A Backcountry Recovery in Yellowstone: Wilderness, Wild Horses, Warriors (Part 1 of 5)

Ray Knell, a Green Beret and Afghanistan war veteran, called me in January 2015 seeking advice on how to ride a thousand wilderness miles from Colorado to Montana along North America’s Continental Divide. Two years ago, I completed a 3,000-mile ride using wild mustangs across the American West as part of the documentary Unbranded, so I was eager to share my experiences with Ray for his journey to be successful. He told me he was a ten-year combat veteran and the purpose of the journey was to inspire wounded veterans and to heal his own PTSD and anxiety through the human-horse relationship and wilderness experiences. He explained how horses gave him focus and wilderness allowed him the ability to disconnect and think. Touched, I replied that if he needed anything at all, I would do everything possible to help. My chance came in July.

Ray Knell cautiously walks toward an old bison before giving it a wide berth. It’s his valley. Photograph by Ben Masters
Army Special Forces veteran Ray Knell cautiously walks toward an old bison before giving it a wide berth; Photograph by Ben Masters

Halfway through his epic journey, Ray was traveling through Wyoming’s Great Divide Basin when his lead mare, Mustang Sally, was poisoned by noxious weeds. Ray prioritizes the health of his horses above his own and made the difficult decision to jeopardize the success of his journey to allow Mustang Sally to fully recover by resting on predictable pasture at his friend Kale Mantle’s ranch. Ray coordinated for his truck and trailer to evacuate Mustang Sally and his mules and bring them to safety in Bozeman, Montana.

Army Special Forces veteran Ray Knell finishes tying down his packs on his mule, Top Gun, as he travels through Yellowstone National Park near the end of his solo, 1000 mile ride from Lake George, CO to Manhattan, MT for the veterans group Heroes and Horses. When Knell finishes his ride in September, he will donate all his livestock, gear and money raised to the program, which takes veterans on extreme, expedition-style horse pack trips and teaches them skills they can use to get jobs. Photograph by Michael
Ray Knell finishes tying down his packs on his mule, Top Gun, as he travels through Yellowstone National Park near the end of his solo, 1,000-mile ride from Lake George, Colorado, to Manhattan, Montana, for the veterans’ group Heroes and Horses; Photograph by Michael Ciaglo

Ray called me on the trailer ride. He explained that he was scared that his journey would fail along with his potential to inspire other veterans with PTSD to use animals, nature, and physical activity to cope with their problems rather than drugs or alcohol. I remembered my promise to help him in any way possible and told Ray that he could use three of my personal horses that I trained on the Unbranded ride to continue his journey while his horse and mules healed from the poisonous plants. He took me up on my offer, but it came with one condition… he had to let me ride through Yellowstone with him!

The next week, Ray picked up three of my tried and true mustangs—Tuf, Dinosaur, and Violet (AKA Violent)—and trailered them back to Wyoming to continue his journey. We planned to meet three weeks later at the southern border of Yellowstone to ride through the nation’s first national park together with my horses while his rested and healed. I was ecstatic to join him through Yellowstone and honored to be of assistance. That happiness was crushed the next day.

Clint Stevenson, a friend of mine, co-worker packing horses in Yellowstone’s backcountry for two years, and army veteran, took his life without a note or phone call. Clint was a strong man, an incredibly hard worker, and someone you could rely on. I knew he battled with drugs, alcohol, and a difficult past, but no one though he would ever kill himself. I was crushed, confused, angry, and wanted to know why.

Mustang Luke deep in Yellowstone’s Backcountry; Photograph by Ben Masters
Mustang Luke deep in Yellowstone’s Backcountry; Photograph by Ben Masters

I knew that Ray was depressed, on drugs, and suffering anxiety attacks and PTSD before his ride began. I wanted to know if he ever had suicidal thoughts and if so, why he chose physical exertion, wilderness, and bonding with animals over ending his life. My personal journey to join Ray through Yellowstone became much more than a stroll through the woods. I wanted answers, understanding, and alternatives.

Today is August 4th. I’m at Turpin Meadows Trailhead on the edge of the Teton Wilderness south of Yellowstone National Park. I’m near the center of the largely undeveloped 20-million-acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Horses and mules are crunching hay 30 yards from me and the soft sound keeps me us as I switch focus between my headlamp while I write and the starry sky completely devoid of light pollution above me.

Army Special Forces veteran Ray Knell kisses his mule, Magic, after giving him an ear massage on the trail through Pelican Valley in Yellowstone National Park as he nears the end of his solo, 1,000-mile ride from Lake George, Colorado, to Manhattan, Montana, for the veterans group Heroes and Horses. When Knell finishes his ride in September, he will donate all his livestock, gear and money raised to the program, which takes veterans on extreme, expedition-style horse pack trips and teaches them skills they can use to get jobs. Photograph by TK
Ray Knell kisses his mule, Magic, after giving him an ear massage on the trail through Pelican Valley in Yellowstone National Park; Photograph by Michael Ciaglo

I should be sleeping but I can’t. Tomorrow, my close pal and director Phill Baribeau, Ray’s cousin and photographer Michael Ciaglo, and I will be riding 33 miles through untamed wilderness to meet Ray at Hawk’s Rest, the most backcountry location in the Lower 48. From there we will ride a hundred miles with Ray south to north through Yellowstone National Park. We will cross one road, see zero telephone lines, and experience the exact wild landscapes that inspired an unprecedented conservation movement of establishing national parks almost a hundred years ago today. And that is worth losing sleep over.

See post #2 in “A Backcountry Recovery”

***

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.

Comments

  1. Kubaleshwar Tripura
    Dhaka, Bangladesh
    September 29, 2015, 10:54 am

    its heart touching…

  2. Linda Benzel
    Appleton WI
    September 29, 2015, 2:03 pm

    Truly inspiring, and I want to wish all those dealing with PTSD, Anxiety and Depression to find something that helps them battle these devastating issues. Suicide leaves so much pain for those that are left behind,try to weigh the pain you leave behind you with pain that can change from day to day, hang on to hope!

  3. Janice Green
    Ft.Worth, Texas
    September 29, 2015, 10:13 pm

    Thank you for sharing your journey of healing. The Healing found in the quietness and stillness of one’s soul in the solitude of nature.

  4. Gerrie Thomas
    england
    September 30, 2015, 2:25 am

    Nature is a wonderful thing which is undervalued by most people. Thank you for sharing your wonderful story

  5. […] man, a horse, and the Continental Divide. A great blog by National Geographic about a returning soldier with PTSD and his trek across the great American […]

  6. […] A Backcountry Recovery: Wilderness, Wild Horses,… […]

  7. Cynthia Kohles
    Caistoga CA
    October 5, 2015, 10:31 am

    I am a psychologist and think that this kind of healing — reconnecting with nature — is genuine and solid. I wish more verterns could do it.

  8. […] A Backcountry Recovery: Wilderness, Wild Horses,… […]

  9. John King
    Boston MA
    October 6, 2015, 3:18 pm

    Hi, this is an awesome post. Anyway you could send/post a rough map of the route you guys took?

  10. Zev
    Fort Collins, CO
    October 8, 2015, 8:29 am

    John King, they used the Continental Divide Trail. It’s well marked. http://www.continentaldividetrail.org/

  11. […] A Backcountry Recovery: Wilderness, Wild Horses,… […]

  12. […] A Backcountry Recovery in Yellowstone: Wilderness,… […]

  13. Lynne
    Harrisonburg, Virginia
    October 22, 2015, 7:22 am

    This inspiring article brings to mind another story, “Ceremony” by Leslie Marmon Silko.

  14. Gary Schelvan
    Tianjin, China
    October 22, 2015, 8:04 am

    What an awesome posting this is about returning vets with all of the PTSD and connected mental health issues. My thanks for their sacrifices, and my prayers for their healing go out to them with much gratitude. Bless all of you and hang in there.
    “Suicide is dangerous, it brings on many changes and you can really make it if you try.” From the old MASH series,

  15. Debbie Watson
    Willits, Ca
    October 22, 2015, 8:29 am

    Thanks for sharing , I truly believe in the healing that nature can give us, I feel we are connected to the Earth. I hope this touches others so they can start the healing process.

  16. Peggy Whitaker
    Bakersfield, CA
    October 22, 2015, 3:23 pm

    As a seasoned backcountry user of horses and mules, I was touched by this story. I pray that our use of backcountry trails, built and maintained for many years by people utilizing stock, will remain open to the stockuser. It benefits all who take advantage of the priviledge.

  17. Priska Sancini
    Roggwil, Switzerland
    October 26, 2015, 9:35 am

    It’s just amazing, it deeply touched my heart!

  18. How Horses Impact Lives | Ani Trone
    October 26, 2015, 10:34 am

    […] A Backcountry Recovery in Yellowstone: Wilderness, Wild Horses, Warriors (Part 1 of 5) below is an amazing and insightful video on how Ryan has used his love of horses to gain a sense […]

  19. […] series from Nat Geo, where two of the articles have already been published. The first part, which you can read here, sets up the story, going into further detail on the outline I provided above. The second part of […]

  20. Puller Lanigan
    United States
    November 15, 2015, 10:08 am

    ‘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.’

    Why? Failures in our gov’t system? Failures in his teammates? War? He should join Wild Horse advocates, we may share the same violation of trust with the wild horses.

  21. Marcus Lester
    Summerville, OR
    November 15, 2015, 1:12 pm

    Thank you. More than I can say. Now, I know what I’m going to do.

  22. Julie
    Wellington, OH
    November 16, 2015, 2:21 pm

    Will Rogers said “Their is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man”.
    My prayers go out to all our men and women who have served this country. Their bravery and courage should not to be overlooked or forgotten!

  23. […] series from Nat Geo, where two of the articles have already been published. The first part, which you can read here, sets up the story, going into further detail on the outline I provided above. The second part of […]

  24. Joanne Garcia
    FL, USA
    March 29, 2016, 2:18 pm

    Watched Unbranded then read this blog, am in awe and admiration of your cause and have great respect for you and your fellow riders, wished there were more young men like you four in the world today. It reminded me of what really makes America great!

  25. […] explained that she is always on the lookout for stories with authentic characters. Now, Masters is partnering with Nat Geo Adventures to produce more stories of amazing characters he and his friends met out west, like Ray […]