen gathering.
During the ride up, we stopped frequently so I might take pictures. The others warned me that I should save film to shoot the best yet to come. Yeah, right, I thought.
The sun showed off, trying to make up for the rain the day before. The aspen leaves looked bright as gold between the pine needles. Sometimes, a touch of copper showed through, which made me cry out to P.J. to stop.
Right Place, Right Time
Finally, way after lunchtime, we arrived at a hill. I was told the ultimate sight was to be seen on the other side. My belly was rumbling and the horses, knowing the territory, were anxious to get uphill so they could nap.
Through the singular aspen just on top of the hill, I saw some yellow spots. We dismounted and tied the horses. As soon as I walked through the trees, I was speechless. My rumbling belly was forgotten, and my hands grabbed my camera. I worried that what I saw right then might be gone within seconds.
Everywhere I looked was aspen splendour with a speck of pine trees. The sun shone on a field of dreams created by massive amounts of yellow-leaved aspen, with a shimmer of copper on the edges. It almost hurt my eyes to look at it up close through my camera lens.
This really was the best place to find such beauty, after 15 years of looking. Before I sat down to finally give ear to my stomach, I must've taken some 30 or more pictures. While sitting down, I saw more possibilities from other angles.
As beautiful as this sight was, our beds were not there, and not likely to move there by themselves. Food and warmth was at camp, a three-hour ride. We needed to head back. The following day, we'd leave for lower altitudes and motorized transportation.
Time to Leave
I left, knowing I had lots of pictures to enjoy back home during the cold winter months. The ride back for some reason didn't seem to take as long as it took to get there, and I wondered why.
Our last day in God's country - for there's no other way to describe this speck on the map known as Pecos Wilderness in the state of New Mexico in a country known to all as the United States of America - started before dawn. Frost was on the ground, and we needed to eat breakfast, pack our gear, and mount up before 9 a.m.
I felt sorry to leave , but couldn't stay longer. This fall, I hope to join my friends at the gate to visit this beautiful piece of nature on horseback.