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Ask Now the Beasts, by Ruth Rudner

The following is an excerpt from the book Ask Now the Beasts
by Ruth Rudner
Published by Marlowe & Company; May 2006;$14.95US; 978-1-56924-388-6
Copyright © 2006 Ruth Rudner


Ace and I lead a line of twelve guests on horseback up Pelican Valley on a clear Yellowstone day, a day of crystal air. The water in Pelican Creek sparkles. Sandhill cranes ride the length of the sky, their ululating as primeval as the place. Scattered across the valley, small groups of buffalo graze tall, yellowing grass, the grass barely moving in the calm noon.

Our trail follows the edge between meadow and forest. Grass on both sides of the trail is almost as high as Ace's chest. This is familiar territory to him and he walks comfortably, knowing we will come to camp with good pasture before many more miles have elapsed. The three mules behind us -- Buck, Sis, and Festus -- are just as much at home. All the horses are. I watch the forest for movement -- a grizzly bear, a wolf, a deer. Twice in the past, when a deer appeared out of nowhere as we rode through forest, Ace reared and bolted, reacting to the sudden appearance of a creature erupting into his vision. Twice I had dropped the rope to the mules so that I could freely turn him and calm him and get him back into his place in line. Dropping the rope is not ideal, because the mules can wander off, but it beats getting the rope wrapped around something -- Ace's leg or my arm or any number of other things -- in the mercurial movements of the horse and my own focused attention on getting the situation settled.

Those moments apart, Ace is a good lead horse. He is strong and agile and he knows the Yellowstone trails as intimately as I know the rooms in my house. But horses are' prey animals. In their genes, they are always wary. Unexpected things scare them. So I have learned to watch for those things, to see them first, before Ace does.

That's how it is in my mind -- until this trip. A grizzly appears near the trail and I am not the first to see it. I do not even suspect its presence until Ace simply stops in his tracks, ears up, forward, his whole body alert, like a dog on point. Fifty feet ahead of us, a row of grass moves like a wave from the meadow up to the trail. A two-year-old grizzly emerges from it, crosses the path, and continues toward the forest. He crosses the path without looking at us, as if we were nothing on his morning errands. For an instant, I can see his back as he moves through the grass. I think he might circle back to the trail. I think there might be a Mama Bear somewhere who will follow him through the high grass and across the path. Bears usually stay with their mothers for two years, before setting off on their own. When Ace stops and I hold up my hand, the riders behind me take out binoculars and cameras, but the bear disappears in the grass, so all any of us can see is a line of grass moving until a wind comes up and all the meadow grass moves. I do not see him enter the forest, but when no sow appears, and he does not reappear in a reasonable time, we ride on, although I suggest to the outfitter that perhaps he would like to ride lead for a while.

I am quickly sorry about this momentary lapse into my basic cowardice, because I like it when Ace and I lead. I like the feeling that only the two of us -- and, of course, my mules -- are out there, that we are in wild country on our own and that, between us, we can deal with anything. The grandness of companionship Ace offers me gives me courage. As if the two of us could do anything. All good trail horses offer this. (Other horses do, too, but I don't have experience with hunters and jumpers or other, more civilized horse events.) This companionship with the horse is why a backcountry pack trip is so extraordinary for anyone who gets as involved with the horse she or he rides as with the landscape. You share an adventure. Shared experience -- felt in the rider the same way the horse feels every movement of the riders body, every emotion, every thought in the riders mind, every waft of air and moment of sun -- seems to me deeper than shared words. The horse may or may not understand the word whoa, but he will certainly react to the way you sit. Words used to translate an experience make the experience secondhand, a superficial event. But if things are superficial between you and your horse, at least one of you is in trouble. The beauty of a horseback trip is that whatever happens to one of you happens to you both.

And there is only what happens. What happens is always in the present moment. The miracle of relationship with a horse, a dog, any animal is the necessity to be present this moment. (Same thing with a person, but it's harder to do. People like to hitch themselves to words. Animals attend to what exists.) What Ace and I share is in each moment we share. Wildflower meadows and noon sun; cool streams on a hot day; cold, wet, long rides; cloudbursts; dawn; and all forty-five billion stars of all forty-five billion universes. We have negotiated fast, high streams and eased the mules safely around tight places. We have been tired together, grateful for trail's end. We have shared apples and time and a lot of miles. I know how his muscles and his strength and his awareness feel without a saddle or with. He knows how I ride and what I expect and how I love him. He knows there are places that scare me, and that he does not scare me. I know he can handle the places that scare me. He knows I can handle him. We work well together.

Copyright © 2006 Ruth Rudner

The following is an excerpt from the book Ask Now the Beasts
by Ruth Rudner
Published by Marlowe & Company; May 2006;$14.95US; 978-1-56924-388-6
Copyright © 2006 Ruth Rudner

my dog

I skied past Old Faithful Lodge, its huge, dark, turreted, closed-up presence like the gothic silence of abandoned time. What seems glorious solitude to me in uninterrupted nature becomes great loneliness in a building closed against the season. In its proximity, winter lies so deeply in itself, complete, absolute, without memory of other seasons.

There had been many people at breakfast in the Snow Lodge, but there was no one anywhere around me now. I passed the Old Faithful Lodge, grateful to be away from it, crossed a small bridge, and headed up the ski trail toward Lone Star Geyser. Fresh snow, a sparkling morning, the Firehole River flowing cold-gray beside me. The trees on the slope bounding the trail on my right were heavy with snow. Snow topped boulders in the river on my left. Elk tracks crossed and recrossed the ski track, leaving huge holes in it. You can't get mad at an elk for stepping in the ski track, I thought. It was a brilliant morning, with nothing but snow and river and trees, elk tracks and sky in sight. The trail was level, easy, utterly beautiful. The sun moved. The river moved. I moved. In a morning of no wind, the trees did not move.

There is a timelessness in extreme beauty. The present does not disappear. Now becomes eternal. Once David said to me, "Let's do now forever." It is what I was doing, skiing along the Firehole. I did not rush. A short way before Lone Star Geyser, I approached a rise in the trail. On my left, the river had been replaced by a long, downhill slope to a vast snow meadow. A man and a woman stood on the rise, staring at me. Nothing improves one's skiing like people watching. Those two looked like great skiers. They looked as though they ran five miles every morning before breakfast.

I straightened up. I skied better. My glide became longer, my arms reached further forward. I became stronger, taller.

"Is that your dog?" the man asked me.

I thought perhaps there was an elk somewhere behind me and the man was joking about the elk that had been postholing the trail. There could not be a dog here. Dogs are not allowed on trails in the park. I turned to look behind me. A coyote stood at the end of my ski. If I reached back, I could touch him.

I turned back to the couple. "No," I said, "That's not my dog."

It seemed to take me a long rime to register what was happening. I turned, again, to look at the coyote, really looking at him this time, taking in a well-fed, healthy animal with a thick, shiny coat and eyes that returned my look. We each saw that the other was not frightened. In looking at him, I forgot one is not supposed to look into the eyes of a wild animal. I looked into the eyes of my dog. The coyote returned my look, then turned and trotted off down the slope on my left. I watched him go the whole long way down to the meadow until he disappeared behind some distant trees.

"That's not my dog," I said to the couple again.

"He was following right behind you the whole way," the man said.

The trail behind me came out of a curve several hundred yards away. Beyond that, it was not possible to see from where the couple and I stood.

"He was as close to you as when you stopped," the man said.

I always think I am aware in wild country. I think my senses are alert to everything around me. Even so, I also look behind me quite frequently (in case a lion or a bear has appeared on the trail). Or I thought I did. It seems I do not do that on skis. Skis are so emphatically impelled forward that they do not promote looking around as hiking does. Apparently, my senses are not as keen as I imagine, either, although snow muffles the sounds of other seasons. It changes the aura of things. Should I not develop awarenesses in concert with the season? Perhaps I've been away from serious winter too long. Perhaps I've lost the necessity to be intimate with every season. Perhaps I would have felt malevolence or fear or hunger, where I did not notice ease. Had I sensed the coyote was there and turned to see him,, he would have gone sooner, would have made less use of the packing my skis did on the trail. The guy was a hitchhiker, and I gave him a ride.

Copyright © 2006 Ruth Rudner

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