Do you remember an experience that was a defining factor in who you are today? For me, it was the summer of 2005 working as a "trail cook" on a pack string in the Teton Wilderness Area of Wyoming. And no, I wasn't then, nor am I now, a great cook! In hindsight, I realize that the outfitter I worked for, Ryan, wasn't really looking for a great cook. Cooking is a skill that can be taught. Instead, he was looking for a young man who he could take and mold into the hand he needed. I hoped to learn more about horses and cooking, but didn't expect to learn the lessons, or grow in the ways, that I did that summer.

I actually grew up with horses on a small farm in Kentucky, but I was wet behind the ears when it came to wilderness pack trips with horses and mules. I still vividly remember showing up at the trail head that first day all duded up in my brand new cowboy boots and Stetson, thinking I was the real deal. Ryan merely looked at me, pointed to my hat, and said, "Get a different hat. That one won't last the summer." I realized later that straw hats do indeed begin to fall apart after three months on the trail, hence why many cowboys and cowgirls wear felt hats, but at that moment in time, I remember feeling like an idiot. Lesson #1: Just looking the part doesn't cut it.

When I showed up for my first morning of actual work, I was greeted by the pale light of dawn breaking over the Rocky Mountains, gradually highlighting its rocky crags while the mist gently floated up through the trees. We had a fresh string of horses and mules, full of themselves after spending a winter on pasture. We began the process of getting them saddled and packed. I had never packed a mule before, though I could certainly saddle a horse, and I learned quickly that mules are every bit as stubborn as they are stereotyped.

The first one we packed stood there, calm as could be. Then, I was handed the lead rope for a mule we called "Rudy the Race Mule," and true to his name, he could tell I was fresh blood and made a beeline for anywhere but there. Determined to prove that I was ready for the job, I foolishly held on tight to the rope as Rudy pulled it, and me, through the corral--all to the amusement of Ryan and the wranglers. At least I started the morning off right with a little humor! Lesson #2: Know when you've been bested.

During our second trip into the wilderness (we did four-day pack trips), I remember approaching a creek swollen with spring snow melt. Coburn, one of the other wranglers, was on a new grey horse and it decided, half way through the raging torrent of water, that it didn't like it and began bucking up and down the creek. Coburn's focus turned away from the string of mules he was leading to not getting wet and embarrassing himself in front of us all. Without even thinking, I jumped off my horse, Louie, and into the creek. With Louie in one hand I grabbed the lead pack mule, Bertha, with my other. Coburn managed to stay atop his horse and when the rodeo ended, Ryan looked back at me and said, "Good one ya...whatever your name is!" That's the curse of having a name like "Stith"--no one knows how to say it! It was worth being virtually anonymous, though, because at that moment I learned lesson #3: Don't wait to be told what to do. When you see an opportunity to help out, jump in (literally in this case) and just do it.

As the summer progressed, "lessons" continued to pile up as I eventually learned to lead my own string of mules, was dumped in the dust by Louie after a grizzly spooked us on the trail, and managed to make a few decent meals in between the blackened ones. By early August, a chill had crept into the crisp air and our last ride of the mountains greeted us with a fresh layer of frost and ice along the creek's edge. As I unsaddled Louie for the last time, I realized my most important lesson of all, and one that rings true throughout all phases of life: It is when we challenge ourselves that we grow the most. I still credit that summer and those experiences for shaping me into who I am today.

I thought, for a time, that I would end up as a career outfitter, but life took me in other directions. I've never forgotten that summer in the wilderness, and I make it a point to return almost every year to take in the majestic peaks, lush meadows, fresh mountain air, and the feel of a good horse beneath me on the trail. I leave each trip feeling refreshed and empowered, ready to take on anything that comes my way.

Part of AAHA's mission is to allow our members a chance to rediscover themselves. This August, we are introducing our first ever AAHA Wilderness Pack Trip. We'll combine four days in the most beautiful, remote part of the lower 48 states with cutting-edge continuing education, allowing our members to experience the Teton Wilderness Area in a way that few people ever will. We'll ride through beautiful mountain passes, wet a line for native trout, keep an eye out for elk and grizzlies, and, if we're lucky, fall asleep to the howl of wolves in the evening. And best of all, I won't be cooking!




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