Friday, April 4, 2014

Disillusioned in Yellowstone: The Cartwrights Led Me Astray

As a child of two working parents in the mid-1970’s, I was what would later be called a “latch-key child.”  Left unsupervised after school, I was subjected to the ever-increasing evils of television.  My daily diet of syndicated Bonanza episodes led to a variety of unsavory behaviors.  I began to covet the neighbor girl’s western action figure known as Johnny West and his amazing assortment of plastic trail gear.  Santa never brought me so much as a miniature plastic canteen.  I also made unreasonable demands of both the universe and its Creator, alternately wishing upon a star and praying that a horse would appear in my backyard.  Neither approach worked.  I had to settle for naming my bike Gus and petting it when I thought no one was looking.  The most detrimental effect came nearly forty years later when a good friend, apparently as mal-educated by television as I, suggested that we go on a four-day pack trip in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.  

After those impressionable years of being indoctrinated by Michael Landon, I actually thought this was a great idea.  Of course, I’d been camping many times but this would involve horses.  And maybe even canteens.  I could no more pass up this opportunity than Hoss could pass up a meal .  However, the differences between my decades-old Bonanza fantasy and my eventual pack trip experience turned out to be numerous.  For one thing, none of the other participants revealed himself to be a disgruntled, psychotic former ranch hand bent on revenge.  So I never had the opportunity to save the group using my quick wits.  Actually, this was probably a good thing as my wits aren’t known to be all that quick.  Other than that, though, the differences were fairly disconcerting.

The Campsite and the Confused Campers:  "Where the heck is the ranch house?"

One startling difference was first realized when I suddenly remembered that, other than tending to Gus, my banana-seated bicycle, I had no horse experience.  Years of television viewing and daydreaming offered no great wisdom to draw from when I found myself in the driver’s seat of a large animal, crossing streams and climbing mountain paths, with no brake pedal, seat belt or airbags. The most intense moment came when one of our trail guides thought it best not to scare us and chose not to mention the treacherous conditions of the path ahead.  Our group of twelve had just wound through pine trees, across an open field with wildflowers and then onto a path wrapping around a mountain, just steep enough to be thrilling.  We looked at the rocks a short distance below and made some jokes about the possibility of plunging to our deaths. Everyone was jovial until, turning the next bend, we found ourselves on a narrow, hard, gravelly path no wider than a horse’s backside, carved into the side of a steep mountain.  

This was the fun, easy part of the ride.
In my memory, it was a straight drop off one side.  Maybe my memory is wrong but it is not an exaggeration to say that if my horse had slid from the path, he and I both would have died.  It was too late to pull a Pernell Roberts and quit. So I stared hard at the back of the rider ahead of me and attempted to comfort myself.  “We’re not going to die.  We’re not going to die.  The outfitters would never be foolish enough to take us on this trail if there were a chance we could die.”  Then, listening to the loose gravel scraping and sliding under my horse’s hooves as he strained to lug me up the steep path, I remembered - I had signed a waiver acknowledging that I could die on this trip and couldn’t blame the outfitters if I did.  The terror of this realization left me spewing cuss words, such as Pa Cartwright was never known to use, until my horse reached stable ground.

Another unpleasant difference reality presented was the possibility of running into a bear.  The biggest threat on the Ponderosa were righteously angry Indians played by white actors.  Obviously, that would not be a concern in Yellowstone.  So with no Bonanza episodes concerning bears in my memory, I took the threat of grizzlies just about as seriously.  While still anticipating the pack trip, I made all sorts of quips about my “fear” of being eaten by a bear. I thought it was hilarious up until that moment at the trailhead when, surrounded by snow covered mountain tops, the lead trail guide instructed us in his authoritative cowboy accent on how to behave if confronted by a grizzly as opposed to a black bear.  “If it’s a grizzly, your best bet is to play dead.  Now if it’s a black bear, folks, you need to be prepared to fight.  Try to hit ‘em in the snout.”  It was up to us to distinguish between the two.

Not only did Hoss and Little Joe never have to fight a black bear, they also never had to deal with menopause.  “How the heck is this relevant?” you might ask.  Oh, believe me.  It’s very relevant when you, newly-perimenopausal, have had a completely off-schedule pop-in visit from your period and you’re watching the trail guide use a rope and pulley to hoist “bear boxes” up twelve feet into the air. These boxes have been loaded with everyone’s snack food, toothpaste, deodorant...ANYTHING with an odor, because apparently bears can detect human-related scent from a million miles away.  Do you ask the trail guide, in his vest, fringed gloves and leather chaps, to lower a bear box so you can add to its contents what you normally go to great lengths to disguise in giant wads of toilet paper, bury at the bottom of wastebaskets and generally pretend, at least to the world’s male population, doesn’t exist? No, you do not.  Instead, you stuff the giant wad of t.p. into a plastic bag and shove it into the deepest corner of your purse.  Then you spend three sleepless nights, your eyelids frozen wide open, body stiff, ears straining to hear any sounds indicative of a flat-footed animal lumbering outside your tent. You are wracked with the guilt of a coward, knowing you’re risking eleven lives because you are still just an awkward teenager in gym class.  In the pitch black of the tent, you devise a plan to save the others in the event of a bear attack by running toward the treeline.  Suddenly, your body tenses up again at the sound of a snuffling low to the ground.

Take a deep breath.  It turned out to be the guy from Texas snoring in the next tent. You are safe. And, miraculously, so am I. I have lived to declare that I will never participate in a pack trip again. I made that vow to myself while answering the Call of Nature in nature. Sure, I can place this adventure alongside my dusty Bonanza memories in that little cigar box-turned-“treasure chest” in my mind.  And yes, now I know why women visiting the Ponderosa stayed so briefly.  Apparently, they needed to be flung onto that buckboard and rushed back to Virginia City before they drew grizzlies to the ranch with their confounded periods.  However, television ultimately betrayed me. The medium left me misguided and filled with unreasonable expectations. In response, I have made a life-changing decision and have cut way down on television viewing. Instead, I have taken up reading romance novels to seek out the truths of life.
Thanks to Srae for an amazing, fun, but never-to-be-repeated adventure!  <3


  1. Yellowstone . . . as you've never seen it before. You should make a whole set of travelogues.

  2. Uh-oh. I like that idea. And I'm frightened of what I might end up doing.


Do be nice to everyone.