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Moose rides a horse

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I love John Wayne; but not in a weird night-stalking kind of way. It’s more like a passive reverence and profound respect thing, rather than an “I own a pair of signed John Wayne underwear” thing.

I guess I don’t really love him like a crazed fan-boy would, but I do love what he stood for. Much like my father, he embodied everything I wanted to become. They both understood and practiced virtues and ideals I’m sure it took a lifetime to learn. Virtues like strength of character and conviction, a clear sense of right vs. wrong, a big heart and an unmistakable presence of power and control.

My favorite quote from “The Duke” would have to be, “Courage is being scared to death … and saddling up anyway.”

I’ve yet to find a better definition of courage. It’s simple, profound, and could not be more correct. But I have a problem: I’ve never ridden a horse, and the idea of “saddling up” is incredibly foreign.

Bent on understanding one of my idol’s well-known euphemisms, I contacted Marvin Walchuk and asked if he might teach me to ride a horse. Walchuk built a career around trick riding and has trained, ridden, bought and sold hundreds of horses. As such, he seemed a little nervous about bringing someone with zero experience into the woods on a 1,200-pound animal.

As it turns out, he had good reason to be concerned. A 22-year-old green city boy on the back of a quarter horse in the heart of bear country is, in retrospect, rather dangerous for all parties involved.

Just the same, we set out from Walchuk’s house and into the Mission Mountain Wilderness. Whisky, my horse, was used to carrying 130-150 pounds. I weigh about 265 pounds and he didn’t seem overjoyed with the arrangement. Hoping to quell the tension, I leaned forward and whispered in his ear, “Be gentle with me, Whisky. It’s my first time.”

I will remember that ride for the rest of my life. The scenery was breathtaking; the views were incredible, and the company could not have been better. We talked about politics, religion, people, war and bear while riding through the heart of Montana. I felt like I’d gone back in time and I loved every second of it.

We met Walchuk’s friend, Bruce, about halfway up the trail. Bruce trains riders for search and rescue efforts in the mountains. With these two men at my front, beauty all around me, and a sound horse beneath me, I felt fearless.

And then we saw the bear. And I felt fear.

Walchuk had pointed out six or seven overturned stones on our way up the trail. A hungry bear had flipped them in the night while looking for grubs and worms. We’d brought three dogs with to, as Walchuk put it, “warn the bears that we’re here, or warn me that there are bears.”

Bruce saw it first. We’d come to a mountain stream that ran over the trail and broke into a delta through the tress on our left. The dogs caught a scent, barked, and bolted after what I would later remember as a wall of black fur.

My heart froze and my veins pumped ice water. Bruce was about 30 feet ahead, and in my mind’s eye, I saw the bear charge and his horse throw him. I was too far away to help, but even if I’d been closer … I had no idea how to help.

Thankfully, nothing of the sort happened. Two dogs chased away the bear while a third turned around and ran the other direction. My heart had just started to wiggle its way out of my throat when Bruce and Walchuk dismounted and said, “Let’s go take a look.”

Allow me to reframe the situation. I’m on the back of a horse for the first time, and the horse is not happy about it. I’m about to get off for the first time, on a trail I don’t know, with a bear less than 100 yards away.

“So this is what the Duke meant,” I thought. “Play it safe and run away, or get off the horse and face the danger.”

I would like nothing more than to keep going with this story. I would love to tell you about the bear, and the seven foot mountain lion, and my new nickname, and the .44 caliber revolver and how my ears rang for hours after I fired it. Sadly, I’ve run out of space. For now, I’ll leave it at this:

I got off the horse, and The Duke was right. Courage is being scared to death, but facing the danger anyway.

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