Actually, the question did not occur to me until we had broken camp, packed the fishing rods and other gear on the horses and were partway down the mountain.
The rain came first; then hail; then heavy, large-flaked snow. It was too cold and miserable to be beautiful, I noticed, looking back to the jagged peaks from which we had come. I realized the absurdity of that observation, then reasserted its truth.
For there are at least two mistakes a man can make when he is on horseback in foul weather, and each of them can transform beauty.
The first is a stirrup too short or too long. My left stirrup was too short, so my left knee had rubbed the horse hard. Under wet jeans, the knee was raw.
The second mistake is to forget to draw your rain gear out behind and over the saddle so that the saddle keeps dry. An exposed saddle holds water like a bowl and so, dry as the rider may be from head to torso, he is sitting in a pool of water when his horse is at the walk. When his horse is at the trot, he is bouncing in a cold bath.
I had made both of those mistakes. And I think it was the realization that I had made them - and that there was very little now to be done about it - that caused the question to form in my mind.
The question, of course, is: Why? Why do we do these things to ourselves? Why do we deliberately set out to make ourselves uncomfortable? Why, untrained, or at least unready, does the city-dweller plunge deeply in adventure upon his vacation as though arranging on purpose to experience misery, pain and exhaustion?
And not only why does he do it. Why does he pay to do this?
Is it the head-against-the-wall syndrome? I mean, that it feels so good when you stop?
Maybe. But surely that's not the whole answer. If what a man most desires is to be uncomfortable, there are cheap, easy and surer ways to arrange it. He does not have to travel 2,000 miles, ride to 12,000 feet and then sit himself in sloshing ice water.
Is it some sublimated desire for romance that bursts forth each summer, often at a time and place demanding practical good sense instead?
There must be something in that. I recall glancing at my watch on that ride down the mountain, realizing that we had started on the trail seven hours previously. I recalled a remark of Douglas Southall Freeman in his biography of Robert E. Lee: "Stuart [Gen. J.E.B., chief of the Confederate cavalry] at once accepted Lee's orders to move, not bothering to explain that his men had been in the saddle for seven hours."
Ah, yes, like men of old, whose deeds were bold. Summer is for romance. Put your hands on the horse's neck in order to keep them warm. I also read that in some Civil War book.
The fact is that I could not answer my question. All the way down that mountain, I kept saying. "Why?" And I could never answer, though asking it helped me to laugh at my misery.
And so at last I got off the horse, my legs buckling and weaving. I staggered to my rented room, threw my wet clothes in the middle of the floor and climbed into a dry, warm bed.
Next morning my muscles were stiff, and my knee was red. I picked up the telephone and called home. One of the children asked me politely if I had had a good time.
And you know. I never gave a thought to the question I had asked myself all the previous day. "Yes," I answered, without hesitation. "It was tough as hell but it was maybe the best time I've ever had."