About 50 years ago I met a man I’ll never forget, at a place I’ll never forget, having the grandest time I’d ever had. I still have clear memories of a few of those days now nearly five decades later.
We were camped at about 9,000 feet in the West Elk Wilderness area in the Colorado Rockies. It was a trip for which I had saved all my nickels and dimes for over a year. My dad’s good friend from Texas had invited my father and me to join him on an elk hunt there in late October. When we arrived at base camp and unloaded our gear I noticed several cowboys saddling up horses, I asked, “What are the horses for?” My dad looked surprised and laughed as he said, “To get to the high camp of course, did you think we were going to walk up hill for seven miles carrying all our gear?” Now, here was a problem, I had no idea how to ride a horse.
Four hours later we arrived at high camp, when I tried to dismount, my legs collapsed and I fell to the ground like a sack of fertilizer. My dad and his friend laughed like howling wild dogs as I attempted to stand but continued to fall. It took my legs about five minutes before the cramps and numbness ceased. That was the only bad experience I had over the next six days. Well, except for the blisters on the skin covering my sitting muscles.
Every day we got on our horses and rode to some distant spot where we sat expecting to ambush an elk. I never fired my rifle, I expect it was because I was so busy looking around. It was the first time I had seen the Rockies, and here I was riding a horse at 9,000 plus feet with scenery just too beautiful for my inexperienced eyes. I couldn’t stop myself from being absorbed in the ultra clear blue skies; jagged rock peaks over 10,000 feet and snow clinging to the tops of those mountains.
The first morning I awoke excited, climbed out of my sleeping bag, and then stepped out of the tent. It was about 25 degrees and I was freezing. I heard a “Good morning.” I looked up at an older man, he was walking up the trail beside which we were camped. He was leading a horse, wearing only a white sleeveless T-shirt, jeans and a well worn cowboy hat and weathered boots. Remember it was about 25 degrees. That was my first exposure to L.E. Wheeler, and I can still see that image as if it were before me this minute.
Each meal time, we’d gather in the mess-tent, often Mr. Wheeler would share a story, though I don’t recall those stories, I hung on every magical word. It was over 20 years later before I went back to that place, this time the guides were Mr. Wheeler’s granddaughter and her husband, Linda and Dellis Ferrier. They were great hosts and it was once again like stepping into a wonderful new life for a week. We rode horses, hunted elk and mule deer, but most of all just experienced the Rocky Mountains, all at or above 9,000 feet. This time as the first, we did all this from horse back but, I was prepared because I had learned a little about riding a horse on that first trip. On the second trip I also learned a little more about Mr. Wheeler, one story is permanently stuck in my memory.
Mr. Wheeler was escorting a guest, probably a greenhorn much like me; it was just the two of them. Mr. Wheeler was also leading a pack horse. A large buck appeared and the guest dismounted in order to get a shot, he had his rifle in hand. Meanwhile, Mr. Wheeler’s horse stepped into a hornets’ nest and the angry insects attacked. The horse in an attempt to escape the stinging critters bucked and jumped all about. Mr. Wheeler’s saddle probably loosened by the long ride, slipped under the horse’s belly and Mr. Wheeler became tangled in the lead line from the pack horse. He could not free himself from of the wildly bucking horse; with each jump and buck the horse was kicking and biting the old cowboy. The guest tried in vain to calm the excited horse by grabbing the reins, but could not stop the crazed animal. Finally Mr. Wheeler screamed to the startled man, “Shoot the (double expletive) horse, shoot the (double expletive) horse!” This the guest did. Mr. Wheeler had multiple serious injuries, deep cuts on his face, a deeply cut and broken nose, bites over much of his back and one nearly severed ear. After the tough cowboy gathered his wits, he stuffed his nearly severed ear under his cowboy hat, mounted up and rode safely back to base camp.
There was a day in his mid-80s that he believed he was suffering a heart attack, so he got into his pickup and drove himself to the hospital. It was confirmed, he had indeed suffered a heart attack. Upon his recovery, he became angry with the hospital staff for not allowing him to drive back home. He angrily exclaimed, “I drove my (expletive) self here, I can drive my (expletive) self home.”
Mr. Wheeler died before my return to the West Elk Wilderness area that second time. He was still active at 94, and had been helping with livestock most of the day. He was struck and killed by an automobile as he was crossing the road to meet his buddies at his favorite watering hole.
I still see him through those twenty-something eyes. It was like seeing someone through a magnifying glass; he was just too big to be real. Even after nearly 50 years, no one I’ve met filled my expectation of a real grit, horse riding, story telling cowboy better than Mr. Wheeler; a personality too big to escape my fading memory.
Rod Hunter lives in East Bend and is an avid hiker, biker, photographer and nature lover. He is the past state chairman of the Sierra Club of NC. He volunteers as a court appointed children’s advocate for children in foster care and with Cancer Services Inc. He is a two-time cancer survivor. He has backpacked in Alaska, Arizona, California, Utah, Oregon, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Georgia, Virginia, and of course North Carolina.