They passed it by, circling south of the Tetons, the ruts still etched deep in the hardpan, narrow gauged. Odd though, not the hoofprints, and you would think that strange but for the burden of a nation and the bits of flesh and bone marking their passing.
Hope has weight and substance, it leaves a mark when the way is fragile and unforgiving.
A half million strong made the crossing, those who fell left their mark in blood. It always wins out, blood, it must. The land is sere, soaking it deep. It remembers.
Eastern Shoshone and Arapahoe live in uneasy truce, the rez stretching to the north, east and south, the land undulating, undercut in places, and where prairie grass once whipped and tossed under an onslaught of God’s breath, now cranes and rigs and towns sit smug and ugly and unrepentant.
The range is mostly eleven, twelve and thirteeners, snowcapped even in high summer, dropping sharpish to the flatter valley. Opposite are the stray peaks, climbable on horseback, past Chimney Rock and outlaw dens, pockets of wildflowers: lupine, arrowleaf, Indian paintbrush and astor ignorant to all but the briefest of showers and the feckless nature of the seasons.
At eleven five, we strung out, nose-to-tail and some dismounted, most didn’t—wise, the vein so narrow as to barely accommodate our beasts breadth, though I spun in lazy arcs through the panorama of red desert to the ancient Black Hills, hiccoughing over the spurs to the north, then back down the knife-edged majesty playing peekaboo amidst the promise of interesting times.
The sun yields early but not the light, the granite a reflecting pool of stone, lightening the sanctuary and teasing out the stars one by one until ebon-on-black eases and squeezes the sequins tight-packed and you see the colors, the red giants, the yellow-peach’d G’s and the tepid indigo and you’d think cool but you’d be wrong for they burn hot hot hotter than Kelvin could have imagined.
The paint was sturdy, sure-footed. He knew his job, freeing me to be a passenger, a luxury in a dangerous world. The guides carried rifles and pistols and ropes and the panniers swayed side-to-side on mutton-withered mules and wide-body draft crosses, acclimated to climb, to move steady, sure, feet measured in the thousands, ridged and then steep, laying along necks stretched down and out, balancing them, balancing me, and your gut dug into the horn, and knees bent, gripping tight, you wrapped your arms around his neck to hold on, the reins loose and drooping and no one said don’t because no one could breathe or think other than Oh God don’t let me fall, don’t let me slip, I’ll never stop.
And you wouldn’t, couldn’t.
And the skeletons littered the glades, horse, elk, bear and we trolled for memories and put away the cameras because to be you need to see, not through the lens but through the heart.
When I close my eyes, I feel it still, fitting like skin.