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)

Monday, January 27, 2003

Death Valley Encounter 2002 Days 1 and 2 - Merri Melde

by Merri Melde, deputizing for Nick Warhol

Is there a better place to be on the planet December 28-31 than at the 4-day Death Valley Encounter in the southern California desert? Storms and snow all around us; flooding in the Bay Area and LA; but could anyone ask for more perfect weather in the Panamint Valley and Mountains surrounding this 200-mile ride? Cold crisp mornings, sunny, almost warm afternoons; following historic trails and sites of the 1850's immigrants and miners; a fine group of nearly 100 riders a day, fine friends, and an exceptional group of volunteers crewing and helping with the ride. . . read on and I believe this is one multi-day you may not want to miss next year.

I usually spend my winters in Ridgecrest, CA riding for Jackie Bumgardner, who for the 17th year has put on the DVE. I really desperately wanted to participate in this ride - my first multi-day ride - because December 28th is the 3rd anniversary of a horse-kick-in-the-face that almost killed me. This was the first time since multiple surgeries and healing I was able to make it here for this ride. The only downside was that Nick Warhol would not, alas, be able to make it for this ride, which meant that I would be stuck riding Jackie's famous 18 or 23-year-old 10,000-mile plus white warhorse Zayante, and many of us know how much Zayante despises multi-days and how much I dislike riding this horse. Oh, and did I mention that Zayante almost died from strangles 2 months earlier? (First time he's ever been sick).

Day 1

Day One began at the base camp of Valley Wells in the Searles Valley. Gretchen Sam from Bridgeport rode another of Jackie's horses, Royal Raffiq, with Zayante and me. I thought I'd outfit Zayante in a sidepull, thinking he'd be relaxed these 4 long days. We started out under clear skies, wrapped in layers against the 35* chill. At 7:00 AM, 15 riders on the 25 mile-loop, and 94 riders on the 50-miler (15 and 85 finished, respectively) headed for the outskirts of Trona, now a potash mining town, then headed up a sandy wash, skirting the base of the Argus Mountain foothills lining the valley. Zayante energetically pulled us along, not totally thrilled with the slower pace I'd picked for him to hopefully last 200 miles. It was an easy warm-up 12-mile ride to the Vet Check for the 50-milers back in base camp.
Then we headed out east toward the Slate Mountain Range. Zayante plowed and tugged his way up this long gradually-climbing jeep road into and to the top of the Slates at 3600 feet. Up there, a beautiful view of the Panamint Range greeted us across the valley - chocolate mountains dripping with caramel topping, dissected with millions of rippling canyons, ending in the Panamint Valley, 1300 feet below us. Gretchen and I hopped off and walked down the jeep road, following Fish Canyon, the escape route Rogers and Manley took escaping out of Death Valley and returning the same way with supplies for the stranded Bennett-Arcane party back in the 1850's. We stayed on foot all the way down the now-rocky terrain into the Panamint Valley, where Sparrow and his newly-shorn Poodleranian, Pest, awaited with welcomed water and hay for the horses.
We continued north along a dried-up salt lake 10 miles along a kind meandering jeep road, surrounded by scrappy creosote bushes and a few cactuses trying to make a living in the harsh ground. The only other sign of life was an occasional raven that hopped around and croaked at us as we went by. Looking at the miles and miles of desert, and the maze of mountains surrounding us, and thankfully only imagining the terrific heat of the summer, it was so easy to envision but hard to imagine those brave immigrants struggling across the sands with their oxen and loaded wagons, lost and not knowing the way out. We were clipping along at a steady 8 mph trot on jeep roads, where they must have been lucky to make 8 miles a day on no roads.
Zayante knew where he was, knew where he was headed. He was a beautiful brilliant white bundle of energy floating above the tan sand, in the golden winter light, a happy horse in the Panamint Valley. I let him go on a loose rein, walking when he wanted, picking up a trot when he wanted. Raffiq followed faithfully and steadily behind us, taking the lead when he thought the old man had walked too long. We lapped and overlapped Sue Benson on Rocky and Becky Hackworth on Stylish Gent several times, both of them also wanting to get their horses through the 4 days of the ride.
The second Vet Check just before the ghost town of Ballarat was a perfect, wind-less place to tank up on water and food for the hungry horses and riders. From here, it was about 7 miles to the new base camp of Indian Ranch. For about 10 years, base camp had been here in Ballarat. Zay thought it should still be in Ballarat. Did I mention Zayante had previously completed all 4 days of this multi-day Death Valley Encounter 5 times? That his total completed mileage in the DVE over 9 seasons was 1465 miles? He tried to turn into the empty campground at Ballarat. I had to steer him north along the road. He kept trying to stop, could not understand why we and the other horses were not stopping here, where he'd always stopped for the day. For about 5 miles I had to work on convincing him that this one time I actually knew more than he did, that we were at a new base camp this year.
When our stablemates Maggie and Adonis, ridden by Rebecca and Emmaline, caught up with us, Zayante reluctantly drafted on in behind them. We arrived just before dark in our new camp, where Zay seemed to say, Ah ha! I know where we are now! We finished in the middle of the pack and vetted through fine, ready to get pampered for the evening and relax. The only problem was there was no red trailer - Zay and Raffiq's home - to tie to. It was still out at the last vet check carrying supplies and waiting on the rest of the riders and horses. This turned out to be no problem, however, as the usual helpfulness of fellow endurance riders erupted. Rebecca took time out from caring for her own horses to rearrange her trailer so Raffiq could fit in, and provided hay and water and blankets for both horses. Ken Cook - formerly known as "Friend of Wabi;" now also "Friend of Zayante" - offered a spot on his trailer and hay and water for Zayante, and later Judy Long (Nick's wife) supplied us with more hay.
When the red trailer returned, Gretchen's fiance Mike helped us shuttle supplies and horses back and forth; and by the time we got Zay and Raffiq settled, fed and watered and their legs done up, and the ride meeting attended, and the horses walked again after I mooched food off Gretchen and Mike in their luxurious mansion on wheels, and my tent set up (which half blew away the first time I set it up), I was exhausted. It was 9:30 PM and I hadn't stopped moving since 5 that morning. I might have been the last one up in camp at that ungodly hour; there was not a peep out of a human or a horse under the brilliant desert stars.


A ferocious wind kicked up at times during the night; apparently 5 horses got loose from a pen but were, fortunately, quickly recovered. Raffiq himself was loose, but hanging out in the sagebrush near his uncle Zayante. A quarter moon hung like a jewel below a planet at 5 AM when I got up. 28 25-milers and 84 50's saddled up (28 and 79 finished) for the day, to Ballarat and up Pleasant Canyon into the Panamint Range, a lollipop loop up top, back down Pleasant Canyon to Ballarat and back to Indian Ranch. Zayante was very lively going up the hard dirt road to the first Vet Check at Ballarat, pulling on me hard. He had an agenda today, and being conservative was not on the list.
While enjoying every ride I do, always in the back of my mind is a slight worry about the horse I'm on. Is he traveling perfectly? Did that stumble hurt him? He's not going his usual pace - is he alright? Did he eat and rest enough? Did he get the right amount of electrolytes? With Zayante it's always in the front of my mind. He's older, he has arthritic flare-ups; with all the mileage under his girth I certainly don't want to do anything wrong on him. I'd pulled him once before when he wasn't going just right..
On this hard dirt road I thought I detected a slight favoring of his right front - especially when he cocked his head to the right, mad at me for not letting him gallop this measly little stretch to Ballarat. Could his ankle be bothering him? I had Charlie the vet look him over good at the Vet Check; we trotted out twice for him, and Zayante seemed fine. Maybe a slight hitch in his gitalong, Charlie said, but only slight. I could always turn around and come back if it got worse.
Continuing on was just fine with Zayante. I could tell immediately this was one of his favorite days of the DVE. Gretchen and I followed the other horses up Pleasant Canyon, but somehow Zayante and I ended up going up Unpleasant Canyon. We were still surrounded by horses, but Zay was NOT a happy horse today. He wanted to attack that 10-mile, 3500' climb, and walking over the very rocky ground was not a way to do that. He felt good enough to run up it, and I know this horse, and I know he would have if I would have let him. He loves hills, the steeper the better, and going slow is not how a proper warhorse takes them. But we had 2 + more days, 143 more miles to go, and the footing was bad, and I wanted him to go slowly and carefully. Zay would have none of my reasoning. He got in a lather, and had his head cocked sideways in his way of showing frustration and braced against the reins that were cutting into my fingers. Good idea today, that sidepull.
Finally we sort of compromised - if he couldn't trot forward, he'd trot up and down - the Zay Jig. I let him trot when the rocks weren't too bad, and he jigged the rest of the way. Fair enough. The lather disappeared, and I rode the Jig.
Red canyon walls towered above us, the sun-facing side dotted with barrel cactus. We passed the old remains of a higher gold mining ghost town with old buildings, mine shafts, ancient rusted vehicles. The dead young horse we had to pass in the middle of the trail was a bit scary to Zay. Snow covered the peaks of the Panamints we glimpsed through breaks in the canyon walls; and at around 5000' we started getting into icy spots.
Zayante had just accepted the wisdom of walking through the real rocky parts, and just when we hit another icy patch, he decided to go back to jigging. That's a bad idea wearing 4 Easy Boots, and instantly they slipped right out from beneath him and he fell down. I can't recollect exactly what happened, but I somehow landed on my feet next to him. I must've thought I could help him to his feet, because I just stood there holding onto his lead rope. These things happen so fast you don't have time to think, otherwise I'd have gotten the hell out of his way.
When he tried to get up, his feet slid out from him again, and he fell back on his side, and some part of him whacked me in the leg, and it finally reached my brain to get the hell out of his way.
Zay slithered on his side like a snake on oil before he finally scrambled up and whinnied, Holy Cow I hadn't planned on that! Raffiq whinnied back to him, Are you OK? Gloria Vanderford ahead of us stopped to ask if we were alright; I said we were fine.
But were we? More worry engulfed me. Did Zay hurt himself? Should I turn around right here and go back? He seemed to be fine - he hadn't fallen hard, and wasn't limping. But would it show up 5 miles up on top and we'd be stuck up there? And yikes, what if he had fallen on me? No place to land a helicopter around there - the only way out was the 7 miles we'd come slowly up.
We continued on, but Gretchen also hopped off and we walked on foot beside our mounts. Considering my disinclination for hiking fast uphill a mile high, trying to keep up with Zayante's big walk - and on slippery ground now covered with an inch of soft snow - was not easy. I lasted about a mile before I had to get back on. I took off his 2 back Easy Boots to give him a little more traction, and I got back on him.
Once the snow got deeper the footing was better - it was dry snow, but now the road was steeper and it was like slogging through very heavy sand. We crossed into Death Valley National Park, passed the turn-off to Sparrow's gold mine, had a drink out of a bathtub filled with spring water, and kept climbing. We met 7 of the front runners trotting their way speedily down the snow (how did they keep their footing??). One of them said, "There's a surprise up there for you." What could that be?
We wound on up through a pinyon forest, ensconced in its permanent blanket of snow for the winter. We reached Rogers Pass at 6560 feet, and it wasn't the strong cold wind up there that almost blew me off Zayante, but the stunning view into Death Valley and the Badwater Basin (below sea level), and the jumble of Black Mountains and the Amargosa Range and Greenwater Range. Climbing the last steep hill, we could also see the Owlshead Mountains covering the southern horizon. Now I knew what the surprise was, and why Zayante wanted to get up this canyon so badly - he knew what was waiting here on top.
From there, Gretchen and I hopped off and led our mounts down, down, down the jeep road; and we were grateful for the deep dry snow in which we could take cushioned, huge sliding steps down. Without snow, the road must be terrible footing, steep and rocky. We dipped down into a valley, then had another short steep climb; then it was back down in the snow (on foot), where we met our uphill trail, and then down that long, very long Pleasant Canyon back to Ballarat. When I'm not in a hurry - and I never am - I don't like to ride horses a long way downhill. It must be hard on their joints, especially an old guy like Zayante. So we walked on foot at least another 4 miles, and at Zayante's power walking pace. All 4 of us were dead tired when we caught sight of the Vet Check in Ballarat.
Ballarat, now a ghost town, was built in the 1890's for housing and supplying mines of the Panamint Range. Its decline began in 1905 when the Ratcliff mine closed. Today all that's left are several old buildings and a cemetery.
Mike, bless his wonderful crewing soul, had food waiting for us and the horses, and we all stuffed our faces. Zayante passed the Vet Check with flying colors - no stiffening from his fall and no evidence of lameness in that right front. With the fuel stop, we trotted most of the hour back to Indian Ranch.
It was getting dark, and Zayante felt so perky he started looking for things to spook at. When he spooked so hard at something, what I don't know, that he fell to his knees, Raffiq led us bravely (almost nothing bothers him) into camp in the dark. Kudos to those finish line folks Ray and Kathy Sansom, waiting out there patiently in the cold and dark for all the riders to come in every night.
Once again, Mike had the horses' home ready, and started on dinner for us tired 2-legged folks.
After a ride there's still a lot of work to do, and there's no sense stopping till you've done it: blanket the horses, ice their legs, take the Easy Boots boots off, clean the horses, mud and bandage legs, drink that Dr. Pepper I've been dreaming about since noon today, attend the ride meeting, put on second layer of horse blankets, walk the horses, finally eat my own food (I gave up trying to be self-sufficient and feed myself, and mooched off Mike and Gretchen again), feed horses again, bum a lovely shower, and crawl in bed by 9 PM (I also gave up my tent and surrendered to the couch in their motor home), exhausted. My body throbbed to the tips of my toes and fingers, and I had the muscle twitches as I fell asleep. That was one long 50-mile day - though of course my horse did nearly all the work.