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In Utah, a 100-Mile Trek With a 4-Year-Old Boy

In Utah, a 100-Mile Trek With a 4-Year-Old Boy

Award-winning explorer, writer, and photographer, Bruce Kirkby has been shot at in Borneo and taken hostage in Ethiopia; he has survived crocodile attacks on the Nile and weathered high-altitude storms in Alaska. But Bruce recently undertook an even more challenging adventure: a 100-mile trek with his four-year-old son:

We roared across the Wyoming-Utah border at sunset; windows down, stereo cranked, muffler cracked. Behind the wheel was a well-tattooed, pierced 24-year-old. Riding shotgun, a 44-year-old writer with three-day-old stubble (that would be me). And in the back, buried beneath coloring books and blankets, a cherubic boy. We were all three in search of goats.

“This truck is going to fall apart,” announced my 4-year-old son, Bodi, his mouth full of baby carrots. Abe, a longtime family friend, ignored the comment, pushing his rusty Toyota even faster. Sage and tumbleweed stretched across the flatlands; beyond, on the horizon, was our destination: the Uinta Mountains, a half-million acres of forgotten wilderness.

Ten miles past Sulphur Creek Reservoir, we turned down an unmarked dirt lane. Clay Zimmerman, a 56-year-old retired Air Force mechanic, waited for us outside a vinyl-sided house. Clay may be the only person on the entire planet who rents pack goats. (Pack goats are as beloved as household pets to their handlers, and if there were any other goat renters out there, I couldn’t find them.)

The argument for goat packing goes something like this: To begin, as relatively small animals, they are easy to handle. Requiring neither lead nor halter, trained goats will happily follow in a hiker’s footsteps all day. Better still, goats can go places horses can’t, eat things horses won’t (including woody and poisonous plants) and survive for days without water. According to John Mionczynski — whose book, “The Pack Goat,” I’d stumbled upon years earlier — properly trained goats make strong, hardworking and disciplined pack animals, with an intelligence and loyalty that rivals dogs’.

So how does all this jibe with the animal’s almost universally held reputation as a nasty, stinky, cantankerous troublemaker? I wanted to find out.

After stumbling upon Clay’s Web site (, I’d arranged the trip via e-mail, reserving four goats for 10 days, with plans to tackle the nearby Highline Trail, which Clay recommended. Traversing the spine of the High Uintas Wilderness, the 100-mile route crosses nine major passes and rarely dips below 10,000 feet. Unable to convince my wife of goats’ genial nature, this escapade would mark the first time I took our eldest son into the wilderness alone. An unmistakable — but not unpleasant — sense of responsibility settled on my shoulders the instant we left home.

Clay is tall and gaunt, with a wispy chin beard — astoundingly similar to the 25 curious goats jostling behind a nearby fence. After feeding the herd, and taking them for a walk, we began to stuff freeze-dried meals and sleeping bags into panniers. It was then that Clay announced: “I’ve decided to come along with y’all.”

Wait a minute. This was supposed to be a father-and-son backpacking journey. (O.K., father-and-son-and-Abe, but after entering our lives as a rebellious youth years ago, Abe is family.) We had chosen pack goats, in part because we relished the challenge of managing the animals ourselves.

“A goat took off on renters last week,” Clay explained. “Don’t want to risk more trouble.”

I suspected he was worried about my young son. The concern was understandable, but unnecessary; Bodi has spent a quarter of his life in tents.

“Got a semiautomatic .45,” Clay said, patting a vintage external-frame backpack. “Loaded with the best hollow points money can buy.”

“For wild animals?” Bodi asked, wide-eyed.

“Nope, people.”

Bodi’s eyes widened even further. And that was it. Clay was coming.

The next morning we saddled the beasts in a frosty parking lot, just three hours east of Salt Lake City. Clay had selected four wethers (neutered males; less stinky and aggressive) for the journey: jet-black Raven, snow-white Capricorn, mottled Cooper and coffee-brown Bob. Each carried about 30 pounds of gear. Their lightweight fabric saddles were held in place by plastic buckles, the panniers slung using Velcro and hooks.

Amid the clatter of hooves and tiny bleats, we were under way. Clay strode out front. Abe, mildly overwhelmed by his first backpacking journey, tucked in behind him. Bodi and I, holding hands, struggled to keep up. An avalanche of wondrous questions from my son had already begun: Will the goats miss home? Where will they sleep? Where will we sleep? When is snack time?

The goats jostled endlessly as they established hierarchy. Get behind one on the trail and the animal would dawdle. Yet attempt to overtake it, and the goat would race ahead. It was uncannily reminiscent of human behavior.

We ascended into a landscape of scree and rock. Desiccated husks of spring wildflowers — saxifrage, penstemon and daisy — crunched underfoot. A few splashes of color remained; paintbrush, aster and brilliant yellow arnica sprung up around windblown spruce. After filling water bottles at an icy spring, we ascended 1,200 feet to Rocky Sea Pass, overlooking a vista of ridges and brick red peaks.

Hours later, on the shores of an alpine lake, Bodi leapt from boulder to boulder (eventually getting soaked) while Clay hung his hammock between two immense fir trees. I set up a tent, and the goats — irrepressibly curious — tried to join me inside. Spray from a water bottle (a Clay-approved technique) sent them scattering. We ate together in contented silence. Fresh air, winds, sun and exertion had begun to bond our disparate team.

Days began to blur, but routine made us efficient. The alpine highlands were a swirl of tarns, meadows and shattered mountains. The trail traversed beneath neck-stretching cliffs, weaving amid boulders the size of suburban homes. We spotted deer, elk and moose on ridgelines before they suddenly disappeared.

Bodi walked about half of each day, little legs bounding as he led the parade. Given that he is not instinctively drawn to animals (he seems to prefer gasoline engines to ambient beings), I watched with pride as his relationship with the goats progressed from fear to toleration to tentative interactions.

He spent the rest of his time in the child carrier, nattering in my ear and squirming endlessly. I loved every minute. Abe — fearful this extra “training” might lead to my eclipsing his youthful strength — insisted upon his fair share of carrying.

My wife sent along a small present for each day of the trip, which Bodi opened eagerly every morning: rainbow lollipops, a Spirograph, beads for bracelet-making. Then, a minor tragedy: a pedometer disappeared from Bodi’s belt. He had been averaging 40,000 steps a day, and was recording the results in a journal. Exhausted, he unleashed a spirited tantrum — then promptly fell asleep on a rock.

Asleep beside me, his body was perfectly still, his freckles pronounced after days in the sun. Far from the certainties of home, I was Bodi’s only anchor, and he had clamped on like a barnacle. His dependence was so primal and unfamiliar that deep emotions bubbled up in me; tears welled at the slightest provocation — like a boy’s heavy head on my arm.

On the fourth night we camped in open grasslands, near a collection of three-foot-tall log structures that once sheltered Basque shepherds. Afternoon thunder and winds assaulted us. Drizzle turned dusty cliffs to a dark merlot.

In the post-storm silence, sheep began streaming past, by the hundreds — maybe even thousands. A shepherd followed atop a coal gelding. He turned out to be a homesick Mexican named Marcelo, who had been in these highlands alone for three months. But the goats perked him up. “Que maravilloso!” he exclaimed, taking photos on a flip-phone.

The trail led over pass after pass (Dead Horse, Red Knob, Tungsten, Anderson) and traversed just beneath Kings Peak — at 13,528 feet, the highest point in Utah. But the inclines proved gentle and the views fantastic. So why was no one else here? The Uintas are often overlooked in favor of more famous neighbors (Tetons, Sawtooths and Wind Rivers), and according to Backpacker magazine, as few as 50 hikers tackle the Highline Trail annually.

Meanwhile, the goats followed us everywhere, their bells a constant serenade. When I dashed out of camp to photograph a sunset, all four raced behind me. Later, I sneaked into the woods for a private moment, only to discover curious faces inches from my backside.

On the ninth night we camped on the banks of the Uinta River. Abe collected armfuls of wood, heaping them on the campfire. We stayed up late, roasted marshmallows and watched the moon rise; four unlikely males, separated by decades, bonded by isolation, sweat and goats, nearing the end of our journey.

By Bruce Kirkby/New York Times/June 15, 2012