Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Rock and Ditch Riders, or Land of The Sand

January 28, 2007

There is nothing more appealing to me than an endurance ride that starts less than 90 minutes from my home. Sleeping in your own bed on the night of the ride is the ultimate luxury.

That is one of a score of reasons why Land of the Sun is a must-do ride. Arizona in January means you may get temperatures in the high 60s, so while New York City was enjoying bone-chilling temperatures in the low 20s, we got to ride in t-shirts this weekend. It goes a long way to offsetting the inhumane Arizona heat of June, July and August. I’ll take it. Thank you very much

CR Zebra Splash is one of those horses you just get spoiled on: he eats, drinks and pees without blinking, and just loves to truck down the trail. He is one of those magical horses that makes the complexity of a successful 50-mile ride surprisingly simple. He camps like a champ by eating his way through the night before. Clydea Hastie has done an incredible job of making this horse a gentlemen with a taste for moving forward.

The start of the ride was a textbook example of how to do it with 66 horses. I started out with Clydea on Czar, Barb Debi, Steph and John. Some were skeptical about the safety of riding the first two miles next to a blacktop road, but it presented no challenges for us. We walked, then we slow trotted, then we medium-trotted, and by mile two we were moving out at an impressive working trot. The ground beneath us began to roll up and down as the sun rose and the horses settled. We turned left off the dirt road and onto the first of countless washes filled to the brim with deep, sandy sand.

And then the hypnotic effect began. We would alternate stretches of unforgiving washes with stretches of rolling trails of less forgiving decomposed granite and rock. The views were powerful and always changing, and the trail was the kind that made you focus on every step; the kind where the left foot - right foot order keeps you in the moment longer than anything else can. The horses constantly pulled and renegotiated speed and before we knew it we had arrived at the first vet check at 12 miles or so.

The in-timers pulled us in and sent us on to the pulse-takers who sent us on to the vets, who sent us on to the stations of warm mash, carrot chunks and flakes of alfalfa. The horses slurped and slopped and we headed for the food services table to fill our hands with sandwiches, granola bars, fruit and cookies. Clydea pulled three Starbucks Double Shots out of her cantle bag and we slurped and slopped too. The 30 minutes passed quickly. We shed a layer, applied sunblock and got back on board.

Zeb, I’ve decided, has it all figured out. He does not challenge other horses or humans; he just wants his rider to sit up and hang on. He’d rather pick his own speed, but will go at the speed you ask of him. His ears stay forward; his gaze ahead and there has yet to be anything at a ride that makes him take a step off his course for the finish line. I could learn a thing or two from his focus, but really I just can’t get enough of his metronome gaits that simply don’t falter.

The trail settled into the contrast of ditch versus rock, and the lure of the transition back and forth between extremes consumed us. Rock, ditch, rock, ditch, rock. All the while the sun was rising, the day becoming more beautiful and the horses eager to find their own groove that would get them to the finish line. Sit up, hang on: I’ll get you there.

The 25-mile point came sooner than we expected – sooner than I’d care to admit. The hour hold at base camp was a welcome pause in comfortable chairs in the sun with bowls of chili and beef & barley soup. Zeb did not lift his head from hay, water and slop.

We headed off to the second loop. The miles seemed longer; the sand deeper and the rocks more jagged.

It seemed like the sand would have to take its toll. Surely we would lose a shoe or take the edge off the horse as we trotted away from camp? But the gait remained strong and Clydea and I, now without our companion riders, grew quiet. There must have been ten checkpoints manned by the Sheriff’s Posse who greeted us with smiles, water and a request for numbers, always reporting on the progress of their riders to the radio gods. Miles began to look like the preceding miles and the familiar last climb out of the wash and up to the airstrip came slower than I had imagined. I was ready for the greeting by the line of in-timers, pulse-takers and vets. This check was also alive with helpful 4-H girls proudly guarding their horse refreshment stations with limitless supplies of staples.

We were obviously ready to take on the return to camp because we were at the out-timer’s station with four minutes left on the clock. Names are always the first thing I forget when I meet people, but it will be hard to forget the charm and generosity of the lady who counted down the minutes while we waited. As we looked for a dip or a log to ease the remount onto our horses, she boasted membership in the club of the Rock and Ditch Riders. It is the group of riders in Wickenburg who cannot mount without a rock or a ditch. I was proud to reciprocate by letting her know that we were proud members of the HBAFGMS (pronounced Hubbafuggams). She enjoyed knowing that the name was the acronym for Hell’s Bitches and a Few Good Men. I reassured her that I was one of the good men.

A mere 12 miles and we would be home. The riders had spread out and the hubbub of the morning check was gone. We got to ride completely alone. We learned from more Posse reps of some riders who had gone off trail, but the horses knew they were heading home and the lure of the finish line kept their focus on the job at hand.

We finished at about 3:30. The horses had deep, shiny eyes and an appetite. I took a long hot shower and headed down to the awards dinner at the community center, where the band played and the front-runners were awarded with hand-made artwork. The rest of us got sweatshirts and a meal that will bring us back for more next year. Thank you, Wickenburg, for being such a gracious host. Thank you to the 150 volunteers who shared their trucks, quads, cooking and generosity with 140 of the most appreciative riders. Hip, hip, hooray!

Kevin Myers

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