The high mountains around Jackson Hole, Wyoming, were painted a lovely rose hue with morning’s first light. The few remaining alpine snow patches glowed intensely as the rising sun changed them from rose to gold to pale yellow.
I sat in the town square with a warm cup of cappuccino, watching the land and town awake to a new day. We’d arrived the night before. Today, we’d begin an adventure by covered wagon and horses into the Targhee National Forest surrounding the Teton Mountains. The smell of coffee, breakfast, and smoke, and the sound of laughter and barking dogs filled my senses with happy anticipation as I sat in the chilly dawn.
Our four-day trip through the backcountry near Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks was offered by a company called Teton Wagon Train and Horse Adventures. All we each needed to take was a duffle bag.
A bus was to meet us at the Antler Motel and take us to the wagon-train location high up in the mountains. When it arrived, we climbed aboard with our companions in adventure.
Down the History Trail
There were approximately 20 people on this trip, of all ages. There were several senior adventurers, some with grandchildren in tow, as well as families with young children, and one couple I guessed to be on their honeymoon. Everyone glowed with anticipation.
Marilyn, one of our most senior travelers, had been on the wagon train trip for 28 consecutive years. She told us we’d experience a taste of history in America’s covered-wagon days. Her blue eyes sparkled as she told the history of Teton Wagon Train and Horse Adventures, now owned by Double H Bar Ranches.
As Marilyn’s story goes, in 1889, “Uncle” Nick Wilson drove the first covered wagons over Teton Pass into Jackson Hole. Much later, in the mid-1900s, Bill Thomas, a descendant of Uncle Nick, began the traditional wagon train trips for folks who wanted a different kind of vacation. He gave people Western fun and adventure for many years.
In 1998, Bill’s widow, Joyce, offered to sell the company to Jeff Warburton, a longtime wrangler for the family. Jeff bought the company with his brother, Chris, then an associate college professor in Oregon. The two brothers enjoyed living the Western lifestyle; many of their ancestors had crossed the plains with wagon trains.
Jeff and Chris enjoyed teaching guests about the Old West, and sharing the high mountain parks, the lakes, the deep timber of the Teton Mountains. Jeff, with his love for horses, found his niche teaching guests to ride and managing the five teams of horses used to pull the wagons. Chris, a history buff, former professor, and former 4-H extension leader for children, loved teaching early American West history around the campfire.
They hired cooks who could produce gourmet meals over a campfire and a congenial crew of wranglers. Marilyn assured us that we were in for a very special and memorable time.
We left the luxury of our 20th century living and shifted into an exciting old-time era when the bus pulled into a high forest clearing to meet the wagon train. The covered wagons and horse remuda rumbled into the meadow with the whistles and calls of the teams’ drivers.
The meadow came alive with the squeaks of wagon brakes, the neighing of horses, the jingle of harnesses and the calls of the drivers as they formed a circle. The teams were unhitched and led to water. Then a delicious lunch seemed to magically appear from the chuck wagon’s canvas curtains.
After enjoying the Western buffet, I lay under a twisted pine and gazed at the sky. My worries of the day before faded, and a sense of peace spread like a comforting blanket. The sweet songs of wood wrens warbled in the trees above. The pungent smell of horse sweat, old leather, wagon canvas, and fragrant pines eased my mind. Sleep came easily on the cool, sweet-smelling grass.
Transported in Time
I awoke to the sound of hoofbeats of horses being hitched, people calling to one another, and the clanging of the chuck wagon. Jeff and Chris stood beside the rope corral giving horsemanship lessons. I learned that both men were certified at the college level to teach horsemanship. After the lesson, we loaded into one of the wagons or mounted up, then set off into the Targhee Forest.
I felt transported in time as I looked over the backs of the powerful teams, enjoyed the clean, clear mountain streams, and watched a hawk’s lazy circle in the blue Wyoming sky. The pace was slow and easy, and each task was done in its own time, without hurry. By the time we arrived at our campsite, every adventurer on our trip seemed relaxed.
At our campsite, the drivers pulled the wagons into a circle. We helped unload the wagons and set up camp, then retrieved our duffel bags and went to our tents to wash off the road dust. That accomplished, several of us decided to explore Loon Lake just below our campsite.
The large lake was without a ripple. The evening sky and surrounding snowcapped mountain peaks were perfectly mirrored on the still water. Around the shore were thousands of yellow blooming water lilies. On the far side of the lake, a lush swamp covered with purple flowers reached down along a little stream to meet the glassy surface of the lake.
The wagon company had stored canoes along the lake’s edge for our use. Several of us paddled out to watch the sun set. As the sun sank below the horizon, we spotted a large bear on the far side of the lake, but he quickly disappeared into the forest.
Back at camp, horse teams pulled dead trees into the wagon circle. Soon, the wonderful smells of wood smoke and a delicious meal cooking drew us all to the campfire. Dinner was superb: steaks cooked over an open fire, corn, beans and bread baked in a Dutch oven set into the fire’s coals.
After dinner, Jeff and Chris told us about the history of the area and of the Indians who had once lived in these mountains. From the lake came the calls of loons, which echoed around the moun-tain crags.
Suddenly, we were interrupted by gunshots and loud yells. Jeff and Chris jumped up. “Everybody to the center of the wagons!” shouted Chris, as Jeff and several members of the crew ran to nearby trees, guns in hand, to find out what all of the commotion was about.
Then two Indians leapt into the clearing and bore straight for our camp, galloping their horses and whooping loud war cries! Their flying black hair, painted faces, and buckskins were a blur of motion. I admired the skill with which they rode.
Then, as suddenly as they’d come, they were gone, the mountains still echoing their yells. I went to sleep that night snuggled into my warm sleeping bag with the sounds of loons calling to each other on the lake.
Through the Backcountry
The next morning, the sounds of a stirring camp, and the delicious smell of coffee and bacon enticed me to venture out of my warm cocoon into the chilly morning air. Jeff and Chris were teaching some guests how to harness and saddle the horses. By the lake path, an early morning game of horseshoes was already in progress.
Randy and I sat by the fire and savored our “new frontier life” while watching breakfast cook. A grandmother across from us was reading a story to her granddaughter. Birds sang. The cool morning breeze was pleasantly offset by the warmth of the fire over which an array of frying and cooking pans held promises of the delicious meal to come.
On this day, we traveled through the backcountry of the Targhee National Forest, a stretch of forests nestled between Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. Although we traveled within the Yellowstone Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone, we didn’t see any bears. However, we did see moose, elk, and deer.
Chris let all of us drive the horse teams. The feeling of power that those big horses imparted through the driving reins was amazing. Yet, they’d respond to a soft verbal cue from the driver to turn or change speed. There was constant communication within each pair of horses. One young horse often took the weight off his older teammate on the harder pulls. When a child held the reins, the horses were extra careful.
When we reached camp that evening, the big guys were unhitched, watered, and put into their corral. As I watched them eat their hay, I realized I’d gained a tremendous amount of respect for them that day. I noticed the kind intelligence in their eye as they looked over at the camp. Such willing servants and noble animals!
Around the campfire, we enjoyed yarns and cowboy poetry. As the fire died down, one little girl from the east pointed up at the sky and asked, “Daddy, what are all of those little lights up there?”
We all looked up. The night sky was ablaze with billions and billions of stars. Jeff gave us a lesson on global direction by astronomy. On some wagon trips, he said, guests see the Northern Lights.
World of Nature
The third day, we wove through meadows of purple larkspur, blue lupine, bright pink geraniums, and sunny yellow balsamroot. Butterflies flitted in a blur of winged color. Tall grasses waved in front of us like a rippling green sea. Blue spruce and fir trees towered over us. In one, Chris spotted four dusky grouse. Just before we rolled into our campsite, we saw two large rock marmots sunning on a large boulder. Several deer bounded out of the clearing as we pulled in.
After helping to set up camp, I went up to a little meadow to write in my journal. Looking down on our camp with the sunlight on the white tent peaks reaching into the Wyoming sky was almost magical in feeling. Birds sang from the woods. A slight breeze sent little ruffles of color through the masses of yellow and purple flowers. Bright clouds of butterflies rose and fell as they fed on the flowers.
Sadness came over me. Soon, we’d have to return to traffic, noise, and jobs. I tried to stem the growing sadness by focusing on the rest of my time in the beautiful world of nature.
Old West Outlaws
A loud commotion in camp awakened me from my reverie. Running back, I was surprised to see a tall man dressed in buckskins and carrying an old-fashioned black-powder rifle. He held the hand of a young mother on our trip and told her husband he was claiming her for his new frontier wife. If the husband objected, he’d challenge our entire camp to a marksmanship contest. If he won, the lady was his. Of course, we agreed to this challenge.
The distance was paced off, the target set, and lessons on how to shoot a rifle safely began. Soon everyone gathered around, cheering. From the sidelines, we could see that the intruder couldn’t beat the perfect aim of the guests.
That evening, the campfire stories told of Old West outlaws and fur traders. To the pop and crackle of the big bonfire, every eye was riveted on Jeff as he told about the adventures of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Around this campfire sat my newly found friends, their faces glowing with the warmth of the fire, their expressions relaxed and happy, filled with the enjoyment of Jeff’s tale. Here were people of all ages, from Texas to Baltimore, of different faiths and backgrounds, and yet everyone was now joined in friendship under a starlit mountain sky.
The adventures we had shared would be worth telling at our own fireplaces back home, and the lessons learned and the friends made would be long lasting. Somehow, it suddenly became okay to return to 20th century life, and the former feeling of sadness lifted. Parts of this “new frontier life” would live forever.
For more information on Teton Wagon Train and Horse Adventures, call (888) 734-6101, or visit www.tetonwagontrain.com.