Setting off into cool morning air, our day's journey begins as we walk down the road's narrow, furrowed lanes. I am quite familiar with this particular road, having hiked it many times throughout my years spent on the Ranch, but I have never witnessed it like this before. Fog is a rare treat during the summer months and I struggle to contain my excitement. Looming pines glare down upon us, their boughs and trunks disappear into gray murkiness. Dense, moist silence amplifies the babbling Rayado and crunching gravel beneath our boots. Each crest and fork holds the possibility of an entirely new landscape. I sense our destination is getting close, but in this light, how can I really be sure?
Continuing along the hazy highway, my mind drifts and quickly I find myself obsessing about tomorrow's conclave. Throughout the summer, there are two mandatory all-day meetings Camp Directors and Backcountry Managers attend, our first one is tomorrow. Undeniably I am destined for hard plastic and cold florescence. Less than thrilled, I set my sights on celebrating Independence Day the day after, surely this will keep me motivated. I trudge onward, not even having reached Phillips Junction and already I have flipped my decision on accepting a ride; yesterday's water-bottle incident continues to teach my tendons new lessons. Hydrate, or, well...
I take another swig from my Dr. Pepper and Wild Turkey, excusing myself from one of today's many barrel races; yesterday's meeting feels like a hallucination. Opting out of unsavory and crowded bathrooms, I wander past our parked cars and into the adjacent school's baseball field. Styrofoam cups and tumble weeds collect in overgrown dugouts, this dugout being no different. Hot, noon-day sun beats down upon me, occasionally interrupted for a gentle, warm breeze which floats through the rodeo grounds. Fourth of July is shaping up to be a spectacular day!
After a quick detour through the food booth, I make my way back to my uncomfortably angular bleacher seat, chili dog in hand. Pickle-flavored sunflower seeds and kettle corn flow freely while our section cheers during the ensuing cattle roping event. Yips of “c'mon now!” and loud whistles emanate from the grandstands. Evening plans are quickly and effortlessly hashed out; the annual fireworks show over Eagle Nest Lake is a crowd favorite and not to be missed. And there's always the bar on way home. Blissfully, we chat away our afternoon in shade from the awnings, occasionally glancing up at the massive blue expanse. Who needs a beach?
The vast majority of backcountry staff are busy at their respective camps, however, plenty of staff who work from basecamp have a flexible afternoon and can attend the rodeo. Next to me is Jamie, an old friend who has continuously worked in Health Lodge, now called Infirmary due to some important legislature. I remember back to 2011, she was fortunately at camp and helped administer first aid to my index finger when I stupidly sliced it wide open with my pocket knife. In 2012, we both sat front row at the very same rodeo and snapped photos of the Mutton Busting event. Last year, she visited camp frequently to shoot guns, bake cookies in our wood-burner, and transport altitude sickness cases. This year, a group of us have plans to see a show at Red Rocks, an experience which has been on my checklist for quiet some time. I look around, stories and anecdotes of people I know unfold before me like a virtual pop-up book. Standing, we applaud the rider who just took a nasty fall; Jamie looks relieved to be off-duty.
I begin to take notice of some of the locals and realize my wardrobe is woefully ill-prepared. Shiny belt buckles and alligator shoes equally compliment coordinated pearl snaps and Stetson's. Grizzled, weather-beaten cowboys sit between cheering and supportive rodeo moms; young teens can be spotted canoodling in the extremities of the bleachers while fifth and sixth graders rope and wrestle each other in front of the grandstands. The Maverick Club Rodeo has been ongoing for over 90 years and it looks as though the entire town is here to show their support.
I sink my rear into the footwell of the bleachers, back resting against the rigid metal seating; it has always felt more comfortable to sit this way. Reaching for my empty beverage after already having tested its lack of fullness several times, I realize my afternoon has blown by, similar to the clouds which we had all watched earlier. Shaking the thoughts from my mind, I close my eyes and listen to the sounds of the event. Pounding hooves and powerful whinnies can be made out over the chatting crowd and rambunctious children. And if I concentrate, even a whistling lasso or two can be heard.
Helping to bridge the gap between Backcountry and Ranger departments are Ranger Trainers, or RT. They have numerous responsibilities, but being a Liaison for a camp is a universally agreed upon perk of the job. I have known Stuart for a few summers and this year he is our Liaison. Whether in uniform or not, high-waisted shorts and Chacos seem to be a personal requirement. Taking advantage of Zastrow's accessibility, he has visited a few times; checking in with our staff and always making a point to discuss photography and cameras.
We park our car on the shoulder of a familiar mountain road and gather our blankets and jackets during waning moments of dusk. A winding trail of car lights slowly descend into Eagle Nest; one of the few places to see a fireworks show. Munching on chips and Twizzlers, we joke and laugh the remaining light away. A solitary flash and distant bang alerts us to the show's arrival. Two years ago, I remember seeing the fireworks explode directly over the water; its receded bank a visual testament of continued drought. Bruce Springsteen crackles over a distant cell phone speaker. Conditions may change, but the ritual is still just as familiar as it ever was.
Already another week has elapsed at Zastrow. Program has been functioning smoothly, only one day of rain has soured dutch oven cobbler-cooking. Our greatly anticipated National Inspection team was here yesterday; nothing of demerit stood out which we took for success. I even managed to squeeze in a concert at Red Rocks last night to celebrate, thanks in part to my flexible staff. Camp is momentarily empty during part of our evening program and I take advantage of this brief silence to appreciate the “blood-moon”. Its radiant orange hues slowly turn to a familiar bright yellow, as if ingesting all available light while it ascends. I transport myself to last night's saga, remembering it even watched over us while we were “collapsing and screaming at the moon”.