Tuesday, August 30, 2016

I Will Look Back...

Once our gear was packed, we climbed aboard our horses and went off the grid. No phones. No camera. No electronic communication. John Muir Wilderness here we come! Our guide promised there would be hundreds of photos at journey's end. There was.

I love photography and have taken thousands around the world. But I'm not much for "selfies." Looking through the photos, there were a few of me. Immediately, two things came to mind: first, the confirmation of why I don't like selfies--I have a face made for radio, and second, a question--where has the time gone--who is this old guy?

Like our national symbol, the bald eagle, my hair is beyond white--it's neon white! As a teen it was auburn and wavy. Fortunately, as the saying goes, it hasn't waved good-bye. I remember the stop when that picture was taken. Looking at young Kovey, Justin, and Josh, I thought, One day they will be the elder in such a company of travelers.

Somewhere I have read, The best thing for the inside of a man is the outside of a horse. Within that quote is truth to be savored. For a few days we lived at a pace--and in a habitat--that suits me fine: twisting dusty trails; majestic soaring elevation; simple daily goals; meals around a campfire; clopping of falling hooves; bedrolls  on the ground, and a canopy of stars overhead.

Twenty years from now, should the Lord give me such a lease on life, I will return to these moments captured in digital form. One glance and memories a camera lens could never capture will arise from my memory bank. I'll look at them and think, "O, to be young again!"


Sunday, August 28, 2016

Crackshot Kovey And His Craggy Trail Gang

Youngest in our posse, Kovey (pronounced K0-V) was just shy of 12 years old. Both grandfathers, Glen and Rudy, along with his dad, Adam, had a surprise in store for Kovey.

First, let me tell you about Kovey. Only the horse he rode upon enjoyed him as much as the rest of us. Weighing less than 80 pounds, Kovey was the lightest mount any horse in the remuda carried. Unintimidated, he was more than up for the journey. Before riding into the Sierras, he
had been astride a horse a total of 4 hours. After a 7 hour trip that first day, his new boots, bandana, cowboy hat, and clothes puffed clouds of dust with every move. But he was as fresh as a daisy, whether running to fetch firewood or down to the mountain stream for water, he was all in. No job was beneath him or above him. From his backpack he constantly pulled bags of goodies to share with everyone on the ride. He was one of the gang--we became his gang.

Unknown to Kovey, this trip was more than a ride into the wild--it would also be a time of initiation into his strength and responsibility as a young man. Some of the celebration his father and grandfathers planned was private--for the men of his immediate family only. Each of the adults exchanged a specially engraved knife to commemorate the event. But when that was done, Kovey emerged with a specially engraved sword--about the size of Frodo's in Lord of the Rings--he could hardly wait to show all of us! From that moment on it swung from his hip whenever he strode though camp.

Several times, as I observed the interactions between Kovey, his grandfathers, and father, I couldn't help but cry. His innocence and exuberance carried me back to my days as a boy and a longing for one more moment with my father. Thoughts of my own sons at that tender age, Justin and Josh, overwhelmed me.

Kovey received a gift few young men ever do in such an intentional manner. The masculine bond taking shape before our very eyes was beautiful and moving. Our littlest rider was adored--we proudly declared ourselves as Crackshot Kovey And His Craggy Trail Gang. To a man we were proud to ride for that brand.

Kovey had a trail name for me--Barehands Bill, a name I earned by telling him farfetched tales each morning of how, with my bare hands, I turned a bear inside-out during the middle of the night saving Kovey's and everyone's lives, and caught fish from rushing streams, so we would have food to eat. On-and-on the stories went.

At trail's end, we stood by a road curb waiting for our Uber rides to take us to different destinations. Kovey hugged me, "Good-bye, Barehands Bill," and to each of his trail mates, with tears filling his eyes, he squeaked out a "Good-bye."

Lord willing, it's not the last time we will see our young cowboy. Next summer his grandfathers and father and many of the Crackshot Kovey And His Craggy Trail Gang are planning an August reunion. Not in the wild western mountains of California, but instead, in the northeast, at a wood frame cabin that sits on the edge of the beautiful Penobscot River, in the state known for "The Way Life Should Be." There will be no horses, but there will be tents, flowing water, kayaks, fish, and stories around a campfire...

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Endless Vistas...Emptied Vocabulary

Each rider settled into the rhythm and cadence of their horses' steady pace. Bobbing along in the saddles through the Sierras, long stretches passed when nobody spoke a word. But our heads, as if on a pivot, never stopped turning.


Sensory overload of twisting rocky trails, crystal mountain streams, and snowy soaring peaks filled our vision, all the while emptying our vocabulary as we tried to describe what we were beholding. As they say, "we were left speechless."

Justin, Josh, and I had a particular conversation that has come to mind many times since leaving the mountains. Josh said something like this. "I find myself constantly wowed by the wonder of all this."

Justin responded, "Me too. I'm flooded with amazement... all the time. I can't find words."          

I responded, "We are just a "'Wow"' family, aware of the wonder around us... that's a good thing."

Actions speak louder than words...
One of my favorite pictures...
Scenes like this made us never want to leave.

Thursday, August 25, 2016


I confess. I'm a wannabe. I grew up watching Gun Smoke, Rawhide, and Wagon Train. I love cowboy boots and hats, chaps and dusters. Were it up to me, Levis and a button down collar shirt would be fashion. Friends, like Cary, have been so kind as to give me opportunities to ride horses. I've been thrown seven times, but always climbed back on them to ride again. But I am not a true cowboy.

When Justin, Josh, and I straddled horses and rode into the high Sierras it was like a dream come true. At 60, I still have a vivid imagination and sometimes think I was born in the wrong era. When I was a boy, my dad had a 38/40 rifle--with a saddle ring. I often snuck out of the house, roamed around in a patch of woods, or crossed a branch of the Penobscot River and scouted an island; fully convinced I was in a life or death situation. Danger lurked everywhere.

Campfires, wilderness, and wild terrain still captivate me. My bride, Sandy, along with our children Justin, Josh, and Meagan have the same blood flowing through their veins. Though often trapped in the monotonous drone of autos, deadlines, and modern constrictions, we are adventurers at heart.

Yes, I'm a rhinestone cowboy. No doubt. Nothing more--nothing less. I ride when I can. A bit clumsy. As long as the horse carrying me is compliant--I am fine. I lean out of the saddle looking for "sign." Sign of what, I'm not sure. Unlike our son, Josh, who takes to a horse like a duck to water, I climb on--and hang on whenever the opportunity presents itself.

In this post I have attached a few photos from our trip into the Sierras. Void of pretention, they captivate some of the vistas we were so privileged to experience. I dream of one day riding with the Amazing Wyatt into such wild places.
Justin and me 
Fly fishing in a high mountain lake
Phil, a real, honest to goodness, cowboy


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Like A Mirage...

No gallop, just steady plodding as the surefooted horses carried us upon there backs up, up, up. As switchback after switchback undulated behind and before us, we continued to gain elevation on the John Muir Wilderness Trail. Those horses... they amazed me. I was one of their lighter fares at 175 pounds, yet I was constantly in awe of their strength and ability to cling to the many narrow, rocky, trails where, to the left and right, the earth dropped off for hundreds of feet.

Like masked bandits of the old wild west, we often pulled our bandana over our nose and mouth to diminish the amount of fine, stifling, choking dust rising in plumes encircling each rider. Be it blue denim or any other colored fabric, soon every inch of us turned to beige.

Leaving the tree line behind, hour after hour we rode through a world of moon-like landscape rarely changing color. At times, sight lines were blurred to a few feet. Then, we would top a rise or turn a corner and a mountain lake,
the result of melting snowpacks and a shadowed low spot, appeared. Looking completely out of place, from its edges crystal clear water revealed the sandy tones of its bed beneath. As it deepened, clear lines of demarcation revealed bands of emerald green, then deep blue. Like a mirage to thirsty men, each pool shimmered vividly amid the hot, dry, dusty world surrounding them. Every single rider felt the urge to dismount, peel off our clothes, and plunge into its coolness for relief. 

Monday, August 22, 2016

Hitting The Trail

At the packing station
On the first night we stayed in a lodge before hitting the trail. Apart from the fishhook imbedded in the rough carpet of the bunkhouse I stepped on--it was a pleasant stay.

About four in the morning I carefully treaded down the stairs. Stepping into the humidity free air I started up a road surrounded by darkness unpolluted by unnatural light.


By all accounts it was to be the zenith of a month-long shower of meteors streaking across the August sky. Picking my way along the pavement, with the sound of a tumbling stream drowning out all other sounds, I came upon Felix, our cook. He too, had resisted the lure of Mr. Sandman forfeiting sleep to see the celestial fireworks. Not far up the trail two bodies lay sprawled out on the road--it was Justin (like father like son) and Rudy, gazing up at millions of pinpoints perforating the black of the night sky.

"How many have you seen?" I asked.

"Fifty-five." Justin responded.

"I've seen 15-20 on my walk here." I said.

We stayed awhile longer, but the rising sun began chasing away the darkness, so we all headed back to the lodge.

Around 7:30 in the morning we loaded our gear and headed up to Rock Creek where our journey into the fabled John Muir Wilderness would begin....

Phil, The Legend

Hitting The Trail

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Father And Sons

In the last month of 2015 I turned sixty. In July, prior to that, I had a cycling accident that resulted in a full hip replacement, four surgeries—two on each arm to reroute the ulnar nerve, and a couple more to repair injuries to my upper-jaw. All of that resulted in a change of some of the plans to celebrate my sixth decade. In particular, those with my sons. But in August of this year it all came together…

After months of waiting, Justin, Josh, and I went into the John Muir Wilderness of the Sierras on horseback with pack mules in tow. We traversed switchbacks, crossed streams, sat through a half dozen earthquakes (really!), and rode thin trails along rocky cliffs. Vistas we had never before seen captured all our senses: stubborn snowpack stained by windblown dirt still remained from last winter; boulders several stories high towered over us; turquoise lakes and mountain streams as clear as bottled water reflected a cloudless sky, and at our highest point we topped out at 12000 feet above sea level. By the end of the first day we had straddled horses for 7 hours and descended to 9600 feet to set up camp.

Nine other riders were in our posse, but compared to the two genuine cowboys leading the trip, every last one of us might as well been wearing rhinestones. Those boys were tough as pine knots. 

Even more so than the epic vistas of the Sierras, it was my sons—both grown men now—that impressed me most. Actually, they impressed everyone. Without forcing themselves forward they were leaders. Their interaction with the rest of the group was something to behold. Tough as nails, they are also as tenderhearted as a child. Whether it was chasing down horses, helping set up camp, or joining in the conversations around the dancing light of a campfire as one of the cowboys, with hands as calloused as a camel's knees, created a surreal atmosphere playing a fiddle. Yes, sitting in a massive, high altitude granite bowl, surrounded by rugged craggy mountains stretching to the heavens, one of the cowboys played ol’ timey, brokenhearted, country/folk music.

It’s been days since we returned, yet I am still recalling and processing images and the dialogue that took place between father and sons. It’s nearly four in the morning as I write. Memories of two boys, who entered this world at just over eight pounds each, flash forward to a couple of grown men covered in trail dust, but with hearts pure as gold.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Snorkeling on the Penobscot

Winds ruffled the surface of the Penobscot River causing squares and triangles of refracted light to reflect off the stone and gravel-strewn bottom of the river. From time to time, as we snorkeled beneath the waves, smallmouth bass would swim up to us. Through eyes, located on the sides of their heads, they curiously stared at us giant creatures who possessed a large single eye. Completely unintimidated, the smallest of them hovered around our flippers that stirred up the silt on the river bottom flushing out easy pickings for a meal.