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I’ve Walked in Packhorse Trails

The path is well worn and placed meticulously.

Peter was a big boned guy, at least that’s what you called him if you didn’t want your face smacked. Actually he was built like a football centre, one of those guys who look big, soft and flabby but if you run into him you feel like you just ran into a train. He had invited me to go fishing with him at Fish Lake. It was a dream come true. Fish Lake was the lake that everyone talked about at high school when they weren’t talking about girls. Fish Lake was fishing heaven; with a three – pound cutthroat trout at the end of every cast and a 10 – pound char at the end of every day. Few had really ever made the trip. Most of us lived vicariously through those who had, just like with girls. Peter had made the trip, not just once but several times with his dad and brother. And now he was planning a trip with just him and me. My dad dropped us off at the trailhead up Wildhorse Creek. It was the shortest route, Peter said. It was only 12 miles of packhorse trail to the lake, eight if you climbed over the Top of the World. The other route was up Sheep Creek, not as steep but three miles longer, Peter said. He had hiked in on all three routes and it was his considerable opinion that a trail virgin like me should be able to handle the 12 – mile packhorse trail, but definitely not the Top of the World climb. And so we shouldered our Trapper Nelson pack boards loaded with about 75 pounds of assorted canned goods, hollered “see ya in a week” to Dad and marched off up the trail.
I was really looking forward to this. I played rugby. I worked out with weights at noon every day at school. I was in good shape and I didn’t like the way Peter put me down as a “trail virgin.” I was going to hike his fat fanny right into the ground. And I proceeded to do just that.
About a mile up the trail, which was pretty steep going, I cast a look behind me to see if Peter was still in sight. He almost ran over me when I paused to look. He was drenched in sweat. His face was beet red and he was breathing pretty hard. “What ya stoppin fer,” he growled.
I turned, smiled to myself and picked up the pace some more. Another mile up the trail the scene repeated itself. Again, I picked up the pace. But I wasn’t smiling to myself any more. I was not sweating too badly, and my breathing was easy but something weird was happening to my legs. By the end of the third mile they were beginning to feel like two pieces of spaghetti. By about the fourth mile they refused to support me any longer, victims of too much weight in my pack and the Rocky Mountain elevation. I collapsed at the side of the trail.
“What’s a matter?” Peter said, sweat pouring off his face.
“I gotta stop,” I said. “My legs, they won’t hold me.”
“Just another trail virgin, huh?” Peter said. He sat down beside me and took off his pack. “Take off yer pack,” he said.
I rolled onto my side and somehow slipped out of my pack. Peter grabbed my pack and opened it. He felt for the heaviest items and stuffed them into his own pack. Then he stood up and marched off up the trail, steaming and puffing like a locomotive. “Just follow the packhorse trail, you won’t get lost,” he hollered back to me. “Go at your own speed, it’s better that way. I’ll see you at the lake.”
Eventually my legs recovered somewhat and I shouldered my pack, now a third lighter thanks to Peter. I began a slow walk up the packhorse trial.
I learned two lessons that trip; about stamina in the mountains and about packhorse trails. I think the stamina lesson is self – evident and needs no comment here. Suffice it to say that Peter never mentioned my trail performance to me nor to anyone else after that. He not only had great stamina but it turned out he had abundant grace, too.
The lesson I learned from the packhorse trail still serves me well. After Peter left me and I was able to get enough oxygen pumped back into my legs so that I could stand up again, I began to freak out about getting lost. It was still eight or so miles into Fish Lake over ground I had never walked before. What if the packhorse trail petered out? What if it got dark and I couldn’t see the trail? What about some of the more dangerous bits of ground I had to traverse? Fish Lake was a range or two back in the Rocky Mountains and the terrain was challenging to say the least. I had plenty of worries to keep me preoccupied as I trudged slowly up the trail.
Most of those fears were because I didn’t know about packhorse trails. The rest of my hike into Fish Lake turned out to be a journey of discovery.
I discovered that the trail did kind of peter out when it went though easy terrain like a nice open mountain meadow. Here the trail sort of fanned out leaving all kinds of room for choice and the experience of several different mountain vistas, even the space to lay back on the grass and take a delicious daydream breather.
I discovered that in the dark spruce forest, the trail was so well worn into the ground that it was almost impossible to stray from it, even if night fell.
I discovered that the more hazardous the terrain, the deeper the trail was worn into the earth, in some places two or more feet deep. It seemed to clutch my feet like a train rail does a train wheel. In some places, as the trail traversed up a steep hill beside a creek, the trail was not only deeply warn into the soil but tree roots and large rocks seemed to work together with the dirt to form steps to ease the climb. And when the trail went along a hazardous cliff above the Lussier River, it was located meticulously to maximize safety.
When Peter left me, he knew he was leaving me to the oversight of the packhorse trail and the packer who located and maintained it. He trusted the trail with me. And, after my journey of discovery, I learned to do that, too. Over the years I have walked that same packhorse trail and others like it many times. I have learned to trust them.
Lately I have been coming to know God’s word, more specifically His commandments, as a packhorse trail for my life. The psalmist says: “Give me understanding, that I may observe Your law and keep it with all my heart. Make me walk in the path of Your commandments, for I delight in it.” (Psalm 119:34 – 35) I have often struggled with how to relate to the commandments of God. They seem so negative, so dominated with thou shalt nots. But the writer of the 119th Psalm (the one I tend not to read much because it’s too long for the porcelain pew) has been teaching me that the commandments of God are given to me as a packhorse trail for my life. I am coming to discover that so much of what I learned about packhorse trails and mountainous terrain seems to apply to the commandments of God and the landscape of my life. I am learning to meditate upon them and trust them, for the journey.

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