Another Op’ning, Another Blow
©Kenneth Harris, 2008
We lived in Auburn, California from 1962 to 1970. For much of that time I worked for Intercoast Life Insurance Company, home office in Davis. For all of the time we lived in Auburn we were involved with the Western States Trail Ride.
The Western States Trail Ride occurs once every year on the Saturday following the “Hunters Moon,” which occurs in the hot days of summer. Starting out at o-dark-hundred, riders attempt to take their horse from Tahoe City to Auburn, over the Sierra Nevadas, in 24 hours.
But there's more. Each year the trail has to be reopened, rediscovered, or relocated after the winter snows and rains. This involves hardy horsemen riding out on many weekends armed with hatchets, bow saws, yellow tape to mark the trail, and lots of muscle and good will. My horse, Legend, and I were usually part of the trail crew and, in general, I enjoyed being a part of it all.
One day in 1968 sitting at lunch in the safety of the insurance company home office with a co-worker named Dave de la Cruz, I nattered on about the joys of riding in the mountains. I didn't mention anything about hazards and hardships, just the pleasure of communing with nature. Dave said, “Gee, I wish there was someplace like that we could ride. Dixon is so flat.”
What could I say? Dave lived in Dixon. Dixon is in the Central Valley. Dixon is flat. I don’t want to downgrade the place, but it is pool table flat.
What could I say? I could have said any number of things, but what I did say was to invite him and his wife to go riding with me on the following Saturday morning. I had thought of a ride across two canyons from Michigan Bluff. We would go down a steep canyon and out of it, across Deadwood Ridge, into and out of another steep canyon to Last Chance Mine, and then turn around and come back again. By the time we returned to Michigan Bluff we would have ridden a distance of 20 miles or so, but have involved ourselves 7,500 feet of ascent and descent. Beautiful country, but you needed strong horses and strong butts. Iron horses and iron butts would be even better. I was looking forward to it.
It never occurred to me that Dave and his wife, used to the loamy flats of Dixon, might not be able to make a ride like that in good style. Or at all.
Fortunately, the matter never came up because we didn’t make that ride. We would have had to trailer over mountain roads, paved but steep and curvy, and we needed to leave by 8:00 o’clock. Dave, and his wife, and his car, and his trailer, and his horses, arrived at 10:00 o’clock. Two hours late.
They arrived in an elderly station wagon that could barely pull the steep hill up to our house. When Dave opened the hood to his vehicle to see why he was having such power difficulties we saw sparks flying from loose and cracked wiring. He had eight cylinders, all of them firing about forty percent of the time.
A Michigan Bluff ride was out of the question, but we could trailer down to Robie Point, just outside of Auburn, and then ride down the Old Stage Coach Road to the American River, follow a few trails for a while, and still get back in time for a late lunch. And this became our new plan.
We trailered to Robie Point, the de la Cruzes with their quarter horses and me with Joanne’s pet horse, Ringwraith, since my pet horse, Legend, was unavailable. (We had acquired Ringwraith just after we had read The Lord of the Rings. Ring was a big, strong animal with very dark brown hair. His ears lopped, which made him look as though he would love to stomp a hobbit. Consequently, strangers gave him a wide berth. But Ring was really a nice guy, mainly, I think, because people left him alone.)
When it came to trailering, Legend and I had spoiled each other. I would put food in the trailer manger, lower the tail gate and rump chain, point Legend in the direction of the food and in she would walk. I would fasten her halter to the manger by means of a breakaway chain, drape her lead rope over her back, hook the rump chain back up, and close the tailgate. When it came time to unload the horse, I was supposed to unsnap the chain from the halter. The horse’s head is free, it backs up, feels the rump chain, and waits until the universe is in better order. But with Legend I had got in the habit of doing things in reverse order. In this case I first did the tailgate, then the rump chain, then tried to unchain the halter.
Ring felt the rump chain give and backed up. But his head was still confined, held by the breakaway chain. At that point he lost his head. And I almost lost mine. He swung his head back and forth wildly while I tried to undo the chain. His head hit mine accidentally and split it open above and to the side of my right eye. Popped it like a grape.
Eventually I gained control of Ring’s head and backed him out onto the street. Now we had a slight complication. Blood had stuck my eyelids shut and I couldn’t see. I asked Dave to hold my horse. He said, “No.”
His wife added, “I think I’m going to be sick.”
I realized I had a problem, maybe two or three.
I pried my eyes open so I could see at least a little bit, tied Ring to the trailer and then washed the blood off my face with water from the nearest garden hose. I dripped back to my horse, untied him, climbed into the saddle and said, “Let’s go.”
Just then the guy who lived in the house with the garden hose came out and asked, “Are you all right?”
But for some reason my company felt we ought to return home. I took stock of myself and saw that I looked like I had fought on both sides at the Battle of Shiloh. I looked like I had all of my blood on my clothes and none in my body. Even I realized we didn't need to go on a ride. The morning had already been perfect.
When we reached home Joanne drove me to the doctor’s office for some fancy whipstitching. The doctor was a horseman and treated the whole episode with jovial manner while I had unkind thoughts. When he was through, Joanne pointed out that there were still a few bits of flesh sticking out at odd angles from my face. Not to worry. He snipped them off with scissors. That part of my face wasn’t numbed, but I was fairly numb all over anyway.
We had a light lunch and Joanne took the de la Cruzes out for a gentle ride in an area we called Big Hill. Not mountains, but rolling hills with oak trees and magpies. It was a nice ride. They rode for half an hour, but when Joanne asked them which direction they wanted to go next, they said back to the trailer. They were exhausted. I hate to think what would have happened if we had tried the Michigan Bluff canyons. We’d still be there.
Lesson one: Just because someone says he can ride doesn’t mean he can ride.
Lesson two: Just because someone says he can unload a horse doesn’t mean much either.