A Backcountry Recovery in Yellowstone: Camping in the Lower 48’s Most Remote Place (Part 3 of 5)

Ray Knell, right, and Ben Masters look out over the Yellowstone River as they make their way to camp along Yellowstone Lake; Photograph by Michael Ciaglo
Ray Knell, right, and Ben Masters look out over the Yellowstone River as they make their way to camp along Yellowstone Lake; Photograph by Michael Ciaglo

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)

Luke, a tried and true wild horse from Wyoming, rode with Ben Masters on a 3,000 mile expedition from Mexico to Canada in 2013; Photograph by Ben Masters
Luke, a tried and true wild horse from Wyoming, rode with Ben Masters on a 3,000 mile expedition from Mexico to Canada in 2013; Photograph by Ben Masters

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.

Army Special Forces veteran Ray Knell slaps a sign marking the southern border of Yellowstone National Park as he nears the end of his solo, 1,000-mile ride from Lake George, Colorado, to Manhattan, Montana; Photograph by Michael Ciaglo
Army Special Forces veteran Ray Knell slaps a sign marking the southern border of Yellowstone National Park as he nears the end of his solo, 1,000-mile ride from Lake George, Colorado, to Manhattan, Montana; Photograph by Michael Ciaglo

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.

A band of elegant mule deer watch closely as the team passes; Photograph by Ben Masters
A band of elegant mule deer watch closely as the team passes; Photograph by Ben Masters

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.

See the previous post in “A Backcountry Recovery”

See “A Backcountry Recovery” Photo Gallery

***

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

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    October 7, 2015, 12:37 am

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  2. Sarah Conyngham
    Hope Valley, RI
    October 8, 2015, 9:06 am

    That looks good- sitting tall in the saddle with all that air around you with the smell of horses to sweeten the pot. Here’s hoping the shoes stay on the mules and horses and the winds are fair.

  3. Judy McConnell
    Otto, N.C.
    October 8, 2015, 9:11 am

    Loved the recount of your journey, which brought to mind my years of growing up, feeling unloved by my parents. I then realized if I surrounded myself with animals, who gave me unconditional love and understanding, i would feel accepted. I have always loved animals in an unexplainable way, and know for a fact, there is much to learn from them. I am now an old woman, but still have one small dog, who is nine years old, my last, but when she is gone, I have my memories……

  4. Donna Lotz
    Edna, Ks
    October 8, 2015, 9:38 am

    Animals have a unique way of knowing what to do at the right moment – I have had horse and ridden all my life up until the last few years and always had a dog. I am 80 years old now and can remember many times when horses and dogs were what kept me going when I didn’t think I could.
    Thank you for this wonderful story and hope more soldiers or anyone who need this will do what this man did or a version of it anyway. May not be able to go that far but daily contact and love and care for the animals and them for you is beyond understanding for healing. Thank you again for this story.

  5. Donna Lotz
    Edna, Ks
    October 8, 2015, 9:41 am

    What a wonderful story. I know first hand that horses and animals hold peace for me when nothing else seems to except for God and He is working through these animals if you will but pay attention. Thank you NatGeo for telling this man’s story

  6. Jim Bronson
    Ashland, OR
    October 8, 2015, 9:43 am

    I am so impressed that Ray reached out to others even during his painful PTSD. That seems to me to be the necessary beginning of recovery from anything. I think it is a tragic myth that we can do tough things ourselves.

  7. Justin Trowbridge
    Long Beach,California
    October 8, 2015, 10:15 am

    My appreciation and prayer to those that served,sacrifice and now suffer.They are not alone.
    I recognize the symptoms of ptsd, and realize that now, with no other choice, is to leave the hole in the ground,covered by the rock over it, and get back into nature. With understanding brothers and sisters, we just might make it.

  8. Ray Knell
    Colorado
    October 8, 2015, 10:23 am

    Small typo on my deployments. I didn’t have 6 whole in the Army. I did 3 while active duty. Ben thank you for all the great work and amazing writing. Thank you to everyone else for all your kind words and support.

    • Mary Anne Potts
      October 8, 2015, 12:17 pm

      Thanks, Ray! I’ll adjust that in the text! We love this story!

  9. Rebecca Angst
    Upper Marlboro Md
    October 8, 2015, 2:29 pm

    It is so heartwarming to read a story like this–how wonderful animals can help heal people. Was is Ronald Reagan who said the “outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man?” Having ridden through much of Yellowstone over the last 16 years, brings home that the combination of horses and wilderness are unbeatable. Love having that combination help our veterans who have given so much.

  10. Marilyn Wiechert
    Coxs Creek, Ky
    October 8, 2015, 4:47 pm

    This is a beautiful story. It brought tears to my eyes. I hope Ray finds the peace he is looking for. I did 22 in the Air Force and wouldn’t trade that experience for anything so I know something about trying to transition back to the civilian world. It is especially difficult for those who have experienced combat. My prayers are with you for a successful reacclimation!

  11. Rafael Smart
    Patagonia
    October 10, 2015, 7:54 am

    Congratulations Ben and Ray ! we must organize a horseriding together … gringos cowboys and patagonian gauchos. Count on us ! Todo el exito ! Rafa

  12. Tony Grayson
    Chesapeake, VA
    October 11, 2015, 4:14 am

    Ben,

    Your article about Ray’s journey with PTSD on horseback along the Continental Divide in Yellowstone was a joy for me to read. I am veteran, and ironically, my wife and I hiked in Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons only 3 weeks ago, so the memory of wild America in Wyoming is fresh. More to the point, I also know an Iraq veteran who works his way through PTSD by writing poetry. He encourages other veterans to do that too, http://theghostsoftalafar.com/. I will share your article with him. Your story about Ray is a great story. It is uplifting to read about our veterans, still courageous, still on point, leading the way through a problem. Best – Tony.

  13. […] A Backcountry Recovery: Camping in the… […]

  14. D R Roads
    Perry, OK
    October 17, 2015, 1:33 pm

    What a wonderful and healthful adventure. My son spent three tours in the Middle East and has a fairly mild case of PTSD. He also has a deep love for animals, mainly horses. He is doing well working with his animals. I wish I could get a copy of the photo of the wild mustang in this story. I