Robert, age 19, in the Emigrant Wilderness


When I was 19 years old, I set off on the trip of my dreams: four weeks with a packhorse in the High Sierras.

After high school I spent nearly a year working on my grandfather’s cattle ranch in the Sierra foothills near Jackson, Calif. At Grandpa’s house, I made plans for my wilderness expedition. I bought a small black mare. I looked at guide books and poured over topographic maps of the region, but especially the mountains north of Yosemite National Park.

It was going to be a magnificent time: just me, my horse and pristine nature.

It turned out that my horse and pristine nature could have been a little more cooperative.

I needed to start my trip by late June. That sounded fine in theory, but the snows came heavy to the mountains that year. Much of the high country remained capped in white well into mid-summer. That meant I would need to change my route. Even then I would have to deal with snow.

Nonetheless, I began my trip on a cool, sunny June day near Lake Alpine above Bear Valley. My father and a cowboy who worked for my uncle transported me there with my horse. I put the packsaddle on the mare, plus two wooden panniers, and two duffle bags. Over all this I threw a canvas tarp and tied a diamond hitch, a wondrous rope trick for keeping all my gear atop the horse.

I bid my dad farewell and tramped into the woods. For a few minutes I passed in silence beneath the lofty evergreen canopy. Soon enough I hit snow, first in little patches, next in unbroken stretches. It started getting deeper. A wise packer would have known whether this was a mere nuisance or a real threat to his animal. A brave adventurer would have pushed on to test the danger, perhaps even letting his horse slip and fall once or twice. I was neither wise nor brave. I didn’t want to risk calamity on my first afternoon.

I retreated to Highway 4 and started making my way downhill to the next trailhead, easily a dozen miles away. Walking along a paved highway with a packhorse didn’t exactly make me feel like Kit Carson. Neither did spending the night in a sleeping bag near Bear Valley condominiums.

The next afternoon I finally reached a dirt road leading to the lower trailhead. I left the highway and began the descent to a Boy Scout camp at the bottom of the hill. It was then that my horse decided to take control. She could accept walking down the highway; that was the way we’d gotten up there. But somehow she knew that this dirt road was not the straightest path home. In response, she refused to go forward.

I soon learned that you can’t drag a horse. Yes, I did look pretty funny trying. Next, I got behind her and threw rocks. She merely scooted off a short ways into the woods. She let me catch her and bring her back onto the road, but then she once more dug in her hooves and held firm. I was stumped. The sun was about to go down.

About this time a heavenly messenger appeared to me. He came in the guise of a Boy Scout leader, hiking alone down the road with his backpack. He seemed as surprised to lay his eyes on me as I was to see him.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Packing a horse. But she won’t budge.”

“Why would you pack a horse here? You don’t get to ride it, and you still have to deal with the horse and all this extra gear.”

I turned red and talked a little about my big plans. He looked us over. “I helped pack donkeys once,” he said. “When one of them wouldn’t move, the packer would put a clove hitch on its nose and yank on it. It got ‘em going.”

He explained what he meant and then set off. He didn’t offer me any further help and I was too stunned to ask. Soon I was once more alone with my horse.

I wrapped a clove hitch around the mare’s nose. One end of the rope was tied to her halter. I kept the other end in my hand, about 15 feet directly in front of her.

Slowly I pulled that rope tight. She held firm. The clove hitch clamped her nose shut. She couldn’t breathe. Her eyes got big and suddenly she launched forward, leaping straight at me. I dodged just as she rushed a few steps past me and halted. I took up a new position down the hill. Once more she refused to move. Once more the clove hitch did its magic. Once more her eyes bulged and she blasted off.

It probably took a half-dozen such battles before she gave up and followed me down the hill. The scouts let us stay the night at their camp. The next morning we waded a cold stream and set off into the promised land.