I adjusted the minors head lamp to high beam, stretched the zipper of my coveralls to its maximum height around my neck and lowered into the crawl space leading under the house. If I pulled the ball cap any tighter I’d risk cutting off the blood supply to my brain. The last thing I wanted was to pass out under the house with the source of the horrid odor permeating the house and surrounding yard for the last two weeks.
On hands and knees, I glanced back at my dog peering down the crawl space at me from the breezeway. Her large shepherd ears cocked in curiosity.
“I’m going in girl. If I’m not back in three minutes…go for help.”
Shade shook her head, sneezed twice, whirled and left me under the house to fend for myself. Some Rin-Tin-Tin she turned out to be. Ungrateful canine.
The smell hit one night about two weeks earlier. My dreams incorporated the undeniably pungent mephitidae odoripherous, aka “skunk stink.” I swore the thing had crawled through my bedroom window and sprayed me in the face. The smell was worse inside than out. I opened all the windows for several days. The smell subsided only slightly.
Under the guidance of my neighbor, the great white hunter, we baited the raccoon trap with tuna fish and Vienna sausages and lowered the trap into the entrance to the crawl space under the house. Retrieval of the trapped skunk was a bridge we’d cross when we came to it. “If you catch ‘em – throw a tarp over the trap and lose my cell number.” He chuckled. I nodded my head in false agreement. Images of shooting it when the time came danced in my head. I wondered if skunks could spray the moment a .22 entered their smelly little skulls.
Every morning for a week I opened the trap door to the crawl space in anticipation. Like some sort of morbid Christmas like anticipation. What would Santa leave me this year? One skunk? Two skunks? Perhaps a whole family of tuna fish and Vienna sausage eating skunks!
At the end of the week, I pulled the trap up by the small chain we secured to it before setting it under the house. An untouched can of tuna and a fuzzy can of green Vienna sausages was all it contained. No skunk. The smell was stronger some days than others. It seemed to focus around the front of the house. We (my dog and me) determined it must be living under the front porch. I tossed out the moldy can of Vienna sausages no self-respecting varmint would eat and placed the trap next to the hole the cats use as an escape when being chased by the dog. I assumed the skunk entered the same way when he wasn’t repelling into my bedroom window for a direct hit.
I woke early to a commotion of crashing and clanking on the front porch. This could be it! I grabbed the .22 and slipped quietly out the front door. I have no idea what my reasoning was behind the stealth approach. A desperate varmint is a dangerous varmint I suppose. Shade barked at the caged critter. “Get back before you get sprayed girl!” I took aim making sure a stray bullet had a safe backstop. A blur of black and white flashed across the cross hairs of my scope. I needed a clean head shot. I searched for the eyeball of my trapped nemesis. A curtain of metallic yellow with black lettering came into focus…”S…N…O..W..B…A…” SNOWBALL! OMG! I almost shot the neighbor’s cat! Snowball was released back into the wilds of her neighborhood haunt and the now empty can of tuna fish tossed into the trash. Who names a black and white cat Snowball?
The days passed and no skunk. No company coming to visit and no solicitors. Those nice folks at the Watch Tower searching for Jesus must have found him because their visits dropped off significantly, too. UPS deliveries were being left farther and farther from the front porch. If something wasn’t done with the smell soon I could expect my next winning eBay delivery dropped off at the neighbors and my soul condemned to hell for an eternity.
The odor had gone from pungent skunk to something hideous and unworldly. I remembered a friend mentioned finding a dead skunk under her front porch. The search and rescue mission for Pepe Le Pew had turned into a recovery operation.
I searched through the cracks of the front porch. Unless Pepe was buried under a pile of leaves, a collection of spoons that went missing 15 years ago and cat hair, the porch “grid” was cleared. The last option to pursue was under the house.
I prepared for battle secured in an oversized blue mechanics jump suit, lace up boots, leather gloves and ball cap. All I needed was a hockey mask and I could have auditioned for the lead character in Friday the 13th. I giggled while stuffing my pockets with grocery bags, “Would you like plastic or paper?” Plastic please – because everyone knows you don’t bag a dead skunk using paper.
To say I am not comfortable in confined spaces is the understatement of a lifetime. The crawl space under my house might be larger than most but accessible on hands and knees only. I crawled through a mine field of spent bug bomb. When was the last time I bombed under here? Man, I hope it was recently. Shivers spread across the back of my neck with thoughts of spiders inhabiting the labyrinth of cobwebs dropping down the back of my coveralls. I wove under electrical wires and over sewage pipes. I felt like a huge, blue boa constrictor slithering through a maze of urban jungle. Boa Constrictor. Great. Wish I hadn’t thought of that. You read in the papers all the time about a pet boa that escaped 20 years ago discovered only after the disappearance of small children and neighborhood pets. I started to back up and retrieve my pistol before remembering I had lent it to my son. Great. Boa Constrictors.
Armed with a headlamp, mag light and pocket full of grocery bags, I continued my mission. The light from the flashlights reflected off old concrete blocks, hunks of true 4×6’s and a cardboard box. I don’t even want to know what’s in that box.
The underside of my house is divided into two sections separated by a concrete ledge and 16” headers made of 2×4’s. In order to get into the second section, you have to slither…I mean crawl…over a black sewer pipe without putting weight on it, mind you, and through one of the 16” x16” squares. The first section was clear. I slid over the concrete ledge into the second section of hell.
“Shade…?? Are you still up there? Don’t you leave me down here all by myself. Shade?” I heard what I chose to believe was my dog whimper in acknowledgement that she had not abandoned me. I continued to mumble to myself and pretend like I was not crawling under a house full of spiders, boa constrictors and varmints dead or alive. Suddenly, water gushed through the sewer pipe. Who the hell just flushed the toilet up there? I live alone! Toilets don’t just flush on their own! I would have attempted to slow my breathing….had I been breathing.
My eyes burned. A putrid taste in my mouth appeared as the smell grew stronger. The beam from my light scanned from left to right and back to…there it is. A large black and white pile of stench in the far side of the house. The closer I got, the stronger the smell. I started to gag. I can’t gag. I’ve been to confine space training. If you gag you risk choking…or was it you let yourself throw up and pass out – then continue on? No, I’m pretty sure if you gag, you choke and die. “Shade??? Where the hell are you? Lassie wouldn’t leave me you damn dog!” I held my breath for as long as I could. For reasons beyond me – I started to laugh. Ever try holding your breath in the worst, most horrid smell imaginable and getting the giggles at the same time? Nothing good comes of it.
I can do this. Never weaken. Get in there and get ‘er done. I tucked my face in my arm, took a deep breath, pulled out a plastic bag to cover my gloved hand and the other to bag Le Pew. The second I disturbed the body the rancid stench compounded 100 fold. I wasn’t going to make it. I jabbed the maggot covered hide into the bag and started backing out at mock 1. I somehow managed to back out through the 16” header and over the sewer pipe feet first. At that point I didn’t care who had flushed the toilet or if the pipe broke and dumbed on my head. Nothing could be worse than this. I needed to take a breath – dragging the bagged Le Pew behind me as far from my face as I could reach – I took another breath and scampered for the opening.
I flung Le Pew up and out of the hole smacking Shade in the head. “Shade! You didn’t leave me!” I burst out from under the house gasping as if I’d emerged from the ocean depths. The smell would not cease. I crammed the bagged skunk into three more grocery bags and tied it off, opened the trash can, stuffed the bagged Le Pew, along with my gloves, into a thick feed bag and slammed the lid down. I rolled the trashcan to the end of my driveway for trash pickup in a wake of putrefied stench. Thank goodness tomorrow was trash day.
My neighbor met me at the end of my drive as I came from leaving the trashcan on the side of the road. “What the hell have you done this time?” He muffled from behind a hand clasped mouth and nose. I recounted my tale of the Le Pew recovery mission and its tribulations and successes. It was hard to see his face through his hand, but I swear I saw him tear up a little. I’m not sure if that was from the smell or trying to keep from laughing at me. “My god girl, don’t you ever move away from here. I couldn’t pay for this kind of entertainment.”
The smell has subsided considerably in the few hours post Le Pew recovery. However, I’m certain I will be making another trip under the house; this time with a bottle of bleach, tomato juice and Fabreze in hopes to hasten the dissipation of Le Pew. As for the burning in my eyes and the rancid taste in my mouth – I’ll let you know the effectiveness of a shot of Visine and Pendleton.
Jamming my foot in to a pair of dress shoes for work wasn’t happening, but I was cramming that mashed toe into a pair of cowboy boots come hell or high water. A week earlier a treated 4×4 fell from the rafters and headed for my big toe like a missile on a mission. Naturally, I was barefoot when it happened…because barefoot was how God intended farm girls to be.
An extra layer of gauze and duct tape ought to do it. I eased my left foot into the oversized Durango’s. Perfect. Fortunately I wear riding boots two sizes too big. That way if I get dumped, my boot is more likely to come off. Like most riders, I have a fear of being drug.
I wasn’t the only one needing extra medical attention for the ride. My horse, Jack, had been laid off with a girth sore for the last two weeks. I’d been riding bareback until it healed. The wound had healed nicely except for two small scabs behind his left shoulder. I added a strip of sheepskin under his cinch for good measure and headed for Mann Creek store to meet up with Joanie and Dusty.
The caravan of 10-12 trailers followed Lee, the ride organizer, from Mann Creek Store to a parking spot just above Spring Creek Campground. I was third in line. Dusty and Jones followed behind me. The recent rain kept dust at a minimum.
A handmade poster-board sign hung on a fence a few miles past Mann Creek reservoir. I squinted to read the small print. Something about please slow down – horses, dogs and children playing in the road. I couldn’t make out much more. At 10 MPH I couldn’t go much slower. I kept an eye out for rouge horses, kids and dogs and proceeded with caution.
We approached a 5th wheel RV parked on the right hand side of the road 100 yards from the sign. No rouge kids, horses or dogs; just some crazed woman waving a spatula and ducking in and out from under the tongue of her 5th wheel. Crouched over like a spatula toting predator– she darted in and out of the road at the passing trailers spewing expletives. Lady – I can’t go much slower – but I can promise that if you dart out in front of my truck I have no intentions of slamming on the brakes and tossing my horse around. I suggest you hand that spatula off to your husband hiding behind the RV – he’s going to need it to peel your sorry hide off the road.
Somehow we managed to squeeze the dozen rigs off the road at a wide spot Lee had chosen for the trailhead. I was already saddled and went about filling my saddle bags with the necessities of life: camera, SPOTS, GPS, extra batteries and Beanee Weenee’s.
I checked the sheepskin under Jack’s cinch; everything intact there. I stood staring up at the stirrup. It sure seemed like a long ways up. I’d been riding a much shorter horse for the last month while Jack was on a ranch with my son and later healing up from the girth sore. I wasn’t sure my wounded toe had enough leverage to hoist my butt quite that far. I positioned Jack downhill and swung into the saddle. Ironic, isn’t it? I couldn’t get on a pair of shoes for work the last week but I managed to swing a leg over the saddle. Everyone has their priorities.
I’m always happy to be riding but today was extra special. I’d not been able to ride Jack outside the pasture in over a month. I really do like my new horse, but all things said and done, she’s not Jack. I reached down to stroke his neck. I couldn’t wipe the stupid grin off my face if my life depended on it. I was at home. I doubt most people would understand why I found myself choking back a tear more than once.
It was a perfect day for riding. The sun occasionally peaked from behind a cloud covered sky. The gradual climb to Sturgill Lookout offered scenic vistas in every direction. The picturesque lookout perched atop a massive krag; old glory painted the breeze with her majestic colors of red, white and blue.
I paid the local outhouse a visit while the horses rested. It was the cleanest little outhouse I’d ever seen and cleaner than most public restrooms for sure! Complete with crossword puzzle and a wooden stick for opening the outside latch from the inside in the event you found yourself locked in. The thought of someone finding themselves locked in an outhouse made me giggle. You know it had to have happened at least once for them to come up with the idea of needing an exit strategy.
The ranger manning the lookout warned us of a pending storm expected to arrive at 13:00 hours. I was never in the military. I have no idea what time 13:00 hours are in American. It didn’t matter. I’d been keeping an eye on the sky since we left the trailers.
The majority of riders would make a loop down the back side of Sturgill to the trailers. The trail was steep. I didn’t want my saddle riding forward and reopening the delicate skin under Jack’s armpit. I don’t know if horses really have an armpit but that’s what I call it. Dusty had been towing their yearling, Rooster. The young horse was showing signs of tiring. I also had to be back in time to meet the brand inspector that afternoon. Dusty, Joanie and I decided it was best to head back the way we came.
Distant thunder rolled across the sky. I hoped the rain and lightening would hold until the others returned. It wouldn’t take much rain on that back hillside to slick things up pretty good and no sane person wants to get caught on horseback in a lightning storm. Our small group made it back to the trailers before the storm.
I kept an eye out for the crazy, spatula toting woman on the haul home. I passed another of her signs. I couldn’t read the black scribbles of permanent marker on this one any better than the one coming in. I slowed from 10 mph to 8 mph. I was ready. I half decided if she darted out at us again, I was pulling over to suggest if she was so concerned she might camp farther than 6’ off the road next time. The RV was more deserted than before. No crazy lady. No spatula. No horses, kids, dogs or otherwise. I’d cheated confrontation yet another day.
I pulled into my drive just ahead of a micro burst. J’Lo was visually happy to see us. She tossed her head, dashed across the pasture and commenced to kicking and bucking for all she’s worth. Hopefully she refrains from expressing that happiness when I’m on her!
Jack dropped his head for me to slip the halter off. There was nobody around to judge. I threw my arms around his bowed neck and let the tears fall.
I have a theory: If you really want to know if you’re compatible with someone…take them camping. I learned this theory works on horses, too. I’d been invited to participate in an Idaho Mounted Orienteering (IMO) race on Ola Summit. Being navigationally challenged, I didn’t have much going for me. I could not read a map and the only thing I knew about a compass was that it pointed mostly north…most of the time.
I had purchased a young horse less than a week prior to the IMO ride. I knew little about her. I was fairly confident the little sorrel mare had never been camping let alone high-lined, confined in a portable electric fence or hobbled. I figured if my camping theory worked on humans it could work on horses, too. I accepted the invitation as a way to hone my navigational skills and get to know my new horse; a chunky, Doc O’Lena sorrel mare I call J’Lo.
I woke early Friday morning to prepare for the weekend. The morning grass felt cool beneath my toes. My tired eyes came in and out of focus as I pressed the palms of my hands into the sockets. An ethereal creature walked toward me as I stood on the ditch bank in my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle PJ’s and irrigation boots. I rubbed my eyes again. Yep – that’s a horse alright. A waspy grey and white paint filly floated toward me. Her hooves seemed never to touch the ground. A long white mane cascading like a fine cloud of mist fell a foot past her shoulder. I expected to see a golden horn protruding from her forehead. I shut the gate behind her as she followed me into the yard.
I called my neighbors to see if anyone was missing a horse. When that proved futile, I called the Sheriff’s office and let them know that I would leave the horse in my pasture over the weekend. If anyone called looking for her, they could pick her up there. It was safer for her than wandering the roads and train track.
J’Lo, who had been with me less than a week, quickly staked claim to “her pasture.” She let the filly know exactly who was boss around these parts. She didn’t have to hurt her. The filly understood perfectly well and followed J’Lo around the pasture from a safe distance. She was well cared for and friendly. I was confident she would be gone before I got home from the IMO ride.
I was packed and ready to roll by the designated meeting time of two o’clock PM. I’d meet Dusty and Joanie at Park Street and follow them to the IMO ride. The couple had been IMO members for 18 years. I was excited to learn from them and looked forward to a weekend in the hills with friends.
As excited as I was to try out my new horse, I could not help but wish I had Jack for this ride. Jack excels in the mountains. I know what he is capable of and I trust him to carry me safely over any type of terrain. He is big, strong and predictable. I trust him to act sensible in most any situation. I knew little of J’Lo. Would her unshod feet hold up? Could she pack me up and down hills without stumbling? How would she do on the trail with other horses? Would she take the lead if needed? Would she willingly leave other horses and go on her own? How would she react to deer, bears, cougars or heaven forbid llamas? These questions and others were exactly why I had chosen to leave Jack with my son to use on the ranch for 30 days while I got to know my new horse. I patted her on the butt and sent her into the trailer. “This is it girl, let’s see what you got.”
Perfect timing; I pulled out of the Park Street RV dump and fell in behind Joanie and Dusty as they slowed on Hwy 95 past Park Street. We stopped at Maverick in Payette to top of the tanks before swinging northeast toward Emmett on Hwy 55. I held my breath passing the Triangle at the junction of 55 and 52. I’d been pulled over here twice by the state brand inspector. I had all my ducks in a row then; not true today. J’Lo was yet to receive my iron and lifetime brand inspection. It freaks me out to think they might impound my horse. I wondered if I could pull out the “tears card” if I did get stopped; something that never worked for me in the past. Instead of looking sad and vulnerable like an endearing cocker spaniel – I look like a leaky, puffed up cabbage patch doll in need of an epinephrine injection.
I exhaled a sigh of relief when Joanie signaled right on FS Rd. 644/High Valley Road. I pulled out the IMO flyer for an idea of the distance yet to travel on this curvy, washboard of a road. The turnoff to the IMO camp was somewhere between 5 and 17 miles. Not only could I not read a map – I wasn’t exactly fluent at written directions, either.
The road climbed and climbed. The temperature gauge on my old Dodge matched the ascent. Less than three miles into the climb and the trucks console turned into an array of warning bells, whistles and flashing lights to put a carnival ride to shame. The smell of coolant permeated the cab. I searched for a flat, shady spot to pull over and shut down. Coolant boiled and hissed from the radiator. This old truck wasn’t going anywhere for a while. I wandered around in circles trying to pick up enough signal to send Joanie a text: “Overheating. Pulling over.”
I calculated I was somewhere between one and fifteen miles from the IMO staging area. I could either sit here for a few hours while the truck cooled, or not. I chose not. What better way to get to know your new horse than to saddle them up in the middle of nowhere for a destination to who-knows-where and ride for who-knows- how-far. I sent Joanie another text: “Saddled and heading your way while the truck cools.” A notification of an incoming text arrived shortly after hitting the send button. It was from Joanie: “Turn on your heater. Waiting at the turnoff” I wish I had thought of that earlier. I was already in the saddle and committed to this leg of our adventure. I’d keep it tucked away for future reference.
I flagged over a truck and trailer. The two ladies were IMO participants. They knew Joanie and Dusty and would let them know I was on my way. They didn’t think the turnoff to basecamp was more than a couple miles.
Another belated text from Joanie came in as I entered in and out of service: “Leaving the turnoff, will see if we can find a gator.” I wasn’t sure what good a gator was going to do me or even if they could find one this far west of the Bayou. I hoped it was a friendly gator if they did find one.
J’Lo didn’t hesitate. She threw her powerful hindquarters into the steep pull. I let her pick her way. Nothing files down horses hooves faster than pea-gravel. She minced her way as close to the dirt edge as possible. Cars and four wheelers came around blind corners in both directions passing uneventfully by the calm mare.
We came to a dirt road forking left off the main road. Perfect time to realize I left the map and directions in the truck. No matter, I couldn’t read them anyway. I followed the dirt road for a bit looking for signs of traffic; nothing bigger than a four wheeler had been over it in some time. We trotted back to the main road and proceeded on.
A picnic plate with “IMO” and an arrow drawn in black marker pointed to Joanie and Dusty strolling up the right hand fork. I squeezed J’Lo into a trot. They had their dogs, Dealer and Savanah, with them. No alligator in sight…they must have left it back at the trailers.
I tied J’Lo to Dusty and Joanie’s trailer while they introduced me to the IMO folks that had arrived so far. Evelyn, the ride organizer, lent us her side-by-side “gator” to go after my truck and trailer. The boiling and hissing had ceased by the time we reached my abandoned rig. I cranked up the heater per Joanie’s advice and climbed the remaining 2 miles to IMO basecamp.
J’Lo respectfully centered herself in the portable corral. Her senses tuned to the sound and smell of current flowing through the electrified tape. I watched her closely the first few hours. Her hyperactive tail switched at pesky flies. I saw it coming and braced myself for the launch. She had backed to within tail-switching reach of the hot tape. Her tail reached out like a frog’s tongue nabbing a bug and wrapped around the hotwire pulling the tape against her ample backside. All four hooves came off the ground in one startled snort. She whirled and faced me with accusing eyes. “Don’t look at me, horse. I didn’t do it!” I chuckled.
Joanie gave me a quick rundown of how this whole IMO thing worked. You are given a topo map of the area showing the general location of five markers. You ride to each marker using the map. When you arrive at the marked area, you follow clues on the back of the map corresponding to the specific marker. The clues point to two bearing points which in turn point to an IMO “plate” marked with an ID number. You ride in teams. One person takes one bearing, the other the second. Once you find the plate – you record the number and race to the next location on the map. It is a timed event. You are racing against other teams. Our initial goal was to leisurely walk the course and find all five markers. Somewhere over the next 24 hours we lost sight of our initial goal.
Joanie and I pooled our dinner resources. She boiled hotdogs and I made a quick batch of what I call cheater beans: A can of pork and beans and chili mixed together. Cheater beans are simple to make and taste like you slaved over a hot stove for hours. Chips, dip and various beverages topped off our dinner.
So far I was impressed with my new horse. She did not balk when I asked her to set out on our own when my truck broke down. She watched where she put her feet and tolerated the gravel road without complaint. She didn’t spook at oncoming traffic or passing ATV’s that seldom slowed down. She took the hotwire fence in stride and didn’t end up in Parma when it bit her in the bee-hind. I wiped bug-spray around her soft, gentle eyes and ran my hand down her broad white blaze. “If you’re still here by morning girl…I guess I’ll keep you.”
A truck stopped on the road in front of our camp. The driver leaned heavily out the window. “There’s gonna be 300 head of cattle coming through this camp tonight.” He warned. “Might spook your horses –thought I’d let you know.” He drove off without further ado. Cows…fantastic. I had no idea how J’Lo was going to react to 300 cows wandering through camp. Heck, I wasn’t sure how well I’d react!
Later in the evening cattle began wandering through camp in small groups of a dozen or two. We made a human barrier to prevent the cattle from wandering directly into camp. J’Lo’s pen sat front and center. She never lifted her head as cattle filtered by throughout the evening.
Evelyn handed out the maps Saturday morning. Joanie, Dusty and I comprised the “Circle 4 Ranch” team. We were signed up to ride at 9:00AM. We studied the map and decided on the best route. We would hit markers in the order of 1, 4, 2, 3 and 5. You could run the course any direction you wanted. I was excited – I love treasure hunts and trail rides. This sport combined the two. What I didn’t count on was the unfamiliar competitive streak lurking within.
Marker 4 was fairly easy to find. A pile of rocks on a culvert marked one bearing and a flagged pine tree marked the second. The numbered plate hung from the center of a tangled mass of brush. We recorded the number and set out for marker number two.
Number two, according to the topo line contours – sat on top of a ridge about 1.5 miles as the crow flies. As impressive as J’Lo was to this point, I was certain she would not be sprouting wings anytime soon. We long trotted the straight stretches stopping ever so often to verify with the map. We came to a T about ¾ of the way into the second marker. “Gator” tracks lay beneath a splattering of hoof tracks leading down to the north trail. The trail heading south showed less evidence of traffic. Another team had arrived at the T. There was much discussion as to which was the right trail. Dusty and I wanted to head north; Joanie south. The other team was split as well. I couldn’t see the tiny lines on the map well enough to make a decision either way. I favored the trail north because of the tracks. Turns out – you have to be careful following such a line of logic. This was more than a sport of navigational skill. It was a sport of strategy and trickery; of who could fool who into going the wrong direction. It was a game not only between members of opposite teams – but between teams and the course organizer. Had Evelyn laid those gator tracks to throw us off course? Had a previous team doubled back on the north trail to fool us into thinking it was the right one? Another team rode up from the north trail. Their faces showed hints of discouragement. Dusty and I whirled our horses and followed Joanie up the south trail leading to marker number three.
Several teams searched for the clues to the bearings pointing to plate number two at the top of a scenic ridge. Team members exchanged discrete signals before slipping away to the next marker. If a member of your team found a plate – you didn’t want to alert the opposing teams. Joanie and Dusty exchange “the look” as we drifted over the north side of the ridge and due east to marker number three.
Dusty set his compass at 50° from the flagged half-dead bush on the upper road. Joanie and I set ours for 236° from the big rock with the white quartz stone on it next to the barricade boulder. The bearing lines paralleled each other. That’s not right. Evelyn later apologized for transposing the numbers on 236°. I thought it made it more fun. Everyone had the same obstacle to overcome and the plate was discoverable using the one bearing. We were off to the last marker on our route – number five.
Number three to number five was the longest stretch of the day. It ran northwest, across three drainages and shared a section of common trail with number four. We picked up the pace and alternated between a long trot and an easy lope. Joanie and I noticed a possible shortcut at the third drainage. A trail leading straight down from number five disappeared at the head of the ravine where we stood. Was it an error on the map or did the trail really disappear? I pointed J’Lo up the ravine and followed what might be considered a game trail if you used your imagination. J’Lo stuck her nose on the ground and pushed her way through brush. It wasn’t worth taking the time to find out if we could bushwhack our way to the top. I emerged with scratches across my arms, face and belly. Our team opted against the shortcut and continued on the dirt road.
The sounds of barking voices, four wheelers and bawling cattle preempted a large herd coming at us from around a blind corner. We scurried to find a place to move off the road for them to pass. We did not move fast enough for a rather upset woman sprawled across a four-wheeler. The revving ATV engine was no match for the woman’s lung capacity. “GET THOSE @#$%@ @#$%! #$ HORSES OF THE @#%$! #$@!! #$ ROAD YOU STUPID @#$% @!!” I feared the woman might stroke out at any moment. Dusty, Joanie and I lunged the horses up a steep hillside and watched the herd pass below us. Another team assessing the situation followed suit. We looked down on the herd as they passed out of site…the irate woman’s string of expletives faded into the canyon.
Some of these folks take their sport mighty serious. The opposing team wasted no time diving off the hillside in pursuit of marker number five. Dusty hastily followed on Zeke, his Arabian gelding. Joanie followed on her big morgan, Honor, and me on J’Lo. Honor was not happy to watch his pasture mate bound off the hillside without him. Taking the easy way down would take too long for the powerful horse. Honor leapt sideways down a 20 foot embankment parallel with the hillside. Joanie centered herself in the saddle, closed her eyes and yelled “Honor!” I wanted to close my eyes, too. It didn’t look at all like it was going to end well. To the relief of all concerned, Honor landed upright in the road and bounded after Zeke without missing a beat. J’Lo and I scurried down a less treacherous descent and raced after our teammates.
We rounded a corner at a fast trot. The vocal woman who had yelled at us earlier popped up from the bushes beneath the road. I could hear another voice coming from behind a thick wall of leaves. “I can’t get out…I’m stuck!” The disgruntled woman paced up and down the brush presumably looking for a place to enter the fortress of leaves and rescue her girlfriend. “Stay right there – don’t move. I’m coming!” She blustered. Apparently, the gal in the bushes had either run off the road or gone in after a cow and got stuck. Whatever occurred – I might be going to hell for laughing out loud. I asked over my shoulder if she was ok and if they needed help. The threatening look she threw me didn’t reveal an answer to either of my questions. I squeezed J’Lo into a gallop and put a safe distance between us.
The pace had picked up considerably. I loped alongside Dusty and Zeke. I heard Dusty say something about the opposing team that seemed to disappear in front of us. I took the comment to mean he wanted to catch up with them. Far be it from me to hold back the team! I gave J’Lo her head and the race was on. Hooves pounded the earth as we ducked around brush and under limbs. I’d glanced back under my arm to see a low hanging limb, evaded by the rider behind me, await its victim in the next.
We reigned to a panting, sweaty stop in front of a green gate – the wrong green gate. In our haste we overshot the trail to marker number five, which also explained why we had not caught the other team. Joanie and Dusty quickly assessed our error. We spun around and fled back down the trail, passing marker number four on our way to our last marker, marker number five.
Several teams drifted through thick brush and pines in search of two bearing points. If they were trying to fake us out, they were doing a good job of it. Everyone looked equally perplexed in their search. Joanie and I studied the map. The yellow marker on the map sat in a dog leg section of the trail that double-backed to the south. The teams were not looking far enough into the dog-leg. Joanie’s map reading reputation precedes her. Opposing teams made a bee-line after Joanie into the dog-leg.
We recorded our final plate ID at marker number five and sped back down the home stretch. The Circle 4 Ranch team clocked out in sixth place finding all five markers in 3 hours, 54 minutes and 24 seconds. Not too shabby for a navigationally challenged IMO newbie who intended to walk the course riding an unfamiliar horse.
I hung the camera strap around my neck and set out to stretch my legs and take my dog for a walk. I didn’t make it far from camp when a pick-up pulling a stock trailer pulled up next to me. Concern emanated from the drivers face. “Ma’am…we’re sorry to bother you – but would you have any water to spare? We have a very sick calf in here and there isn’t any water up here.” He was right. It was a dry camp. There was water in some of the drainages – but those weren’t accessible pulling a big rig. The IMO flyer was specific in telling everyone to bring water for the weekend. I had a 30 gallon tank in my trailer. “Yes – I have plenty of water.” I said. I pointed to my trailer across the way and signaled them to follow.
I filled my rubber bucket with water and handed it to one of the hands. “Thank you, thank you. You are a sweetheart, darlin! Thank you so much!” The younger cowhand repeated over and over. You would have thought I’d offered a dying man his last drink. The 250lb calf wheezed heavily as he slurped at the water. “What’s wrong with him?” I asked. The rancher called it sudden pneumonia. He said the hot days and cold nights bring it on and asked if I knew how cold it got last night. I said it felt like the low 40’s in my camper. I told him I had butte and Banamine but didn’t know if that would work on cattle. He said he gave him a shot of Nuflor and if anything was going to work, that should.
Then the strangest thing – he looked right at me and asked me what else I think we should try. I stressed again that I didn’t know anything about cattle and looked at him as if he’d lost his mind for asking. I looked for a hint of sarcasm or jest in his kind face. He was genuinely interested in my opinion. What the hell…that never happens. “Well,” I said. “If he were a goat or a horse, I think I’d want to get him on his feet as soon as possible. I think I heard that cattle will die if they lay down too long, is that right?” He nodded, “Yes – that is right. They can bloat.” While the calf was not lying on his side – he wasn’t exactly upright either. I asked if he thought we could get him up. The rancher replied, “Reach on in there and see what you can do.”
The calf struggled to stand. It took two tries before he managed to get to his feet. A big grin spread across the young cowhands face. “Well, would you look at that!?” he grinned. I asked if they thought the calf would make it. The rancher looked at me with simplistic sincerity that comes from a man who’s lived life by the sweat of his brow and the strength of his shoulders. “He has a chance now, thanks to you. If there is anything at all we can do for you – anything you want, it’s yours.” Holy cow – I fell in love right there in the back of the stock trailer. All I could think to say was: “Well, if you see my horse running down the road in the middle of the night, you might return her.” What that had to do with the price of tea in China, I have no idea – but that’s what came out of my absurdly socially challenged head at that particular moment. Smooth…really smooth.
I continued on my walk hoping to snap a picture of the bear one of the gals had spotted earlier. I’d turned toward camp thinking it was about time for the potluck. I met the rancher with the calf on his way to where they were parked. He stopped the truck and leaned out the window smiling. I asked if the calf was still standing. “Crawl on up there and check it out.” He said. Sure enough – the calf was still standing. I gave the thumbs up and smiled back.
They invited me over to meet the rest of the crew helping to move cattle. I was introduced to a lady from somewhere I can’t remember and her nephew from Texas. A nod and the expected drawl of “Ma’am” preceded a handshake from the tall Texan. I turned to shake the next hand and came face to face with the large and angry woman we met on the trail earlier. She half grunted something before turning away. Apparently her disposition had not improved over the last two hours.
A skinny arm darkened from hours in the hot sun reached out to shake my hand. Our eyes met…almost. One eye went one way while the other shot off in the opposite direction. Her eyeballs rolled to a stop eventually settling somewhere in the middle…ish. She introduced herself without a hint of humor: “Names not important – people call me knucklehead.” What do you say to an introduction like that? “Nice to meet you….knu..uh..nice to meet you?” I seriously said it as more of a question than a statement. I lay my bet on this gal being the one stuck in the bushes earlier.
I bade fare-well to my future husband (I don’t care if he did have a wife and 18 grandkids) and headed back to camp shaking my head. “Man, you just can’t make this shit up.”
I missed the passing out of trophies. Joanie handed me one of my very own: a metal cutout off a horse and rider mounted on a block of wood. I don’t care if it was sixth place or sixteenth place – it was my first trophy ever and I’d won it fair and square.
Most of the IMO riders left Saturday evening after the potluck. Dusty and I decided to move the horses’ portable corrals to grassier areas. This put J’Lo farther from the others; in hindsight, probably not a good idea.
When I woke Sunday morning, J’Lo was still in her pen. She seemed nervous so I tossed her some hay even though she was belly deep in lush grass. I went back to bed convinced she was pacified. About an hour later, I heard the pounding hooves of a loose horse.
J’Lo ran to me expecting me to save her from whatever horse eating creature lurked in the forest. It was as good a time as any to see how she took to high-lining. I secured a high-line next to the other horses, hooked J to it and went about picking up the portable corral she’d knocked down.
A group of cowboys dismounted outside my trailer. Was that my rancher? I made a futile attempt to smooth my bed-head hair and straighten my flannel PJ’s. I jumped expectantly out of my camper. It wasn’t my future husband after all. “What can I do for you?” I asked in a tone sounding more disappointing than I intended. Another hundred head of cattle would be touring our campsite in an hour. I thanked him for the warning and let him know we had it covered. At this point we were experts in cattle diversion.
Joanie was sitting at her trailer when I finished breakfast. “Did you hear all the commotion?” she asked. I said I heard some dogs barking earlier and wondered if that wasn’t what scared my horse. “Those were bear dogs!” She said. “They scared a bear right through our camp! If I hadn’t moved my chair he would have ran over me! He ran around the camper, somersaulted to a stop when he saw the horses and ran into the trees…right over there!” She pointed. “He was a big one! I thought it was a moose at first!” Joanie’s eyes were as big around as J’Lo’s butt! I asked how the horses reacted. She said they got a little excited but she was able to talk them down. I looked over at J’Lo, yep, she’s a keeper.
Shortly after the last cattle run of 2015, we saddled up for a short, uneventful ride before breaking camp. I was glad Joanie had invited me. I learned a little about navigation and the sport of mounted orienteering. I discovered I possessed a fair amount of competitiveness that had laid dormant most of my life. Most important of all, I got to know my new horse better and if I had to guess – I’d say my new horse got to know a bit about me, too.
You’ve probably heard the old proverb: Don’t pee into the wind. I bet you’ve never heard: Don’t pee on a rattlesnake! Equally sound advice if you find yourself in the middle of rattlesnake country in need of a privy.
My friend and co-worker, Bob M., has 3 total working days left before retirement, or so he likes to gloat…often. I’ve worked with Bob for 17 years. He’s been more than an office mate and co-worker. Bob has been my friend, my advisor, confidant and my rock in both my personal life and at work. He has helped me raise my children and offered needed support and advice at times when I didn’t realize I needed it. Bob’s wife, Janet, has put up with me tagging along in their lives for 17 years. I will be forever grateful to them both.
Bob, Janet and I have had several camping adventures over the years. When I discovered a promising campground near the ranch my youngest boy works and lives as a ranch hand, I was happy to hear Bob and Janet would be spending Memorial weekend at the campground with me. We made plans for a long weekend at “Chukar Park” campground 9 miles NW of remote Juntura Oregon.
I planned to camp at Chukar Park and board my horses at the ranch. The ranch is 18.7 miles from the Park and 26 miles from anything remotely resembling civilization; if you can call Juntura civilization. I’m not sure Vale – another 60 miles, qualifies as civilized, but at least it has a gas station.
I met Janet and Bob at the Cairo School by 9:00 Friday morning. Janet handed me a walkie-talkie through the pick-up window. You can’t be too careful on these excursions into the wilderness. It wouldn’t be the first time a group of travelers set out on short journey to find themselves wandering aimlessly in the desert forty years later. I set the walkie-talkie in my all-things-gadgetry holder and led the way toward Juntura.
Bob and Janet’s roomy 5th wheel “Cougar” and my “Bitterroot” cab over and horse trailer pulled into Chukar Park around 11:30AM. The Park was surprisingly empty for a Memorial Day weekend. We assumed due to the sketchy weather expected over the next few days. We didn’t care if it rained or shined. This would be our test run after de-winterizing the RV’s.
Bob unhooked his RV in a spot of his choosing and parked his truck in a spot reserved for me until I got back from unloading my horses at the ranch. We chose the end of the park butting up against the Little Malheur. The Park was pristine. It looked as if the park hosts had manicured the grounds with a fine tooth comb; fresh rake tracks marked the graveled walkways and pullouts. A small cottontail sitting in the green lawn topped off the Disney like scene.
“Don’t expect me until dark or later!’ I said as I pulled onto the 18.7 mile gravel stretch to Castle Rock. The road to Castle Rock is fairly flat, wide and well maintained. It seems to go on forever as it weaves its way through ranches dotting the Little Malheur. Keeping left of the fork, the road hugs the backside of Beulah Reservoir before picking up again with the Little Malheur. The recent rains kept dust to a minimum.
Blake stepped off the front porch of the little white “guest house” he and his wife, Olivia, transformed into a cozy home. He pointed towards a five acre pasture my horses would contently graze belly deep in lush grass for the next four days.
“Ready to ride?” my youngest son asked. “I’m always ready to ride.” I answered with more enthusiasm than I felt. Preparing for the weekend and the long 120 mile haul had drained much of my usual fervor. I turned König loose in the pasture and saddled Jack. Blake opened the gates between a 40 acre pasture and a holding pen behind a large horse barn. He straddled a four wheeler and zoomed into the middle of a herd of fifteen ranch horses. The herd methodically ran into the holding pen and waited for Blake to shut the gates. It looked rehearsed because it was. The routine was a way of life for the stock. Each horse stood facing Blake expectantly. Which one would be selected to put in a hard day’s work, and which would be left behind until another day? Blake slipped a halter around a sleek black filly named Bell Star.
Blake has never been one to do anything without a purpose. I often referred to him as my trophy child. If there wasn’t a trophy at the end of a feat, he wasn’t interested. I was surprised he was so willing to ride with his mom and a bit suspicious. I asked him where we were going. He pointed off in the direction of Castle Rock drawing an invisible map with his hands. “We’ll head up this road and cut over into that draw and follow the fence-line around The Rock. Then hit another draw, follow the creek down and cut back to the road below the ranch. Keep your eye out for my rope I lost last week.” So that was it – the trophy. Blake had lost his rope and we were on a mission to find it; an Easter egg hunt on horseback. I’ll take it.
Blake worked with Bell Star as we rode; stopping, backing, sidestepping and riding away from Jack and me. This was her 13th ride. He’d done an amazing job with her. She was willing, supple and traveled out nicely. “You know Blake, Bell would make an excellent shooting horse.” We joked about trading. He’d take Jack and make a head horse out of him and I’d take Bell for a shooting prospect. It was an excellent plan even if neither of us was willing to part with our beloved horse.
Our horses picked their way over miles of rolling hills covered in sage and rock. Hardly a step could be taken without a shod hoof making contact with volcanic rock. Juniper increased the higher we climbed.
“Am I going the right way?”
“Am I still going the right way?”
It sure didn’t seem like we were going the right way. I decided I better follow instead of take the lead. Blake and Bell lunged up a hill I swear was a vertical 90°. I lost sight of them. Jack dug in and clawed his way up. It felt like the next lunge would vault us over backwards. I kicked my feet out of the stirrups, laid the reins over Jack’s neck and filled my hands with mane. Blake disappeared. Jack clung parallel to the side of the hill as I looked around and hollered.
“WHAT!!!!!” (Sounding more than a little annoyed)
“Am I going the right way?”
“I don’t know – I can’t see you.”
“I’m heading around the right side of the hill.”
“Don’t go that way – turn around and come straight up.”
Straight up. Great. I figured Jack would bolt downhill if I pointed him down and might not be able to get enough momentum turning uphill. Ok Bubba, you decide. Jack planted his hind-end and swung his front end 180°. The most perfect half-spin of our career. “Hey Blake, Did you see that?” Blake didn’t have to answer. I could hear his eyes rolling even if I couldn’t see him. Jack shot straight up the hill to Blake and Bell.
Blake took one side of the draw and I the other. A stream ran between us. Two weeks of frequent rain had washed out the banks lined in bog and swamp. I decided to stop asking Blake if I were going the right way. Every stream eventually leads to civilization. Never mind if civilization happened to be Parma. I had plenty of gear in my saddles bags to make it to Idaho if need be.
We never did find Blake’s rope. If he was disappointed he kept it to himself. He would pursue the trophy another day and since he’d also lost his wallet on the other side of the mountain – he’d have plenty of opportunity.
We snacked on chips and salsa while Olivia’s homemade pizza baked in the oven. Blake practiced rope tricks with the child’s rope he bought for his baby girl due in August. My baby was having a baby of his own. It felt surreal to be sitting in my youngest child’s home while his pregnant wife cooked dinner for her husband and mother-in-law. Where had the time gone?
Bob had built an inviting fire while Janet prepared the fixings for Smores. Blake and Olivia drove down to join us around the camp fire and roast marshmallows. After smores and the kids left for home, I crawled in my over-the-cab bed and slept more content than I had in a long while.
Saturday was sightseeing day. The original plan was to help Blake build fence. Apparently the notion of an old lady building fence was a foreign concept to the ranch foreman. Blake politely suggested a change in plans. I’d take Bob and Janet exploring until Blake got off work. After work, we would ride. Works for me; I didn’t relish the thought of waiting on some punk kid foreman who probably couldn’t tell one end of the fence stretcher from the next anyways. Hmmph.
Bob and I took the camper off my truck so we could use my truck to explore the area. Juntura doesn’t have a gas station. My diesel gets better mileage than Bob’s V10. I figured I had 60 miles to play with and still make it to Vale to fill up on the way home. If not, there were always the horses!
I noticed on several of my trips up and down the gravel road between the park and ranch, what looked like steam from a hot springs northwest of the reservoir. We pulled in to check it out. Sure enough – a pool of bubbling sulfur hot enough to boil a lobster. We followed two pipes a few yards further down leading to a sunken bathtub. The pipes trickled hot and cool water into the tub. It was tempting, although too close to the road for me in broad daylight and sober. Maybe next time when there’s less daylight and more Pendleton…
Blake had earlier told me the story of Tom Goodwin; a moonshiner who built a sort of boarding house on his ranch for the local whores. According to Blake, the lady’s of the evening would stay with Tom and transport moonshine into town. The way Blake tells it, Tom had an obsession with concrete as well as whores. Tom built himself a tomb out of solid concrete. The idea was for Tom and his two partners to be buried in the tomb. Tom dies fist, according to Blake, at the hands of his girlfriend who mistakes him for a deer and shoots him dead. The partners lay old Tom out in a plywood box in the corner of the tomb and fill it with concrete. It’s a lonely site. Seems his partners had a change of heart about being laid to rest in such a manner. Before the concrete cured on poor Tom, the partners bolted the heavy steel door shut and never looked back. The whereabouts of Tom’s moon-shining still remains a mystery.
Tom’s spread and resting place was on our site-seeing route for Saturday morning. We snapped pictures and explored every old ruin we encountered. As usual, I had to pee. We had pulled over to check out the ruins of a house. A small log cabin sat behind the house; its roof long since collapsed. It seemed as good a place as any. I hopped across the creek flowing between the house and cabin and aimed for the corner of the dilapidated cabin. I glanced back over my shoulder to verify I was out of view of the road and commenced to drop my britches. I had scarcely unbuttoned when I heard the undeniably honest buzz of a pissed off rattlesnake. It matters not if you have never heard a rattler before. You instantly know what it is and will never forget it the rest of your life. My dog and I jumped backwards at the same time. I didn’t take time to re-button my pants. Did we jump in the right direction? Did we jump away from it…or towards it! I scanned the area. Curled up next to the corner of the log cabin was the biggest, the hugest, and the most massive rattler on the face of the planet. I let out a screech. The occasion called for screeching, I don’t care who you are. Don’t judge me.
I flew back to the truck. I don’t think my feet touched the ground. Bob and Janet asked what was wrong with me. I had to confess I almost peed on a rattle snake. Not just any snake, a HUGE snake. “He’s coiled this big!” I made a circle a foot and a half in diameter with my hands; not unlike what one would do when describing the fish that got away.
Bob had to get a picture of this massive reptile. It could, after-all, make the Guinness book of world records. “That’s it?” Bob quipped. “He’s just a little guy.” I crept behind Bob and peered around him. The snake was still coiled. He was significantly smaller as long as Bob was between me and it. Bob poked at him with a stick trying to get him out of the weeds far enough to get a picture. I wasn’t hanging out to see if this was successful or not and tip-toed back to the truck. Bob and Janet giggled over the incident. “Well, it LOOKED huge at the time!” I said sheepishly. In my defense, the snake was coiled up on a big cow pie almost the same color as the snake. It wasn’t the diamond back rattler I’m use to seeing. This one was brown and black. Later that night Janet pulled out a book of birds and snakes. The rattler we saw was a western rattler, according to the photo in the book. Not nearly as big as the diamond back. Whatever.
We drove for several miles and no Tom’s Tomb. We must have missed it. We’d seen a group of buildings some ways back that must have been the Goodwin place. I turned around and headed back in the direction of camp. I cut down a dirt road crossing a creek that led to a large group of buildings. A concrete tomb perched on a hill overlooking the spread; Tom’s Tomb.
We explored the wooden structures first. There was the main house and what looked like a smokehouse with a cellar adjacent to a chicken house. A sprawling line of barns, several small sheds and an outhouse, could have been the set in a John Wayne movie. An expansive stables set off from the rest of the buildings completed the scenic spread. I wondered which building had housed Tom’s whores.
I wandered from building to building. I could have lived here. I should have lived here. I rummaged through remnants of a life before automobiles, computers or modern technology. A time when people lived reality instead of watching it scripted across the television screen. A time when hands grasped the leather reins of a harness instead of an optical mouse. Instead of sitting for hours behind a glaring computer screen, they sat behind powerful teams of workhorses, squinting against the glaring sun.
We paid our respects to Tom before journeying back toward camp. Bob and Janet dropped me off at the ranch and drove my tuck back to Chukar Park. Later, the kids brought me back to camp and stayed for anther evening of campfire and smores.
Blake and Olivia picked me up on their way to church Sunday morning. There was plenty of room in the tiny Juntura Bible Chapel for the small congregation of 12 people. Family groups huddled over well worn Bibles. I’ve been to a share of church services and I’m ashamed to admit I am not comfortable most of the time. It has been my experience the preacher stands at the pew monotonously flipping through pages while children squirm restlessly and adults appear as if they might fall into a coma at any moment. This service was different. The pastor, clad in farmer’s attire and cowboy boots, easily connected with everyone in the congregation. Folks followed along in their Bibles. Even the children appeared interested. One man went so far as to question the pastor concerning the age of Dinah, a Biblical character from Genesis. During lunch at the Oasis Café afterwards, the discussion continued. I think all left services excited to do our own research into the validation of Dinah’s actual age.
Without my camper and trailer, the stretch from camp to the ranch didn’t take nearly as long. Blake had the day off. We would ride after church. I saddled Jack for Blake to ride down and catch Bell Star. Jack ponied Bell like he’d done it a hundred times because he has. Jack might not make an expert arena horse, but he is unbeatable on the trail. He’s towed mules and horses from the Eagle Caps to the Frank Church.
I rode alongside Blake and scanned the countryside for his wallet. We discussed childhood, faith, dating and marriage. There was a time when Blake and I didn’t engage in conversation beyond everyday mom/son interaction. Blake and I didn’t always see eye-to-eye. I knocked heads with Blake more than I did my other two kids. I now realize the reason might have been we were too much alike. Blake has always been determined to the point of stubbornness. He was constantly reinventing himself; that “better option” always around the next corner. I watched his profile from the corner of my eye. The same array of freckles splattered across his impish nose and cheeks; the same crooked smile that got him out of trouble when a good licking would have done him good; the same mischievous storm behind his hazel eyes. What had changed? He’d grown up. He was a man whether I cared to see him as such or not. In true Blake fashion he had begun to conquer his dream. He married a woman of equal conviction. He had given up a job that paid 4 times what he could make riding for any ranch. Why? Because living the ranch life was his dream. No doubt in time others will be riding for Blake’s brand.
The wallet side of the mountain was not as steep as the rope side and a good thing, too. Hank the cow dog was about to keel over from heat stroke. It wasn’t that hot, the poor dog was out of shape. He spent the majority of his time chained at the ranch with two other stock dogs. They rotated the dogs by turning one loose each day. Whichever dog was loose for the day usually followed Blake as he went about his chores. Hank had followed us in our quest to find the wallet. I rummaged in my saddlebags for my old boy scout mess kit and filled the frying pan side with water for the dog. I had to coax him to drink it. He trembled when he tried to stand. Hank wasn’t going any farther today. I wondered how he would manage when it was his turn to go after cattle. The ranch had lost a dog earlier that died from heat exhaustion on a long drive. Not Hank, not today, and certainly not on my watch. We turned back for the ranch, keeping an eye on Hank.
Blake loped Bell Star in the center of the roping arena. He sat down in an exaggerated motion. Bell tucked her butt underneath herself and slid to a stop. I couldn’t believe it was only her 14th ride! She was collected and responsive to leg pressure. Blake rode Jack and gave me a few pointers on how we might work on Jack’s stop. Arena stuff has never been my thing, but I am excited to try out some of the tips he gave me.
An inviting fire and smores were again waiting my return to camp. Bob and Janet had a successful day of fishing and exploring. The camp hosts had invited them over to visit and play games. Shortly after I arrived in camp, Bob helped load my camper back on the truck. We planned to load up and be on the road Monday morning by 9:00am. I was not ready to go home.
I woke early, broke camp and pulled into the ranch to pick up my horses by 8:00 Monday morning. By the time I loaded the horses and made the 18.7 miles back to Chukar Park, Bob and Janet were ready to go. An electrical malfunction forced Bob and Janet to unplug the RV from the truck and drive home without trailer brakes or lights. I followed close behind.
Jack and König seemed happy to be back in their home pasture. I would like to have stayed longer…perhaps forever. It was easy to imagine myself homesteading on the Goodwin place – minus the moonshine and whores, naturally. Unhitching the team of draft horses at the end of a long day in the fields as the sun sets behind golden fields of wheat. Hanging the heavy leather harnesses stained with salt from the barn rafters. Gingham curtains cheerfully sway in the gentle breeze blowing through the kitchen window.
It’s a hard life, but it’s an honest life. It is a tight knit community that gathers in a small church to worship with heads bowed and hearts full. It’s a life struggling to survive in an unforgiving land that makes no concessions. What is sowed is reaped. No more. No less.
I will think often of the people past and present that have made this remote land their home. I will think of the audacity of the men and women who to this day are living a life virtually unchanged from the days of Tom Goodwin. I will think of Tom and the lonely tomb of concrete where he is laid to rest. I will not forget the peaceful feeling one gleans from a time much simpler than the world we live in today. And…no matter how I might want to, I will not soon forget the day I came close to peeing on a rattlesnake.
I handed Jack’s reins to Sharon. She fumbled with her free hand for the split leather, the other clung to her mare’s neck in total darkness. Sharon was virtually blind in the night sky.
I squatted next to one of several massive pillars of concrete supporting the overpass. Semi’s rolled overhead leaving a sonic trail of earth trembling rumble in their wake. A single touch of flame ignited the dried baby-wipe setting the small pile of sagebrush ablaze, illuminating the underside of the bridge. I peered around – do I really want to know who, or what… might be sharing our sanctuary?
I was excited to meet Sharon at the new location earlier that afternoon. The two times I had ridden the area ended in a locked gate and a rude “Get off my property or else” sign posted by a man I envisioned looked something like the troll from Billy Goats Gruff. Sharon reported better luck in her endeavors. Promises of tree rimmed oasis and natural springs danced in my head.
We unloaded and were in the saddle by 2:00 PM. We planned for a 2 or 3 hour ride. For me, that meant saddle bags full of everything but the kitchen sink. From Banamine to Beanee Weenees, I had it all. The far horizon threatened rain to the North. A quick pat down of my cantle bag assured me of the rain jacket folded within. We were set.
Sharon led the way. Her sorrel mare, Ellie, clipped along at an easy walk. Jack plodded along as I gawked at the engulfing scenery. A trucker tooted his or her horn. I waved before disappearing around the bend. Traffic faded from sight and sound as we meandered south east of I84.
Sharon was right, this was a better route. She pointed out a small gathering of cows dotting a meadow fed by a spring to our left. She asked if I wanted to check it out. There were cows around that spring. I did not. “Nope, I’m good.”
Off in the distance a grove of junipers grew in the most unusual spot. “Let’s check that out!” I said bravely. After all…there were no cows that I could see. I snapped a few pictures of Sharon and the trees before moving on. The rain clouds in the distance looked to be producing over Baker City. It was then Sharon realized she had left her rain slicker at the trailer. We debated about going back. Sharon felt she would be fine – after-all, rain storms this time of year seldom lasted more than a few minutes. We continued on.
We had reached an area bordering the limit of our previous explorations – neither one of us had been beyond this point. With an eye on the pending storm, we decided if we stayed close to a road, we could skedaddle back to the trailers if the weather turned south. What appeared to be a camp trailer outlined the Southern horizon. We deduced the trailer couldn’t have gotten there by river boat so there must be a road on top. We got to the top whereas our camp trailer magically transformed into a huge metal tank of some sort; water maybe or propane?
A short hop and a skip over the hill from the magic camp trailer turned propane tank, lay a set of corrals and large equipment shed covered in blue tin likely viewable from space. The entire spread was enclosed in barbed wire for as far as the eye could see. The Billy Goats Gruff troll’s “Keep Out!” signs nailed to every corner post.
I strained to see a reservoir in the far distance, due north of the Trolls ranch. “Look over there! That is Love’s reservoir.” A few weekends earlier I had ridden to the western edge of that reservoir before being turned back by the Trolls signs. I knew that road would take us back to the trailers. The hard part was getting to that side of the reservoir. We debated about turning back. We had plenty of daylight to go back the way we had come. We knew the trailers were 3.7 miles from the reservoir – less distance than going back the way we came. Sharon wasn’t shy about trespassing if need be. “What harm are a couple old ladies’ on horseback and their dogs going to do?” I couldn’t argue with the lady’s logic. We came up with a good story in case we were accosted by the Troll. Something about patrolling the area for cattle rustlers …no need to thank us Troll sir – all in a day’s work – we best be moving along.
I lost count at the number of gates I got on and off to open and shut. I do know my horse grew several inches each time I had to climb back in the saddle. Most of the gates were easy enough to close, a few not so much. Every single one adorned with the Trolls threatening signature. I no longer cared if I was able to shut one or not and secretly hoped we’d come across one I had to cut open. I might not carry the kitchen sink in my saddle bags, but I do carry wire cutters. (I might add a disclaimer here: We did not find it necessary to cut any fences and were able to leave each in the state we found it. Thank you very much.)
We dropped down into the reservoir and rode along the south edge to the west side. I kept waiting for the road to look familiar. Surely we would come to the familiar spot I had turned around when encountering the trolls sign. We had gone well over 3.7 miles before determining the road I had been on must be over the next ridge to the west.
We cut off across country in search of “the other road.” An “Old Oregon Trail” marker gave as some hope. I was pretty sure I saw this road on the map. It leads directly back to our trailers; or so I thought. It was heading more West, but it was the only real “road” out there. It has to end up somewhere, right?
We came to an old spring fed water trough surrounded by a dilapidated split rail corral. Twenty cows milled about until they caught sight of the dogs and horses. Sharon kept her cow dogs close but the skittish cattle made a break for it. We held back trying not to push them farther. Sharon knows more about cows than I do. All I know is they normally scare the hell out of me. She said we needed to try to get around them, so try we did. I followed Sharon as she cut a wide path around the cattle. We were fast running out of space to get ahead of cattle scattered for two miles in every direction. This wasn’t working. We were not getting around them. Tossing Bovine fear to the wind, I dove back off the hill across the trail behind the cattle and up the other side. My jaw clenched tight. This was no time to chance a stone bruised horse. Jack dodged badger holes and jagged rock to the top of the hill – Sharon and Ellie close behind. We popped on top to find another road leading more into the direction we needed to travel. From this vantage point we could see the cows had joined a larger herd in the flat bottoms of the canyon. The road we were on following the cows headed South West. Had Sharon not been mindful of the herd, we may have ridden into Vale about the time the bars close.
The trail now headed North West and flattened out at the top. Rolling hill after rolling hill obstructed any semblance of familiar landmarks. Nothing to indicate the river or freeway existed beyond the vast reaches of rolling sage. The realization felt like an invisible punch to the center of my chest – we were really lost.
I pulled out my GPS. I was pretty sure I had marked the location of our trailers on a previous trip. I pushed the power button. Nothing. I pushed it again, harder this time and longer. Still nothing. I rummaged for the spare batteries I carried and quickly switched them out. The display read, “Extremely low battery – powering down.” I wanted to cry, or yell…or throw that damn GPS in the river. If only I could find the river. Sharon called Ralph and calmly explained our situation. Ralph must have felt helpless as Sharon assured him we were ok but rather lost.
I had an idea. I powered on my phone that I’d previously powered off to conserve battery “just in case we needed it.” We needed it. I hit my SPOTS custom message sending my GPS location to designated people on my list and called one of those people, my neighbor Kort. It went to his voicemail. “Hey Kort (I wondered if he would think it strange I called him by his name and not the usual, “Neighbor.”) “We are OK, but we are lost. I just sent you my coordinates. If you could get on-line and tell me which direction we are heading compared to the Weiser Exit, it would really help. We know we need to go north, but we can’t find a road that heads directly north and it’s getting too late to cut across country safely. I am powering off my phone to save battery. I’ll check back in 15 minutes. If I don’t hear from you and things don’t start to look up, I will hit my SPOTS help button. I can see what looks like Indian head to the east and we are traveling mostly west and slightly north. We will stay on an ATV accessible road” I powered off my phone and prayed.
I asked God if he wouldn’t mind going for a little ride with us. I didn’t need to tell Him I was lost. He knows I’m always lost. I asked that He keep us, our horses and the dogs safe. I don’t mind spending the night out here as long as I know He’s with us. I talked to Sharon later and found that she too had been praying for our safety. Jesus rides with me a lot so it was no surprise when His presence washed over me. Yes, we were lost, but we were not alone.
Sharon and I trotted when the terrain safely allowed. It was now past 6:00PM. We would run out of daylight in just over two hours. We discussed our options as we had done often during our ordeal. Do we go back? No, it would be too dark. Do we cut straight down and head north to the freeway? Again, it was too dark and too dangerous in this country to take off half cocked. The hills were littered with jagged rock and badgers holes big enough to swallow a horse. Beautiful ravines became treacherous pits of hell in the dark. We knew it was safest to stay on a decent road no matter where it led. Regardless of what happened – it would make it easier for others to find us if need be.
We dropped down several canyons before leveling out. A good sized creek flowed through a set of nice corrals. A ranch house nestled into a hollow. I asked Sharon for the time. I was 8:10PM. We had twenty minutes of daylight max. We contemplated continuing on or taking up shelter in the house – inhabited or not; the Troll’s no trespassing sign would not be a deterrent. Another gate, gate number 87 by my calculations (my horse was now fourteen feet tall) marked the boundary between private and public land. Take that Troll. We made the decision to continue on. It was now dusk. The road was light colored sand and should be visible in the dark. If things got ugly, we would turn around and pay Troll a visit. Maybe he’d have dinner waiting.
Once we popped on top of the public land access – things started looking up. It at least appeared as if we were descending toward civilization and the terrain was getting less “lost” feeling…if that makes any sense. Another mile and we could hear and see Semi’s on the freeway. Where the road came out at the freeway, was anybody’s guess. I sent my neighbor another message. “We can see the freeway and we are on a good road. Think we overshot the trailers. It will be dark but we should be ok if we can back-track along the freeway.”
The road dropped down alongside the freeway heading west. We were fairly certain we needed to go east, but there was no access except back the way we had come. As Sharon said, “We are committed – let’s do this.”
The road turned into a well maintained gravel road leading under the freeway to the opposite side. I thought I’d seen the lights of Farewell Bend in the far distance to the east but they soon disappeared from view. There was really no way to tell where we were in relationship to our trailers. If we continued on, we would likely end up in Baker City.
This was as good a place as any and better than most. If we had to spend the night, the overpass would protect us from the rain. A sign at the far end of the overpass read: Benson Cr. Rd and Frontage Rd. Great, we were on the corner of Benson Cr Rd. and Frontage – which meant absolutely nothing to us or Ralph, who Sharon had called to keep apprised of our situation.
It was close to 10:00 o’clock. It went from dusk to dead of night in a matter of minutes. It did not go unnoticed by Sharon or I that it seemed to stay light much longer than normal. When the sun did decide to disappear, it didn’t waste time. Sharon dismounted. The macular degeneration in her eyes shut off her vision and messed with her balance. I’m not going to lie; it freaked me out a little when I saw the look on her face. The always vibrant blue eyes took on the look of a blind person. She clutched at Ellie’s mane. Riding was no longer an option.
I asked if she would be OK holding onto Jack and she said yes. I grabbed handfuls of the driest sagebrush I could find, fumbled in my pack for a lighter and a dried baby wipe and went about building a small fire. We didn’t need it for the warmth. We needed it for the comfort. There is something primitively soothing about a fire.
Sharon walked toward the fire hanging onto Ellie’s mane for support. The mare was a rock. She slowed her gate to match Sharon’s and walked her toward the fire. Ellie stood perfectly still…offering needed support.
We had to find some way to tell someone where we were. I hit my spots one more time and called Kort – hoping I had enough battery. He hit the refresh on his computer’s email client until my SPOTS coordinates came through. I gave him Ralph’s number and told him I’d check back in few minutes if I had enough battery.
I told Sharon that help was on the way and crossed my fingers I hadn’t told a lie. Fifteen minutes passed and I called Kort. “I know right where you are.” He said. “We are on our way to pick up Sharon’s trailer and will come get you. You are going to be ok, girl.”
While Sharon blindly held onto the horses, I plucked sage for the fire. I had just enough juice left to send one more text. If they couldn’t find us with the information we sent, we weren’t going to be found. I risked sending a final, frivolous text “We are camped under the freeway with a fire going like a couple of hobos.” Send, Power off and Pray.
We spent a good hour under the freeway before Kort and Ralph’s lights bounces off the corner of Benson Cr. and Frontage Rd. It was 11:00PM when Ralph and Kort stepped out of their vehicles. Normally not a touchy-feely type person – all I wanted to do was hug Kort…and Ralph…and Sharon, both horses and all four dogs. So…I did. A group hug would have been more efficient, but what the hell.
Jack and Ellie literally lunged into the trailer. Kort and I drove back to pick up my truck and trailer while Ralph and Sharon hauled Jack home. I retrieved my horse from the back of their trailer and sheepishly faced Ralph and Sharon. “Does this mean you’re never going to ride with me again?” Sharon grabbed me in a big bear hug, “You bet your bottom dollar we are riding together. I’d never want to get lost with anyone else!”
Sharon and I sat around my kitchen table sipping on mugs of hot chocolate. We compared notes of our previous night’s ordeal. We agreed that if a person has to get lost, we were sure happy to be lost together. We didn’t panic and what we lacked in directional sense – we more than made up for in preparedness and common sense. We both made mental notes of what we had learned from our ordeal. I would buy a new GPS and Sharon would never leave home without her rain slicker. We would leave earlier in the day no matter how long we planned to be out because as we learned, a sense of adventure can often trump the best of plans.
Most importantly, we learned that if you’re going to ride, don’t forget to ask Jesus to ride along with you. He’s never too busy and from what I can tell, he loves to ride a good horse. Plus, in the unfortunate event you find yourself camped under a freeway with horses and hobos – It’s nice to know He’s on your side.
April 16th, 2015 will be my horses 7th birthday. His name is Jack. As I contemplate a blog piece to commemorate Jack’s birthday, I come to the realization that our story began many years prior to the day I brought him home. It began long before he was born.
My love for this stripped back buckskin began with a love of all things horse. Their smell, their warmth and their therapeutic effect on a shy, awkward kid struggling to fit in. I was “different.” I was “odd”. I was “backwards.” Words over-heard from a childhood I would one day come to embrace.
My earliest memory is of climbing on a fence and sliding onto the back of an un-broke filly named Popcorn; the day I found my true place in the world. I remember looking down at a fascinating black line that ran from her withers to the base of her tail. Is this what holds her together? She was huge. I was huge. No longer tethered to the earth with mere mortals, I was part of a creature as free as the wind itself.
If I had a belly ache or felt sad or scared, I rode. There is something about the motion of sitting a horse that frees you of physical and mental pain like nothing in modern medicine.
The horse is incapable of judging and they won’t laugh at you (although I won’t say the same for a mule, but that is another story). The horse accepts you for what you are based on your spirit, not your outward appearance. When I ride, I become as graceful and uninhibited as the beautiful animal beneath me.
Horses have carried me far away from the terrors of my dreams and those that bled into reality. I needn’t be afraid… for a horse is, and always will be, faster than the boogeyman.
The horse saw me through a challenging childhood. From an imaginary herd that escorted me to school each morning to the Morgan Quarter-horse mare that waited for my return. I hated everything about school from the nauseating bus ride in, to the long boring hours of lecture to the humiliation that can only be experienced during lunch in a school cafeteria.
I knew this herd of wild steeds was a figment of my imagination, but they were necessary. I needed them. The herd ran alongside the bus to school each day. I stared out the small latched windows at manes that flowed like currents of speed on the wind. Recalling each by name kept my mind off the caustic smell of vinyl seats and the stomach-churning sway of the yellow transport. I imagined the creepy high school boy in the back seat being trampled beneath their stampeding hooves as he hissed unspeakable things no child should hear. The herd got me to school and safely home. As soon as my blue lace-up Converse sneakers stepped off the bus onto home ground, I made for the pasture to soothe the day’s wounds.
Life after graduation prohibited keeping a horse for many years. Occasional visits home temporarily filled the longing left behind. I’d wander the pastures of my past where I once played, exploring remnants of old forts built by the hands of a child’s imagination. At visits end, which always came too soon, I’d swing on Popcorn for a reluctant ride back to the present. At 27, Popcorn passed away. Going home would never be the same.
In my early 20’s I married a Ferrier and horse trader. Immersed in all things horse, you would think the gap would be closed. It was not. I rode a few good horses and plenty of bad ones. None of them felt like “my horse.” The ones that bucked me off or tried to kill me I didn’t want and the horses I liked and could ride were often sold out from under me.
It wasn’t until after a divorce that I considered the possibility of finding my very own horse again. I had a decent job that afforded the luxury of purchasing a small ranchett; A very empty ranchett. I remember standing in the middle of 5 acres wondering what the heck I was doing with property if I wasn’t going to fill it up. I had a dog, chickens, goats and an occasional cat that came and went. Still, something was missing. It wasn’t until a trip back home that I realized what that something was.
I happen to be in Halfway, my home town, over the same weekend as my Aunt Karen. Auntie Karen had recently purchased a pretty bay mare named Addie. I don’t normally ride other people’s horses but for some reason I really wanted to ride Addie and my Aunt complied. Addie brought me home. I knew if I could find a horse like her, I’d find the one thing that would make my pasture, and my heart, complete.
I explored different avenues in my search for the perfect horse. I skimmed bulletin boards hanging in feed stores and sale yards; perused the farm sections of classified ads and Craig’s List. Nothing I saw felt right. A horseback riding accident that landed me in the hospital years earlier had left behind a crippled leg and shattered confidence. I needed a horse I trusted and felt comfortable with. I needed a dream horse – and that’s where I found him, on dreamhorse.com.
I didn’t have the nerve or the time to start another colt. I was looking for a 6-8 year old ranch gelding, preferably buckskin if I had a choice. As I flipped through the on-line profiles of horses looking for that “forever” home, I damn near missed him. I had accidently left the “age” field in the search criteria unchecked. I liked his looks right off. He had a nice big butt and deep chest. He was certainly the right color. He had to be older than the listed age of year and a half. It must have been a type-o. The fact he was locally located in Caldwell was a bonus. Close enough to take a look even if he was younger than I wanted.
The breeder had two colts left to sell before going out of the horse business; a buckskin dun and a red dun. The buckskin was the one I’d come to look at. Nadine, the breeder, suggested I look at both colts as both were for sale. The red dun was stunning. Perfect confirmation – flashy markings, he had it all…except what I was looking for. He wasn’t “my horse.”
“My horse” stared back at me from the corner of the paddock. His tail had been chewed off, his mane stuck up every direction but down. His frizzy forelock exposed a star that more resembled a kidney bean than an actual star and appeared to struggle at finding the center of his forehead. He had a head that some might say only a mother could love and a scar that ran from his pastern to the bulb of his heal. He was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I had found “my horse.”
Five and a half years later will find Jack and me riding through the sage strewn sands of the high desert. There is no stress from work or daily life. I feel no aches or pains. I am transformed from a body that has endured a half century of trials and tribulations to one of ageless defiance. The 1200 pounds of powerful buckskin beneath me carries me from sunup to sunset with ease. I ride without fear not because I am brave…because I know in my heart that “my horse” will always be faster than the boogeyman.
Unconsciously my chin lowers slightly, followed by an imperceptible movement of downcast eyes in answer; “Oh, yeah – he’s just a trail horse.”
“Just a trail horse.” How many times have I been set back by that simple statement? The same statement heard time and again that sets my blood to boil. The same statement I am ashamed to admit has come from my own lips.
When I decided to start riding again, I of course needed to find a horse. Not just any horse, my horse. Not a horse that was picked out for me. Not a horse that I would fall in love with only to have sold out from underneath me. Not a horse that fit somebody else’s definition of a good horse. This would be my horse. I would know my horse when I saw it. I perused the farm section of newspapers, Craig’s List and bulletin boards at the local feed and seed for months. I put the word out to several known horse traders and cringed at the inevitable question; “what kind of horse are you looking for and what are you going to do with it?” Unable to answer, I dismissed any future searches involving face-to-face interaction. More unconventional methods were in order. I tried winning a horse in a raffle…that was not productive. I considered adopting a wild mustang; too many restrictions. I contemplated going all Wild West and capturing my own mustang. Did you know that horse stealing is still a hanging offence in Idaho?
About the time I was starting to feel as if I’d spend the rest of my life horseless, I came across an internet site called “DreamHorse.com .” Potential buyers search for horses based on specific criteria. Sellers post flamboyant narratives of their mighty steeds complete with profile pictures. It sounded a little like internet dating. How desperate does a horse have to be to find themselves on an internet site? How desperate must I be to create a buyer profile? Desperate enough.
I went through the motions of clicking on preferences narrowing down potential candidates. I didn’t particularly care what type, color, breed or sex – after all – I would know my perfect horse when I saw it, right? Wrong. I was lying to myself. I realized I had a preconceived image in my mind when I visualized my ideal horse. If I didn’t come clean I was destined to search millions of homeless equines looking for a “forever home.” I began to check the options based on the image in my head of my very own dream horse. Dave Stamey’s “She always wanted a buckskin horse” played over and over in my mind.
“Click her to submit your search.” Modern technology is amazing isn’t it? The search engine crunched through three pages of options in a matter of seconds. It seemed to know what I wanted before I did. Out of thousands of available equines, two pages of potential steeds splayed across my screen… and there he was. The one: my dream horse; a striped backed quarter horse buckskin colt. Old Dave couldn’t have sung it any better.
The first words out of the breeders mouth when I arrived to check out the horse was, “So, what are you planning to do with him?” I started to ramble, “Um…well, ma’am, I’m not positive just yet. I like to rope a little. I suppose it depends on what he has a propensity for. I know I won’t barrel race – maybe calf rope. I’ve been told I have a natural dip in my throw that suits breakaway calf roping. Maybe team roping. I started to learn to team rope years ago.” Good hell, what did it matter what I intended to do with him? Who cares? What if I planned to turn him out in the pasture and stare at him every day and never ride him? Would she refuse to sell him to me? Then it happened: I sheepishly lowered my voice, avoided eye contact and mumbled,” I don’t know…maybe just trail ride.” “Oh, I see,” she sighed. Was that disappointment in her voice? It sounded like disappointment. Was she displeased with the idea of one of her well bred performance horses going through life as “just a trail horse?” Never-the-less, cash talks and doesn’t give a damn what you plan on doing with the purchase.
Jack’s first hoof trimming experience went well. The farrier took his time and exhibited patience. We exchanged small talk as he worked on my colts’ feet. “Nice weather we are having. Nice looking buckskin. Sure is big for his age. Sure seems to have a good mind. What are you going to do with him?” There it was again. Anticipating the inevitable question, I had prepared a speech earlier that reeked of confidence, possibly due to the fact that it was comprised primarily of bull shit. I stood just a little straighter and presented my speech: “Well… I thought I’d get back into team roping – maybe try penning, sorting or cutting competitions. If none of those disciplines pan out, maybe he’d make a fine jumper!” Yep – I was on a roll. “I’ve thought about checking into shooting horse competition – you know. I love to shoot – I love to ride – seems like a natural combo.” As it turned out, the farrier happened to be in the top rankings in the Idaho shooting horse competition. Huh, what are the odds? Not only that, but he holds practices right there on his ranch! Hearing my feigned interest, he kindly invited me to a practice session. Busted! I had no intentions of wielding firearms and shooting off my horse at high speeds. Hell, I hadn’t even put a saddle on him yet. My head drops, shoulders droop, and I hear the words escape my lips in a whisper of defeat, “…maybe he’ll just be a trail horse.”
Over the last couple of years I have attended numerous equine based clinics and seminars. It’s always the same. The clinician rides in on a peanut pushing, immaculately groomed shimmering bundle of equine composition. He or she rides into the center of the arena and begins mind boggling demonstrations of expert horsemanship and athletic prowess. Horse and rider float across the arena in effortless leg yields and side passes. Haunches in…haunches out- shoulder in – shoulder out. Seconds later and the duo dashes across the arena at lightning speed, only to screech to a skidding halt mere inches from the arena edge. The audience is mesmerized. Then, get ready for it…the grand culmination of all that is “natural horsemanship.” The horse begins to spin on its rear-end like a 1200 pound tornado; faster and faster until the audience is both mesmerized and nauseous. Seriously, if my horse did that, I’d throw up. I will admit it is impressive to watch. However, I do not know where the natural horsemanship comes into this particular maneuver. The closest thing I’ve seen a horse come to such a feat in nature was when a dog ran underneath my Aunts Horse. Addie spun around so fast, the centripetal force sent my Aunt shooting into a large sage brush.
Once the finale is over, the clinician addresses the crowd. “Ladies and gentleman, you may wonder how you too can apply these horsemanship methods to your particular discipline. Mastering these maneuvers can be beneficial to cutting cows, barrel racing, and team roping, reining competitions and sorting. Why… they can be beneficial even if your horse is… just a trail horse.”
I am in no way belittling the skill and athleticism demonstrated by competition performance horses. I appreciate the discipline of a good calf horse that keeps perfect tension on the rope during a winning run and little compares to the tremendous lateral movement and stopping power of a champion cutting horse. I take nothing from these horses when I say that a comment like “just a trail horse” puts me instantly into defense mode. I’d put my “trail horse” up against any horse I’ve seen in the arena any day of the week.
Trail riding does not offer the luxury of a confined arena within a controlled environment. A trial horse is expected to perform under extreme weather conditions from the searing sun to rain, snow and wind to thunder and lightning. What the wind won’t throw at a horse to scare them to death, a thunderstorm will.
A trail horse is required to safely navigate miles of unforgiving terrain. Trail horses are asked to tread on sharp rock covered trails not much wider than a single hoof. There might be an insurmountable mountain on one side and a 60 foot vertical drop to a raging river on the other. The only thing keeping horse and rider from plummeting over the edge is a lot of trust and a little prayer.
At any given moment a trail horse might encounter Elk crashing out of the tree-line, bushes coming alive with an explosive flight of birds, uncontained barking dogs and pissed off rattle snakes. What they can’t see can be equally as terrifying for them. A trail horse must be able to handle the scent of bears, cougars and other predators while filtering out a host of unknown and equally spooky sounds lurking in the forest.
A trail horse never knows what might be coming at them or behind them from one turn to the next. Potential horse eating hikers with colorful backpacks piled high on their shoulders – bikers with reflective spokes flashing with every spin of the tire. Roaring ATV engines and racing dirt bikes. My personal favorite: llamas. You have not truly experienced the fear threshold of a horse unless you have happened upon a pack string of Llama’s coming at you. I don’t blame my horse because frankly, llama’s scare me too.
The trail horse doesn’t get to run down to the end of an arena, do a few impressive spins and go home for the day. A trail horse hits the trail from sunup to sundown and is expected to carry a rider and/or gear ranging from medical supplies and food to chain saws – all the while being asked to navigate obstacles from river crossings to bogs, logs and bridges.
The working trail horse has been asked to drag logs and pack cumbersome loads up and down steep, slippery terrain. He’s willing to be tied, hobbled or high-lined in the most precarious of situations. At the end of a long day of service, she will be content to drink from any available water source and graze upon sometimes scarce mountain grass.
Moments before dusk, the orange sun begins to sink into the western horizon. Silhouetted against the glowing sunset, horse and rider return to camp after a long, strenuous day on the trail. You can bet your silver spurs that as I return; I will reach down and pat my horses’ sleek neck. I thank him for carrying me safely home from a job well done. Not bad for “just a trail horse,” not bad at all.
I came close to not writing a Christmas story this year. I started typing up a traditional Christmas letter before realizing how redundant it was with the phenomena that is Face Book. Anything I would care to share with folks has already been shared – complete with graphic high definition photos. Yes – you are welcome for the Franken Knee shots – hopefully nobody was eating dinner and perusing my page at the same time.
I shoot shit – mostly balloons and an occasional raccoon. I’m not very good at killing balloons yet – but I’m lethal on the coon population.
I continue to cut trees and clear trail for the Backcountry Horseman when I’m not trying out new Dutch oven recipes on the crew. My specialty is dessert. I heard, “Here comes the dessert girl” more than once last year.
I was somehow talked into (sounds much better than tricked) joining a drill team. Something I did not think I would really enjoy but turns out I love it and it’s been great for me and my horse. The best part has been the new friends I’ve met in the process.
My youngest son, Blake, was married in August. He married into a wonderful family and will be starting their own sometime next summer.
My horse had his unfair share of illnesses, injuries and setbacks this year. However, barring shooting him in the ear again, we plan to come back with a vengeance in 2015.
I changed jobs with the department – my primary focus is e-discovery and data forensics. It’s like an interactive mystery novel and I do love a good mystery. Someday I plan to write one.
I had a few pieces and parts removed and/or replaced. Again, you are welcome for the gnarly knee pictures that arrived in time for Halloween.
If I had to reflect on the most important aspects of my life over the last year – I would definitely say it has been my continued relationship with God, my family and the wonderful friends He has brought into my life. Without all of which I would be nothing but a shell and a $75,000.00 leg.
Oh – I almost forgot the Christmas story. A couple days ago I woke with the inspiration to write something. A children’s story popped into my head. As I wrote it – I pictured it illustrated in watercolor. A droopy, sad eyed donkey with long ears and a heart filled with hope. A donkey that no matter how small and insignificant he may appear on the outside, was rather quite extraordinary on the inside.
I hope you enjoy reading this story to your children and grandchildren.
Merry Christmas to you all and my God bless each and every one of you.
Earnest the Extraordinary
The journey of an ordinary donkey
Ask anyone and they would tell you: Earnest was an ordinary sort of donkey. Not special in any sort of way; just a donkey, nothing more, nothing less. Earnest, sadly enough, felt much less than ordinary.
Earnest looked around the small barnyard he called home. There was nothing special about it at all. Chickens scratched in the yard. Oxen lazily chewed their cud beneath the shade of the olive trees and sheepdogs stood guard over their flock.
It seemed that everyone had an important job to do; everyone except Earnest. He tried so very hard not to let it get him down, but some days he just couldn’t help it. You see, deep down Earnest felt he was meant to be something more than just an ordinary donkey. He didn’t know what that something was exactly – but he felt it just the same.
Earnest was feeling particularly ordinary the day Mrs. Goose found him looking more distraught than usual. “Why Earnest Donkey, you look positively and utterly hopeless with that sad, long ordinary face!” she squawked. “Whatever is the matter?” Earnest explained to Mrs. G how he felt like an ordinary donkey on the outside, but rather extraordinary on the inside. “Nonsense!” she honked. “You are what you are, nothing more, and nothing less. Facts are facts and the fact is, Earnest E. Donkey, you are not extraordinary.
Earnest wasn’t ready to give up just yet. He bade Mrs. Goose good day and wandered over to the chicken coop. He poked his head inside the small door of the hen house. Blustering hens filled the boxes of nests with fresh eggs of varying shades of brown – some freckled, some speckled and some neither nor. “Good morning ladies,” said Earnest sweetly. At once the house erupted with gaggling hens. “Good heavens! What’s he doing here! It has gotten to be where a lady has no privacy! No privacy at all!” “I’m sorry ladies.” Earnest apologized. “I was hoping you might be able to help me. I would like to be less ordinary and more…I don’t know – productive perhaps, like you.” A large red hen waddled closer to Earnest and cackled before pecking him smartly on the muzzle. “Like us? You want to be like us? Preposterous! You could never be like us because you, Earnest E. Donkey, are not extraordinary.
Earnest backed out of the hen house rubbing his tender muzzle. He strolled into the pasture where oxen pulled heavy plows through the farmers’ field. “Good day to you gentleman, I would like to offer my assistance!” Earnest said proudly. The oxen stopped what they were doing and laughed at Earnest as he fumbled to slip the cumbersome yoke around his small neck. The yoke was much too large and much too heavy for poor Earnest –tipping him topside down and bottom side up. The sight of Earnest tipped upside down in such a manner caused the oxen to laugh harder still: “Away with you silly little donkey! You could never be strong and powerful like us because you, Earnest E. Donkey, are not extraordinary!
Earnest tipped himself right-side up. His head hung low as he left the field of oxen and ambled toward a large sheepdog guarding a flock of black faced mutton dotting the hillside. Earnest marched right up and plopped matter-of-fact onto his haunches next to the dog. He turned his head from side to side surveying the hillside without uttering a word. “Who do you think you’re fooling?” barked the dog. His bark was so fierce and so loud it caused Earnest to jump. His voice trembled when he answered. “I…I only thought I could help watch over the flock, like you.” “Like ME?” barked the dog. “Don’t be absurd. You could never be bold and fearless like me because you, Earnest E. Donkey, are not extraordinary.
Earnest wandered to the far edge of the farm where he was born and raised. He paused at the corner separating the familiar from that which was not. Everything he had ever known was behind him; the oxen in the fields and the sheep grazing on the hillsides. The cackling hens and gaggling geese – all reminders of what he was not…Earnest was not extraordinary.
As Earnest left the farm behind him, the days passed beneath his ordinary hooves – each as uneventful as the next. He passed by Shepherds tending flocks and milkmaids milking the cows. He passed merchants on their way to peddle wares at market and weary travelers on their way to and fro; all much too preoccupied to pay mind to a little donkey that was, after all, not extraordinary at all.
Just when Earnest was beginning to think there wasn’t anything extraordinary left in the entire world – he came upon a caravan of camels laden with treasures the likes of which he had never seen! Jewel encrusted chests stuffed full of silver, gold and fine linens…all adorned with golden chains and strands of precious pearls! Earnest had to trot to keep up with the long legged camels. “Good day my magnificent friends. My name is Earnest. Might I travel with you for a bit?” A particularly regal camel looked down his long muzzle without breaking stride. “Surely you jest. We carry the treasures of mighty kings upon our backs! One might say it beneath one to associate with an ordinary donkey. Especially, Earnest E. Donkey – one so obviously not extraordinary.
Earnest could sink no lower. His long donkey ears practically drug the ground. He trod on in this fashion for days, or maybe weeks. He didn’t know or care. As far as he was concerned, his journey was over. He would spend one last, lonely night along the River Jordan before returning home. Home to his ordinary life on the ordinary farm where he would live out his days as an ordinary donkey – quite possibly less than ordinary. He let out a big sigh.
Earnest stretched his short, grey donkey legs and yawned at the rising sun. The previous day had made up his mind to go home. What changed … he could not say. As Earnest slept that night he was overcome with a powerful feeling compelling him to continue on his journey.
Late morning brought Earnest to a crossroads. The sign pointed in two directions: this way to “Nazareth” – that way to “Bethlehem.” The feeling he experienced the night before returned…pulling him toward Nazareth.
Earnest walked several miles before meeting a group of travelers heading south. A young couple was amongst the travelers; the woman heavy with child. The couple lagged behind the rest. Earnest feared for their safety as the roads were known to be teeming with bandits!
Earnest was pleasantly surprised when the young couple did not brush him aside as others had on his journey. They told him they were on their way to Bethlehem to register for the census as the law required. The woman’s time was nearing. Earnest knew what he must do. “Please, let me help. I know I am just a small, ordinary donkey, but my back is strong and I could easily carry you as far as you need to go!” The woman smiled at Earnest as the man helped her onto the donkeys back.
The young couple was able to travel much faster with Earnest’s help. They passed rolling hillsides with sheepdogs guarding their flocks. They passed oxen toiling in the fields and majestic camels burdened with the weight of untold riches. Not one said an unkind word to Earnest. They merely knelt in wonder as the little donkey and his companions continued on their journey.
The trio reached Bethlehem on the fourth day of travel. The young couple went from inn to inn searching for a place to rest to no avail; each filled to capacity. With nowhere else to turn, they settled in to a manger. The small cave offered privacy for the mother-to-be and a place for Earnest in the outer chamber.
Earnest could not fall asleep. He tossed and turned, worried about his new friends. Suddenly, a beautiful voice came to him out of the night. Earnest had never heard an angel before – but he knew it to be true. The angel spoke: (Luke 2-10)…“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” A wondrous peace came over Earnest such as he had never felt and he drifted soundly into sleep.
Earnest stayed with the young family for several days before deciding it was time to return home. He said his tearful good-byes to the young couple and the child he knew he would carry in his heart forever. As he turned to leave, an angel appeared before him. “My dear Earnest, as a gift to you for your strength of heart and unwavering courage, I place upon your back this shadow of the cross. Let it be a reminder to all who see it of the love of our Father in heaven and the rewards offered to those willing to accept his Grace. And…my dear little one – let it be a reminder to you as well that you, Earnest E. Donkey… are most extraordinary.
Dear Emmett, Long before the computer, long before email and even long before the electric typewriter…there existed the lost art of letter writing.
The above sentence starts the first hand-written letter I have composed in more years than I can recall. The letter is addressed to my grandson, Emmett. As a kid, I loved making the journey across our front yard to our galvanized aluminum mailbox perched precariously atop a splintered wooden post. Peeking inside the box and retrieving those letters was akin to opening a treasure chest full of untold secrets, quickly scanning for the individual treasure addressed only to me. It occurred to me that children of Emmett’s age may never experience this lost art. With that thought, I decided I would pick up this forgotten tradition and write a genuine letter written in my own hand. I hope that when Emmett is old enough to read that my writing is legible enough for him to decipher it. I am finding that a person loses the muscle memory required to hold a pen long enough to compose more than a few sentences. I imagine that will improve with practice. As for spelling and grammar – I don’t see time helping with that one much at all. I’m afraid grandma has relied on spell check far too long. My hand cramped and struggled to hold onto the pen and form any real semblance of alphabetical characters. My brow furrowed at the flow of ink lagging far behind the thoughts racing through my mind, begging to be transferred to paper. How did people write entire novels like this? I managed to scribble a little over a page before the hand cramping won out: “Dear Emmett, how are you? How is your little sister doing…how is the weather in Wyoming? Hope you are all well” Signed “Gramma Laurie and Jack. PS: I love you!” I placed the letter in a security envelope (because a letter from Gramma can’t be sent to secure these days) and affixed a .46 cent forever freedom stamp in the upper right hand corner. I bet you a roll of those .46 cent stamps that if you handed a kid an envelope today he wouldn’t know which corner to place the stamp! Not my grandson. I refuse to let this ancient tradition bypass another generation. My boy will know how to properly address an envelope AND tie his shoes in spite of a world engulfed in digitized communication and Velcro. I practically skipped to the end of my driveway with Emmett’s letter. Weighing less than an ounce in physical mass, the words and thoughts within contain immeasurable units of pure love. I smiled at the thought of Emmett’s joy as his mom reads him the letter. Will he have the same feelings I did at his age when I found a letter in our mail box address to me from my grandma? I pulled the plastic red flag in the upright position; a proud signal to the mail lady there was something besides bills and junk mail for delivery…an untold treasure addressed only to him.