It’s always baffling to me how many trails you can access from the Elk Meadows turn off on Highway 12 in Lolo. Granted, some of them are more heavily utilized than others. However, there are several that are perfect for riding horses, especially Tennessee Walkers, with steady inclines that foster sustained gaiting (and even a few perfect hills for cantering).
On this particular ride, we bypassed the lower Elk Meadows parking area and kept going straight up the road, until we found the pull-off with a gate on the right. Our hope was to avoid any motorized activity and utilize some of the older, soft road so we could move swiftly. The horses have gotten into their summer shape and so have we. My legs have remembered how they are supposed to move with Smoke, my Tennessee walking partner.
With the evening sun dropping behind the pines, the heat of the day began to lift and Smoke and the others eased into a gait, shortly after we hit the trail.
SuzAnne, our trusty leader, had not been up that way in some time and she was slightly disappointed to find that the smooth, soft trails had been “upgraded” to logging roads in her absence. Several new cuts marked our progress, with piles of timber here or there and freshly overturned earth sometimes spilling onto the road. Still, we were able to gait along—remarking on the latest blooms and uttering a communal “Ooooh,” every time we passed a luminous stalk of bear grass.
A couple of miles in, we continued straight into an older trail at a curve in the road. The grassy floor instantly quieted our progress and SuzAnne remarked that this was the way the whole road had been before. Periodically, we circumvented a fallen tree, the horses easily navigating the more overgrown slope around it. At one point, we stopped and lingered in the shade while taking turns cutting through a smaller tree to clear the way.
Sections of the trail were heavily overgrown with what I think was alder, and we moved through them—the branches scrubbing horses and people clean of any remnant of civilization. Flickers of the Bitterroot Mountains caught my eyes through the trees. Something large moved above us on the slope and some of the horses lurched and lunged forward for a split second, before we steadied ourselves. The hot smell of dry pine lingered briefly in my nose, then was subdued by the wet pockets of shade that we passed through. Black bear prints marked a muddy impression that held water not long ago.
We saw no one else on our ride, even though the evidence of busy people greeted us in the beginning. This is part of the beauty of riding horseback in the mountains; you get further, faster. You must also use your body and mind together—and match your effort to the body and mind of the horse you are with. It’s a different sort of zone altogether and it carries you deep into the woods—often times far enough to feel like the world has changed in just a few hours.