AS I open the flap of our tent, it's hard to believe that such calm beauty exists: lush green meadows dotted with colorful blue, red, yellow, and purple mountain flowers; here and there a horse or pack mule grazes quietly. The only sound is the occasional clanging of a cowbell attached to the lead horses to pinpoint their grazing, the crackle of the campfire being readied for breakfast, and the gentle murmur of the sparkling stream nearby, as it rushes from the snowcapped mountains to join the rivers below. What bliss! Is it a dream? No. It is the last morning of our eight-day trip through the Grand Teton National Park and Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming. For four years we had thought of taking such a trip, and now we were very glad that we had.
Our horse-trekking adventure started almost two weeks earlier with our flight from Boston to the Jackson Hole Airport, by way of Denver. We were met by a group of cowboys and a friendly young woman, Becky, sent from the Rimrock Dude Ranch near Cody.
The Rimrock is owned and operated by native Wyomingites, Glenn and Alice Fales, who have been running these trips for four years. The trips are organized by Pat Dickerman, author of ``Farm, Ranch & Country Vacations,'' who is a horse-trekking enthusiast herself.
Our first stop is to buy cowboy hats in Jackson, a small Western town with wooden boardwalks and outfitter stores. Then, we drive past the famous Elk Reserve outside town to the Turpin Meadow Ranch for our first overnight stay. Turpin Meadow is an old historic ranch north of town, right next to the Buffalo River. With direct access to the trail head, it's the perfect spot for pack trippers starting the Jackson-to-Cody ride and for those like us, who reverse the trip by starting their wilderness ride in Cody and ending at the ranch in Jackson.
After a hearty breakfast the next morning, Becky takes us by van to Rimrock Ranch, 180 miles away in Cody, giving us a six-hour tour of Yellowstone National Park on the way.
Rimrock Ranch lies in a picturesque, sage-covered, red-stone basin at the edge of the Shoshone National Forest and Grand Teton National Park. This will be our base camp for the next three days, during which time we'll get used to western saddles, neck reining, and the high altitude (over 7,000 feet). On horseback, we explore the surrounding mountain area and come to admire the sure-footedness of our horses.
We also have time to visit the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody and take a white-water rafting trip on the Shoshone River, so aptly named ``Stinky River'' by Indians for its sulfuric smell. There's time to make friends with the other ranch guests, most of them families who have come from different parts of the world. And we meet the five other members of our pack trip, all ``city slickers'' or ``city wimps,'' as the cowboys call us.
The morning finally arrives, when, after saying goodbye to our friends who remain at the ranch, we are driven some 40 miles farther into the Shoshone wilderness to the trail head, where the outfitter is. We are now seven ``guests'' and a crew of three: a guide, a wrangler, and a camp cook, with Ivy, her Labrador retriever.
The crew are experienced at packing, horsemanship, and public relations. Most of them have grown up in or lived in this area a long time. They're full of stories and folklore about this part of Wyoming. From them you soon learn how to saddle a horse, pack a mule, set up camp, and even prepare some of the finest meals ever cooked in cast iron Dutch ovens either buried under embers in the ground or cooked over an open fire.
For a pack trip, in addition to the 10 saddle horses for the trekkers and crew, 10 or 12 mules and horses are needed to carry the food and camping gear -- or to act as backup saddle horses, should a horse become lame.
When we arrive at the trail head, the excitement rises. Horses are chosen from the outfitter's herd, gear stowed, saddle bags packed with personal items such as cameras and binoculars, rain gear tied on to the saddle, and water bottles filled with mountain spring water.
Finally we mount up and set out, feeling a bit like pioneers in the ``Old West.'' As we close the last corral gate, we leave all signs of civilization behind. Before us stretches a narrow trail, wide enough for only one horse to walk. Our column of riders and horses picks its way through the Walsaki wilderness, which leads into the Teton Mountain area. From there we follow the south fork of the Shoshone River. The trail climbs gradually, leading through forests and along steep slopes. Far below, the river cuts its ribbon path through the valley. Before stopping for lunch on a dried-up edge of a riverbed, we cross the river and wait for the slower-moving string of pack mules to catch up.
Our first night's camp is at a place called Needle Creek. The site meets the three most important criteria for a good campsite: a large open area of grass on which the horses and mules can graze, a location close by a creek or river, and an area as safe as possible from bear or mountain lion visits.
We normally stop around 4 or 5 in the afternoon to set up camp. After the mules are unloaded and the horses unsaddled and unbridled, they are let go to graze. While the crew sets up the cook tent, starts a fire, and distributes our gear, we pitch our small tents and roll out comfortable ground mats and warm sleeping bags, all supplied by the outfitter. With a refreshing wash in the icy stream we are ready for dinner. A sample meal is roast beef, potatoes, vegetables, and freshly baked biscuits, with fresh fruit salad and Jell-O cooled in the ice-cold stream.
Afterward, we sit around the open fire sipping hot drinks and watching the slow progress of the grazing horses -- and later the deer as they quietly edge their way into camp at dusk. Evening is very peaceful.
Without radio, television, telephones, newspapers, or the need for money, we gradually become completely at one with the environment, keeping an eye out for wild animals, not wanting to miss anything. Our senses are keenly alive -- yet at times our minds wander, as we simply reflect on the grandeur of the view.
As the trip progresses higher and deeper into the wilderness, we find different types of terrain, trees, brush, grasses, and flowers. Even the sunrises and sunsets are never the same; each has a breathtaking beauty all its own, often painting nearby mountain walls a vibrant orange or red.
On a mountain trail along a catwalk by Silver Creek Falls, we surprise a black bear with two cubs drinking from the river. Off the mother goes, with her cubs scrambling up the loose rocks after her. The trail stretches on to Marsten Creek and through Bliss Creek Meadow, which got its name from a horse thief who was caught and buried there.
The eight-day pack trip is planned to allow for one day of riding on the trail with the pack mules, then setting up camp for two nights to allow for a ``layover'' day. This day gives the riders the opportunity to take a lunch and explore the surrounding area on foot or horseback. The layover day also gives the crew time to spend on jobs in camp and to reshoe any horses that may have thrown shoes -- which happens quite often in this rough terrain. Near the end of our journey, from a rugged trail leading through spots with names that conjure up images of wagon trains and Indian scouts, we are rudely thrust back into civilization, as we round a bend and see telephone lines in the valley below. The roofs of the Turpin Meadow Ranch are off in the distance. With a final lope through a field of sagebrush to the ranch, our pack trip comes to an end.
Vivid memories remain. Camping by streams and in meadows; horses grazing contentedly; campfires and delicious food; steep mountain trails; sounds of horses' hoofs along with the slap and creaking of leather saddles; fresh smells of spruce and sagebrush; deer, bear, elk, and moose in the wild -- all make us long for a return trip to the Wyoming wilderness. Practical information:
For more information about this trip or other ranch and/or pack trips write or call Adventure Guides Inc., 36 East 57th Street New York, N.Y. 10022, telephone (212) 355-6334, or your travel agent.