It just wouldn't be Christmas without going to the Death Valley Encounter. That's the way it feels for Judy and I, since we have trundled ourselves down there to the Dez every year since 1993 except one. What's so special about the ride, you ask? I'm glad you asked. There are a few reasons that come to mind: great riding in the desert, some of the most unbelievable scenery in the world, a well organized ride, and some really great people who head down there to share the experience. Ride manager Jackie Bumgardner puts a lot of work into the DVE to make sure it comes off without a hitch. There are always little hitches in every ride, but considering the work involved in putting on this monster, I consider it a really well run event. Those people who have never ridden down here don't realize what kind of effort it takes to just supply water for the horses. Believe me, there is not a whole lot of natural water out there in the desert; every ounce has to be trucked in and placed strategically on the 4-day trail. One empty water trough could ruin a ride for someone. (er, ahh, we won't mention empty water troughs, right, Warpaint?) I'm happy to report, once again, that the trail was well marked, the weather was impeccable, there was always water where it needed to be, and plenty of it.
Who were we riding? I was thrilled to be mounted once again on the one and only Zayante, the horse who, before this ride, had 9,655 AERC miles. How many horses do you know that have made it to ten thousand endurance miles? Not many, let me tell you. I started riding Zay two years ago at this ride, when my horse was injured. Since then, Zay has taken me through 1,100 miles of multi-day rides. Yeah, I'd say he's fun to ride. It's hard to describe him. He's got this business-like attitude towards endurance that keeps him happy and excited to go down the trail, mile after mile after mile. He's incredibly strong, he's energetic, he's smooth, and he's always looking happily ahead down the trail with ears forward. Someone described him very appropriately as the Energizer bunny. The fact that he's brilliant white in color with a really pretty face certainly helps. Okay, he has some minor flaws: he jigs on occasion, he spooks at stuff sometimes, and he has this classic sneer that he uses on just about every other horse on the ride. Big deal. I'll take ten more horses just like him, thank you.
Judy left Warpaint, the spotted wonder, at home again this year, due to a nagging sore foot. It's too bad, since Judy and Warpaint have the most miles together as a rider and horse at the DVE: 800 miles. He's getting up there in years, and we sure hope he can make it back next year for 200 more. Judy brought our new horse, Wabi, down for his second ever ride. He's the guy we bought to replace the early retired Shatta, but he's been a bit of a lazy bones in his conditioning rides. Judy was going to do a limited distance ride on him on the first day to see how he'd respond.
Our eight-hour drive down from the Bay Area with Wabi went well, as usual. As long as there is food in front of Wabi, the sky could be falling and he wouldn't care. After stopping for a horse break at Lost Hills on I-5, we arrived at Jackie's house on Tuesday evening and set up camp in the back. The weather was cold, but not as cold as it has been in the past. I calculate how cold it is based on things that freeze. Frozen horse water buckets, pretty cold. Frozen water buckets and frozen garden hose, really cold. Frozen water buckets, garden hose, and water in the trailer- BRRRR! All of the above have happened down here. Based on my incredibly accurate cold rating scale, it was pretty balmy. We spent a relaxed morning in Ridgecrest getting gas, groceries, and Judy's required Latte, then after loading up Zayante, we headed out to the start of the ride at Valley Wells, just north of the scenic and ever delightful Trona, California. Why go to Belize or Fiji for a vacation, when you could spend a week in Trona for much less money? (those who know the place will now shake their heads.) Judy and I went out for a ride to warm up the boys- Wabi was far from being a slow poke. In fact, he was moving right along in his relaxed sort of manner. Judy was so happy with how he felt after our 30-minute ride, she said she could leave now and still be happy. Hmmmm. We prepped everything for the ride, had a nice dinner, (Turkey Burritos, I think,) and went to the ride meeting, where Judy started helping Jackie with the rider registrations and changes. Know how to make a ride manager crazy? Have them manage a multi-day. I bet three-quarters of the riders in the event made at least one change of rider, horse, distance, laundry, who knows what else. Jackie just takes it in stride as she tippity taps everything into the computer.
Our friend Rebecca Jankovich had not shown up yet; we were a little worried, since this was the maiden voyage of her new trailer. Did I say trailer? I mean rolling palace! She pulls into camp in this giant, I mean big, Silverlight living quarters trailer, all of five days old. This baby is plush! They were still trying to figure out what went where, and what all those little switches did as the sun went down.
The first day started out with nice weather- cool, but not cold, with a nice cloud cover. Judy and I rode out of camp together a few minutes after the 7 am start. Zay was just bopping along in his normal manner, sneering at everyone in the ride. Wabi was on the gas! He was jigging a little, and wanted to go faster. This is good! Well, maybe not so great, but I'd rather have him be in a little bit of a hurry than standing still. The ride cruises over to the outskirts of Trona, past a few garbage dumps and some junkyards. Very scenic, and lots of stuff to spook at. The trail heads up into a nice, long sandwash that takes the riders up a long canyon at the base of the mountains. We were riding along with Ken Cook and his tough little Rocky horse, just enjoying the morning, when we spotted a wild horse, way up on the side of the mountains. We could barely see it, but it was cool, watching it work its way through the really nasty rocks, way, way up on the top of the ridge. Then in a few minutes we saw a rider, on foot, following the horse! Uh oh. Not so much a wild horse, it seems. I could not believe where that horse was going. He was going up, away from the trail, as high on the mountain as he could climb. We watched it climb away, with the rider following on foot, stunned that the horse would choose to go up there. It looked like a person could not walk through that stuff. At the bottom of the wash there were people waiting for the horse to come down, but it could not get down the back of that mountain. The rider eventually caught up to the horse, when it could go no further, and made it back to the trail. A few minutes later we hit the LD vet check, where Wabi was at 56. It was a pulse and go, so we trotted along through the perfect desert for the remainder of the loop into lunch, where Judy was done with the ride.
Wabi had done great! This was his second ride ever, and he had done exactly what Judy wanted- just have fun and not get him tired. Zay and I spent our hour eating, and after lunch we headed back out with Rebecca, her sister Emmaline, and Gary Webb on his backup horse George. Since Judy claims my SR saddle when she rides Wabi, I used another saddle for the first 25 miles. I switched back to my SR at lunch, and when I swung up into the seat, I felt right back at home. You forget how wonderful your saddle is until you don't ride in it for a while. Up and over the Slate mountain range, with a long walk off the horse down the back side. From the top, you look North up the valley and see where the finish is, in Ballarat, but it looks like it is still 25 miles away. After a walk down rocky road number one, we mounted up and trotted the next 90 minutes or so, all the way up the valley. The footing was perfect due to recent rains. No dust, just loam. What could be better? We finished in great shape, our horses looking perfect. Day one completed, Zayante mileage is now 9,705 miles.
Judy wasn't riding day two, so while she slept in, I got up and going on the big climb. This ride just goes up and down a single hill, then some trotting. The single hill is 8,000 some odd feet in elevation, however. You just go straight up the mountain, to the top of the world. Along the way you have to go through the rushing water on the rocky road. Where does this water come from? Where does it go? Who knows? Along the climb we passed many old mines and abandoned mine camps. Not really ghost towns, but still neat, nonetheless. It's a long, long, very rocky climb up this hill, mostly at a walk. Once you get almost to the top, there is a mile or so of really nice trotting through the pinon pines. We kept telling Rebecca about the view from the top, and about the super neat mountain meadow, but there would be no views today. We hit the clouds with a mile or so to go from the top. Zero visibility, no view, and of course the mandatory rain started falling. That wasn't so bad, until we got to the top, where the wind started. Okay, now it is cold. We got off and led the horses up the last half-mile or so, not only to help the horses over the rocks, but to help keep warm. Normally we would spend a while at the tippy-top where Sparrow has the water, (you have to see it to believe it that he gets his truck up there), but this time it was a quick chance for the horse to drink, then it was down, down and right now. Poor Sparrow was in his cab, with the engine running and heater going. That looked pretty tempting. We were able to see the meadow a little bit through the mist and rain, but it is much more of an incredible sight in the sunshine. No dawdling up here- we blasted across the freezing meadow and started back down the mountain. It's fun trotting slowly down from the summit for a while, but not when you hit the rocks. I just get off and walk. I led Zayante about seven miles down that mountain on foot, from just below the bathtub/water stop, all the way to lunch.
It was sort of spitting rain in the valley- I have been to Death Valley a bunch of times, and have never seen any rain down here. A quick lunch, a change into dry shoes, and after drinking many cokes, it's off on the last loop- a sixteen mile round trip to the Indian Ranch for water. Nice, easy trotting on a road the whole way. We got into the finish as the sun was getting low in the sky, and were treated to an unbelievable sunset. There were layers of sun and colors on the mountain range across the valley. Purples, reds and oranges, even some blue. It was all you could do to not just stop and stare at the beauty. Except I had to EAT! I was really hungry, and as I walked past the timers, the smell of the tamale pie /casserole stuff that was being server for dinner sent me into a feeding frenzy. Once officially stuffed, I felt much better. Another 50 miles, another ride award bowl, and now Zay has 9, 755 miles.
Day three is a weird day. It is not hard, yet not easy. It is not scenic, yet it has some beautiful trails. It has some great footing, and the worst footing on the entire ride. It is boring, yet really fun. Go figure. I've decided I like the day, especially in conditions like this. The weather was perfect- a little cold, with cloud cover stretching across the valley. This is one of the point-to-point days, where base camp moves to Panamint Springs. Judy was riding Jackie's mare, Holly, on the last two 50's, so we had to arrange for our rig to be moved. We left Wabi and Jackie's other horse Odyssey, (Jackie always has more horses around) tied to the trailer and headed down the trail. We had a little mix-up in the truck-moving schedule, and our rig ended up being left behind.
Good buddy Ken Cook came to our rescue when he was one of the last ones heading out of camp and saw the two horses still standing there. Since he wasn't riding the third day, Judy had asked him the night before to keep an eye on the horses. He decided to play it safe and take the horses with him rather than leave them there. He shuffled things around, loaded 'em up in his trailer, and headed over to Panamint Springs. He tied them up to his trailer, kept food and water in front of them, (no small feat with Wabi) and saw to their every need all day. Thanks, Ken. We now have a new nickname for Ken- he is officially known as "Ken Cook, friend of Wabi." Meanwhile, Judy and I were cruising along down the trail at a nice, slow pace. For some reason, we both got really hungry about an hour after the start. Not much to chew on out here. Suddenly Judy yelps excitedly- she is riding Jackie's horse with Jackie's saddle, and has been digging through the tack. She comes up with a can of fruit juice! We pound it down, wishing there were more cans. Then a few miles later, I look down on the trail and see something red. Is it a mirage? Am I getting dizzy? Will I pass out? No, it's a bag of red licorice sticks! I leap off the horse and scoop up the prize. No, I don't care who dropped it, it's mine! I'll return the ziplock bag if they want. We feast on the chewy, red delight. Yummy! That took the edge off. Thanks so much, whoever dropped it. This took us to the water stop at the highway crossing, where we stopped for water, and crossed the highway.
From this point it is a couple of miles to the really nasty rock road, so we crossed the road and walked. And walked. And walked. And walked some more, all the way from the highway to the end of the nasty rocky road. It was probably only about seven or eight miles, but it seems like fifteen. I have solved Jackie's day three dilemma. Every year people complain about the rocky road. So she moved the trail to the rocky sandwash from hell. People complained about that. So back to the rocky road. More complaints. Here's what can happen next year- you can take your pick! Don't like the rocky road? Take the wash. Don't like that? Take the road. Simple. Besides, the road is better, especially if you are on foot. After a couple of hours on foot, we hopped back on and headed to the highway. I rode along with Steve, my new friend from New Hampshire, who was riding Jackie's horse Rowdy, who was for sale. Steve did all four LD days on Rowdy, and Rebecca's significant other, Warren, bought him! (Not Steve, the horse!) Congratulations, Warren, you have a nice horse there. Warren's first, too. We missed Alex at the highway crossing, since he always has candy there for the riders. The water was there, but no sweets for us. The long, uphill haul to the lunch vet check seemed easier this year, since the weather was so cool. There's some deep sand, so we took it real easy. It was getting chilly as we got to lunch, where we ate everything we packed, and still wanted more. Holly looked great, but Zay looked a little strange at the vet check. Not bad, just strange. He tends to stiffen up a bit after standing around, but he looked okay for the vet.
We started the last leg of the long day as the temperature dropped. I borrowed a jacket from Steve, since in my haste at the start I forgot to pick mine up. Down a 4-mile wash that is half walk, half trot, then across the highway again to the big trot. Ride to the bottom of the valley, turn left, then trot 10 miles to the finish. We got to the camp just before the sun went down. Zayante looked okay at the finish, again, strange, but okay. Charlie the vet said let's take a look at him in the morning. Another long day in the desert done, 50 more miles, now Zayante has 9,805 miles. I went and retrieved Wabi from Ken, who was going to have to bill me for all the hay Wabi ate. It was nice to have him back, now he could continue to eat us out of house and home. Thanks again, Ken.
Day four, the last day. I was up early to warm Zayante up- no worries. He looked just fine. Same as always. Great! For some reason, Judy and I got started late, and didn't leave camp until about 7:30. It was neat to be all-alone out there, until we caught Trilby, as well as some other riders after a while. The long climb up to the top of the pass was way colder than I thought it would be. Down the other side, and we get dumped in to the worlds coolest wash. This baby is as wide as a ten-lane freeway and just as flat. Great stuff, and great trotting. We stopped at the super hidden water spring, then saw the dead burro a moment later. Yuck! This guy was recently expired, since the buzzards and critters had only eaten his middle section. Kind of sad, but kind of fascinating at the same time. That's nature in action, though.
More fast trotting brings us to the end of the wash all too soon, then we head up along an old paved road to the bottom of the Darwin climb. A short walk up a pass, then down the other side takes us into the town of Darwin. What a strange place. People live here, but you never see them. Ever. You feel like they are watching you from their houses, but you never see anyone. It's the twilight zone! Rebecca joined Judy and I, since her sister and Steve were doing the LD rides that circle back to camp from Darwin.
A quick water stop and we head for the best part of the ride- the absolutely beautiful romp up the valley, up through the Joshua trees, through two passes, all very trot-able and the best scenery on the ride. At the top you see the mountains in the distance that line the highway 395 valley- they are huge, and covered with snow. The White Mountains, or the Sierra? I don't know, but they are awesome.
Another hour of trotting takes us to lunch, where we are near the back of the pack. It is usually really cold and windy at this check, but this year it was much nicer than in the past. You just sit up there and look at those mountains. All too soon its time to leave. We vet the horses, (Zay looks just fine,) and continue back on the same trail. That's okay with me, since we get to go back through those passes again.
We trotted all the way from the top of the last pass down into Darwin. A drink of water, and back through the bizarre little town. What's this! It's a resident, and he waves and smiles! That was a first. Maybe he was really a tourist. We climb back up the pass, down the other side, and slowly make our way to the dead burro wash. There he was again. (where would he go?) The end of the wash- now its just a long walk up, and a longer walk down the other side. We reach the bottom of the grade just as the sun is setting. Its only about 3 miles now, trotting on a nice road in the dark. We get to the highway, where I go behind, since Zayante is blazing white in color. I got to play reflector, since we had to go the last mile or so on the shoulder of the highway. We walk into the finish just before six pm, for our final completion.
Zay vets fine- he looks like he did on day one. We headed for the campers, where we had planned a fancy group dinner, rather than the banquet. Their menu- beef. Our menu- my home made Cioppino, (2 Crabs, four kinds of fish, 2 kinds of scallops, mussels, prawns), Warren's pork tenderloin roast, with apples and potatoes in a wonderful sauce, an appetizer plate that would have been at home at a 5 star restaurant, three kinds of wine, fresh French bread, salads, Brie, smoked salmon- you get the idea. For desert we had Steve's famous banana/ice cream special recipe flambé with rum. Eating like this is part of hanging around with Rebecca and Warren. This is good stuff. The awards meeting came next, where we got more bowls, and got to hear Jackie tell us that this year had the most horses do all four days, and the rides had the lowest pull rates ever. Way to go, everyone. I just made sure Jackie orders the DVE 4-day horse and rider sweatshirts in any color but Green- I already have one of those with my and Zayante's name on it. A third next year? I sure hope so.
We hung around Ridgecrest for an extra day after the ride, so we could relax, and Judy could take Wabi for a ride. I ran back (?) to Paniment Springs in Jackie's truck to pick up the big red trailer, since the truck that towed it out there blew its transmission. Hah! Last year that was me, not this year. On New years day evening, a group of folks that were still around all went to dinner at a strange little restaurant called The Homestead, I think. Jackie, Alex, Dave the Duck, his wife Anne, daughter Calina, Judith Ogus, Becky Glazer, Robert and Melissa Ribley, Judy and I all had a really fun feast on everything from Swordfish to petite filet mignon. We must have spent two hours just yacking. It was a great way to top of a great week.
Four more perfect days of riding, Wabi did great, no problems, and Zayante now has 9,855 miles. I'm really excited about that horse getting to ten thousand miles, which won't be long now. He's a special animal, and I'm proud to be part of his endurance career. Thanks, Jackie, for putting me in touch with this remarkable horse.
Zayante's biggest fan,