Tuesday Katie and I stopped at the post office in Whitehall so I could mail off a small package. The woman behind the counter said “you’re not from around here, are you?” “Nope, I’m riding horseback across the country.”
Her face lit up. “You’re that woman who’s all over facebook right now!”
I allowed as that was probably true and asked if there was food to be found at the gas station next door. She said yes, but recommended that we push on to T-town, about 5 miles up the road – the food was better there – so we munched on a quick granola bar and pushed on to T-town. (Consisting of a Shell gas station that used to be a Texaco station.) As we were placing our orders the woman behind the counter, obviously already having figured out who we must be, asked how far we’d come that day. It’s a strange and new thing to be recognized like this! (Must be the hat… ;-))
I’ve been asked to write something about how I choose a route, a camp, a place to stay. Coming out of T-town a big truck came zooming by and all of the equines spooked a bit, Katie’s mule spinning and taking a moment to settle down. I looked across the road and saw a path leading over to the levee (aka dyke: a long mound of earth to keep the river from flooding the surrounding land). Animals, like people, tend to be more reactive when they’re tired. No sense pushing them when we didn’t need to; the levee route was a bit longer, following the river in gentle curves, but the footing was better and it brought us away from the traffic on highway 84. After following the levee for a mile, we came to a locked gate. We rode along the edge of a field back towards the road. I’ve learned that Jesse has a strong preference for riding With traffic. A semi zooming up from behind can pass within 4′ of my elbow and he keeps his cool. That same semi, coming at us? NOT!
Knowing this, we dismounted. Traffic at that time of day was heavy and crossing the road would be difficult. The covered arena where we were planning to stop for the night was less than a mile ahead and it felt safer to walk. Good call! Moments after we rejoined the highway heading East, several trucks (heading West) approached at high speed on our right side, two horses galloped up to the fence on our left and all three equines went into flight mode. Katie’s new mule got away from her and jumped the ditch to get away from the road and closer to the unknown horses. (Much better than running out into the road in a blind panic, smart mule!) At the far end of the ditch we were all reunited and walked on to the Lazy T arena – ready to quit for the day. We had untacked and were getting water for the equines when a tall man walked over and said we’d been invited to his mom’s place one mile up the road. A man had stayed with them 20 years ago who had been riding north from the tip of South America (and spoke very little English!) and as Long Riders we were more than welcome. On offer were an arena full of grass and a real bed and bath for the humans. Wednesday was a planned rest day – what to do? After brief deliberations we resaddled, tossed the gear into a truck, rode the weary mile (with traffic, which had slowed down a bit by this time) and were very glad we did!
Plans change moment by moment. They have to, as circumstances (and our understanding of them) evolve constantly. There’s a big picture plan – and then there’s the daily reality. Weather, mental and physical condition (human and equine) and road conditions play a part – and sometimes news comes in that we could have no way of anticipating. If you look on the “Route” page at the top of the blog, you’ll see that the plan as written is to head from Natchez, Mississippi towards Memphis, Tennessee and then up to Louisville, Kentucky. Yesterday I received an e-mail from a friend that there’s an outbreak of EHV-1 in Shelby County, Tennessee. That’s Memphis. EHV-1 is a deadly, highly contagious equine virus which can be spread by horses (or mules) touching noses or sharing a water source. There is no vaccine and no cure. It’s also cropped up recently in Illinois, so we need to go around to the east rather than to the west. Hopefully by the time we get up that far it’ll be under control, but that’s the sort of thing that can change your plans in a Hurry!
So, apart from epidemics and severe weather alerts, what determines a good route? I’m usually not interested in taking the most direct route. The ponies and I prefer to take the smallest roads we can find that go in the general direction we’re headed. Footing is important. Sand, dirt and pine needles are all lovely beneath the hoof. Large rock gravel, lava or lumpy hard ground aren’t good at all. Smooth pavement is somewhere in the middle. It’s also important to look ahead far enough to avoid dead ends (places that aren’t passable on horseback for whatever reason). Out West I tended to travel from known water source to known water source. Since entering Louisiana it’s been more about where it’s possible to cross the ever-present water. Horses aren’t allowed on Interstates, Freeways, Expressways, toll roads or Parkways. This means that the obvious route via vehicle probably isn’t the best route for the ponies.
I enjoy riding through small towns, picking up my mail at small town post offices, taking back roads when I can and avoiding heavy traffic and speeding trucks. Flat is better than hilly – mountain roads tend to have poor visibility around curves and very little shoulder – this is Not Safe for horse travel and part of the reason I’m heading Northward on the West side of the Appalachian Mountains. (Another reason is that the Appalachian Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean would funnel me right up into the awful mess of the Baltimore/DC/Philly/NYC sprawl!) I enjoy it when people stop along the road to ask where I’m going, what I’m doing and why. (The ponies love it when people stop and offer them treats ;-)) This doesn’t happen much when people are speeding along at 75 mph while talking on their cell ‘phones or texting (which scares me half to death!) People stopping to chat often leads to useful information about routes, places to stay, local history. Often the best route is the one that leads to a good place to stop for the night with the herd.
Which brings us to: what makes a good camp or place to stop for the night? Priority number one is Water for the ponies. Water weighs 8 pounds per gallon, thus two horses need At Least 160 pounds of water per day. There’s no way I can carry water for the ponies so I must work hard at making sure they have water every night (and thus in the morning before we start riding). They may not get water during the day and they’ve learned to tank up when they can. Priority number two is something for them to eat. Grass is best although hay is good too. Mr.James has a medical condition – like diabetes in people – which means that he doesn’t digest sugars well, leading to muscle deterioration. It’s really bad for him to eat sweet feed (or feeds with high sugar/starch content) and he has to get most of his calories from grazing.
Finehorn HATES being inside a barn in a stall – the one night that we didn’t have a choice about it she spent most of the night trying to batter her way free. Both Jesse James and Finehorn can be tethered (a long rope leading from their halter to a tree or other fixed point) but none of the other equines who have travelled with the Rodeo have done well with this – meaning that a fence or enclosure of some sort makes for a much more comfortable night than tying them short enough that they can’t get tangled up in the rope and possibly injured. A grassy pasture or paddock is the equine ideal.
Human accommodations come second to doing my best to give the ponies a safe and comfortable (and nourishing) night. In the past 17 months I’ve spent about a third of the nights in my tent (or under the stars), a third of the nights being invited into someone’s home and a third of the nights in “alternate shelter” – which can be anything that provides shelter from the elements without putting up the tent. Bunkhouses, bachelor pads, hay barns, grain silos, campers, abandoned sheep herder cabins, a high school chemistry lab – it saves me about an hour to not put the tent up and lately the dew has been so heavy that sometimes it’s mid-morning before things are dry enough to pack. (Wet gear is heavier – so it’s generally worth the wait.) Each of the three options have their charms and I’ve found myself honestly grateful for a wide variety of resting places. It’s nice to be invited in and fed and have a chance to get to know people I never would have met otherwise. It’s nice to have the privacy of a self-contained living unit. It’s nice to listen to the night world (and the ponies munching) through the walls of my cozy tent. It’s not nice to be fussy!
I try to give the ponies (and myself) two days off out of seven. They need to rest and graze and grow a bit of hoof and I need time to catch up on chores and “office work”. I am not a fast writer. It takes me half a day (at least!) of uninterrupted time to write a blog post. Since entering Texas I’ve been in country without Wilderness, without Commons. This means that I can’t stop for the night (much less two nights and a rest day) without getting permission from Someone. Crossing into Lousiana I’ve also come into some very different weather patterns. I prefer not to ride in thunder and lightning storms (especially since these seem to come with tornado watches!) so days off, ideally, coincide with bad weather days. If I’m honest I really prefer to have a roof of some sort over my head when the heavens cut loose or it’s achingly cold. It’s a bonus to have access to electricity on days off as well. The solar panel does a great job charging my cell ‘phone but isn’t adequate to the task of charging my laptop. Obviously the only way a “perfect” day off happens is largely an out-of-my-control matter of grace – and I have been amazed and blessed at how frequently they seem to be offered.
The place where we’re staying right now has been a beautiful example of that grace. We had been expecting to stay at the Lazy T arena, grateful that it came with electricity, a roof and a ladies loo with a shower! We were unexpectedly invited into a wonderful home and a family of horse people who seem to know just about everybody around. When Katie got the sad news about her mule from the farrier on Wednesday morning they were right there, three generations, supportive and helpful and actively helping with the search for a more suitable mount. Thursday night Katie went to a baseball game and could hear people on their cell ‘phones all over the stands, “yadda yadda MULE yadda yadda HORSE” and Friday afternoon the patriarch came and said “Katie, get in the truck, we’ve got something for you to look at.” Sure enough, Katie came home with a mule fitting all of her specifications. The introduction of Walter to the herd went brilliantly. More on that soon!