Several times when I’ve gone in to schools to speak with the kids I’ve been asked “What’s the best gift anyone has given you on this Journey?” A few reporters have asked the same question. It’s a hard one to answer and instead I’ll generally tell the story Jesus told about the widow who gave her last tuppence and how that gift had more value than large amounts given by the very wealthy. Still not a very satisfying answer to the question – and the truth is that the answer at the top of my mind changes with my mood and situation. I have received an abundance of gifts and kindnesses in the course of this Journey and my mind doesn’t naturally think in terms of superlatives: best, worst, funniest, hardest – yuck!
The 25th of March, 2012 wasn’t my best day. It started out well enough, waking to a beautiful sunrise on a secret little lake just South of Phoenix, the ponies munching contentedly and an egret fishing on the shore. I looked at my map and decided to follow the broad sandy bed of the Gila River, thinking it would be a much nicer ride than the alternative pavement and traffic. The first hour was beautiful and peaceful with good footing for the ponies on packed sand within sight of the river. When the salt cedar got too thick I followed the ATV trail that matched the one on my map. Things started to get a little surreal: half bicycles and dismembered baby dolls sticking up from the sand, the aftermath of floods lending a postapocalyptic feel to the terrain. I was utterly alone, the only sounds of Civilization an occasional plane overhead and I called a friend on my cell ‘phone to try and dispell the spookiness. It was getting hot. Many hours later the ATV track deadended at a large cedar tree with a bunch of spent shotgun shells on the ground. I looked at my map. To the North I could see a housing development but couldn’t figure out how to get there from where I had landed. It was a long disorienting way back, getting lost again even while trying to track myself in reverse!
So much for urban Wilderness. It was late afternoon and I returned to the pavement, more concerned with finding water and a place to stop for the night. I stopped at an abandoned cow lot with lots of dried manure and big fans turning idly in the breeze but nobody answered when I knocked on the door of the house. I continued on, following what looked to be the most direct route to a recreation area back along the Gila River. I was riding on the sidewalk through a ritzy housing development where every house shared walls with its neighbors and the “yards” contained nothing but varying arrangements of rock, gravel, cement and cactus. I didn’t think people would appreciate it if the ponies and I drank from their fountains. It was rush hour for commuters coming home and people were sticking their smart ‘phones out of their windows and snapping photos as they drove by. Nobody talked to me, nobody waved. I felt like an exhibit on a not-so-fun-ride at Disney. Not only was this not a pony friendly area, it didn’t even feel human friendly.
I finally made it through the worst of the congestion, past a strip mall and on to where I could see some open country up ahead. No water, but at least an end to the traffic and clutter of buildings. I stopped to ask directions and learned that the road that had looked like a short cut on my map didn’t exist. A man stopped and asked if he could take some photos and I said yes. The sun went over the horizon. I was tired and thirsty and worried about my ponies, wondering where in this crazy terrain I could find them a bit of comfort for the night after a 20 mile day. A couple on bicycles stopped to see if they could help. I was explaining my situation and the man with the camera was being really intrusive, using a big flash and going for strange angles. I felt like he was trying to take photos of the inside of my nose and I finally asked him to stop. He didn’t, replying that I’d said it was ok. I said that I’d had enough and he needed to stop – Now. He refused. The couple on the bicycles watched as things escalated and I eventually (after warning him first) charged him with the ponies and threatened to break his expensive camera. He wouldn’t back off until I finally was reduced to yelling that I bet he was the kind of man who, if a woman agreed to shake his hand, would figure that was licence to date rape her. At that point he finally left. I was shaking, embarrassed, angry and exhausted – and I still needed to find a place for the ponies to rest for the night. Not my finest hour.
Blessings on the bicycle couple. They were still there after all that! They took matters in hand, made a few ‘phone calls, got permission for me to bring the ponies back to the empty cow lot, found a bale of hay and were reassuringly calm and polite. Surprisingly, after seeing me acting like a total psycho, they invited me back to their house for dinner and a shower and a bed for the night. They even introduced me to their children!
Fast forward to February, 2013. I’d made the difficult decision to leave Luna Jack behind, I was still feeling the effects of my tumble back in January, thunder and lightning and tornado watches were the new challenge (not to mention finding suitable bridges over ubiquitous water) and I received an e-mail from the woman who’d rescued me that night almost a year earlier. She wrote of the positive impact I’d had on their family and introduced me to a Finnish word: Sisu, which she said I embodied, encouraging me to google it if I’d never heard of it before. (I hadn’t, so I did!)
According to Wikipedia: Sisu is a Finnish term loosely translated into English as strength of will, determination, perseverance, and acting rationally in the face of adversity. However, the word is widely considered to lack a proper translation into any other language. Sisu has been described as being integral to understanding Finnish Culture. However sisu is defined by a long-term element in it; it is not momentary courage, but the ability to sustain an action against the odds. Deciding on a course of action and then sticking to that decision against repeated failures is sisu. It is similar to equanimity, except the forbearance of sisu has a grimmer quality of stress management than the latter. (there’s more – but you can look it up yourself if you’re interested)
I am writing today from Lawrenceburg Tennessee. In the wonderful serendipitous way of this Journey I am staying with the woman who was my very first riding instructor - I hadn’t seen nor heard of her in 35 years! Jesse James had a severe allergic reaction to the iodine shampoo I was using to treat his rain rot and it’s looking like it’s going to be awhile before he’s ready to carry me on his back. It’s been a difficult two weeks since I last posted a blog entry. I’ve been worried about Jesse James and how to figure out and do what’s best for him, freaking out about my ability to make it to Minot by 8.November, stressing about finances, options, logistics, weather, time slipping away and the blog post that I wasn’t writing because I couldn’t figure out what to say. I was afraid to open myself up to criticism by being honest about my current situation. Then I remembered Sisu and the family in Arizona who believes in me, which reminded me of all the other people I’ve met on this Journey who have been so encouraging and kind. It helped me to remember who I am and did a lot to drown out the few harsh and negative voices I’ve encountered.
So – since quitting is not an option – what are the options? It’s been suggested by several people that I find another horse to continue on with, leaving Jesse James at Meriwood Farms with LSK while he rests and recovers. That doesn’t feel right to me, partly because of the difficulties of finding another suitable horse, partly because of herd dynamics – but mostly because I am committed to Jesse and Finehorn as “the herd” – they’ve come this far with me, the two of them are tightly bonded and I hate the thought of leaving either of them behind. Another idea has been to postpone the finale for a year, finding a place to stop and rest and recover before heading north to Maine next spring (arrive 8.Nov. 2014) – which would bring us into Minot 60 years to the day from when Mesannie Wilkins left. While this option isn’t 100% off the table, I’m afraid that I’d lose a lot of momentum, not only in terms of the Journey, but in terms of the blog and fb – and I worry about what that would do to the book I’m planning to write when the riding part of things is complete. (Never mind the logistics of finding a place to go, figuring out how to get there and setting up a viable life for 9 months!)
Which brings us to option #3: Walking. I’ve walked before. My heart is not singing with joy at the prospect (and my feet are absolutely cringing) – it’s summer and it’s hot here and muggy and walking along the side of a road leading two horses isn’t the most fun I can imagine, but I can do it. I’ve hiked 750 miles of the Appalachian Trail (admittedly 12 years ago) and this is a lot less mountainous and strenuous than that. I’m still toying with the idea of leaving Jesse here to recover a bit more, heading out with Finehorn and having Jesse delivered by trailer in a couple of weeks or a month. The downside of that is the stress of separation for the ponies; no way to explain to them that this is temporary. I can keep doctoring Jesse while we’re travelling and he’ll heal just as quickly walking down the road as standing in a pasture – unfortunately I am honestly worried about a certain stripe of well meaning animal rights activist seeing his back and deciding that he’d be better off without me. That sort of conversation can be time consuming at best and logic generally doesn’t enter into it.
The past two weeks haven’t been entirely bad. I’ve gotten to see jousting for the first time, had an introduction to falconry and learned to milk a goat. I’ve reconnected with my first riding instructor and had a chance to get some badly needed rest. The ponies and I have come over 3500 miles together, we’ve got around 1400 miles to go. Even if we only cover 60 miles a week we’re still on track to reach Minot, Maine by 8.November. Sisu.