Friday, August 05, 2005

Halcyon Days

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December 28, 1973. When I stopped the bicycle I had borrowed for the day from the Palm Springs hotel where Dad and I were staying, I felt sweat dribble down my stomach.

After breakfast, he left with business associates to meet at an office, inspect properties, review documents. I wasn’t quite sure why he had to come to Palm Springs between Christmas and New Year’s Day. I knew it had to do with something that had to be done before the end of the year, and that it involved gold mining operations in the mountains near Big Bear ski resort.

The name of the company was Atajo Resources. “Atajo” means short cut in Spanish. A short cut was what I had been seeking as I road the 10-speed racing bicycle down wide, sidewalked streets until I found the blacktop highway that led to the riding stables.

I had decided to kill a few hours by going horseback riding in the canyons. Dad told me that there were two separate oases at the end of the trail – the first would be easy to find, with palm trees and a waterfall cascading down a cliff formed by the San Andreas fault.

As I pulled up to the stables, I saw a clutch of horses in the shade next to the stables. One was drinking water. Another, a gelding, shook his head, long mane rippling. I chained my bicycle to a rack and walked to the small office located in a room on the side of the main stable area.

“Do you know how to ride?” asked a sun-leathered blonde woman in jeans, well-worn ostrich boots.

“Well, I’m from Oklahoma,” I ventured, as though that explained anything at all. It was assumed that anyone from Oklahoma or Texas was born in a western saddle.

The truth was, I didn’t really ride often. The last time I spent any time on horseback was when I was seven years old, and my family and I were spending the summer in Lovelock, Nevada. My best friend lived on a small farm that adjoined a dry lake bed. She had two very gentle horses. We would saddle up and take long rides out on the lakebed, where we would explore the periphery. It always amazed me that the lake soil consisted of small shells.

“Shells. Yes. Tiny ones and large ones. Diatomaceous earth. These were once inland seas,” Dad explained. “The Great Salt Lake in Utah is one of them. It used to be a part of Lake Bonneville.”

“Seas? In the desert?” I asked. I couldn’t imagine it, except in fairy tale or in Noah terms.

It didn’t matter. These were my halcyon days, before the bad things happened, before I started losing my dreams to the tremors that took me under the surface of consciousness like a dark baptism, and which left me riddled with shame at best, and at worst, true self-hatred. Over-compensatory activities began to define me. After months and years of that, I didn’t even know who or what I was seeking to be. I just wanted to feel something besides pain when people looked at me.

We lie in the land of the lotus and poppy;
We vegetate, calm and aesthetic,
On the beach, on the sand, in the sun. (Ogden Nash, “Halcyon Days”)

The idea of letting two seven-year-old girls take unaccompanied horseback rides into a huge dry lake was pretty astonishing in retrospect, but it seemed normal at the time. When we returned, I was always hungry. My friend’s mom would prepare biscuits and molasses, a treat I found to be very odd. Mother had, by that time, completely converted to organic foods, and was always whipping up shakes consisting of powdered milk, water, brewer’s yeast, vitamin E, and honey, to accompany raw carrot sticks, celery, and soy milk “cheese.”

When Dad was in town, our diet shifted to what amounted to prototypical fast food. We went to Jonesy’s Drive-In for dinner, followed by Baskin Robbins.

The woman gestured toward one of the horses. It was the dark brown gelding I had noticed.

“Do you think you can handle Chopper?” she asked me. I noticed hre jeans had a crease down the middle as though she pressed them with an iron. Her ostrich cowboy boots were exquisitely tooled, and she wore heirloom-quality turquoise jewelry. I wondered how many people knew what this symbolized.

“Chopper?” I asked.

“He’s the tall one over there,” she said. “He gets pretty excited when he hears motorcycles, so be careful.”

“Do I have any other choices?” I asked.

“Well, if you want to come back at 1, we’ll have a few more.” It was 9 am. I didn’t want to wait.

“Chopper looks fine to me,” I said. “Where are the oases?”

“Just follow the trail. The horse won’t want to go, so you’ll have to insist.” We exchanged money and then walked over to the horse.

A young guy with long hair wearing a Vietnam battle jacket was already saddling Chopper. He looked about 24, but his face was weathered like a 40-year-old. He had a scar on his neck. “Where are your boots?” he asked.

“I didn’t bring any,” I said. I wondered if it would be a problem.

“Heh,” he said. “By the way. Chopper used to be a race horse.”

Alarm flashed across my face. The Vietnam vet broke into laughter.

“Hah-hah. That’s a joke! Chopper’s a good guy. We go into the mountains and talk to each other. He’s got a lot to tell.”

Once secured in the wide and rather loose western saddle, I felt my knees shake. I had forgotten how to ride. Worse than that, I was a bit afraid of Chopper. He did not seem to like to have the saddle tight around him, and I couldn’t seem to get the stirrups right.

If Dad knew I was doing this, he would be quite upset. “What if you start to seize, Ophelia? I won’t have my equipment around.”

Ironically, the equipment Dad used for his geophysical research, with its pulsing light and plasma flash-crackles, did not trigger seizures. Instead, looking into the flashing, arrhythmic bolts and blasts smoothed out my brain waves, and instead of knotting myself into a ball of pure agony and shame, I felt my muscles slowly uncurl, slowly establish a new equilibrium. It was like being released from jail after a long, erroneous incarceration.

“Okay, little missy, you’re going to have to take control here. Don’t be afraid,” she slapped Chopper on the rump to get him started. “Signal him to go. Enjoy!”

The first part of the trail was straight-forward enough, but it quickly became challenging as we entered a narrow arroyo, and the canyon walls rose up starkly around us. There was clear evidence of recent flash floods in the form of boulders and rocks, even in the middle of the path. In addition to rocks, there were little eroded gullies, caused by waters flowing across.

It was clear that Chopper loathed this trail. He kept trying to turn around. I did not want to go back. Although the path was steep and tricky, it was clear that we were ascending to something shady and interesting that lay just around the bend.

I urged Chopper on. He grudgingly picked up the pace. The stirrup was rubbing against my ankle and I could feel a blister forming. I gripped harder with my knees as I felt the saddle slip a bit. My heart pounded. It was work, and I was definitely transgressing the will of the horse.

Chopper froze dead in the trail, almost catapulting me over his head and into the sage, yucca, and prickly pear. The unmistakable buzz of a rattlesnake whirred, echoing on the canyon walls. It was impossible to tell where it was coming from.

“Chopper! It’s okay, boy, it’s okay. It’s okay!!!” I leaned forward and tried to soothe him with my voice. Chopper was having nothing of that. He stamped his legs and started backing up. I was in danger of falling off. My tennis shoes did not slot the stirrups like cowboy boots, and I had lost my balance.

The rattlesnake was on the edge of the trail directly ahead of us. I pulled the rein to the side fairly sharply, hoping that Chopper hadn’t actually seen the snake. I needed to turn him around immediately. Hanging on for dear life, I got him turned around – and he started trotting downhill back toward the stables. My legs would not stop trembling.

Once we were back to the flat field, we did a few circles – first trotting, then walking.

“Tell me your stories, Chopper. Tell them.” If there were stories, I didn’t hear them. We did stop at a little copse of trees, where a tiny little pool of strangely fresh water bubbled up between rocks. Chopper put his head down and drank deeply. I could feel tears of relief spill down my cheeks. In the rippling reflection, I saw sparkles of light between the flickering through the broad-leaved trees. The horse’s face was barely visible, but through a trick of light and optics, my chest, shoulder, and face rippled on the side.

Chopper led the way back to the stable. He walked at first, then trotted as we neared the saddling up area.

“Just an hour? I thought you were planning on a couple of hours,” said the leathery woman.

“I decided I needed to get back,” I said. The guy in the Vietnam battle jacket had just walked behind the stables.

“I hope you enjoyed it. Your bike’s in the sun now – it might be kind of hot.” she said. I looked down at my dirty socks and muddy tennis shoes. Blood from burst blisters was pinking them, and even though I had been on horseback for less than an hour, my thigh muscles felt rubbery and burning.