Into the Great Wide Open

I’ve been saying and I’ll keep saying it. This summer is nuts. Company and travels have us rushing about more than we’re used to. All good things, all good things. But holy! Weddings, reunions, camping and adventuring have the Clines moving and shaking over these warm, river-dipped, suntanned months.

Photo by Lianna Spooner

Our most recent adventure was a big one. Andy and I packed mules into the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Andy’s boss and our friend, Chris Eyer, has nine mules and three horses and dude is passionate about his craft: swaddling gear and packing with giant, beloved, hooved animals deep into the wild.

Andy has been on four trips with Chris and friends but this was my first year. The first time it felt right for both of us to leave our girls for several days. Completely out of touch. Well, more right than wrong I suppose. It was hard for this mama to kiss those freckled noses goodbye and head into No Service for days. My wonderful, saintly parents came to watch our brood of animals and children. For the first time, Andy and I wrote a little letter to them and our family. You know, in the event we died in some sort of savage and scenic death together. I didn’t overthink the note, it’s nothing poetic or confessional. I just wrote a bit about where they will live and how much I love tracing their full moon faces. I think I’ll keep that sealed envelope at the ready because living life is risky and worth it. It’s in the top drawer of the turquoise desk.

This trip was a wonderfully generous gift from Chris. Our job: the food. So, let’s talk menu first!

Mules allow us to bring things we’d never attempt backpacking. We love great food but had little time to prep so we plucked some veggies from the garden. Kept it simple, hearty and nourishing for our group of 5.

Day 1

dinner: Buckhorn Bar

Day 2

breakfast / lunch / packing in / keeping it light: I made this lara bar recipe I found. I made a batch with dried cherries and one with blueberry and lemon zest. They were so so good! I also made and packed my honey balsamic almonds.

dinner: Andy premade beef stew so all we had to do was heat it up and serve. Which was awesome. We were tired. His recipe:

2 pounds beef stew meat, cut into 1 inch cubes
1/4 cup flour
salt and pepper
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon worcestershire sauce
1 onion, chopped
1 1/2 cups beef broth (we like the Better than Boullion brand)
2 light beers
4 potatoes, diced
8 carrots, chopped

He cooks the meat, onion and garlic first. Mix all spices in with broth and beer in separate pot and heat up. Whisk in flour, meat and potatoes and cook until potatoes are about halfway cooked. Add carrots and cook until al dente. Let cool and pack in zippered plastic bags. Boom.

Day 3

breakfast: granola, yogurt, blueberries

lunch: sandwiches with sliced meat, cheese and garden veggies

dinner: flank steak using my grandma’s marinade, potatoes and Smitten Kitchen’s broccoli slaw

Grandma Stevie’s Marinade:
1/4 cup soy sauce
3 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
3/4 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced

Day 4

breakfast: egg, veggie and sausage burritos

lunch: same

dinner: roasted chickpea gyros with tzatziki, tomatoes, red onion and feta, kale salad

I cooked the chickpeas beforehand (I usually use a pressure cooker so I don’t have to soak overnight!) and then roasted in oven with cumin, dill and salt. For tzatziki: add fresh dill, salt and lots of minced garlic and chopped cucumbers to thick pain yogurt. The naan bread from Costco is so good and packs wonderfully — we use it camping all the time!

Day 5

breakfast: we bought a quiche (Costco) and heated it up in butter on the camp griddle

lunch / packing out: lara bars, leftovers stuffed in tortillas, sips of whisky

dinner: Buckhorn Bar

I have pretty much zero horse experience. My grandparents had horses and I sat on them as a kid. I see and pet horses fairly often. I was gripped by all the warnings at how sore I’d be after a 15 mile ride. I had my arsenal of essential oils at the ready. The morning we were to ride in, I woke in my tent feeling so damn nervous and unsettled. There was an immediate flurry of activity: taking down camp, packing and weighing gear, saddling and bridling animals. I met Blevins, the horse who’d carry me through forests and creeks, over mountain passes to Halfmoon Park.

I did 10 wool-socked sun salutations and breathed into the deep well of trust I have. In animals, humans, nature and going for it. I pulled on my vintage cowboy boots, using them for their first ever legitimate reason. I received a You Got This kiss from my husband.

Chris is fascinatingly knowledgeable and equally gentle and generous in sharing his knowledge, his passion. He approaches each of his mules whispering endearing names, rubbing their bellies, wiping boogers and eye crud, declaring his pride in their patience and strength, pressing his forehead to their soft muzzle.

We began. I was tense, trying to not be tense, unsuccessfully willing my hips to sway with Blevins’ swagger. A few miles in, faith settled in my bones. I loosened my grip on all of it: the reins, my brain, my muscles. Blevins told me to sit up, shoulders back, engage my stomach muscles, rock with his stride, stand on the stirrups when I craved relief. I rode with my hands in reverse prayer pose often as it pulled me right up toward the clouds when I felt heavy. I was not one bit sore when we landed in camp that night. Or ever. I found a new home in that saddle.

The ride in was spectacular. Scree fields tumbling into aquamarine pools, jokes passed down the train like a game of telephone. Always ready to see a grizzly bear and only seeing recent evidence she’d just been there: a picked-over elk carcass, upturned stumps, clawed up earth, mules with their knowing ears pointed at the thicket. We rode and rode and eventually crested a mountain, about four or so hours in, to a dizzying rock wall that rose larger with every step forward. Through the burned timber from the 1988 fires, over one last high alpine rise and down into a lush cradle we’d call home for a few days.

The first day I read my new book for several hours, in a hammock, creekside. And then cuddled with Andy in the hammock. Chris and Lianna rode horses up and over the hill. Andy, Ryan and I explored on foot, stepping into fields of wild onion and fireweed as tall as me. Our hike over loose rock was steep and harrowing, especially because my chosen footwear wasn’t the grippiest. One of several things I’ll do differently next time. Also I desperately wished I’d left my big camera at camp, as it continually swung forward when I was on all fours channeling my inner mountain goat. I was thankful for the ol’ downhill butt-scoot. And thankful for my patient, sure-footed husband with his hand always extended, ready just in case his willful wife needed to lean on him. She did.

Ryan introduced us to Kubb, a super fun game he learned all those years in the Montana forests on fire crew. Want to know what Kubb is? This dude will tell you.

I woke up to coffee in bed and the best view each morning.

The second day we all set out on our animals for an adventure up higher. The trail was fuzzy because of overgrowth and debris, forcing us to find ways around. It was here my adrenaline soared with the excitement of jumping with Blevins over a huge log, my confidence stabilized as I learned to navigate him through the path he couldn’t see. Andy’s mule took him for a bucking jaunt and I hoped he’d hang on and his back would survive. He did, it did. We were caught in a surprise hail/thunder/lightening storm that sent us running straight up a mountain but I held on and we stopped and it was totally, electrifyingly fine. Every time some heart-in-throat thing happened — where I considered how bad it would hurt to fall or what if… — I came out on the other side feeling buoyed by the experience and grounded by the aliveness of it all.

The storm passed but we returned to ominous clouds and decided to throw up the kitchen fly. Chris shimmied up trees and tossed ropes that we caught and pulled against the gusts. The air was charged and, as I held the rope and used my full 165-pound body weight against the wind, I imagined I might sail up into the treetops hanging onto the rope end, feet sailing like a flag.

Our evenings were around the camp kitchen. Making and eating food, cheersing cocktails, cleaning up, sharing stories, listening to the ringing bells of the mules. Chris’s horses are contained by a simple electrified closure at night but the mules roam free because they won’t leave the horses. The mules wear bells around their necks so humans can have a sense of where they are all night long. I wondered if the ringing would be maddening when trying to sleep in the wilderness but to the contrary: the equine wind chimes lulled our tired bodies to sleep beneath the starriest sky I’ve ever locked my eyeballs upon, every night. And that’s saying something.

The mules and horses. I teared up more than once at their sage, knowing, penetrating presence. I mentioned a moment I had with Cricket and Chris said, “They have so much to say. If you listen, they have more to share than most people.” Shit, that’s true. I loved these animals and discovered a new language and confidence with them.

We rose at 6:30 the morning we were to ride out and were officially leaving camp at 11:30. And we were hustling. The process of safely and securely loading the packing saddles involves weighing each load and getting the load weights exactly equal on each side of the mules. And then mantying all the loads, securing them to the animals. Sweeping camp, leaving no trace, swinging our legs over the velvety swayed backs and heading out toward home.

I’m not really sure why, but the ride out was about an hour faster than the ride in. We unpacked, loaded the mules in the trailer and headed back into the Buckhorn Bar in Augusta, Montana where there were other people. And tvs showing the Olympics. Dirty and weatherworn, we actually fit right in to the crowd.

Chris asked us to go around the table and declare our immediate rose, thorn and bud. I went first. Hard to pick a single rose with the bouquet sitting in front of me so I went with the first thing to come to mind. Rose: the arc I had on a horse; moving from nervous to calm, from afraid to sure. Thorn: wishing so badly I’d brought a different pair of jeans for the ride out. Even though I washed them in the creek, they were not a joy to put back on. Bud: Creeping into the house at 11pm that night, into my daughters’ bedroom and kissing their smooth, sleeping eyelids.


  • The Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex is a 1,535,352 acre wilderness area in Montana. An additional 1 million acres of roadless National Forest, private, and BLM land surrounds the designated wildernesses on all sides, for a total roadless area of 2.54 million acres. (stats from wikipedia) Find links and information at the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation.
  • I bought this solar charger so we could have power to our phones for picture taking. It worked like a charm, is a great size and super sturdy.
  • Our Hippie First Aid kit again got a lot of use. I pulled out the essential oils many times for bruises, cuts and aches.
  • We recently invested in Aire Landing Pads for camping and holy! I can’t believe – for as much as we camp – we didn’t save up to do it sooner. We bought ours locally at the Trail Head in downtown Missoula.
  • I’m currently reading The Girl on the Train and it hasn’t really gripped me yet; I’ll keep trying. I’d love your book suggestions! After reading several memoirs, I’m looking for a novel. xo
  • Andy recently bought us Yeti cups and we are so impressed with them. Coffee stays hot, cocktails stay cold. Thumbs up.



Comments (26)

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I’ve been saying and I’ll keep saying it. This summer is nuts. Company and travels have us rushing about more than we’re used to. All good things, all good things. But holy! Weddings, reunions, camping and adventuring have the Clines moving … Continue reading

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I’ve been saying and I’ll keep saying it. This summer is nuts. Company and travels have us rushing about more than we’re used to. All good things, all good things. But holy! Weddings, reunions, camping and adventuring have the Clines moving … Continue reading

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Amidst the:

Salad every night, snacking on sun-warmed peas, all those green tomatoes wiggling bigger every day…

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I always tuck marigolds into my vegetable garden. I like the neon orange waving from the tones of jade, mint, emerald, sage, lime and clover.

Marigolds are also a good friend to vegetable gardens. Their nectar feeds beneficial insects that eat harmful insects and they are also known to deter some insects from vegetable plants. Honestly, I think you’d have to plant gobs of them to make a real difference so I mostly plant them because they are jubilant.

And they dry so beautifully! I made a garland last summer that has been in our bathroom ever since. The color has really held up and in the midst of winter’s 4:30 sunsets and grey skies, I committed to make MORE marigold garland this summer. Continue reading

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the immortality of make believe

Two years ago my daughters wrote a letter to a potential fairy and left it out on the deck. She wrote back. Her name is Lavender Fawn. The girls stitched up beds from fabric scraps and fashioned sofas from soft leaves, they set out itty portions of banana and pea sized bowls of jewels.

Those who’ve been reading here a while might remember my discomfort with Santa etc because I couldn’t shake the discomfort of lying to my kids. So how did we get here? Where I wake at 6am to craft tiny notes from a tiny fairy who cares for fawns in western Montana in the spring and lives in Nicaragua during our winter and took a sabbatical to help the moon fairy with the tides last summer? Continue reading

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