Sunday, November 10, 2019
2019 AERC National championship 100 at 20 mule team - Nick Warhol
Nov 2, 2019
by Nick Warhol
Or, a long, busy, and very rewarding week in the desert!
A year and a half ago Robert Ribley mentioned they wanted to have the 2019 national championship ride at the 20 mule team ride, and was I interested in doing the trail? “I’m in!” I told him. I have been riding the ride since 1993, and coming down and working on the trail since the year 2000. I take that trail very personally. I love the desert and riding both my dirt bike and horses in it, so how could it be any better? Ride managers Robert and Melissa Ribley, along with 20 Mule team ride manager Brian Reeves, put a LOT of work into this event. The goal was to make it a real championship caliber event, and we did not disappoint. Everything I heard about the ride was really positive in every aspect.
I packed my truck and trailer to the gills, loaded up my big, brown, girly horse Sorsha and headed down to Ridgecrest on Sunday in a wind storm. Lucky me- the wind blowing down highway 5 was about 40 MPH, but it was a direct tail wind giving me incredible gas mileage all the way down. The wind was a little dicey when I hit the desert and headed east, but I made it to Ridgecrest without the camper being blown off the truck! I dropped Sorsha off at Gretchen Montgomery’s place (a mile and a half from the fairgrounds) where she basically boarded my horse for a week. Thanks G and Mike! On Monday morning I met Brian at the fairgrounds and helped him unload. Cripes- I thought I had a lot of stuff! He had three trailers packed full of gear. We spent half a day unpacking and getting base camp set up.
On Monday afternoon Gretchen and I loaded up the horses and went out to the new location for Vet 1 on the 100. We needed new, bigger locations for both vet 1 and vet 2 due to the size of the ride. The new check required a new mile of trail across the desert to get to the new location, so we took the ponies out for a mission and spot marked a new route from the trail to the new vet check. I liked it! You can never have enough cross country desert trails. We had a nice ride and the horses both felt fresh and ready to go. I would finish the new trail on the bike later on. Brian and I had dinner at the infamous Casa Corona and very large drinks!
On Tuesday morning I went out early in 38 degrees on the quad to start marking the trail through town. It was not as cold as being on the bike! Signs, ribbons, and lots of chalk on the ground. When it warmed up a bit I headed out on the dirt bike to mark the 35 mile orange loop. It’s the night loop for the 100, so it needs a lot more big chalk arrows on the ground. There would not be much moon on Saturday night, so it’s critical to have lots of big arrows out there. I got done in good time by the early afternoon, so I headed back out to start on the pink loop in the hard to get to areas, and I’m really glad I did since there was still so much to do. We have 50 additional miles of new trail at the ride this time for the championship 50 that had not been used before, making our total trail mileage to mark 165 miles. I rode the bike back and forth a few times on the new trail to wear it in a little.
On Wednesday morning at 7am (Brrrr- 30 degrees) I went back on the quad for 3 hours to finish all the marking in town and out past the college. My buddy Dino Trefiletti was coming from Las Vegas at 10 am to help me with the trail with his bike. Dino and I were friends growing up in Vegas and were racing buddies; he likes riding out here as much as I do. Our mission for today was to finish the new 50 mile trail for the Thursday championship ride. Ron Shultz from Ridgecrest had laid out the new trail and base marked it, but we needed to get out there and ride it and finish it up. We did the 25 mile loop first all the way back to camp, then out again to do the whole 50. We added many ribbons, chalk, signs, and had to be sure the trails marked for Saturday did not interfere with Thursday’s championship ride. I could not take a chance on anyone seeing other ribbons and getting confused. It can be hard to distinguish pink from orange from red in the morning light. We finished up as the sun was setting after a long day and a lot of miles out there on the bikes. Then it’s off to walk my horse, have dinner, and drink several beers!
We never saw Thursday’s championship 50 mile ride (the winning time was 3:55! WOW!) since Thursday is the extended day where we mark the 65 mile pink loop. It goes faster with the two bikes, but its still a long day out in the dez. Dino’s wife Kathleen was our support crew, meeting us out at vet 2 with sandwiches and drinks. We had to add a mile of trail in a deep sandwash to get to the dry lake bed for the vet check due to the ride size. We got back to camp about 4pm, and I rode out on the bike and checked the blue 15 mile loop since it crossed the Thursday red loop several times, and it needed to be fixed for Saturday’s rides. We CAN NOT have chalk arrows going in both directions on the night loop. I finished everything up and got back to camp as the sun was setting.
Friday morning was a little easier since I was done with the bike, but not the trail. I went out early in the truck with Gretchen and her bicycle to finish up the trail that we can’t ride the motorized vehicles on, put up 8 road crossing signs, drop off hay at three remote water stops, and most importantly fix the trails for Saturday that intersected with the Thursday’s ride red loop, this time taking down the red so no one would get confused on Saturday. While I was out finishing up, Dino rode both the orange 35 and blue 15 loops to be absolutely sure all was in order. We finished up about 1pm, got back to camp, and then it was time to switch from trail worker to endurance rider. It’s a radical shift in the world where I just stop thinking about the trail and start thinking about my horse. (I liken it to flipping a giant power breaker switch to “on”) Gretchen pulled in with the horses and we started getting ready for tomorrow’s 100. We went out for a warm up ride; Gretchen wanted to ride the start since some idiot (me) laid out the trail that runs back through town and right past her house. I mean 10 feet from her front gate and the pen her other horse is in. It is the best route for the ride; I was not thinking about her and her horse when I set it. We were fine until about mile 2 when we turned back towards town and her horse Coquette, who is, shall we say, a little “barn sour”, flipped out and started bucking. Big. Gretchen stayed on, but had to dismount. We led the horses on foot about ¾ of a mile until we were 100 yards past her driveway. She remounted and all was fine back to the fairgrounds. But the psych was on- she was really worried about the start tomorrow. She would not sleep very well Friday night. I would have changed the trail, but the mileage was set, the maps and trail descriptions printed, trails all marked- it was too late. Judy drove down in the car on Friday to join us and arrived in the afternoon. It was great to have her there- she has not been to a ride in a while and everyone was glad to see her. We finished the prep for the ride, had a nice dinner with Jenni Smith and Brenda Benkley, went to the ride meeting, and then to bed. I slept well Friday night.
Saturday ride morning came quickly and was cold, about 28 degrees at our start time of 6:30. It’s actually quite beautiful in the desert when it’s cold and calm like this- not a stitch of wind. It would be perfect were it not for cold fingers and toes. The smell is also special in the cold morning; I like the way creosote smells. Oh yes, and the dust. About 80 horses headed out at once making it pretty bleak. The first half mile of the ride was a walking controlled start out across the first paved road. Sorsha was great and walked out nicely with Coquette in the middle of the pack. We crossed the road and started trotting out of town on the dirt street. After a few blocks we turn right on another road and head up to the big water tank just out of town, the site of Friday’s episode. Gretchen had been making plans on what to do, but it came down to just being safe. If we have a problem, we will just lead the horses. We passed the tank, turned towards town, made it about three hundred yards past our rodeo spot, and 2 horses passed us at a faster trot. Uh-oh. Coquette bucked big, but as before, Gretchen stayed on, but had to get off. We both started leading the horses the 3/4 mile until we passed her house. Once past, (I dropped off clothes layer one at her house) we hopped back up and started our ride with Gretchen’s stomach in the right place now. It did put us at the end of the pack, but that’s okay, we were in one piece, and it’s a long day. The ride goes through town for a couple of miles on dirt roads and out into the desert on soft roads with good footing. A long climb up a wide road takes us up to the top of the ridge above town, then another 3 miles slightly downhill on soft roads to the highway 395 north crossing. We were trotting along nicely and passed a few horses before getting to vet 3/5 where we just have a drink the first time through. Sorsha had a big drink- nice! I dropped off layer 2 here- off came the jacket. Now we did a little cantering as we head west on a perfect, soft, dirt road for a mile and a half that turns into even better single track that takes us to the infamous Trestle in the middle of the valley. The trail converges here and we will see it a few more times during the ride. A drink and some hay and we head down the raised railroad bed road that is as straight as a laser beam. In a bit we stop and ride down the bank onto the neat single track trail that I created many years ago that goes across the desert to the rocky saddle. This next section is ugly- rocky, but at least it’s only a mile or so on a hard, rocky road. A right turn on a decent road takes us trotting to the new trail Gretchen and I had made- it was now a full-fledged trail that wound across the desert to the first vet check, the sand pit at 18.5 miles. 70 horses will do that! Judy was there waiting for us which was nice, and Brenda helped out since Jeni Smith was well out in front of us. An easy vet check and 30 minute hold went by quickly; we headed out the 4 miles or so up the sometimes rocky road to sheep springs. You can trot most of it, but there are walking sections where the rocks grow out of the earth like craggy, black pumpkins. A nice drink at Sheep Springs and we head into the El Paso Wilderness area. It’s really pretty up here in the high country, and we roll along through what I call the roller coaster section- a road with huge, steep, roller coaster type hills that can be a couple hundred feet high. This is mostly walking, and once out of the section we drop into the big sand wash for a mile or so of downhill deep sand. Except for the jeeps! We came across a jamboree of some sort made up of about 80 jeeps that were plodding up the wash. Good grief! There was a solid line of jeeps for almost a half mile. The people were very nice and pulled over and stopped for us, and women were opening the windows and saying how pretty the horses were. (Is that a girl horse, or a boy horse? You are riding a hundred miles? Are you crazy?) It was all walk through here. The rocky climb to the right up out of the canyon got us out of the freeway jam up. Up the all rock hill, and then down the worst section of the ride- a really rocky, nasty, gnarly road across and up the big canyon. It’s only a half mile or so but it’s off the horse leading on foot through this crap. The top is the nice level part of Mormon flat that was a nice flat road with good footing that we cantered along. Another nice drink at the trough at the top, and we start the 3 mile downhill to the Garlock road. This road has been almost impassible in the past, but it had been recently bladed and was as smooth as can be, all the way down. A nice downhill jog / trot gets us to the bottom and the new 1 mile deep sandwash that led to the dry lake, the vet check location this year. I HATE deep sand, so Sorsha and I led a small herd of 5 horses through the wash edges here and there that were harder ground. Its fun bopping along, in and out, turn, jump, over there now, go this way, now over here, etc, etc. A short climb up and out of the wash and down to the dry lake and vet 2 for a check and 50 minute hold. Mike was there with the McDonalds breakfast burritos that I so crave here. (I had 3) Both horses were splendid, so we headed out, riding with Joyce Sousa and Jennifer Niehaus who were two of the three riders on the open 65. The joke was one would get first place, one the middle of the pack, and one the tail end. Neat! We leapfrogged with these guys for the rest of the loop. Now we hit the flats- the 5-mile section of dead flat trotting along the railroad tracks heading east that some people hate. I like it since you can make up some time here. Back across the paved road and up rattlesnake canyon at a trot/walk. It’s a couple miles of big wash/road to the top and looks like a gradual climb, but its misleading. I have seen horses blown up at the top here. A drink at the top and then it’s the several miles of decent roads (the power line road is kind of yucky rocky in spots) back down to the trestle. We drink and snack on hay here, then it’s the 3 miles trotting (the way we came out) back across the desert to vet 3 at the 395 vet check at mile 55. Another uneventful vet check and 30 minute hold and its back out the neat single track and across the 395 highway. Now its just 9 miles or so back to base camp at the fairgrounds and vet check 4. The 65 mile riders are done, but not us! We arrive as the sun was setting about 6:30 and prepare for the night loop. It was still cool, but not yet cold, but it would be soon. We vetted the horses, had a nice dinner of homemade stew, taped the glow bars on the breast collars, packed the flashlight, put the layers of clothes back on, and after our hour hold we headed back out of town on the 35 mile orange loop that DID NOT pass Gretchen’s house. I turned on the new, nice soft blue light battery powered glow bars that gave just the right amount of light. They were perfect! I tried them at home in the dark, but not for an extended period of time. I should have. The stupid things have a “feature” to protect their batteries- they turn themselves off after 15 minutes. I’m trotting up the road and “click”, they both turn off. Huh? I hopped off the horse, turned them back on, and yes, 15 minutes later “click.” Dark again. Oh great. Let’s see, 6 hour loop, that’s 24 fifteen minute periods, this is going to get old real quick. The moon was still up so I left them off for the next couple of hours, but once that moon was gone it was very dark. At least I could stop the horse, try to get her to stand still, take off my gloves, reach all the way down there and turn them back on without dismounting. The search for the perfect light bar continues! The air was weird- it was cool, but not cold, and we would hit these warm air pockets where you wanted to remove layers. 2 minutes later and its cold again. We trotted briskly up the 3 mile road heading east from camp and passed Leigh and Matt Scribner, who had these “special” headlamps on their helmets. We had been leapfrogging with them most of the day as well. The four of us turned west on boundary road, the 6 mile road that runs along the top of the ridge above Ridgecrest. Suddenly there was a truck coming towards us on the road at a pretty good clip- the lights were getting closer and closer, so Leigh said “we’ll take care of this.” they aimed those red lights at the truck- the truck slowed, stopped, (you could just hear the driver wondering what the heck?) turned around, and drove away. Those lights resembled a police car spotlight! Way to go, team Scribner! We caught up to Gayle Pena and Cristina Crum and rode as a small herd of six for a bit, but Gretchen, Gayle and I headed on together. Gayle’s glow sticks on her breast collar were dead, so she hung with us so she could see since it was quite dark. The lights of the city glitter to the right for the whole trip until we head downhill to the highway 395 south crossing where we have yet another drink and some hay. The next few miles are pretty cool- we wind up into the hills and join back up with the soft road that we trot down for about 4 miles and back to the trestle for the last time. it’s now about 12:30 am, and the stars above are incredible. We hooked up with fellow Quicksilver club member Jerry Wittenauer and his horse Carlos while the horses munch hay. He joined us for the superb 3 mile trot in the dark across the desert to our last vet check, vet 5, at mile 90. Cripes it’s cold now! The ride workers are all bundled up like skiers, but run out and give us a hand. Lucy Turnbuckle Chipotle was there filming in the middle of the night and caught me sleeping standing up. After 20 cold minutes we forge on back up the single track and up to the highway crossing where Sorsha did her only spook in the last 80 miles. The radio guy was in his dark truck, and we were leading the group. Just as we approached, he opened the door, the light comes on, and he hopped out. Sorsha stropped quick! It startled me as well, so I’ll give her that one. Across highway 395 onto the single track along the highway with the horrible car headlights blinding us. At least it was 1:00 am and there were not many cars! We mercifully turned east and out of the lights after a mile or so and trotted on the nice road back towards town. Back up over the top of the ridge and we led the horses on foot for a mile or more down the hill. We were almost out of the desert, literally less than 3 miles from the finish, and it happened. We were stopped on the dirt road for some reason with Gayle in the right lane, me and Sorsha in the left lane, (I may have been turning my stupid lights back on!) so Gretchen said she’d go on ahead and lead since Coquette knew where we are. She rode around me to the left and her horse stepped into a deep hole/trench that no one saw. Crash! Down they both go, hard, into the trench, with Gretchen smacking the ground with her helmet. Oh NO! Not now! Both her and her horse struggled to their feet and we checked for damage. They both seemed fine, so we walked for a bit and started trotting slowly. The horse looked okay, so on we continued with me worrying about Gretchen. She’s so tough, but hitting your head is never good. We rode slowly through the town and the last mile across the finish after 2am. It’s a 15 minute walk from the finish to camp which felt good. We took the horses to the final vet check where Sorsha did her Sorsha thing- CRI 36/36 and her trot looked like her vet in the day before. As Judy says- she’s a freak! But Coquette was lame. On no. She was off, I saw it. Not really bad, but off.
Here’s where vets can learn about what an AERC vet really is. Dr Mike Peralez (Head vet at Tevis) was out head vet. He and I may disagree on our opinion of Mojave Green rattlesnakes, but as a vet he’s top notch. More than that, though, he’s a good man. It’s 2:30 in the morning and Coquette is lame after 100 miles. I’m heartbroken for Gretchen, but I think she’s still a little loopy from her fall. Mike stands there quietly for a moment after watching her trot, and tells Gretchen: “ You still have time for your exam- walk her around for 10 minutes and bring her back.” She does, and brings her back for another trot. Okay, grade 2. The horse starts out off, but looks better after about half way as she speeds up! Mike nods, looks at his watch, and tells Gretchen: “okay, she looks better, but not quite. You have 15 minutes, walk her another 10.” Gretchen continues to walk her horse while Sorsha is pounding down her mash at the trailer next to the vet area. I hold my breath as Gretchen tries a third trot- Coquette looks better and trots well enough for her completion! Just in the nick of time. This is how it is done! Thanks again, Mike. He could have just pulled her and went back into the trailer. You the man, and Gretchen and I owe you a large beer!
It was cool to look at the time on my phone- daylight savings time had just kicked in and I was awarded another hour of sleep. A quick shower in the camper, and sleep, sleep, sleep. You know the term passing out? Yep. I don’t remember sleep feeling that good in a while. Up at 7:30 for walking the horses, breakfast, talking with friends, and watching the BC showing. I realized something incredible- I felt good. Really good. Nothing hurt, nothing was sore, no rubs, sleep removed the fatigue, and my Knee? Nothing. I realized that I had never really noticed it during or after the ride. It kept me from riding a lot last year. I don’t remember feeling this good after a 100 in a long time. Getting better with age? Just like fine wine! I’ll take it. The awards was fun- Jeremey won the 100 on one of Tinker’s horses (one got third as well) and J. Mero was awarded Best Condition. That was cool- she was really jazzed, as she should be! Her horse deserved it. Well Done Dr. J! I ended up in 20th place and third middleweight. I got a nice trophy plate, and the really beautiful Montana Silversmith championship 100 mile buckle is one that only 35 others on the planet share with me. Gretchen Included!
After awards Judy headed home to Hayward in the car, Gretchen took the horses back to her place for their turnout, the ride started to break up, and since I was staying an extra day, I stood there wondering what to do. I know! I unloaded the bike, suited up, and rode on out in my magnificent desert and cleaned up the ribbons on the 65 mile loop. It would save Brian from a long day out there doing that on the quad since it’s so much faster on the bike. I felt great and was riding very well. I picked up a bunch of stuff riders dropped and finished in about 3 hours. Now what? Off to the rv parts store to get some stuff and fix some nagging issues with the camper. Mike grilled us burgers for dinner, then off to sleep again. The next morning I packed up the big, brown, girly horse and headed home. What a great week. It is not relaxing as far as a vacation goes, but that’s the way I like it. Winter means desert rides, so next will be the fire mountain 2 day in January, then of course the 20 mule team 100 again in February. Again? Absolutely! You see, there is this trail I have to mark, and I have this brown horse..........