Heading west, I’m reading The Universe Has Your Back by Gabrielle Bernstein. “The universe is our classroom, and when we accept our role as the happy learner, life gets really groovy.” I want to hurl it against the bulkhead. Then again, she’s come highly recommended by people I respect, and I like this: “Obstacles are detours in the right direction.”
My plan is to ride like a rodeo queen by vacation’s end. Day four, I’m on Patches, a paint mare with a hard mouth. Already sore from three days in the saddle, I’m bracing against instead of flowing with. After a long lope over roughish terrain, it hurts to breathe. An obstacle, my back.
We climb up, up through moist, fragrant woods, along a grassy trail heavily trafficked by butterflies. Another dude shares Advil from his saddlebag. At the very top of a high ridge overlooking the whole world, we find a huckleberry patch, tie our horses, and sit like bears in it, paws full of ripe huckleberries. After a while, we remount and start back down. Now I’m in survival mode, clinging to the saddle horn. Maybe muscular, hopefully not a disc. Back at the ranch, two more Advil, downshift to default: porch, rocker, nice place to read and write.
But pain bleeds off a certain amount of vital energy, the oomph you need to concentrate. It hurts to cough or sneeze. In such a state, all I’m moved to write are bitter diatribes against the rest of the world, still happily executing their Plan A’s. Nor can I make any progress in Bernstein’s book. From my rocker, I wave at the riders that clip clop by, heading off on their morning adventures. I feel tapped out and left out. I will not recover my youthful seat this year, either.
Perhaps I’m here to learn to ride a different kind of horse, a windhorse. This term describes a feeling of being powerfully and unflinchingly in the present. It’s from a book of Tibetan Buddhist wisdom: Shambhala The Path of the Sacred Warrior. Through the practice of meditation, you learn to sit squarely in the saddle of your meditation seat, returning to your breath, your upright posture, your humble place on earth. Practicing in this way, says Chogyam Trungpa, you begin to feel natural power and upliftedness. This is the energy of basic goodness and it can be ridden just like a horse.
I feel a tiny puff of windhorse in my sails and begin to write about this place I love:
When you happen across crudely painted signage telling you, in no uncertain terms, to Keep Out, Go Away, you’ll be very close. A little further down the dirt road, a second sign speaks to the consequences: Trespassers Will Be Terminated.
Mornings you wake to the clanging of the meal bell—or, earlier still, to the whoops and hollers of wranglers driving the herd in from the night pasture in a moving cloud of dust. Hustle on over to the ranch house for breakfast. Bacon, a year’s rations in a week; pancakes still made from Herman, the 80-year-old sourdough starter. Eat up, you’re in for a long morning in the saddle. Corral by 8, off on your ride by 8:15.
Hope for a good partner in your horse–Honey, Mariposa, promising names. You have a habit of reading too much into a name. Sometimes you worry–Rocket, Diablo, that dude who fell off Black Cloud the first day of vacation and broke his back. But all these horses, all these years, have returned you safely to the corral despite their various shortcomings (and yours, to be fair), and some have been nearly perfect.
Here, I pause, listening to the morning sounds—birdsong, the wind sighing in the Ponderosa pines, a chugging sprinkler. Under it all, there’s the faint but steady rustle of something alive and moving. The river, not far as the crow flies. Until this moment, I’d not heard it from here. Norman McLean wrote, “Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.” As I listen deeply, all narrative possibilities merge into one. There is, in effect, only one story, Ranger’s story.
Once upon a time, I rode out on a nondescript chestnut gelding, taking comfort from his name, thinking, here’s a horse that will take care of me (wilderness guide, national park official). We passed through a gate with a plastic baby doll head impaled on top of the fence post and under that a hand-painted sign not much bigger than a postcard: Hazards Exist That Are Not Marked. Humor pops forth from the landscape unexpectedly here in the west–the lost glove flipping the bird from a fencepost, an existential fuck you carefully arranged by some droll cowboy.
Astride Ranger, I climbed high up a dusty trail through old growth forest to a cliff with soaring views. Far below I admired the river that runs through it. Over the course of our week together, Ranger and I forded it many times, sometimes in water so deep, I had to hike my legs up like a jockey and still got wet.
He did take care of me, excepting that day I left the ride early and rode back to the ranch alone. He was not a natural leader and leery of every stone and bush, in a way he had never been as a follower. Almost back at the corral, we encountered the last straw, someone on the porch of the ranch house riding an exercise bike that made a frantic ticking sound. He stopped cold, head high, poised to bolt. Taking care of both of us, I slid off and led him on in.
Many months later Ranger and I partnered up for a horse-whispering clinic. This was tantamount to going away for a long weekend with someone I’d dated briefly and thought I knew.
At the clinic, I learned that he was actually kind of a cad, that an alternate definition of “ranger” is one whose attention wanders, and that horses are perfect mirrors of their human partners. Wasn’t I, after all, often bored and trotting away in my mind to get donuts? As I stood beside him, listening to a long explanation about something well beyond my equestrian skill set, he made his feelings known. Striking with the lightning precision of an adder, he sunk his yellow teeth into my forearm.
A couple of years later I was on Diablo–polite, steady, reliable Diablo who put to rest forever my ridiculous theory about names. We were on the Rocky Trail, a stone-studded path that skirts the edge of a precipitous ravine dropping down to the Blackfoot where whitewater rushes around and over massive boulders.
The rider behind me was muttering, “I hate this trail; bad things happen on this trail.” We’d gone together to the horse whispering clinic and I knew her to be a first-rate horsewoman, born and raised on the ranch. Her reaction surprised me. I’d always loved the Rocky Trail where you look down on the roaring river and sometimes see fishing bald eagles. Riding this razor’s edge, you’re fully present to both thrill and danger, picking a path between unmarked hazards and faith in a universe that has your back.
“Come to think of it,” she said, “we lost that horse you liked on this trail, that one we brought to Utah.” After the horse whispering clinic, I was done with Ranger, didn’t ever ride him again, didn’t even ask about him.
Early in the season, he’d been along for a trail maintenance outing. The riders advanced on foot, leading their horses over and around the winter’s tree fall, clearing limbs as they went. Ranger balked at a log, refusing to step over, and began to back up. Close to the edge, an unstable patch of ground broke off under his back hooves and he crashed down the ravine, somersaulting several times before landing just short of the river.
“The warrior who experiences windhorse feels the joy and sorrow of love in everything he does,” wrote Trungpa. Through disciplined practice, he discovers his sad and tender heart. It is a little raw, a little touchy. Don’t move away from this center of gravity; there is not something wrong here, but something right. With this heart, he can open to the whole world, however, it presents itself, and do what needs to be done. He does not, in his many neurotic ways, edit out or avoid what he cannot bear. He faces it head on.
Four riders, warriors, without a doubt, tied their horses to trees along the trail and scrambled down after Ranger. You will know you’re between a rock and a hard place if the most humane option is to strip off the tack, and roll him into the river to drown.
By this time, we were safely off the Rocky Trail, our horses perked up, gathering speed as we headed for home. We’d begun our ride under a cloudy sky. Three hours later, as we cleared the woods, hard, cold raindrops started to bite the dust, leaving us hunkered down in our saddles.
A bad back has brought me to this rocker, this porch, this ungroovy place in my narrative. I understand, of course, why Ranger’s story has been stricken from the annals of ranch history, this place where good stories swiftly become legend and are like currency, traded among guests and staff.
But what does the truly terrible story have to teach us, and why can’t I let that horse, old friend, and nemesis, go? In the end, he has delivered on his name, guiding me surely into the unexplored wilderness of my raw and tender heart. Shouldn’t he, too, be remembered?