#1 Upper Yellow Pines
There are places in this world that, when we see them, they humble and bless us with their beauty and drama and we never forget them. Now and then, in these pages, I’ll write of such a place from my life, and I’ve chosen to begin with Upper Yellow Pines, a waterfall, a pond, a high mountain meadow in the beautiful Uinta Mountains of Utah.
I first saw it on a horseback camping trip in 1982. I went on one or two of these trips every summer for over 20 years, some with my two sons and some with four friends. (The guide named us The California Five.)
It’s a great outdoor vacation. An outfitter supplies the horses, the tents and food for a week, all packed on a mule train, also there is a cook, a wrangler to tend the horses and often the outfitter himself (or herself) goes along as a guide.
We put up our own tents, saddled our own horses and went from being comfortable riders, to good Western riders over time. Our favorite outfitter, Arch Arnold, had been an officer of artillery in Korea, and was now living the quiet back-country life with his wife and working staff. We often called him ‘Colonel.’
On a day ride out of camp, he brought us to Lower Yellow Pines, and we loved the sight of it, a postcard mountain lake fed by a creek, with enough flat ground around it for wandering, resting, eating our saddle-bag lunches, dozing in the sunshine.
After lunch the Colonel announced he was now taking us to UPPER Yellow Pines. Being on horseback in the mountains often puts you above where the hikers care to travel. Even in summer we crossed the high passes in blowing snow at times, watched by some curious mountain goats, but the climb to Upper Yellow Pines was only rugged and craggy, and so, so worth the journey.
On arrival we simply sat our horses and stared at that waterfall splashing into a pond, which became a creek, with the bluest possible sky behind it and the wildflower-speckled meadow in front of it, all of it laid out for any creature lucky enough to be there and to behold.
It took us a while just to dismount, we were so enchanted. We let the horses graze a while and filled our canteens with the icy creekwater. A few of us washed up and got three days of dust out of our hair, but traded that for a temporary headache from the icy chill. In not too long were playing horseback games, jumping a fallen tree and creating a relay race, handing off a stick to the teammate thundering past us.
No matter what we were doing, though, we couldn’t help glancing at the place we were, the place where this ride and this life had taken us. We were so thankful. We took dozens of photos, but never captured the awe that had sucked our breath away.
It was a thoughtful, dreamy ride back to camp. I had the shortest horse, being the shortest of the California Five, and a short-legged horse will naturally fall behind the others on the trail. I welcomed that, falling further and further back until I couldn’t here the hoofbeats and the jangling and the Broadway songs sung by the one of the Five who had a voice and enjoyed singing in the saddle.
I enjoyed singing, too, but just above my breath, and what I sang on the trail were the few songs of the 1800s that I knew. Yeah, I admit it, lost in a mingling of fantasy and history, becoming, in my mind, the first Native American or conquistador or mountain trapper to see the sight of Upper Yellow Pines. I’m sure he or she never forgot it.
Then, when out of songs and fantasies and with my mount growing agitated, not seeing his herd, I did my favorite riding. I stopped my horse, sat him a moment as he jittered and called out to his mates and then I said quietly, barely touching his sides: “Let’s go.”
We took off, but I wouldn’t let him gallop. We settled into a lope. Riding a loping horse is, to me, the classic example of two creatures of this earth connected and moving as one, in partnership, in a fluid, iconic dance. I was grinning like a fool and pictured my horse doing the same as we shared the grace and the power of that lope in the shadow of the mountain falls and the pines above us. What a ride this life can be.