Pagosa’s Past: The Owl Hoot Trail

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Photo courtesy John Motter
Crowds, horses and wagons, and rodeos have been part of the Pagosa Springs Fourth of July for a long time.

By John M. Motter
PREVIEW Columnist

I heard an owl hoot the other day. It must have been about 9 in the morning, an unusual time to hear an owl. Owls are not expected to hoot during the morning, unless they don’t give a hoot.

Since I have been writing about trails, hearing this owl reminded me of a story I once read wherein a cowboy, let’s call him Bill, was riding the “Owl Hoot Trail.” He’d just gunned down a yahoo who’d just been visiting Bill’s gal, and Bill was getting out of town at night so it would be harder for the law to follow him.

As often happens, my mind drifted off and I remembered a time when I decided to travel at night. I wasn’t runnin’ from the law, I just wanted to do some trout fishing at the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Piedra River. By the time I got my backpack filled, night was beginnin’ to fall. Being an experienced mountain man, I used a soft pack for tough trails and my pack had a place for everything, including survival gear in case I broke a leg or some other catastrophe happened.

Yes, I know the books telling us how to camp say don’t go out alone. Personally, I’ve packed up mountain trails in Oregon, California, Arizona and Utah and figured I could write one of those books myself.

And so, by the time I’d stuffed a few days’ grub, a tiny camping stove with some extra fuel, and my fishing gear into my pack, made sure my knife was strapped around my waist, double-checked the water-proofed San Juan National Forest map and a topo map, the sun was droppin’ behind the western-most mountains.

“Not to worry,” I says to me. I’ve done this trail several times and it’s a piece of cake. This trail is wide enough for horses, I can surely follow it on foot in the dark. There are a couple of lakes near the top, which is also near the Continental Divide. That’s where I planned to camp.

I climb out of the truck, lock the doors and follow the river up to where the Middle Fork Trail leaves the river and veers off to the right and starts to climb the mountain. I see the trail and start walkin’. I hadn’t gone far when the trail turned and I didn’t. The truth soaked in along with the rain and soon enough for me to realize that I’d made a mistake. I couldn’t see in the dark. I fumbled my way back to where I could hear the river, set up my backpack tent, and that’s where I ate breakfast the next morning. It was a lesson well learned.