I worked for an outfitter in Alberta that did, among other things, seven day adventure trips along the Great Continental Divide in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. I cooked and helped out with the wrangling. The Divide Trips started west of Longview, Alberta in the mountains, with horses being unloaded from trailers, teams being hitched up to wagons and personal gear, tents, cots, coolers, horse feed and all the other necessary tools being loaded into the wagons. The wagons were piled high to the very bows of the canvas in an effort to contain all the luggage.
It was a noisy, jolly, energetic time, that calmed down only slightly when the riders sat down to eat their bag lunches as the trailers were taken down the road to the spot where seven days later the riders would emerge out of the mountains.
Then it was time to get the show on the road. Since I was cook, I went ahead with the wagons, riding behind to make sure nothing fell out. My cook’s assistant rode along as well. Chevy—self-designated wagon leader—barked excitedly at the front team’s noses, and then led the procession down the road like the Grand Marshall of a parade, with his tail aloft.
The teamsters drove their horses at a fair clip along a bumpy wagon road to get to camp so we’d have ample time to set up the canvas pyramid kitchen tent complete with wood cook-stove, tables and all the coolers needed for the first few days of the trip. We also needed to have the little canvas tent outhouses set up, teams unhitched, wood chopped and a fire started, preferably before all the guest riders, the remaining wranglers and outfitter Dewy arrived. Ideally, coffee and a snack would be waiting, with cheerful wranglers and cooks ready to assist the saddle weary riders down from their mounts and help them situate themselves with camp and their tents.
The ideal didn’t happen for the first trip of the season and we got a tongue lashing from our boss, which made most of us determined to have things perfect the next time. Of course, as the season went along we all became far more familiar and efficient with what needed to be done. Our crew was hard-working and generally speaking, everyone pulled their share of the weight with little complaint.
It became our little game to beat Dewy’s expectations every time he arrived in camp. To look relaxed and chill, despite the frantic pace we’d been pulling to have everything in it’s place, ready to go.
The day after camp set-up was a day to do a scenic day ride along the Continental Divide, crossing over into British Columbia and coming back into Alberta through the Fording River Pass, known for it’s fossilized horn coral. The riders came back to camp often saddle sore and hot, with appetites whetted, ready for a hearty meal of fire-grilled BBQ pork chops. They would relax around the fire while the wranglers would take care of the horses, often turning them out for a few hours of grazing time before tying them up for their allotment of hay and settling them in for the night. Us cooks would be finishing up dishes and cleaning up the kitchen tent preparing for the next day’s meals, if we finished early we would help out the wranglers.
Seeing as this was a seven day Divide Trip, we didn’t stay at Baril Creek in our nice little camp set up. Oh no, we stayed only two nights and then we had to do the whole thing over again, only this time, we had to take down camp and load the wagons. All this was after breakfast, which was prepared on the wood stove and then the dishes which were washed by stream water hauled up in buckets and heated on the stove. Which meant the stove was full of hot ashes that we needed to take care of before we could pack up the stove.
Tents were taken down and packed up, horses saddled, teams hitched, wagons loaded and off we went to the next campsite down the line, Carnarvon. A bit of a ride, so we had to hustle along while the riders again took a more scenic route along the Divide.
The only issue with the wagon road into Carnarvon occurred just before the camp. Maybe a hundred meters or so before the creek the road came to a steep downgrade bordered on the inside by a rock wall and on the outside by a grassy drop off. Steep enough and tight enough to make it a little dicey on a good day, but on this particular day, the road had washed out a bit, making it nearly impassable.
Since this was the first trip of the season, the road hadn’t been used by wagons since the previous year, and because of extenuating circumstances, no one this year had checked it out.
Dewy warned teamster Duncan about this stretch and told him to check it out before heading down slowly, especially since he had a young fresh team of mares named Thelma and Louise—a tall rangy pair of Belgians.
When we came to this section, Duncan parked the team at the top of the hill and then went down on foot to inspect the road while I held the team up. He came back rather worried, saying the road was washed out a bit and didn’t think he’d be able to make it. We took shovels and proceeded to shovel out a section of the wall alongside the road washed out.
Then we asked the gentleman riding in the wagon with us for the day (because he was too sore after the first 2 days of riding) to mount up his horse and I took him down ahead of the wagon to tie up the horses in the aspen grove at the bottom of the trail. I had just finished tying up the horses when I heard the wagon coming around the bend.
It was not coming slow like I thought it would be. I saw Thelma and Louise come around the corner, their heads up and going at a fair clip and coming wide. Duncan started yelling “Gee! Gee! GEE!” (gee means right for a driving horse). The horses started to hug close to the cliff wall and the front wagon tire swung in tight behind them. It looked like they were going to make it. Then the outside back tire caught the lip of the washout.
Duncan was still yelling “Gee!” and the horses were bunched up tight to the wall and pulling with all their might, but with the tire caught in the soft sand of the washout you could see it was a losing battle. In slow motion the weight of the wagon pulled the team down the bank after it. The horses were frantic—scrambling with all their might and then things sped up. The heavy wagon rolled down the hill lurched to a stop on it’s side—stuck on a tree. Louise was dragged down, falling under Thelma and I couldn’t see Duncan.
All was quiet as I raced up the hill as fast as I could.
Just as I reached the spot where the wagon had gone over, Duncan’s head poked up minus his cowboy hat. He looked more than just a little dazed.
The horses were initially quiet in the aftermath of the wreck, then Thelma, who was somehow still standing, started to panic and tried to reach the road only a few feet above her. Unfortunately she was trampling her teammate in the process and hurting herself. So I jumped in front of her and hung onto her halter, talking to her soothingly, trying to calm her down, while Duncan raced down the road to grab big white Dually (one of the horses I had tied up). He thought if he tied big Dually out front of the team, he’d be able to help the team pull the wagon out.
Just as he was coming back up the road with a highly-agitated, snorty, charging Dually, Thelma tried one more desperate time to regain the road. Her big dinner-plate-sized hoof flashed out and landed on top of my cowboy-booted foot that was a good three feet above hers—right on the bone! Oh the pain! I dropped Thelma’s halter and decided for a minute that she could strangle herself for all I cared.
Instead, while I writhed in pain along the cliff wall, Thelma proceeded to jerk the wagon around some more. It became obvious that Dually wasn’t going to help, especially in his agitated state. So while I hopped around on one foot, holding on to a big white charger, Duncan tried to unhook the team. However since they were in such awkward positions, the hooks weren’t coming free easily.
I can’t remember who came down to help (either my cook’s assistant Vanessa or the other teamster Naomi). She took Dually back down the hill to be tied up. His absence calmed Thelma, who in the shifting of the wagon loosed the strain on her tugs and Duncan was able to unhook her. She charged up the hill suddenly free of the wagon and as she did so, Louise was whipped around a slender pine tree and ended up lying side by side to the wagon, still hooked on. The wagon was now solidly wedged against a pine tree.
We had to get Louise up so Duncan could unhook her and since I was the only available person, I was delegated. So I hobble hopped down the bank to stand close to the moaning horse. I tried to coax her up. I tried to pull her up. I was pretty worried she’d lunge into me as she stood up, so I was a little hesitant to get too close, especially with a bum foot. Eventually knowing she had to get up soon, I just yelled and screamed and kicked her in the ribs with my good foot and she finally groaned to her feet—thankfully slowly and carefully. Duncan speedily managed to unhook her and I led her back to the road, sweaty, shaky and little banged up. She was checked over and despite a gash in her shoulder, she physically recouped quickly from the accident.
Now we still had another wagon to come down the hill past the washout. So with a lot of trepidation it was Naomi’s turn with the gray team of Percherons, Duke and Willy, who were far less flighty, older, wiser and calmer than Thelma and Louise. She took it slow, inching her way along the road, hugging the wall on her inside, as the wagon just scraped by the washout unscathed. She drove her team across the creek and parked.
Carnarvon camp is a little annoying in the fact that the wagons can only get so close to camp. The horses and wagons are kept down a bank from where the tents would be set up. The good thing was that Naomi’s wagon held the kitchen tent and gear and so we hustled as a team to pack the heavy canvas tent bag and trunks up the hill to set it up.
All of us had Dewy’s tongue lashing in mind as we hurried to set up the kitchen tent and wood stove and organize camp. We set up a ferrying system to carry all the luggage and bags from the wrecked wagon and cart them across the creek.
I stomped along trying to ignore the pain in my foot, praying it wasn’t fractured. I didn’t want to take my boot off for fear my foot would be so swollen I couldn’t get it back on. And I needed my boots on in camp.
It was over thirty degrees Celsius that day as well. Hot and windless as we huffed and puffed to get camp set before Dewy came down the trail with the rest of the riders.
Finally everything was in place. We sat down around the fire ring on the picnic tables that were left in camp year round and I finally had a chance to put my throbbing foot up. We were all soaked with sweat and just a little high from the adrenalin rush of the wreck and getting camp ready.
And then Duncan said, “Jake, where’s the coffee?”
Where’s the coffee! It’s 30- freaking degrees out! You want coffee?!!! There’s no freaking way I’m going in that kitchen tent until I absolutely have too. In no way am I gonna light the stove and make coffee! No one wants coffee today!!! AND my foot is killing me! Are you freaking insane!?!
I might have meant to say all that in my head, but I think I may have said it out loud, because we got into a fair tiff with me freaking out about the heat and he bellering about having to have coffee and have it right now and then I (because when all is said and done am a people-pleaser despite therapy) stomped/hobbled off to fire up the stove and make a pot of coffee for Duncan.
A little while later I asked (still a little piqued and slightly mystified) why the heck he had to have coffee on such a hot day and he replied, “Because everything’s okay when the coffee’s on.”
Dewy came down the trail just a little excited when he saw the wagon lying on the hillside and was pleasantly surprised to find the camp set up, the fire going and coffee on. Though he did point out rather loudly, that on such a hot day, coffee wasn’t necessary and watermelon and ice tea would be far more appreciated!
But Lesson learned: For some people everything will be okay when the coffee’s on, so to speak. The semblance of normal. The pretense of everything is fine. The carefully prepared facade of everything-is-right-in-my-world. IT’S. ALL. GOOD.
I know I’ve done it before—put on a front, or a mask as some people say. I’ve put the coffee on, when my world was falling apart. I’ve covered up the disaster—the mess. Tried to hide the wreckage.
Sometimes I’ve fooled people and maybe subconsciously think I’ve fooled God, but I suppose it’s been more like me drinking coffee on a thirty degree plus day cuddled up to a fire—a little out of place, a little strange, a little transparent.
God knows everything. He knows me. Like Peter says in Acts 15, “God, who can’t be fooled by any pretense on our part but always knows a person’s thoughts” and how Samuel discovered from God Himself in 1 Samuel 16:7 “Men and women look at the face; God looks into the heart.”
I can’t fool God. I probably don’t even fool others with my “everything’s okay, the coffee’s on” attitude.
God doesn’t want empty rituals just for show in our lives. He doesn’t want pretense or facades. He wants us to be REAL GENUINE SINCERE. He wants to meet us when we are vulnerable and transparent, not when we are putting on an act of piety or religiosity—acting calm cool and collected with wreckage strewn all around.
We can’t fool God, even when the coffee’s on. He still sees the wreck. He still sees a mess to be cleaned up. He still sees the whole situation—the reality.
So be REAL with God. Let God be real with you.
Stop fluttering around ineffectively. Stop trying to fix things on your own. Stop pretending everything’s okay when really it’s not.
Come to God as you are. No more hiding. No more pretending. No more useless acts.
All He requires of us is to plainly listen to Him and follow up on what we hear from Him with action—obedience.
Then the mess—the wreckage can be taken care of and there will be nothing left to cover up from others. Nothing needed to hide behind. No more coffee needed on a hot day.
“God, investigate my life; get all the facts firsthand.
I’m an open book to you;
even from a distance, you know what I’m thinking.
You know when I leave and when I get back;
I’m never out of your sight.
You know everything I’m going to say
before I start the first sentence.
I look behind me and you’re there,
then up ahead and you’re there, too—
your reassuring presence, coming and going.
This is too much, too wonderful—
I can’t take it all in!
Is there anyplace I can go to avoid your Spirit?
to be out of your sight?
If I climb to the sky, you’re there!
If I go underground, you’re there!
If I flew on morning’s wings
to the far western horizon,
You’d find me in a minute—
you’re already there waiting!
Then I said to myself, “Oh, he even sees me in the dark!
At night I’m immersed in the light!”
It’s a fact: darkness isn’t dark to you;
night and day, darkness and light, they’re all the same to you.” Psalm 139:1-12
With Dewy in camp, things were put to right. The wagon was hauled out and the guests settled enjoying a hearty meal of buffalo steak. I was taken out on an overnight trip to town to get my foot x-rayed. Turned out it wasn’t fractured and was only a very deep bruise on the bone that would heal on it’s own with no cast. I returned to camp the next morning to help with the pack-up for the next camp move to McPhail Creek—the last campsite of the ride.