Tuesday, January 28, 2003

2002 Death Valley Encounter Days 3 and 4 - Merri Melde

by Merri Melde, deputizing for Nick Warhol


One hundred miles down, one hundred to go! Will we make it? I can't think ahead to that last day, that last mile; only mile 101, then 102, one by one, step by careful step.
I have cracks in my fingers, a sun- and wind-burned face, and this morning I discover an 8" bruise wrapped around my thigh - was this from Zayante's fall? But I am rested, re-fueled, and eager to hit the trail again (though I admit it is awfully hard to get out of bed).
We get up at 5 AM, walk the horses, feed them, take off their bandages, put Easy Boots on, eat human breakfast (prepared by Mike), and it's time to saddle and warm up - somehow those 2 hours in the morning are gone and it's time to go.
Day three is a relatively flat ride along the Panamint Valley from Indian Ranch to Panamint Springs, skirting the foothills of the Panamints to the east and the Argus Range to the west.
We were ready to trot out for the vet at 7 AM, but had to go back for the electrolytes we forgot to give the boys. We started out almost 10 minutes late, but by day 3, many people were still just strolling out for a nice ride with a bunch of friends on a beautiful, cold, desert morning. Even our horses, while eager, were content just to stroll along for a while, no hurries, no worries.
But when Zayante was ready to go, it was time to move along. We had a gradual uphill climb up a trail to a wash, and kept passing our groups of friends and stablemates - the same middle-to-back-of-the-pack group we'd been keeping pace with the last 2 days.
We worked our way up along the base of the Panamint foothills, trotting along on the good footing, slowing down for the rocks. We stopped several times to adjust/replace Easy Boots. I picked one up someone had lost on the trail, which Gretchen ended up using after Becky Hackworth borrowed her spare.
At one point my Raven fell out of my saddle bag - my Raven puppet that has completed every ride with me since I started endurance riding. Fortunately Gretchen was behind us and saw it, or I would have had to ride this whole trail backwards till I found it! Next time I'm tying it to my saddle bag so it doesn't fly out.
The LD Vet Check was a water stop for us at around 9 AM (this was I think the first time I'd looked at my watch while riding in 3 days); here Ann K joined us for the day on her Rough and Ready Red Horse. Zayante grew happier as we continued on, pulling harder on me than he was the last 2 days. He knew just where we were headed today, also. On this stretch we passed Julie Suhr several times, and I swear Zay strutted for her. Julie and her husband Bob owned Zayante for the first 5 years and 5000 miles of Zay's career, and Julie considers him the best endurance horse she has ever ridden. I just can't imagine why she says that.
The further we went, the stronger Zay pulled, (was this really Day 3 for him? And I used the sidepull again??) and I finally got off him and walked (fast) down the rocky trail to the highway. He of course picked the less-rocky single path and gave me the rocks to stumble over. Smart horse! A nice water break was had there; then we headed up another sandy wash west to the Argus range. I was having a difficult time convincing Zay to take it easy going through that deep sand. We'd passed Judy on Warpaint, her big strapping Appaloosa working on his 1000th Death Valley mile with Judy aboard, several times this morning, and here she tried to ride and talk with us, but Warpaint, being a not very social horse, took off quickly, leaving us and Judy's words in the dust. That horse has the urge to pass any horse ahead of him, and a huge trot with which to pull it off.
Sparrow was waiting at the end of this wash with more water; then we headed back down another wash - Zay pulling hard on me, since he knew lunch was up ahead - to the Vet Check. Mike once again had the food ready us and for our horses (were we getting spoiled or what); we worked on wrenching sand-filled Easy Boots off while they ate, as the rockiest parts of the ride were now behind us.
We had a leisurely stroll out after lunch, back east across the highway for a mile, but once we turned north for the final 14 miles to the new base camp at Panamint Springs, Zayante came alive, or I suppose I should say extremely enthusiastic. Here, along this sandy road that looked like it must reach to Canada, once again, I truly appreciated this amazing creature beneath me. If there's a horse heaven on earth, this was it, and Zayante was in it. He flew along this stretch at a smart trot, feet like metronomic pistons eating away the miles; 3 miles, 6 miles, 12 miles, white mane rippling over his white muscular neck. I no longer had to hold him back, just helped him pick out the best rock-less path so he didn't have to miss a beat. He motored along, happy as a clam with his big trot, ears forward, always pricked sharply forward, grinning from horse ear to ear, never breaking a sweat. Sometimes Ann and Gretchen and I talked; sometimes we existed alone on our horses while still in our close group led by the happiest horse on earth, doing the job he loved more than any horse ever loved his job anywhere, ever. It was hypnotic, addictive, elative, intoxicating.
Having done this very trail countless times, Zayante knew Panamint Springs would be emerging into view up on the left, and sure enough, as soon as we saw it, he saw it, and his head would swivel between the path before him and Panamint Springs, checking the shrinking mileage, while his stride never altered.
Finally we reached the end of this endless dirt road where it met the highway; the horses had a well-deserved drink while we humans about collapsed from the uninterrupted hour of trotting. The horses were ready to race on the last 3 miles to the end, but having to ride on the shoulder of a quite busy highway with cars that didn't see the need to slow down, we took our time getting in, and let the horses relax (which didn't quite work for Zayante).
We passed our final vet check at 4 PM with flying colors: 150 miles down, 50 more to go! 15 of 15 finished the LD; 70 finished the 50 with only 1 pull.
It was a great treat to finish, and get the horses taken care of before dark. Mike had everything set up for the horses, had coffee ready for Gretchen and a Dr Pepper waiting for me. I had one of the best showers ever, then had dinner at the Panamint Springs restaurant served by too few harried waiters waiting on many starving endurance riders. I slipped in with the water guys Sparrow and Alex, then squeezed in with a group of riders - strangers when I sat down and friends when I got up.


The moon is still hanging over the horizon, the stars are still brilliant in the crisp chilly wind. There are snow rumors up high, and it makes us shudder to think of having to go through slick snow again.
Today, the last day of my first multi-day ride, I am not so sure Zayante can go. I feel fine, not a sore spot on my body except for my left little toe, of all things, but Zay is quite stiff when we walk him and Raffiq around in the morning. He is so stiff I mentally plan on what I'll mope around doing all day. But I go through the motions of getting us both ready, in order to escort Raffiq to the start, and I vow to be grateful we've come this far. I get on Zayante 20 minutes to 7 AM and Gretchen gets on Raffiq, and we warm them up good. Suddenly Zay seems to feel as good as I do, wants to complete this ride as badly as I do, and my hopes start rising. Gretchen and I forget the electrolytes again, and have to go back to get them. Somebody, we decided, is going to be in charge of these next time.
Charlie the vet is watching the horses trot by for the start, and I wave at him, and ride Zayante at a trot over cement, the hardest ground I can find. Zayante is smooth as glass, and we are okayed to go again.
14 25 milers and 73 50 milers start out today (14 and 70 will finish). Quenby joined us at the start and we hooked up for the whole day together. She rode her gray mustang mare Granite Annie, who packed along part of the Pacific Crest Trail with Quenby. Annie and Zay did not take a right shine to each other. There was a lot of flattening of ears at the start.
We sauntered up the highway a half mile before we turned south up the Darwin Canyon road. It was a long haul to the top. Zayante was yet again very perky and hard to convince we should take our time and be careful going up this hard-packed, sometimes rocky, winding 4-wheel drive road. His excess energy found its outlet in more jigging today. On top we were rewarded with a spectacular view in the morning sunlight of the Sand Dunes and Cottonwood Mountains behind us back down the canyon.
We hopped off to walk downhill into a wonderful, wide, flat sandy wash with high canyon walls on both sides. This had to be another of Zay's favorite places in the ride, as he bounced along in front at a smart trot, passing some more old mines, and many large piles of wild horse or burro poop. A hard chilly wind hit us in the wash, and blew on us till we got out of the wash.
Up another slow grade of a hard road, looking behind us on rippled bands of the Argus Range, then we descended to the funky semi-ghost town of Darwin, with its wonderful sculptures and artwork and mysterious little shrines. The town was named after Darwin French, who explored here in 1860. Lead and silver was discovered in 1875, and later gold and copper and zinc was mined. Alex was waiting here at the LD Vet Check with water and hay.
From here we headed west 7 miles, up one long sandy hill, the perfect kind of hill Zayante likes to attack, the kind he trains in. All day we were still overlapping the same people - Sue and Becky, Judy on Warpaint, Rebecca and Emmaline. Our stablemate Adonis motored on up this hill at a steady trot, and up, and up, never stopping. Go Adonis! I still had to keep an anchor hold on Zay to keep him from galloping all the way up; and we trotted strongly and steadily behind Adonis, and Raffiq and Annie kept right up behind.
I was beginning to really enjoy this - until the wind hit us near the top of our climb at 5500'. Now, I will take anything - snow, rain, sleet, dust - but I hate the wind. HATE IT. And this was no mere wind, this was like a hurricane, howling through a wind tunnel. As it smacked me around on Zay, I became very crabby. You couldn't talk; you couldn't hear anything but the gale force in your ears; you felt so disconnected from your horse. I wasn't enjoying any scenery; I wasn't enjoying anything. My howls of rage at the wind were blown back down my throat. I gritted my teeth, scowled and howled some more, bowed my head and pulled hard on Zay to keep him from running flat out through it - he didn't enjoy it either. He gritted his teeth, bowed his head, cocked it sideways against my anchor hold, just wanting to get through this and get it over with. We were both SURLY.
By now we'd done around 19 miles, with only about 6 more till lunch; but it was cold and windy and I wasn't even hungry, and it felt like 45 miles, and I couldn't believe we had 6 more to go before I could get off, and we're up on this beautiful Centennial Flats, and I was tired of this. Whose idea was it to ride 200 miles in 4 days?? Wah, wah!
Most welcome stop of the 4 days was at the bottom of that wind tunnel where Sparrow waited with water, and where we'd turn north, with the wind at our sides. I hopped off Zayante, still extremely irritable, while Judy on Warpaint said as she rode off, with a completely calm and different perspective, "Well, that was a bit breezy." Breezy, indeed.
Now, all of a sudden, with a side wind buffeting us off the side of our horses instead of blasting us in the face, it wasn't so bad after all - though the jeep road we were on seemed to be a twin of yesterday's road that went all the way to Canada, with no lunch Vet Check in sight. But after a few miles we saw it in the wee distance; we began meeting a bunch of front runners with happy faces; we waved and said hi; we snacked on my great homemade trail mix. The scenery on the Flats at nearly 5000' was yet again spectacular: The Argus range was back to our east, and on our west and running north: the snow-capped Sierras. We thought we could pick out Mt Whitney in the distance. This was not a darn bad place to be on New Year's Eve, cruising along a high desert through a Joshua tree forest on this wonderful, powerful horse, going along as strongly as he had 175 miles earlier.
We loped on happily and energetically into lunch, where it was not as cold and windy as we'd feared. Mike once again showed up to help us with food and blanketing the horses. It was only a 30 minute hold, and I had to pull Zayante's face out of the food. He's used to eating for 50 minutes and resting for 10 before we go back out.
We 3 all passed the Vet Check, and left for our final 25 miles in high spirits, headed back the same way we came, meeting the last 3 riders, including purple-clad Trilby on Beau coming in for lunch. Zay continued to walk, and walk - and walk. I stopped him for a few Kodak moments, and for the first time in 4 days Zayante didn't object to this waste of time. While I snapped, he'd grab anything he could find to eat - though up here there was nothing but prickly, tasteless-looking scrub. He didn't want to pick up a trot, not even when Raffiq and Annie passed him. He pinned his ears at them, but continued to walk - which worried me greatly. This was not Zayante. What was wrong with him?? Was he just starving? Just dead tired? Hit the wall? Had no more fuel to go on? Once again, we forgot to electrolyte (somebody is going to be designated in charge of this next time!), and although they get electrolytes with their grain - was that the problem? We were about 3 miles out of the Vet Check, and I almost turned him around to go back and pull him.
Quenby was carrying electrolytes with her, and she offered some. By the time I got it administered to Zay, half a dozen horses had trotted past us. I don't know if it was that or the electrolytes, but Zay immediately perked up, and he barely let me get my feet in the stirrups before he took off, his usual vivacious self, motoring along, spooking at the dead Joshua trees and horse-eating boulders (the size of a basketball), sneering at Annie. There had been some serious ear-pinning and snarling contests between these two going on all day, neither giving in - I think we found the King and Queen of Sneers.
The wind had calmed, just a breeze on our other side. When we stopped at Sparrow's water to head back east, Gretchen took some of Quenby's electrolytes for Raffiq. When done, she licked the syringe - and take note: if you've never tried this, don't do it.
Turning back east for the short climb then long winding downhill through that formerly windy wash, it was so pleasant and scenic, with the mountains in front of us and Joshua trees and cholla dotting the bouldered hills on both sides of us, sunlight and whispy clouds, a lovely ride - although Gretchen's stomach was beginning to bother her.
Zayante set a fast pace down the hill, keeping his eye on War Paint's great white spotted butt ahead of us. I let that big trot roll all the way back to Darwin because it made him happy and the footing was great. Quenby's heart monitor on Annie read 98 all the way down.
Not only was there horse water and hay at Darwin, but Alex had chocolate treats for us. One of the locals was out visiting with everybody. The chocolate didn't hit the spot with Gretchen's churning stomach. She hadn't had anything unusual for lunch - wait, could it have been the electrolytes? It was slow returning home; we wondered if we'd make it back by dark today, but we didn't care. We just wanted to finish this 4th and final day. We walked on foot most of the way down to the sandy wash, where Zayante practically threw me up onto his back.
Again, this obviously being one of his favorite places on the DVE, I turned Zayante loose to do whatever he wanted. Those white ears pricked forward and he leaped into his Big Trot, breaking into a canter, and a gallop at times, eating up the ground, spooking mildly once or twice, but having way too much fun to interrupt his great romp. I only glanced over my shoulder to make sure Raffiq and Annie were still behind me; I didn't hear any yelling, so we joyfully blew out through the entire few miles of wash.
Zay wanted to keep on trotting up the last monster hill, but it was time to slow down and take it easy the rest of the way. We even turned that last climb into a training session for Raffiq - Zayante and I ponied him while Gretchen tailed him. Raffiq didn't care, after 195 miles, what we did with him, though I doubt he would've cared anyway since not much bothers that steady little horse.
At the top, admiring the beautiful view for the last time this year, we all hopped off and 'walked' all the way down - fast. With Zayante's Big Walk I have to half jog and stumble and hang onto him for support; despite Gretchen's growing stomach ache, she and Raffiq did a lot of jogging down that Zay's power walk kept us up with.
Down, down, step by step beside this amazing horse I'd ridden and walked beside for 195 miles, sometimes stepping in rhythm with, sometimes moving on auto pilot with, legs stepping one after the other, on and on, with 2 goals in mind: getting to the finish line and starting the next day. Just me and this horse, taking me up mountains and canyons and valleys I'd never see, with a power and speed I could never attain, this amazing 18 - 23yo steed, now approaching his 10,685th career mile.
We 3 finished together, just before dark, and passed the vet check. I got my wish, completing my first multi-day ride on the best endurance horse I have ever ridden. if I had only 1 wish, it's that everybody, just once in their life, gets to ride a horse like this.

Footnote: Mae Chase-Dunn on Benjamin was the overall winner with the fastest 4-day combined time of 22 hrs 44 minutes. Elfta Hilzman's Luna won overall BC for the ride. 30 horse and rider teams finished the 4-days of riding together, a record for the DVE and a fine tribute to those who had the luck, patience, skill, and of course more luck, to do it. Before the ride, Nick Warhol promised to donate a blanket to the horse and rider partners who complete the 1K mark at the DVE ride. The first winner of this award: his wife Judy Long, riding Warpaint, whose big spotted butt we followed most of the 200 miles.

Merri Melde
Vagabond (but Ridgecrest, CA in the winters)

No comments: