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 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.