Tuesday, March 8, 2011

"The Adventure of a Lifetime"

Today I'd like to share something that I wrote about a year and a half ago, for one of my final English classes before I graduated. The class was actually something I'd put off for two years; it ended up being the most worthless class I ever took, except for this paper.

The assignment was something like "write about an event in your childhood." Everything in the class seemed to be geared towards sixth graders. The class roster was full of nonmajors who had to take one English class, and had heard this class was easy.

This essay is kind of long, but I hope you read it to the end. Every time I read it, even though I wrote it, for pete's sake, I get teary. This ended up being one of my favorite things I've ever written. It's about a piece of my life, of my family's life really, that most people don't know about, and that we rarely talk about anymore.

"The Adventure of a Lifetime"

Everywhere was wood, beams of wood on the ceiling, slats of wood on the walls, planks of wood on the floors.  Needles of light pierced through in places, illuminating, for a fraction of a second, a million microscopic specks of dust, each one glowing briefly and then returning to its dusky journey through the air.
Everywhere was sound, still singing in my mind to this day, that joyfully creaking floor, the sound of bright and clear quiet, punctuated by whinnies and the shuffling of feet and hooves.  Oh, the sound of peace in the world.  Not utter silence, but the calm chorus of creatures in harmony, man and beast in interdependence.
Everywhere was the fragrance of molasses, of dust on its travels, of shiny, worn leather and ancient trusty woolen blankets, of the creaking wooden floor powdered with bits of hay, alfalfa and manure.  Earth, dung and food mingled in the air to bless us with a sweetly organic and remarkable scent, which has been found no other place in the universe, save for every stable which has ever existed.
An eleven-year-old mind cannot process everything it takes in, but instead, subconsciously stores it all up for later.  As I took in these sights, smells and sounds, my younger sister Johanna stood next to me, both of us on the threshold of a world of new experiences. We stood in the entrance of a stable.  A real horse stable.  On a real horse ranch, and a real horse rider next to us.  Her name was Skye – which was appropriate, since it seemed like Johanna and I had been granted an early pass to heaven itself.  And, as we stepped into the stable, in awe of all its wonders, we knew the pinnacle of our new adventure was yet to come: Skye was going to teach us to ride horses.
It was very cold, that day when we first walked into the stable.  We’d worn our favorite cowboy boots and the black cowgirl hats we’d gotten as gifts; under my embarrassingly not-cowgirl (puffy pink) coat I wore my favorite sweatshirt, a white one adorned with appliqu├ęd cowboy boots.  The luckier of us might have even donned a pair of plastic spurs – we only had one set between us, and we had to share.  
Christmas day had come and gone, but the decorations were still on the walls at home, and the frigid Colorado winds weren’t nearly finished bringing snow to our town.   The holidays were always joyful at our home, but this year had brought a special treat to us Trexel girls, when we were given a year’s worth of horseback riding lessons.  Nothing could have been more appropriate, more desired or more benevolently granted.  Johanna and I lived under a wide Colorado sky, and we had been reared on a good dose of Chris LeDoux and other Cowboy music (totally different from Country music).  Our favorite songs had titles like “Call of the Wild” and “You Can’t See Him From the Road.”  We were more in love with horses, and the freedom and adventure they epitomized, than with anything else in the world.  We collected models of them, subscribed to magazines about them, cut out pictures of them whenever possible, and dreamed of the day we would have one of our own.  Our model horses had creative names: Running Water, Romantic Rosebud, Little Mermaid, Grey Ghost.
The library was of particular interest to us, as it served up an infinite supply of (free!) horse-related literature.  We buried ourselves in the novels of Marguerite Henry, memorized horse breeds and the names of forehead markings, and convinced ourselves that Western, cowboy-style riding was far superior to English style.  Our dad fed our obsession by securing a steady flow of Paint Horse magazines from a coworker who raised that particular breed – she gave us every precious, glossy tome when she finished reading it.  After devouring every word of the articles, we would cut out the best pictures (sometimes the original owner even left the centerfolds for us!) and tape them onto our walls. We watched rodeos with enthusiasm and derby races with detachment – derbies were about horses, but after all, those were English riders who rode in fences and in circles.  In our young minds, Western riding was about wildness and untamed freedom (although the cruelty of keeping panicked horses in rodeo cages never occurred to us). We had been catechized in the theology of Chris Ledoux; English-style riding, fences, country music, perfectly manicured lawns, and everything perfect and restrictive were sheer blasphemy.
The origin of our love of horses is both obvious and impossible to answer. On one hand, I don’t remember the first time I felt entranced by the idea of horses.  Yet how could two girls, wild with imagination and surrounded by ranches, cowboys and mountains, not be in love with horses? How could anyone read Marguerite Henry and Walter Farley, and not be in love with horses?  The question is not how we noticed them in the first place; the better question is, how could we, living in a world saturated with ideas of freedom, cowboy life and ranches, not have fallen in love with these powerful, gleaming beasts? The idea of a horse, to us, symbolized freedom, romance and adventure; it somehow represented far-flung sunny beaches and mysterious forested islands.  It is like the idea of a pirate which, in little boys’ imaginations, conjures up wild tales of hidden treasures, stormy seas and epic battles.  Calling it ‘being in love’ is no stretch.
So there we were, two girls, loosed, giddy, in a real stable for the first time.  I was eleven years old and Johanna seven.  Here is where the adventure starts, we thought to ourselves. We darted around, delighting in every find, recognizing pieces of equipment we’d only read about, as though something we thought was a dream had suddenly become reality. 
We were given an initial tour of the stables and corrals.  There were perhaps a dozen horses in residence, so it was a small ranch.  Skye’s home was on a hill, like a castle, overlooking the stable, corrals and the pasture beyond.  As she led us around the place, I drilled Johanna in technicalities of horse, hoof and saddle anatomy, showing off what we knew.  “So, Johanna, what’s the hair on that horse’s forehead called?” I casually asked. “Easy – that’s a forelock,” she answered, and we both looked at Skye out of the corners of our eyes.  Her eyebrows might have gone up a little, so I continued. “What’s the back part of the saddle called?” “The cantle.”  “Where do you find the cleft of the frog?” “In the very center and front of the bottom of the hoof.”  “How can you tell a pinto from a paint horse?”  “That’s a trick question – pinto’s just a color marking, and Paint is a breed!”  Pretending like quizzing each other was part of our routine conversation, we managed to verbalize plenty of our accumulated trivia.  Skye seemed thoroughly impressed with our knowledge, and, I’m sure, was amused by our showing off.
Only now, as an adult pondering the education of my future children, do I realize the value of our own self-motivation and resourcefulness.  Before our riding lessons, no one ever taught us anything about horses; as homeschoolers, we were used to finding things out on our own.  To this day I still would much rather learn things myself, instead of being told. One of the potential strengths of traditional home schooling is that students are required to be self-motivated; learning itself is a learned process which the student must master.  With the internet today as the library of my childhood, there is no limit to what can be discovered without ever having to purchase a single credit hour.
The first day at the stables was basic training for Johanna and I: special terms (which we mostly already knew), where the bathrooms were, and all that stuff which is pure blather for two girls drooling to just, please, get on the horses.  Finally, the next week, I was allowed to climb into the saddle.  We’d learned how to put the saddle on – blanket first, cinch the strap underneath, make sure the bit and bridle were correctly inserted, don’t walk too close to the back of the horse. We also learned that we’d need to pull the saddle strap tighter, a few minutes after we’d initially put the saddle on, because horses are tricky and will hold their breath, expanding their sides so the strap is looser later on.
The horse we were assigned was a quarter horse named Skip (what a tragically lifeless name – Apache Warrior would have been better), who was russet orange, 19 years old and fairly senile.  A senior citizen in the horse world, Skip was gentle, without a lot of energy left in him.  He patiently stood there in the stable, probably falling asleep, as I struggled to get into the saddle.  I tried to remember what Skye had told me. The stirrup had to be twisted backwards to put the left foot in it, whilst I stood on the ground, one foot stuck in the stirrup, facing the back of the horse – in all manner of speaking, totally counterintuitive. The smooth saddle loomed high above me, gleaming brightly against a background of wooden ceiling and traveling dust; and I wondered how I’d ever make it all the way up.  Skye gave me a little push as I grabbed at the saddle horn and somehow ended up in the saddle, miles above Johanna and our teacher.  I smiled modestly, not too ecstatically, for I was still the older sister.  And of course I could get into that saddle with hardly any help.
I always had to be the mature one, as I was the oldest of (at the time) four children.  On Christmas day, after the family had opened all of our presents, my parents drove Johanna and me out to see the ranch where we’d be taking our lessons. From our steel gray Suburban, we briefly surveyed the snowy, empty web of fences – the horses must have all been keeping warm inside the stable – and all too soon, turned the truck around in the rocky driveway and headed back home.  But Johanna, somehow under the impression we would begin our lessons at that exact minute, sobbed miserably as we drove away, watching the quiet corrals shrink away in the back window.  We had a desperately long six weeks to wait, and I was just as disappointed as she was, but I’d remained aloof, maturely consoling her as a parent would.  
Now, six eternal weeks later, as I sat high in the saddle in my pink coat and black boots, smelling the alfalfa and gazing over what suddenly seemed like a little wooden kingdom, I could understand why the tyrants and dictators throughout history had thirsted for power.  They rode horses all the time.  Something about the height, the pride, the sheer power of it all, filled the rider with an urge to dominate, to control.  It was understandable.  The thousand-pound creature under me, an eleven-year old, would be utterly commanded by a subtle twitch of the reins, a gentle squeeze of the thighs.  Anyone who gets on a horse, I mused, would believe they could control anything.
We quickly learned the format of our lessons.  Skye would talk about riding as we walked around the stable, preparing the riding equipment; then, since she could only teach one person at a time, one of us would ride in the corral while the other would watch.  Then Jo and I would switch places.  The time on Skip’s back was always over all too quickly, and it seemed like hours that I had to spend sitting on the wooden fence, watching Johanna ride around and around in circles.  But it was mesmerizing. Skye stood like the Sun at the center of Skip’s orbit, the blue lounge line tethering his bridle to her carefully controlling hand like the force of gravity.  I don’t think we ever realized that we had become what we hated about English riders – confined by fences, riding in circles. It would have been humiliating, had we realized. But the sheer joy of riding the horse, and of all that the stable had to offer, overpowered any sense of shame we might have felt.
Sometimes we would have to ride in figure eights around the corral, without Skye’s lounge line.  This tested our skills in every way.  It was terrifying at first to concentrate on the trajectory of the horse, while remembering all the signals necessary to stay on course (and on the horse!).  Anyone who can ride a horse in figure eights around a corral should be allowed to operate a motor vehicle.  Maybe it was harder as a child, but looking back, it seems that the skill required to guide a horse in this way is just as complex as the attention needed to keep a car between the yellow lines.  Atop the horse, in figure eights or any other time, we had to position our legs just right so we could give subtle signals with ankles, calves and thighs – without falling off.  To do this, we had to match our own movements with the horse’s gait, much like you want to jump along with the bounce of a trampoline.  If you come down while it’s coming up, the result can be very painful.  I couldn’t forget about the sensitive, careful guiding of the reins – if I pulled it too hard, Skip would refuse my wish and simply come to a halt.  Eventually I could do the figure eights without much effort, but the faster the horse went, the harder it was to control.  It was far easier to simply ride in the circular orbit around Skye.  Skip seemed to instinctively understand this, or at least realize that circles were less complex than eights.  I never had much trouble getting the senior citizen back to his standard circle. For that matter, he never seemed ashamed to slow down.
            Skye was a faithful and knowledgeable teacher. She had short dark hair, was very tomboyish, and lived in a small, rustic home with her husband, two boys, and a rowdy gang of dogs.  She was helpful and not overbearing, as though she could sense our ability to absorb knowledge instead of being spoon-fed.  She often spoke of taking us on trail rides, through her pastures and hilly forests.  But we never did get out of that corral.
Even though we stayed in the circular fences, Johanna and I soaked up everything Skye had to show us: how a horse’s ears gave away its mood, why real cowboys didn’t comb their horses’ tails, the best sorts of saddle blankets, how eating oats and chewing hay made cowboys healthy.  Our thighs ached after hours of riding in circles in the corral.  We stuffed our pockets with sweet, sticky horse food to eat at home (“no really, it made the cowboys healthy, mom”).  We blissfully dreamt of the day we’d own our own horses, and could ride away into the sunset whenever we wanted – galloping light-speed through meadows, and meandering through green forests of speckled sunlight.
            I don’t remember exactly how long we took the lessons, but it was generously beyond the year promised by our parents.  But it had to end. We were moving again, this time to someplace called San Angelo, Texas.  It seemed to us that there would be cowboys there, too -- although a rougher, dustier sort than the Colorado species -- so we looked forward to the move and assumed we’d take up lessons again.  For our final lesson, which was to be a special one, Skye let us ride bareback.  Sleek pictures of saddle-less riders filled my mind.  Johanna wasn’t too excited at first, but I reminded her, “it’s what you do on the beach, you know” and “don’t you remember The Black Stallion?”  She was still skeptical.  To get on the horse without using stirrups or saddle horn, I had to bring him to the fence, climb it, and grab wildly at Skip’s mane.  I eventually gained a seat on Skip’s back, and quickly (skillfully, I imagined) went through the drills.  First, a few laps of boring walking, a few jerky trotting, and finally, beautiful cantering – a smooth, loping gait, not quite galloping, but very fast.  
In the canter, once per stride, a horse has all its feet off the ground at the same time.  On the return voyage, they all hit the ground not-quite together, like the quick rattle of a snare drum.  So the sound of a cantering horse is back and forth between silence – as we were both suspended in the air for a moment – and then the quick, thundering contact of hoof on earth.  Then we would both be flying again.  I can still feel the rhythm of the canter.  The wind fell on my face in intermittent, slow-motion gusts, as I clutched Skip’s mane and held tighter than ever with my legs.  I could feel all of his muscles churning underneath me, with no saddle to separate us.  I forgot about the fences, the circles; I was on a beach, I was in a great meadow, I careened over mountain plateaus. Again there was that sense that I held immense power.  The experience was over far too quickly.
Johanna’s turn came, and she wanted to canter, too.  But she didn’t make it that far.  The trotting stage, always uncomfortably bumpy, was too much for her, and she ungracefully tumbled from Skip’s back to the sandy ground. She sobbed (of course) as Skye and I consoled her. As far as I know, that was Johanna’s final experience riding horses.
Neither of us took up riding lessons in Texas.  It’s not that we were without the desire, but I think our parents had to be more careful with their money.  Our new home, a modestly sized one-story built in the 1930s, was on the very edge of town.  Our new property included a two-acre field, which was very dusty, as everything in west Texas tended to be; it was covered in a blanket of tall, yellowed grass, and embroidered by the curling stems of wild gourd vines. A magnificent hem of bright and hardy wildflowers dotted the edges.  But we barely noticed the beauty of the field.  In the corner of the field was a tiny stable.  It was made of weathered wood and wavy sheets of tin, not very fancy, but certainly big enough for a horse to live pleasantly.  It only had two rooms, one closed off for food and supplies, and the other open, to shelter its guests.
Johanna and I practically lived in the little stable at first, imagining ourselves as the deliriously proud owners of a horse.  We saved our money and yearned like never before. As we swept and cleaned the tack room, we reveled in the ancient musty smell of hay, still stuck in the corners and perfuming the air.  A window and a few holes in the wooden walls let in tiny sunbeams, showing the dust we’d kicked up in our efforts. The ground in the shelter was made of dirt, not slatted wood.  But, while it was not as large as Skye’s stable, we knew that any horse of ours would live like royalty.  
All along, we pleaded and cajoled and tearfully begged our parents to let us have a horse, but we all knew we wouldn’t be living in San Angelo forever.  The military life was a scrapbook of places and times, each place temporary, with pages turning almost as fast as you can adorn them with memories.  A new, blank page would eventually be ours to fill, and who knew what the next would be like?  The stable stood ready, but we didn’t get a horse.  There were no forests near our house either, and no mountains or beaches.  We were confined by the plainness; a horse would have been joyless in our little field, lovely as it was.  
Slowly, as the months passed, the stable became caked in spider webs again, and the dust, undisturbed, sat on the ledges in the tack room.  The walls of the little stable, without our constant intervention, yielded to the laws of entropy, and it began to sag, like it was sighing at the end of its life. Johanna and I both had a difficult time putting away the model horses.  I was older, and of course, grew out of the ‘phase’ of horses before my sister did.  I became interested in clothes, makeup and boys before she put hers away, and it was a serious point of contention between us. We were in Texas for two brief years, and by the time we said goodbye to our life there, we’d both done a fair amount of growing up.  Most of the model horses were already in boxes, forever awaiting the attention of two younger sisters who would never know a passion for cowboy life.  The stable seemed to bow out gracefully.  Our family relocated again to northern Minnesota for a year, and then to someplace called Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our lives were new and different whenever we changed locations; more than that, we changed to fit the special and unique opportunities of each place.  
But for us, the draw and the thrill of horseback riding had never been only the gentle beast itself, tamed and controlled by the slightest of commands.  It was the feeling of adventure that horses symbolized in our souls.  Many famous horse stories take place in exotic, beautiful, dangerous places.  For Johanna and I, the love of adventure through horses became a love for travel, and a passion for seeing the world.  Military life, although it would officially end in San Angelo where my dad would retire, had left its mark on my whole family.  We still take chances to see new places, whenever we can. Johanna and I discovered that life itself offers more excitement than our fantasies of riding horses through meadows and forests.  They were, after all, just dreams. We never did get ride anywhere but that corral, in endless circles.  But it wasn’t meaningless.  Our obsession over horses was a placeholder for what we really wanted all along: romance, passion, excitement, wildness, love, the chance to be uninhibited.  When we realized we could have these things without having to live a Marguerite Henry novel, we turned to the adventures that real life can offer.


  1. What a lovely story! I really enjoyed reading it!

  2. Beautiful. You reminded me of myself. First it was horses that captured my imagination for a good six years (and like you, I never had my own), then foreign travel (probably for another six). Now it seems that I am settling down with family and chickens and cattle, but I wouldn't trade any of the experiences. At least I will have the land to get a horse for my future children if they ever want one.

  3. Oh my gosh, Nikki, this is so beautiful. I'm crying right now reading this, as I think back on these precious memories that I know will never fade for either of us. You've totally and completely captured that magnificent, magical, starry-eyed time in our life when we first discovered (although we didn't really know it at the time) what it was like to be in love. You'll never know how much I appreciate you as a big sister, and a friend. Those years reading horse books together, cutting horses out of magazines to tape to our walls, telling each other horse stories in hushed whispers late at night in the bed that we shared, playing with Breyer horses and coming up with unique, whimsical names for them...those years were some of the very best of my whole life. Someday we should go riding together, one last time, for old times sake. (I would hate for my last riding experience to be falling off the back of an arthritic, senile old quarter horse).

    1. (And while going in a circle at a TROT no less!!)