Horse Camping

The truck, “Best West Plants”, is almost as big as a house, pulling a trailer almost the same size full of full sized trees.  Not only does it block the entire pathway, it takes up half the street as well.  We had just had to ride in the street up La Paloma as a 550 diesel with a compressor attached behind had parked across that pathway.  The diesel with the compressor was now approaching from behind.  Velvet hesitates with every step.

As we passed under 280, with sound so overwhelming, conversation becomes impossible.  As we canter up the path next to Duval Court, I can’t tell how Cowgirl and Sara are doing because the noise overpowers the sounds of her hoofbeats.  By the time we reach the bridge to Foothill College, Sara and I decide we need a break and let the horses graze.  Sara actually feels a little sick.  We ended up riding for two hours, but at no time during the ride were we free of the sound of a compressor, a leaf blower or a diesel engine.  It was the first ride after returning from Jack Brook. Both Sara and I were feeling a little shell shocked.

“That was amazing!  That was soooo amazing!”  Rachel’s grin is so wide it looks like her head is going to split in half.  “Can we do that again?”  All the trails at Jack Brook start with a long descent, followed by stretches of somewhat level trail that is dirt road as often as it is single track, which, in this case, had allowed the girls a full throttle canter for an uninterrupted three quarters of a mile – no trash cans to dodge, no driveways to slow down for, no trucks to turn and face.

Jack Brook horse camp is nothing short of a miracle.  Surrounded by every kind of park imaginable; La Honda open space, Memorial Park, Portola State Park, Butano State Park, Purissima Creek Redwoods, Big Basin, Mindego Hill; the list goes on and on and I’ve hiked every single one of them.  They are nice hiking, but the northern end of the Santa Cruz Mountains range is, as California mountain ranges go, fairly pedestrian; most of it too steep to be pleasant or too sunny or too shrubby, with an occasional smattering of lovely spaces.  Not Jack Brook.  Whoever picked that spot, must have known those the territory like the back of his hand; a sweeping expanse of meadow; a road the undulates accessibly along a wide ridge.  Best of all, grove after grove after grove of, oh my gosh!, old growth redwoods.  All of this exists in a climate where the fog keeps the air clean and cool, but burns off by mid morning allowing the camp to warm up to floating temperatures.

The trails at Jack Brook are not like any other park.  Who set them out and why has yet to be explained, but certain sections make no sense.  The bottom of the Jack Brook loop is one such section, I have several copies of a cheap map and one copy of a map I paid $5 for.  The better map was still tucked into the grooming gear pockets in the trailer.  Turns out there’s a loops trail not on the cheap map. We ended up briefly lost and had to retrace our route.  Rachel got her wish as we were forced to canter the same 3/4 mile stretch a second time.

For our second ride at JB, we took a much longer ride.  We rode down the Jack Brook Trail to the Pomponio Trail, up to old Haul Road, then back up Tar Water Creek, probably a fourteen mile loop.  As hers is the only saddle big enough for my fanny, I was riding Velvet.  She doesn’t do downhill very well, leaving me bringing up the rear.   It’s down hill all the way to the creak, so I was still in the rear as we approached the crossing of Pescadero Creek.  Somehow I thought with the drought the creek would have very little water in it, but it was not the case.  Dancer, it seems, had never crossed a creek before.  Savannah H was delighted by the challenge of encouraging him to cross the creek.  Back and forth and back and forth they went until finally Dancer sucked it up and charged across.  It was quite the little drama that distracted me from the fact that I didn’t know if Jackson had ever crossed a creek with a significant amount of water in it before either.  Turns out he had and he had a very strong opinion of just what he thought should happen.  He pawed energetically at the water two or three times, the with positive glee, dropped his left shoulder right splash down into the creek, anticipating a nice, wet roll.  It took all of us by surprise, especially Kate, who was riding him.  She did finally figure out that her best option was to get off, but not before he rolled on to her ankle.  I got off, had her get on Velvet, and then hand walked him across.

I was expecting to see Erik, my spouse, who was out on a bike ride, on Old Haul Road.  But we didn’t see him, or anybody else for that matter.  Not horse nor hiker.  And it is quiet and peaceful.  It is hard to describe the change that comes over the horses when we are out there.  Jackson acted like he could go all day.  So did Freedom, Stoney and CG.  Chavali willingly leads when at Jack Brook, which is unheard of otherwise. Velvet steps out.  Jackson started to gait, something he hasn’t done in over a year.

We stopped for lunch at the beginning of Old Haul.  As far as we know, Stoney still has issues with Dancer.  Not wanting to take any risks, Dancer, with me holding him, were relegated to the far end of the road.  Out of boredom more than anything else, I asked Dancer, out loud, how he was liking Jack Brook.  He hugged me.  It absolutely shakes me to my core when horses do this.  You don’t believe it until it happens to you, but it does.  I thought, “oh crap!”  and, “well I guess three trips with the trailer was worth it after all.” It had only been at the last minute that I had decided I had to bring Dancer at all.

Old Haul Road, at least the part of it we ride, is a four mile stretch of wide, gradual incline, the entire length of which is shaded by redwood trees, clear beams of sunlight piercing the shade and nothing but the sweet smells of redwood forest and horse sweat.  Most of the road is ridden at a dead run, the width of it giving us the freedom to ride side by side or in formation, rather than a rigid line.

The route back was up the short branch of the Tar Water Creek Loop, after recrossing Pescadero Creek via a bridge.

Certainly during the rainy season, Pescadero Creek would more rightly be called a river, but Tar Water is an honest creek; with tar in it.  Just a puddle to jump; not enough to interest Jackson in another bath.  But enough water to again give Dancer pause.  He balked and spun and jumped backwards up the hill away from the water again and again, missing the sharp end of a log by a fraction of an inch each time.  Savannah H, by now, felt it was a point of pride to convince him to cross and that she did.  After five years of riding with me, horse camping was going to be Savannah H’s last few days with KLH.  Same for Skylar and Julia.  The horse girls had been bemoaning the anticipated loss of Savannah H., Skylar and Julia.  But I didn’t share their woe.  Savannah, Skylar and Julia are three well trained and accomplished equestrians.  Savannah had the skills and knowledge to cope with a real challenge and did so with clarity of purpose and ease.  All three of them will head off into the greater horse world as competent, capable, well trained equestrians.

From Tar Water Creek, the trail rises quickly up out of the canyon to join the Town Fire Road, the road that traverses the ridge.   By this time, I was completely out of steam. I got off Velvet and hand walked her, while the girls flew back to camp.  When I arrived, a good twenty minutes after them, horses were being groomed and bucketed.  Skylar was half way through cutting all of Cowgirl’s mane off as it was decided the best look for her would be a mohawk.  Rachel was saying to Savannah Y, “I could live here!  I could truly live here!”  Savannah Y said, “Me too!”

The girls had laid their sleeping mats out in a square just feet from the pipe pens.  They got to watch the horses as they did did their morning stretches; Velvet placing her hooves on the bottom bar of the pen for a little extra leg stretch.  Jackson decided the best place to pee was in his lunch bucket.  I guess he didn’t want mess in such a small pen.  Later he peed right next to where they had their mats.  I was horrified, but they weren’t bothered at all. Chavali was terrified of the wild turkeys.  The could hear the breathing and the snuffling of the horses all night long.  In the morning, Savannah H said, “this is just the right amount of time with the horses; 24/7.”

Skylar was up at the crack o’ dawn, bustling around feeding, cleaning, grooming, taking off blankets.  Julia slept until ten, though she asked the other girls to please not let her sleep past nine going forward.

There was only one request for our trail route for day three: No stream crossings!  We descended on a different branch of the Jack Brook loop, heading towards a trail that stayed on the north side of Pescadero Creek.  There was more noise on this ride, all of it coming from us: “Oh I am soooo sore!”  “Ow! My butt hurts!”  “Oooooh, my legs!”  “This is sooooo beautiful!”  “I love it here!”  “Ow Ow Ow Ow!”  We had another fourteen mile ride planned and we were determined to go the whole route despite the agony in our bodies.  Along with mysterious routes, Jack Brook also has “esoteric” trail signs, which, along this north side trail, diverted us on to yet another unmarked loop trail.  It’s a new loop trail through an old growth grove far more magnificent than any on Big Basin.  The chorus of “eee!  Ooww! Oh wow!” echoed amongst the majestic giants.

Actually, there was one among us, Julia, who was not sore.  As far as we could tell can, this was attributed to the fact that she sleeps like a log and sometimes even on a log, as was the case when we finally stopped for a break.  The girls were so tired that Skylar and Sara lay down in the middle of the road.  Savannah H and Savannah Y draped themselves across their horses, Savannah Y belly down on CG’s back, Savannah H across Freedom’s generously sized posterior.  Like a snake in the sun, Julia chose the top of a log and did, indeed, doze off.  i stayed awake watching  the one spruce tree surrounded by redwoods sway ominously in the breeze.  Without periodic fire, the spruce have taken hold where in the past they would have burned.  The drought has weakened more than a few trees.  One such tree had fallen across the road to camp the day before, delaying Sara’s arrival by an hour.

We took the longer branch of the Tar Water Loop trail home.  This branch rivals the Old Haul Road for uninterrupted canter through redwoods and oak woodlands and open grassland.  We did actually see one person at the end of it, an ambitious motorcyclist who had made the trek down the long, windy road into Pescadero Creek Redwoods County Park, a road so long that by the time you arrive, you have barely any time to hike as he had found out.

Besides pain that didn’t abate in the least through the entire ride, the girls, except Julia, were all bleary eyed from lack of sleep.  After all, who would want to waste time sleeping when you are in heaven.  Not that this slowed them down any.

At this point, my memories are not so clear.  The KLH “graduation” party for Savannah H, Julia and Skylar was underway.  Sophia, Kate and Sierra had arrived and were busy preparing dinner for camper and party guests.  Jackie and Lainey had arrived, but they were both recovering from being carsick from the drive up.  Meera and Kate decided to hole up in the bathroom and stop interacting with anyone else.  Rachel was worried about what would be the best timing for her present, a KLH year book she’d spent the better part of two weeks, including one of them while she was on vacation, putting together.  I think we should have sung a song for the “graduates” and I wish I’d given out awards.  Sophia would have gotten “only rider to post on the correct diagonal.”  Skylar would have gotten, “best braider.”  Julia would have gotten, “only person, youth or adult, myself included, to always shut the gates.”  I have an award for everyone.  But that didn’t happen.  They did cry; a lot.  Lack of sleep and exhaustion along with most of the girls being thirteen didn’t help much.  It took a awhile, but I finally got them corralled back to the camp fire where they wrote in each other’s year books and told scary stories.  They gave surprisingly little resistance when told to go to sleep, though no one noticed that Jackie, who is allergic to hay, ended up having to sleep right next to the hay and in the morning, when Kate and Meera got up to feed, the threw the tarp from the hay on to sleeping Jackie.

Arranging the departure of the party guest and packing up camp was a jumble of madness and mayhem, but when the dust cleared what was left was the Wednesday six; Skylar, Julia, Savannah H, Savannah Y, Sara and Rachel; and an hour and forty five minutes for one last ride.  Riders come and go.  Schedules change as do plans.  There will be the same group of riders on one day for a couple weeks or a month, then it all shifts.  But not with Wednesday.  By mid-November, 2014, Wednesday’s had settled into these six riders and stayed that way through the entire school year.  If there could have been a better matched group in skill, style, temperament and ability, I don’t know, but I’ve not seen it.  They rode together in a boundless joy that comes from effortless, heartfelt, open communication and a genuine desire to promote the welfare of their fellow riders over their own needs.

There is story about a man who did some great deed and was rewarded by an angel who said he would grant one wish.  The man wished to see heaven and hell.  First he was taken to hell.  In hell, there were many people seated around a great banquet table overflowing with all sorts of delicious foods.  But they were tied to chairs that were placed too far away from the table to reach it.  They had been provided with long utensils that could reach the food, but was so long they were unable to get the food into their mouths.  They were all starving and wailing and furious.  Then the man was taken to heaven.  It was the exact same scene, only in heaven the people were using the long utensils to feed each other.  So it was with the Wednesday group.  Many people never get an experience like this in their whole lives.  It is my fondest hope that the year of Wednesday’s will not be their only experience of heaven on earth, but I am old enough to know that if it isn’t, these experiences will still be the exception rather than the rule.  The Wednesday Six had one more hour and forty five minutes of heaven and heaven it was.  The day after we left camp, the high was 85.  The following day, 90.  But on our last day, the air was magic. The girls charged up the Town Fire Road like they’d won the super bowl.  Chavali gave her all for Skylar as the two of them sprouted wings for the last charge.

Returning from camp is complicated and intense.  Skylar’s mom picked her up at the Sam MacDonald parking lot, where the trailer was parked, leaving Savannah Y by herself with the task of untacking three horses at Campo.  When I returned for the second load, the girls told me that the camp had been over run by the next group of horse campers; a group of about thirty horses.  It had been a chaos of trailers and unfamiliar horses.  Sara and Rachel were spent. I sent them to Quail with Stoney and CG while hustled up to Campo with Jackson.  Rachel lost her water bottle and forgot her clothes.

I made it back to Sam MacDonald parking lot for the last run at 7:15pm.  Savannah H and Julia have exceptional endurance, but even they were looking worn.  As we drove 280 through Los Altos Hills, Savannah commented that this would be the last time they’d go this way. I was feeling badly that they’d had to wait so long for their ride.  As we approached 85, I said, “you know, it’s just as well that we didn’t come down this stretch of road any earlier.  Even just fifteen minutes ago, this section of freeway was stop and go.”  I had been watching the traffic reports on google maps with some anxiety and it had been true, but it was smooth sailing now. Savannah lives in Saratoga and Julia lives in Los Gatos.  Both of them had an immediate and visceral response to the reference to rush “hour” traffic.  Savannah said, “Oh, we know!”  A look of profound relief crossed both their faces at the same time as the realized that it was going to be the last time they would have to drive home through south bay rush hour traffic after having been out with the horses.  Freedom will now live at Garrod’s Stables in Saratoga. As we drove up Pierce Road, Savannah got happier and happier.  “All this time, I’ve had vaulting at Garrod’s and Freedom in Los Altos Hills.  Now they will both be in the same place!”  As great as our loss is, it’s time.

I get one day off after horse camping and then I am back at it.  The horses don’t care.  They need to get out, but we all felt empty and somewhat at a loss as we quietly milled about the arena a couple of days later.  But bit by bit Rachel started coming up with ideas, Sara started taking an interest in riding Dancer and I realized, with enormous relief, that I no longer have to struggle to keep Savannah Y and Savannah H straight.  One and only one Savannah is more than enough for me.  What I am going to do about the fact that there are now three Sophie’s, I don’t know, but I’m not going to worry about that just quite yet.

Jack Brook 2015

One comment on “Horse Camping

  1. Clara says:

    Gorgeous story Deb! I love getting these little glimpses into your horsey girl world. I imagine you’ve changed these girls lives and given them memories that will always be cherished. Bravo!

    Clara Lanyi Sent from my iPhone


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