The Lone Rider
By Stan Walchuk, Jr.
“At daybreak he came down out of the hills and made a little dust as the struck westward with Yuma Crossing in his mind. Logan Cates had the look of the desert about him, a brown, seasoned man with straight black hair above a triangular face that was all bone and tight-drawn, sun-browned hide. His eyes, narrow from squinting into sun and wind, were a cold green that made a man stop and think before he looked into them a second time…”
The excerpt above is a picture that its author, Louis L’Amour, and many others, have portrayed many times: the quintessential lone rider. We romanticize about it. We admire the independence, toughness, and resilience of the lone rider. We admire the freedom he has, and wish that we had it. What started me thinking about the trail rider’s life of independence as a lone rider was the thought of big spaces and the solitude and quiet that trail riders know, and how it contrasts with the noise and the social lives that we know and that our children are growing up with.
I just listened to a radio show about the negative effects of noise in our lives and our loss of privacy with texting, Facebook, chat rooms, MySpace, and who knows what else. Many kids these days rarely get an hour of solitude, peace, and quiet, and would likely feel uncomfortable if they had it. Most of the “over 40” group grew up with a direct link to the outdoors, whether it was playing in the dirt with toys, helping in the garden or the barn, playing with friends in the park, swimming, fishing with friends, or whatever. Our children live in a different world now, one designed by merchants and technology, with countless hours spent hunkered over cell phones, blackberries, computers, and game boxes. There is something lost with something gained.
The solitude experienced when trail riding in the great outdoors is a contradiction to our modern lives.
We trail riders experience the contradiction: we live in the modern world but experience the solitude and loneness of a trail ride. And this quiet time spent with ourselves in the hugeness and solitude of the outdoors affects us differently, in ways that are unique to each of us. Some of us revel and bask in the glory of quiet time, the big sky, and the scent of pine, while others get completely rattled and unraveled when exposed to a world much larger than ourselves, one that is foreign and at odds with the civilized world that owns us. I learned long ago never to look at someone and predict how they will handle the bigness of wild country. Many civilized doctors, lawyers, and wealthy types have plenty of grit and smile when immersed in remote country and its hardships, and many self-professed Daniel Boone’s and John Wayne’s fall to pieces like scree on a mountain slope when the smallness of their stature is realized.
I remember two groups of riders that headed out on week-long trail rides, both groups planning to ride 50 or so miles into some beautiful wilderness. They headed out on the same trail but on different days. A week later, back at the trailhead, the group of young men, loggers, and bush workers that headed out second met me back at the trailhead.
“Did you see the other guys?” I asked. They had big grins.
“Yeah, they’re just about three miles in, camped on an island in the river.”
It was a shallow stream, really.
“What? Are they headed back out now?” I asked.
“No, they were there when we headed in. They spent the whole trip camped on the island.”
Then someone else said, “Looks to me like they’re too scared to go on.”
The group of young toughs had a great trip with many deep adventures, while, needless to say, the others had a less rewarding time camping and worrying on the streamside an hour’s ride from the road.
I am sitting with my laptop pounding out this article so I guess I am as guilty as others for accepting technology, but I draw some hard lines. Personally, I loathe cell phones and walkie-talkies while out on the trail. I remember one trip that seemed to take forever to haul horses and push our way into some stunning wilderness with hard ground mountains full of wildlife and caribou on every ridge. It was a huge relief and I sighed several times as a buddy and I walked along a grassy valley because my old friend, the feeling of freedom, was with me again. I had forgotten that another friend, back at camp, had convinced my buddy to pack along a walkie-talkie, which he dutifully had left turned on. At the least expected moment it belched at full volume: “How are you guys doing? Over.” We both nearly jumped out of our skins. I cursed and swore that if he did not instantly turn that damnation off permanently I would destroy it and him along with it. He was glad to do so and we went on to enjoy one of the finest wilderness days I have ever known.
Trail riders face many challenges that make it an independent and sometimes lonely lifestyle.
Being alone on your trail ride or in the woods does not have to be unrewarding, even though it may be lonely. Aloneness allows for time and latitude in our thoughts and helps us with perspective in understanding our lives and happenings. In a way, it forces us to get comfortable in our own skin and, after all, in order to be comfortable with the world at large we must first be comfortable with ourselves. If the very social lives that we live drain independence, self-motivation, confidence, and decision making, then the opportunity to get to know ourselves and regain those qualities is at a premium. Being alone on the trail can help build that character and fortitude if you let it.
But life can be unkind and even cruel to those who do not conform. It used to be that trappers, cowboys, guides, and farmers, those who lived life with their hands on a horse or in the dirt were the majority. Not so any longer. Dyed-in-the-wool horse people who spend endless days in the saddle still exist, but they must feel like dinosaurs in a changing climate. There are still cowboys who spend endless days on the range, some in the Chilcotin country, some on large grazing leases, and some guides and outfitters. It can be a cruel dichotomy when your life is the saddle, the horse, and the open range but every time you get back to civilization a different reality waits, one ruled by money and material worth, and run by computers and time.
Those still out there who feel at home on their horse in the wilderness can feel mighty lonely in civilization. I have known several old guides and cowboys who wound up as homeless street people once their wilderness season and wilderness life came to an end. To them, civilization is truly a foreign, unforgiving wilderness.
I clearly remember four or five years of my life when my saddle was actually far more important to me than my vehicle. My vehicle was used to go to town once in a while to get groceries and the memory of each vehicle is now as faded as their paint was then. I lived in the saddle, day after day, from June until November, and the saddle and horse were my true companions. I cannot remember all of the saddles either, but I guarantee that they fit liked a glove, day in and day out, and were sturdy and well rigged.
The author rode over 600 miles alone, from Fort Ware to Telegraph Creek, BC. Photo: Courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr.
Sometimes being alone on a trail ride can be unnerving for even the experienced trail rider. Getting lost is no fun. It can bring loads of grief when you lose a trail and spend futile hours trying to get back on track.
The feelings of frustration and loneliness are compounded when you have walked miles with axe in hand and nothing makes sense, not the maps and not the trail you are on, and not the horses standing with fatigue and dejection, wanting a camp and a full belly while the coming dark says otherwise. Worse is when others are depending on you.
A deep fear and loneliness set in me one time in some very wild mountains in the extreme northern edge of BC, just south of the Alaska highway, not far from Rancheria, Yukon. We were on a one month 250 mile wilderness trip. My wife Marlene, son Dylan, and daughter Aaron, then six and five years old, where waiting on a section of trail that petered out in a thick spruce swamp. I set out with axe and bear spray in hand but after several hours could not find what happened to the trail. Worse, I could not find my way back to my family and horses, who by now would be worried sick with the coming darkness and the depressing black of a spruce swamp closing in about them. Again and again I crossed the swamp-riddled thickets, calling and forging ahead and calling again, until repeated exhaustion forced me to the ground again, this time with tears welling in my eyes from thoughts of my family and the dejected horses.
You can see that you do not have to be alone to feel lonely and that life on the trail can put you between a rock and a hard place. If you have some quit in you, then you will likely experience it sooner rather than later. I can tell you that I have misplaced myself in remote country on several occasions and had no trouble believing that tomorrow was a new day, but losing loved ones in the wilderness gives lonely a whole new meaning.
I believe that trail riders can relate to the ideas and thoughts in this article and I believe it is so because even modern trail riders know what it is like to be alone, in ways that old timers may not have imagined. Being a modern day trail rider provides challenges that each of us must face and often we do so alone simply because no one can live our lives and understand what we go through. The bond between us and our trail horse is ours alone and so we feel private about our situations. Maybe we struggle financially to make ends meet for ourselves or our horse. Maybe the riding conditions we have are less than ideal and we struggle to have the riding relationship and experience that we know we could enjoy in a better environment. Maybe our horse has health or soundness issues that we alone must face. Maybe those around us do not understand the affinity we have for our horse, or the call of the trails, and so conflict separates us from those close to us. It may not be easy being a modern day trail rider and you may feel alone, but remember that somewhere, closer than you think, there are others – hundreds of others – who experience the aloneness that you know. You are not alone!
Main article photo: Alex Craib’s family lost their dairy farm during the racial struggles in Africa. Her “alone” time on a Canadian trail ride helped Alex sort through a difficult transition period. Photo courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr.