Last night at o'dark-thirty, I woke to a growl of thunder and rain pattering the skylights. I pulled a blanket around my shoulders and rolled over, supremely grateful to be home in bed instead of on a cot in my horse trailer with ride day looming. Of course, a week ago I was delighted to be in exactly that place -- enjoying much better weather!
After the ride meeting for Owhyee Canyonlands Day 4, which featured Yellow Tail Shiraz and a giddy group of riders, most of whom had been at the Teeter ranch for several days already, I'd hastened back to my trailer to buckle Aaruba into his blanket by flashlight. I topped off water buckets and passed out extra hay to both Aaruba and Consolation. Then, I stepped to the dark side of the trailer, away from camp, spread my arms, and stared up at the sky.
I hope those of you who live in cities find opportunity, now and again, to travel far enough from light and smog to see the Milky Way. It looks like a skiff of clouds at first, but then you realizes it's a dense band of stars that cinches the night from horizon to horizon. Stare long enough, and constellations emerge like childhood friends: Orion, Capricornus, Andromeda, and Ursa Minor, who cradles the dim and comforting North Star. I watched them dance overhead until the generators shut off and voices faded. Then I crawled into my sleeping bag to wait for morning.
And morning came. Though the 55-mile race wouldn't start until 8:00, I rose at 6:00 to ensure I'd have plenty of time to get Aaruba's Easyboots on, a prospect made difficult by the dawn chill -- Bares are much more flexible when warm! Aaruba was more relaxed than he's ever been in ridecamp, thanks to Consolation's presence. He ate well and behaved like an angel...until I finished tacking up and headed for the start.
Sweet Aaruba, who has never turned a herdbound hair, transformed into a bellowing, prancing maniac. He wouldn't stand for mounting, which wasn't all bad--I wasn't quite sure I wanted to be on board! I moved him in circles while the lead horses took off. So intent was he on exchanging desperate neighs with Consolation, Aaruba didn't seem to see them go. Figuring I wouldn't get anywhere -- literally or figuratively -- by hanging around, I tried leading him down the trail. Still he screamed and circled like a crazed beast, nearly mowing down the vet(!) and earning himself several sharp reprimands in the first half mile before he calmed down enough to mount.
Blessedly, his behavior improved as we headed out in earnest. All those training sessions focused on pacing had left an impression on him. By employing the same method -- spinning him in tight circles when he failed to respond to my requests to slow down -- I easily maintained control despite the presence of other horses ahead, and Aaruba settled down to work by mile 5 or so. This proved useful when the trail led us up a razorback ridge whose sides fell away several hundred feet on each side. I didn't have my camera along, but Merri the Equestrian Vagabond (whom I finally met in person, after following her blog all year!) took some lovely shots now posted at endurance.net.
Near the end of the first, 18-mile loop, Aaruba caught Consolation's call on the wind and began hollering again. Though much better behaved than at the start, his pulse on arrival was 78 instead of our usual 60-64, so we lost a few minutes as I sponged him and massaged the base of his forelock, breathing slowly, slowing my own pulse as a mirror for Aaruba's own.
Fifty minutes later, we headed out for Loop 2, a 22-miler, near the back of the pack but with at least two riders behind us. The loop started out on the same trail as the first loop of our first-ever LD last spring, and I couldn't help thinking how the hills seemed both shorter and less steep than they had in May. (Maybe, if this phenomenon continues, we'll get to Tevis someday and find it's just a walk in the park!)
The trail led us through sand and sagebrush, over the only highway in the vicinity, past a herd of pronghorns whose fleeing backs flashed like fish in the desert. Aaruba and I bumped into a few other riders along the way -- once a pair who'd missed a turn and were backtracking just as I reached the triple ribbons indicating a change of direction, and twice a husband-wife team on two of the many gaited horses competing that day.
Upon arrival at the second hold, Aaruba pulsed down more quickly. We vetted through with mostly A's (B on gut sounds), then headed for the trailer, where Aaruba munched hay and beet pulp while I pulled off his tack and downed a plate of Cuban Beans and Rice Salad, which turned out to be excellent ride food -- quick, filling, flavorful, and tough enough to handle a couple days in a cooler. As suggested by Jackie Fenaroli at Stonewall Saddles, I removed one of our thin, felted wool, prototype saddle pads to change the angle of my saddle very slightly, providing Aaruba some relief during our final loop.
Loop 3 led us 16, scenic miles atop accordian-folded ridges. Well behind most of the pack, Aaruba and I enjoyed watching other riders trot in the opposite direction across a distant ridge, silhouetted against a hazy, blue sky. By the time we reached the portion of trail on which we'd seen them, I expected to look back and see the few riders tailing us coming along the first ridge, but there was no sign of them. After watching the deserted trail for many miles, I was distracted from wondering if they'd pulled when the land to our left fell away to reveal a breathtaking panorama. Hart Creek Canyon, through we we'd ridden on Loop 1, spread out at the bottom of the cliffs, jagged with mysterious cuts and draws, shifting like a dragon's hide under shadows cast by scudding clouds.
Just as Aaruba and I turned toward ride camp, smiling at a paper plate featuring an arrow and the triumphant word HOME!, we caught sight of another rider just starting along the first ridge. I almost envied her the ride ahead, so beautiful had it been, but Aaruba and I went in the opposite direction instead -- down the same, steep hill we'd traversed twice already that day, across the cobbled creekbed, and along the last road home.
Aaruba covered the final miles at a flying trot, but those 55 miles were showing by the time I'd untacked and led him over for our final vetting. Metabolically sound but leg-weary, he was obviously glad to return to his pen for a nice roll and all the alfalfa he could eat.
And no wonder, I thought as I dove into a handful of trail mix. We'd walked much less than at Old Selam, and apart from the first half-mile, I'd ridden the entire trail. With a ride time of 7:33, we'd averaged 7.3 miles per hour (compared to 6.6 mph at Old Selam). And, once again, this ride was our longest yet.
How many more times will I be able to say that? Quite a few, I'm betting. Our first 75. Our first 100. And there's always the Santa Fe Trail Ride...