Joseph Cook’s old wooden grave marker. The author couldn’t imagine a more peaceful spot for a grave.

As a traditional bowhunter, I’ve traveled to and wandered around in many places off the beaten path. Places where I was free to hunt solo, take my own chances, camp where I pleased, eat the fish I caught, shoot small game for camp meat, enjoy a campfire whenever I wanted, and… not see another human being for days on end. I loved to explore new country and climb steep slopes to enjoy the view from a mountain top without a signpost telling me exactly where I was and how far it was to the next campsite. It may be my imagination, but I always felt that the farther I got off the road, the better the hunting would be. Often, I was carrying an old familiar recurve bow in my hand and searching for that special, perfect hunting spot that I seldom found.

As I wandered, I discovered a lot of interesting things that made priceless memories for me. Those things can only be found in places off the beaten path.

While bowhunting the far back reaches I’ve come across several old log cabins. Even in the arid high plains of the Western States, most were in bad need of repair. Some were so old that they were far beyond repair. I always wondered about the people who had lived there and wished I knew their story.

A study could be made of the varied and interesting methods of construction. The oldest ones were built without the use of a saw. Logs, cut and corner notched with an axe, were stacked upon one another to make the walls. The roof was a very low-pitched affair made with small poles holding up a few inches of sod to keep the rain at bay. The door hole was probably covered with a tarp or buffalo hide. Simple lodging, you might say, maybe used by a trapper or hunter.

Other cabins were very well made with sawn logs intricately notched to fit tightly at the square corners. Some were roofed with “shakes” cut from local Ponderosa Pine, while others used large tin containers carefully cut and flattened to make shingles—homesteaders in the Western states during the 1800s left many cabins like those. I wonder what became of those hardy pioneers.

Many of the “newer” cabins had an interesting diary of sorts written on the interior walls. Plywood or cardboard was often nailed up and used to record day-to-day living. Everything from how many cattle were wintered there in 1933 to what date in March the ice went off the river in 1941. Visitors must have been quite a treat as they were always recorded on the wall. Sometimes, the writings show a sense of humor, sometimes a sense of loneliness, and sometimes they are just plain interesting. Written on the wall of a cabin I once explored in a beautiful hidden valley in the mountains of western Colorado was, “Finished branding on May 12, 1934.” With the actual brand burned into a log after the date. One of my favorites is from a cabin found far back in a designated wilderness area in Montana. “Cabin users—What you find here, leave here. What you pack in, pack out. And keep the tin nailed down on the roof. This is public ground, even if the socialist liberal bastards in Washington want to keep us off of it.”

Once, on a trip to Ontario, Canada, we had the owner’s permission to stay in a long-abandoned lodge building on the shore of a lake. An interesting history of the old lodge was written on the walls; dates when people had visited, who caught the biggest fish and its length, and there, written on a piece of white birchbark, “Last night we danced with nothing on but the radio.” Hmmmm.

Years ago, when you could actually get hunting permission by just asking, I asked an old rancher in Montana about bow hunting for mule deer in the area. As we talked he mentioned a place back along the river where it might be good hunting. I followed his old pickup several miles on a dusty two-track trail that ended at two old log cabins. As he looked dreamily at one of them, he told me, “I was born in that cabin. Lived right here as a kid. Rode my horse out to the school. I was never out of the county until I was 16 years old. We went to Miles City to the State Fair. That’s where I had my first bottle of soda pop.” I looked at that man with a new respect. He had worked his way up to be owner and operator of a huge cattle ranch and never lost his roots.

One year, as I wandered the mountains of Central Utah with a bow in my hand in search of mule deer, I noticed something that interested me. Around the turn of the century, the last century not this one, that was sheep country. Basque sheepherders were brought from Spain to tend the large herds. As the snow melted in the spring, the sheep were herded up the mountains and pastured there until fall weather forced them back down. It certainly must have been a lonely life for the herders.

They used the aspen trees as their diary by cutting into the smooth bark. I found many of the old aspen trees with poems, sayings, dates, and even pictures carefully carved into the aging bark on their huge trunks. At some of the old Basque sheep camps that I discovered, it seemed every tree in the area held a page of a diary. Most of the dates were from about 1890 to 1930. One said, “Watch out for cars! 1903” I wonder just how many cars he had actually ever seen. Some carvings were quite artistic. I took a picture of one with a carefully drawn horse and the words, “Peace to Ye pet Ole,” carved underneath. The horse was fondly remembered. Possibly, a herder’s favorite horse had died there on the mountain.

There are still large herds of sheep in that area. Out west, the range of mountains where you plan to hunt looks close by, but then you drive 20 miles just to reach the foothills. Once, in the backcountry, my hunting partner and I drove slowly through a huge bunch of sheep that were in no hurry to get off of the trail. As we passed the old camper where the herder stayed, he came out to talk. “How many sheep do you have?” we questioned him.

“Oh, about tree toutan cheep,” he replied with pride in his voice.

As we made small talk about the area, I looked around at his camp and noticed a rifle leaning against the camper and several coyote scalps with the ears left on them nailed up on a board. “Is there a bounty paid on coyotes here?” I asked.

“ Noo… but when ten, my boss man, he bring me lady of da night to stay,” he proclaimed with a big toothless grin.

We laughed for the next five miles!

Old graves are interesting. We came across a grave marker on a high hill above old Fort Musselshell in Montana. The actual site of the historic fort is now under the waters of the Fort Peck Reservoir. The white marble gravestone looked out of place up on the stark, dry hillside, so we went to check it out. The marker was for a Private from Massachusetts, who served in the 13th U.S. Infantry. Cut neatly into the stone was “Killed by Indians, May 24, 1868.” It was obviously a government provided tombstone. That was eight years and one month before General Custer’s bad day with the Indians down on the Little Big Horn. Makes me want to know the rest of the story of Fort Musselshell.

While elk hunting in Montana, I noticed something that seemed out of place. As I walked over to inspect what appeared to be a perfectly round topped stump, I realized it was an old wooden grave marker. The faint inscription could still be read if the light was right.
“Joseph Cook, Born in 1815,
Died in 1920”. Wow, he lived
to be 105 years old.

I wondered about his life story. Was he a mountain man? Joseph would have been 23 years old during the summer of 1838 when the fur trapper’s rendezvous was held on the Wind River in what is now Wyoming. Was he a beaver trapper? Did he know Jim Bridger? He would have been 45 when the Civil War broke out. Was he a soldier? Did he scout for the U.S. Army after the war?

Sitting there alone under the tall Ponderosa pines, overlooking the quiet flow of the Missouri River, I couldn’t imagine a more peaceful spot for a grave. I wouldn’t mind a spot like that when my time comes.

I could go on and on. There are so many things of interest I have noticed while hunting, exploring, or scouting with a bow in my hand. Artifacts to look for, teepee rings to wonder about, old railroad grades to follow, old mines to explore, even fossils to collect.

While bow hunting, I’ve camped in the actual campsites used by Lewis and Clark on their “Journey of Discovery” as they crossed the country in 1804-1805. At least as close as I could tell from studying their journals. Some areas have changed, but other areas haven’t changed all that much since they passed through. I can just imagine what it must have been like to be the first to travel through that wonderful, wild country.

For the most part, those things that intrigue me aren’t found in tourist guidebooks or ranger walks or even on guided hunts. Those things are best discovered on your own with a map, compass, backpack, and a desire to wander. I hope you get to experience some interesting things in lonely places way back off the beaten path too.

However, no offense meant, but I hope I don’t see you there. Those places are best when explored alone.n