The old burro trail narrowed to 16 inches with an 800-foot drop into nowhere. We hit a switchback where the trail turned into the mountain. There was only one way to make the 120-degree turn. H.T shouted down to me, "Lead that horse's head over the edge, and pull him back into the mountain or you won't make it!"
Thank God for Duke, my Rocky Mountain Horse gelding.
I'm a trail-riding novice. Before this trip, I'd been up on a horse just a couple dozen times. However, the idea of loading up our horses in our new living-quarters trailer, and going cross-country for a 4,000-mile trip Out West stirred a deep feeling of adventure and excitement.
Besides that, my wife Nancy's real love (next to me and the dogs, I'm still not sure which comes first) is her Rockies. It was my chance to reward her for putting up with my extended golf trips, plus an opportunity to spend time with close friends. We also wanted to trail ride somewhere besides the flatlands of West Texas.
Additionally, the trip could satisfy a few wants and needs of some Kentucky friends and business associates. The folks at Van Bert Farms needed to deliver and pick up horses on the West Coast. One of them also wanted to fulfill a lifelong dream: see the Grand Canyon and those monstrous sequoia trees, retrace pioneer footprints, and ride a horse over the mountains to a point high enough to see the ocean.
Although I'd been riding only for a few months, I was confident I could have fun and not be too much burden to the seasoned trail riders. But most importantly, I had a 6-year-old gelding who'd proven that if I'd give him his head, he'd always get me home.
As trip planner, I knew Larry and Vera Patterson would leave Kentucky and head west on a northern route. H.T. and Wilda Derickson would hook up with Nancy and me in Dallas. The plan was to all join up somewhere in Oklahoma or New Mexico. Once together, we'd travel westward to California, then take a southerly route home. On the way, we'd stop over at some of the more interesting stabling places we found in two North American horse-traveling guides.
The trip would cover almost four thousand miles and take two weeks. This was the trail ride of a lifetime, a horse-person's ultimate dream come true.
Dream to Nightmare
While we and the Dericksons traveled through northwest Texas, the Pattersons called us on our cell phone with some bad news: They'd blown a tire while still in Kentucky-and were almost hit by a semi-trailer while changing the tire in a rainstorm. They'd also hit a deer in Missouri, destroying their trailer holding tank. The delays meant we'd hook up near Albuquerque.
Things got worse. The Pattersons called again. They'd blown another tire on Interstate 40, leaving them without a spare. Luckily, we were 30 minutes away. When we joined up, we used one of our spares, secured new tires, and were on our way.
That night, we stabled our horses at our first planned stop. The place will go unnamed. The facility was nothing like the stable guide described. Accommodations were sparse, no hay was available, electrical hookups didn't work, and worst of all, there was no place to trail ride. However, the people were nice, especially since they stayed up late to greet weary travelers.
Full of optimism and feeling our bad luck was behind us, we hit the road again the next day. Destination: Flagstaff, Arizona. We'd selected one of the more attractive stabling facilities near the Grand Canyon, the Flying Heart Barn (520/526-2788). Nestled in the mountains, the place was clean and inviting.
We stabled our horses and headed off to the Grand Canyon for sightseeing. At the rim, prankster Larry Patterson slipped away from the group. He went over a cliff, stuck his head up enough were we could see him, pretended he'd fallen, and was hanging on to the rocks. After realizing the joke, Nancy ran to get her camera. She fell on a rotruding tree limb and nearly tumbled into the canyon, bruising her hand, wrist, and arm-but we were soon laughing about the whole thing.
That night, a 50-mile-per-hour wind came storming through, rocking our trailers and keeping everyone awake. The wind was still howling at daybreak, so we decided to just load the horses and move on, rather than go for a ride.
Loading up in a 50-mile-per-hour wind was a chore. It was all we could do to stand up, let alone trailer horses. Nancy immediately had her second accident. A gust of wind caused a trailer window door to blow open. It crashed down on her head, knocking her to the ground and blooding her head. Being a trouper, she got up, staggered to the truck, took an aspirin, cleaned the blood off, and-without a whimper-said she was okay. Well, without a loud whimper, anyway.
We escaped the high winds as we headed west on the interstate. Within a few hours, we were crossing the Mojave Desert, basking in the warmth and enjoying the sights. Bakersfield was our next planned stop. We were looking forward to the California weather-we didn't know there was a little more bad luck ahead.
We hit more violent winds while crossing the mountains southeast of Bakersfield, winding our way through the 3,789-foot elevation of the Tehachapi Pass. The worst storm in a decade, the radio blared. Roads were flooded, a million people had no electricity, and a couple of folks even lost their lives. Travel was ill-advised. The dream was looking like a perpetual nightmare.
Despite the weather, we made it to our next stop, Triple C Ranch (661/845-6937). Located just off Highway 58 outside Bakersfield, the stable was great with lots of stalls, nice stables, hay, and an owner who was a terrific host. Cathy Splonick was waiting for us when we arrived. She apologized for the weather, but quickly thanked us. "We desperately need the rain," she said. "It was nice of you to bring it with you."
After a good night's sleep, but with no trail riding possible for the day, the Pattersons decided to leave us. They needed to take one horse to Oregon and pick up another in northern California. They'd rejoin us in a day or two, hopefully when the weather was better.
Leaving wasn't easy. The rainfall caused Triple C's grounds to be one big mud lot. It took some incredible driving to maneuver a nine-horse rig out of deep mud. We plowed up the barn lot, but left most fencing standing.
The only casualty turned out to be my wedding ring, which I lost in the slosh and rain. Nancy somehow lost our camera, too. This dream trip was still closer to being a nightmare.
Here Comes the Sun
While waiting for the Pattersons to return, the rest of us decided to go see the giant Sequoia trees-a great move. Only God could come up with creations like these trees, which weigh more than 200 tons and measure
40 feet around.
The next day, the weather finally broke. We called the Pattersons and said we and the horses were headed for Santa Barbara where the sun was shining and there were hundreds of miles of great trails. They should join us as soon as possible.
We decided to meet at Rancho Oso Guest Ranch & Riding Stables (805/683-5686; www.rancho-oso.com), located 20 miles outside Santa Barbara in a picturesque valley bordering Los Padres National Forest. There were ample outdoor/indoor corrals, box stalls, an arena, round pens, trailer parking, campsites, and even cozy cabins. There were also Conestoga wagons with electricity, campfire facilities, and clean and convenient restrooms and showers. This is where the dream was to really begin.
Nancy and I set up in our living-quarters trailer under a magnificent group of oak trees, while H.T. and Wilda opted for a cabin. The horses were put in outdoor corrals about a hundred yards from us. This accomplished, the four of us drove in to town for fresh seafood.
We returned about 10 p.m. to a phone call from the Pattersons. They'd arrive at Rancho Oso sometime during the night.
The next couple of days were heavenly, with perfect trail-riding weather. The scenery was spectacular and the mountain streams were crystal clear. The trails were well-marked and wide, but we could also ride on challenging hills and sloping creek beds. Every evening, camp grills were fired up, and steaks, potatoes, and grilled vegetables were prepared. Country music from the trailers filled the crisp, but comfortable evening air. And each rider told stories from that day's ride.
'Lucky to be Alive'
Then it happened. The trail ride of a lifetime, if you survived it…On our third morning at Rancho Oso, the women followed their natural instincts-forgo riding for shopping in town. When they left, the men decided to saddle up and explore new trails.
We checked with the ranch foreman before we headed out to make sure our ride would allow us to be back when the gals returned from town. While talking to the sage veteran foreman, H.T. asked whether the three of us could cross the mountain and actually see the ocean.
"Yep," came the answer, "but you better have strong and experienced horses, and you should be pretty good riders to try it." The foreman was looking at me when he tossed out the part of about good riders. I didn't know you could tell a greenhorn just by looking.
The excitement of actually riding across the mountains and seeing the ocean was too much for H.T., Larry, and me. We needed to conquer the mountain. Little did we know sometimes fulfilling a dream requires the maximum effort of man and horse.
After an hour on the mountain, the jovial banter of three male riders, loose and carefree, full of themselves and their upcoming quest, turned to quick sentences and serious comments.
Spacious, well marked trails turned from wide-open and forgiving throughways to rocky, cow-like paths with no place to turn around and absolutely no place for a mistake. Trails narrowed, some places to less than 16 inches wide.
One side of the trail was the mountain, so steep neither the horse nor the rider could turn into it. The other side of the perilous trail was nothing but air, a drop-off of several hundred feet. One slip, and you and your horse were history.
At one point, the trail-which we now believe was an abandoned burro trail-made a sharp 120-degree turn into the mountain. This is where H.T. shouted down to me, "Lead that horse's head over the edge, and pull him back sharp into the mountain or you won't make it!" Duke didn't hesitate for a second; he made a perfect turn.
H.T. and Larry, who are excellent horsemen with years of trail-riding experience, were always in the lead. They kept their heads down, their minds on the horses, trail, and their riding. They spoke very little except to yell back at me to pay attention and let my horse have his head.
It took about 2½ hours to reach the top of the mountain. Gigantic utility towers became small, almost insignificant sights well below us. Our base camp had become a memory-so far down the mountain we couldn't see any trace of the big, spreading valley where we started our ride.
Tears almost came to our eyes when we finally reached the mountaintop. Our horses mirrored our emotions, somehow garnering enough strength and spirit to move swiftly over the last remaining few yards to an open patch of grass and small grove of trees. We dismounted and stared west, almost mesmerized. There was the Pacific Ocean. Another part of the dream had become a reality.
After a few minutes, H.T. spoke first. He said the ride was more than he bargained for. He asked if we agreed. Larry said yes, and he didn't want to do it again. I said it was like nothing I'd ever done before, and I wasn't sure a new rider like me should tackle a trail like that.
Both H.T. and Larry burst out laughing. They said it was the most difficult and dangerous trail they had ever ridden. "If there was anyway for us to turn around, we would have done it," they admitted.
"We're lucky to be alive."We took a wide-open combination trail/road back to camp.
Two hours later, we started thinking about the trouble we were in with the gals. We'd left camp with no note, we'd gone on this dangerous ride, and we had been gone for hours. We were sure they'd returned from town and were worried sick.
As any normal, mature male would do, we assessed the situation and started to think up lies to cover our rears. Our thoughts ranged from a horse going lame, one of us got ill, a wild animal chased us, we got lost, or we'd simply gone to see the waterfall.
As we nervously rode into camp, the women were waiting for us. Then California karma flowed. Instead of being angry with us, the women started apologizing for staying in town so long and leaving us guys by ourselves.
Thank you, Lord. The dream was really sweet.
As perfect as Rancho Oso turned out, the rest of the trip just added great memories to our travels. We first drove to Sonoita, Arizona, to stay with Charlie and Elen Kentnor, owners of Rainbow's End Bed and Breakfast (520/455-0202; www.gaitedmountainhorses.com). The Kentnors not only have excellent facilities with lots of stalls, automatic waterers, feed/hay, and parking, but they also own Rocky Mountain Horses and are wonderful hosts.
We rode in a neighboring National Park and the adjoining neighbor's ranches. The trails rekindled thoughts of the Old West, days of cowboys and Indians, pioneers, and we took in sights of beautiful mountains with flowering deserts.
When we left the Kentnors, we pointed the rigs toward Lone Star Stables, our home. The Pattersons and Dericksons stayed around a day to ride around the ranch and surrounding area. We talked about the great trip we had just made, the special memories, and the fact there is nothing like the bond among friends and horses. And, we all agreed, there is nothing like the type of horses we own, those incredible Rockies. Especially my horse, Duke.