Big Sur

I took a trip out to California for vacation and started it off with three days in one of my favorite places on Earth: Big Sur. I’ve never been anyplace else quite like it. It’s one of a few places in this country where the natural landscape is largely untouched, a place where there is only one road that winds its way through the mountains and forests along the rocky, severe cliffs of the coast. That road offers incredible views of the Pacific Ocean as it crashes into the rocks several hundred feet below the highway, as it stretches out to eternity in striations of myriad blues, but these views are guarded jealously. The mists can seep in at anytime, bleaching the world of sunlight, obscuring the views of ocean, mountain and tree and even the winding road itself. To drive up and down Highway 1 on those 90 miles of coastline is to remember that you are small and that nature is big, and to know that no matter what we do on this planet, nature will remain untamed before us.

I don’t often travel without trying to ride wherever I’m visiting. I’ve ridden a horse through the fields on a farm in eastern Australia, through the jungle and onto the beach in Mexico for a gallop and then a bareback dip in the Caribbean, ┬áraced at full clip up a mountain in the Dominican Republic, ambled through the woods in Lake Placid, and have taken to the trails in Big Sur once before as well. The place to ride there is in Andrew Molera State Park, an almost 5,000-acre area situated at the mouth of the Big Sur river. There are miles and miles of trails that take you inland, through meadows and hilltops within sight of the Santa Lucia mountains, and finally out onto the beach.

What a great, relaxing ride. My horse was, Roy, a 16-or-so-hand bay gelding that suited me perfectly. He was a very chill guy, yet awake and present and energetic–not a brain-dead, overworked trail nag like you can find at a lot of places that cater to tourists. All the horses at this place were remarkably well-trained, perhaps better than any other place I’ve ridden. Roy and I happily clipclopped along behind our guide, Sarah, who was a cool chick that I loved chatting with.

We rode through some forest and then waded our horses across the ankle-deep Big Sur River into a wonderland of meadows with gnarled old redwoods and coastal pines, including one old man that is over a thousand years old. We happened upon a wandering deer that nearly startled Roy, but she disappeared and we walked on, spotting a pair of quail hopping around in a bush. The park is home to the condors that have been banded and released for monitoring. We think we saw one, but it is really difficult to tell the scale of something even so large when it is flying so high, so it’s possible it was an eagle. We finally came out onto the beach and stood watching the misty coastline with our manes flying in the salty wind. The guide took this picture before we headed back to the stable.

Riding in a Western saddle always feels like a vacation to me. It’s nice to get nestled into the deep seat, stretch out my legs in longer stirrups, and only worry about my position in regard to how it will help my horse, like sitting back going downhill. When I first started Western trail riding in college, spending one lesson out of every few at the trail barn riding through 500 acres of Virginia woodlands, I use to try to steer my horse past every obstacle. I would try to move her around exposed roots, prevent her from tripping over small rocks in our path, or avoid the more rutted part of the trail. Then somewhere along the line I realized that such micromanagement was not necessary and allowed her to choose the best path for her while I just enjoyed the ride. I was able to do this with Roy, forgetting for once about being a rider and simply riding.

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Dreams and Fantasies

Today’s was another more physical than mental lesson. It was a good ride. In this cold and windy weather, the horses were in a frisky-but-not-yet-basketcase mood that made them fun and forward. I rode Lieutenant again and it was a relief, in my still slightly run-down state after having a cold all week, to not have to squeeze on every step to move him along. I shared my lesson with another girl I’ve ridden with before; she is the closest to my level of anyone else I’ve ridden with and it makes for less stress in the ring knowing we can both hold our own and don’t have to worry about being in each other’s way. She rode a small gelding named Aladdin and it was refreshing to have a mare-free atmosphere for a change.

Quiet and relaxed on our walk back to the barn, my mind was allowed to wander. Sometimes on these rides, I daydream about being in my favorite fantasy novels, the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy by Tad Williams. I’ve just finished re-reading the series after some years so it’s prominent in my thoughts right now, but it’s always in my heart. I mean, my cat is named after the main character. In the books, there is a lot of traveling. The characters must all at various times cover a lot of terrain on horseback. In one section, the main character, Simon, travels with a few other companions first through the deepest, richest forest and then across a white waste to the furthest northern reaches of the world. These parts of the books have always been my favorites. Reading about their daily routine of caring for the horses, camping out, and then exploring new, wild territory has always been comforting to me. Of course other, more exciting things happen in the books than just these mundane things. But when I imagine myself in them, this is what I imagine.

The ride back through the park is scenic and is similar, on a smaller scale, to the forest terrain in the books: we ride through a muddy-tracked and leaf-strewn copse of trees that leads us out to the main trail that loops around the interior of Prospect Park and takes us past the lake. Today was slightly grey and gusty, with swaths of sunlight brightening the ground and warming the air, only to disappear a moment later while the wind blew in the clouds and small flurries of snow.

I watch these images go by as we ride silently in single file, the rhythm of my horse’s walk carrying up through my body to sway me slightly in the saddle. I daydream about a fantasy world that seems set far in our past and also of a future where a daily ride is simply a part of the rhythm of my life.