I woke up to the not-so distant howl of a wolf in the deepest backcountry location in the Lower 48. The half light of coming dawn allowed me to barely see our five horses and two mules standing at attention seeking the source of the deep howl. Another wolf joined the chorus, this one further away, up by the headwaters of the Yellowstone River and in the direction we’d come from the day before. My skin prickled at the sound of the wolf. It’s a sound that I’m glad has returned to Yellowstone. But its not a comforting sound. It’s an ominous sound, a sound that symbolizes that you are not in control. A wild sound. And beautiful in its own way.
I crawled out of my sleeping bag, started the coffee, and caught a few horses to keep the others nearby. We had five horses, all adopted mustangs, two mules, and four people, Ray Knell, who was riding 1,000 miles along the Continental Divide, cinematographer Phill Baribeau, still photographer Michael Ciaglo, and myself, Ben Masters. We met up with Ray yesterday and plan to ride with him through Yellowstone National Park. Ray, a combat veteran, is doing his epic ride to inspire other veterans to use horses and wilderness to heal their PTSD and anxiety like he has. I recently had a veteran friend commit suicide and am riding with Ray to seek answers for my questions. As for the cameramen? They’re off worried about exposure mumbo jumbo and tinkering with expensive toys, which they are incredibly good at. (See “A Backcountry Recovery” Photo Gallery)
I was relieved to inspect the horses and mules and not find any sores from the previous days’ 33-mile march. There’s a lot of responsibility using horses in the backcountry and an unsaid but understood agreement exists that if you take good care of your horses, they’ll take good care of you. Although I’d only met Ray in person the day before, I noticed how meticulous he was with the care the horses and mules. You learn a lot about a person by watching how they treat their animals. Ray treated his horses and mules with respect, caring, and it was obvious that he felt a tremendous amount of responsibility for their safety.
A few hours later we were moving and entered Yellowstone National Park along the Yellowstone River (which flows north by the way!). We stopped to take a few pictures at the sign, a tremendous landmark for Ray, and he reflected on how many people thought he was crazy to attempt such a long journey. I’ve also been accused of being crazy and spending way too much time on extended horseback expeditions, so I assured him that nothing was abnormal about wanting to spend 1,000 miles in a saddle in the woods. How he began his journey did intrigue me though. I was further intrigued when he told me he had virtually zero horseback experience until a year previous.
Ray was born and raised in Chicago. He joined the Army out of high school and excelled, ultimately becoming a Green Beret in special operations. Ray completed six tours in Afghanistan before leaving the army to do contract work for private companies overseas. On his most recent and last contract job, he was shot in the chest. His bulletproof vest fortunately saved his life. When he returned home, he was diagnosed with PTSD and anxiety issues. He had difficulty leaving his house, psychiatrists told him he had a problem and prescribed him medications, his relationship with his wife and family began to deteriorate, and he started to drink heavily. There were multiple times where Ray was in the grocery store checkout line, with a fully loaded cart, and had to abandon his cart because there were too many people that he didn’t trust surrounding him and he was seized with anxiety and the desire to be in a safe position. His life was in a downward spiral.
Then a friend, Navy Seal Micah Fink of Heroes and Horses, literally gave Ray no choice but to come to Montana, get horseback, get into the backcountry, and get his mind and body engaged in the present. The few weeks that Ray spent with Micah working with the horses and being in nature changed his life. The trust he developed with the horses spilled over into his relationships with other people, and the solitude wilderness provided allowed him to think about his life and come to peace with his past. Transformed, he decided to embark on his epic 1,000-mile ride to further heal himself and to inspire other veterans to use animal relationships and nature to heal themselves rather than drugs and alcohol.
As Ray told me his personal story of how being in nature literally saved his life, I couldn’t help but feel grateful for all the public lands that we have. It is incredible that we have places like the 2.2-million-acre Yellowstone National Park. I feel like as a society, we often take for granted the foresight early conservationist had to set large chunks of land aside for the next generations to enjoy. These places aren’t just crucial for grizzlies, bald eagles, and cutthroat trout. They’re crucial for us.
We crossed the Thorofare River, the Yellowstone River’s largest tributary south of Yellowstone Lake, and I paused to memorialize my friend, veteran Clint Stevenson, who had committed suicide one month before. Clint and I worked together for three years for a backcountry outfitter along the Thorofare River just a few miles upstream of our crossing. We’d crossed the Thorofare River many times together, and as my horse and I stood in the current listening to the soft sound of the flowing water, my mind was flooded with cherished memories as my eyes flooded with tears. I’ll never know why Clint killed himself and I never saw it coming. I can’t imagine the depression or pain a person has to be in to take their own life. Ray has an idea of what that pain is like, and he knows what heals him. We rode on.
Our route paralleled the Yellowstone River as we rode north through the national park through a tremendous valley full of meadows and willows. An elk curiously watched us before issuing a warning bark and running away with her head held high. A mule deer crossed the Yellowstone River ahead of us, being swept 20 yards downstream before making it to the other side. Old-growth forests of pines, firs, and spruces were clumped along the bottom of the valley floor next to the river. They survived the Yellowstone fires of 1988 whereas almost all of the trees on the mountainsides or not in a protected area were burned. We rode to a hilltop and spotted Yellowstone Lake in the distance. Three hours later we were riding on the lake’s beautiful eastern shoreline. The sun set brilliantly over the lake as we made our way north to our campsite. We got there after dark, untacked the horses, let them loose for the night, stuffed ourselves, and crawled into our sleeping bags. We needed rest for the big days to come.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Green Beret and Army Veteran Ray Knell was a broken man with PTSD and severe anxiety when he returned home from Afghanistan. His trust in humans was gone. A friend introduced him to backcountry horsemanship and the wilderness and animal relationship gave him hope and peace of mind. To inspire others to use wilderness and horses to overcome their struggles, Knell embarked on a 1,000-mile ride along the Continental Divide with Mustang Sally and his two mules, Top Gun and Magic. Filmmaker Ben Masters joined Knell through Yellowstone to see the grandeur of our country’s first national park and to witness the importance of conserving wilderness to heal ourselves.