The first thing you see when you open your eyes in cabin 8 is Grandjean Peak. It almost fills the picture window, and since it catches the early light, it was ablaze like a yellow candleflame, while everything else visible was misty, and grey, and rimed with frost. The thermometer read fifteen degrees Fahrenheit. Regan had no intention of getting on a horse, or even leaving “camp” or the book she brought, and she fed us while Rainie and I layered on clothes over our thermals, and then sweatshirts, and vests and hats and gloves. By midday, we’d be shedding layers.
“There won’t be any deer flies,” I said, around eggs and toast.
“Is that a good thing?” Rainie asked.
“That is the best thing of all,” I said. But that wasn’t true.
By the time Rainie and I rode the six miles upriver to where the trail to Baron Lake Basin split off to the left, the day turned gold and blue. Everywhere the sun touched, the frost burned off in clouds of mist. The horses were eager, and trotted on loose reins. Tawney had a bit more bounce to her, and Rainie was a good rider, so she managed to sit through a couple of bush goblins—moments where a quail, or nothing at all launched the bay mare straight into the air from five feet to the right or left of where she landed. Rainie had a good seat and Tawney didn’t put her off a cliff or in the river, so all was well.
Before every ride, and after I cinched her up, Ebony bucked her saddle into place while I trotted her on the long line. After that, she never bucked again. She’d settled to the trail in her long, swinging, ground-eating trot that could probably gobble up a hundred miles of flat land before she needed to stop. That morning, she set the pace. Millie zig-zagged along the trail with us, following her nose, and Tawney and Rainie snorted and huffed along behind us, jumping each time the yellow dog came back out of the brush.
Where Baron Creek thunders into the Southfork of the Payette, the trail forks and crosses the water twice at the trailhead. After we forded the creek, the trail began to climb, and the horses settled down. The air wasn’t so nippy, except in the shadows where the sun hadn’t yet touched. We spooked up quite a few deer, mulies mostly, and sent a pair of whitetail bucks crashing away downhill when the trail side-hilled through a long open area of buck brush. Tawney doesn’t like deer or elk. It’s easy to know when she spots game, or hears what our human ears can’t pick up, because she will point her ears at unseen creatures in the brush or trees like the rear sights on a rifle and if you look through those fuzzy brown sights, you will eventually spot the animal that made her snort.
On the other hand, nothing bothers Ebony until there’s a cougar or a bear baring it’s teeth and beating its chest right in front of her, and we didn’t see either that morning. Ebony loves to trot and is happy to do it for hours. I can balance in the stirrups of that Aussie saddle, and together, we just seem to meld into one happy, synchronized kinetic unit that nothing on earth could unhinge, or cause to misstep.
So, it wasn’t the lack of deer flies that made the day perfect, it was everything else, starting with cerulean sky so dark and limitless it seemed impossible, and golden leaves that fluttered from the white-boled aspens’ branches like flocks of butterflies. And us—two girls on horses—shining in the sun, the warmth of it burning our faces and melting away every other thought of lesser, worldly things that seemed from another time, and space, and concern. There was no one anywhere, no human voice, no surprise of another person or rider on the trail, nothing but the five of us, in millions of acres of land so hard and steep and ancient that to look on it, to feel it soar around us, to breath in its clear, sharp beauty, simply had to make us immortal. And that was the best thing of all.
That is how every completed relationship should end, with a trip into the hard, steep epicenter of the world in October. I fantasized that somewhere in the Sawtooths, buried deep in the primordial batholith, was a ruby, like a giant beating heart—a huge ruby that breathes life and red fire into everything—and that the Sawtooths and that ruby were the center of the whole world, and maybe even the universe. Who knows? It was certainly the center of mine. That was what was best about that day.
I know now that there are other places that have the same effect on other people. The pipeline on the Northshore of Oahu, or an ashram in India. Drinking, or drugs, for some. I would like to imagine that a surgeon could find such a place when sewing a new heart into a child, or a violin player in the soaring wings of sound when they ignite the fiery heart of a piece of music inside themselves and it reaches out and out and out from their strings. I am not any of those people. I am the one girl whose whole existence resonates to life in the Sawtooths, and the broken teeth of granite sing to me, and beat like the new heart of a child, and I vanish into the pipeline, and am swallowed by the transforming ashramic power of being in the center of something greater than myself. And being truly, utterly myself.