Journey: Noun & Verb

Joy Sawyer Mulligan
Few horse trips are a walk in the park—or  a trot or a lope, for that matter. There’sall the preparation of food and gear, both human and equine; the stockhauling and the potential for flat tires or stripped gears; thelikelihood of lost shoes, cinch sores, hornet nests, or low-hangingbranches.
Few horse trips are a walk in the park—or a trot or a lope, for thatmatter. There’s all the preparation of food and gear, both human andequine; the stock hauling and the potential for flat tires or strippedgears; the likelihood of lost shoes, cinch sores, hornet nests, orlow-hanging branches. But this mid-year, when a lucky seven packed upfor a weekend horse trip, all good things seemed to lie ahead: the promise of Kurt Meyer’sreputedly awesome trail cooking, some after-chores Texas Hold ‘Em, and the view of the world below (land and sea) from the Ridge on the ridehome to Thacher. Even the weather forecaster’s “slight chance of rain”didn’t dampen their anticipation of their time in the Sespe RiverWilderness.

Day one was fun, according to junior Kendra Carter,a ranked “Horseman” and the trip captain, ending with practice atRing-on-a-String in Patton’s Cabin, cut-throat cards, and a dinner oftri-tip and pasta alfredo. Although she and Mr. Meyer wisely set upcots inside near the fire, the other students—Mary Ellen Funke, Lili Pike, Chris Colson, Will Callan, and Chris Dienst—linedup pads and sleeping bags outside to take in all that Ma Nature had tooffer in that neck of her woods. They didn’t know that that wouldinclude precipitation, and by just before midnight, the rain had driventhem in. A few hours of restless, though dry, sleep later, and all wereup to feed the nine horses and themselves.

After bacon and eggs,the group tacked up, loaded gear, and donned slickers for the long rideup and over the Ridge to campus, twelve miles and five hoursaway—usually. Kendra’s story begins, “We were an hour late getting outof Patton’s—but that would be least of our worries. Leading the pack onChevy, my roommate’s trusted steed, I paved the way.   Ourfirst obstacle was going under a fallen tree, and then clearinganother.  Mr. Meyer was lumberman/trail clearer of the day.” Annoying, but characteristic trail trials.

The group delightedat their first sight of snow—a small patch here and there, no more thanan inch deep. But soon enough, it covered trail, with increasingseriousness. Kendra continues, “The trail on the shady side of themountain is sketchy under normal conditions, but with the snow, thegoing was even sketchier. The snow was a new experience for the horses,and Chevy didn't really know what to do about it.  He was afraidat first and not quite sure how to move in it, but [soon] realized that[going through it] was the only way to get home.  He figured thatif he bucked and moved faster it would be easier.  It was a wildride.”  And one that would last several miles.

Lili chimesin, “The horses would come up and try to go fast, loping, in a way, asthe snow got deeper. And the weather was sort of playing with us, Iswear: it would be windy and snowy, then there’d suddenly be a rainbow.A minute later, we’d be back in the clouds.” In one of the morespectacular moments among mount, rider, and packhorse, Traveler (whomChris Dienst was leading) felt the lead rope twirl around his leg, andas Chris reached down and back to get it out from under Traveler’shoof, his own horse spun, hind legs off the edge of the trail. Quick off her own horse, Lili landed solidly, grabbed Traveler, and,with her compadres, got things calmed down again.

Kendra picksup the tale: “After about an hour and a half of [punching through]around three feet of snow, Chevy refused to move. He was panting andquivering all over.  I sat there thinking, ‘Why did I sign up for this?’ and ‘Are we going to make it through?’”

“Yes”to that second question: they eventually made their way by tying offthe lead ropes of the pack animals and having Kendra run ahead of Chevyon foot, while keeping clear of his forward lunges. Further on, whenChevy refused to move, Mary Ellen and Chocolate, took the lead insimilar fashion. It was a matter of putting one foot/hoof in front ofanother, dodging overgrown brush, not looking down, and moving aheadwith just the right combination of caution and boldness.

After twice the usual time on the trail, the expeditioneers got to the top of the Ridge by mid-afternoon, hungry and tired. While Kendra and Mr.Meyer rebalanced the pack-boxes and panniers on the horses and redidhitches, the others hunkered down against to wind to refortify on BonAppetit bagels and Mrs. Meyer’s homemade cookies. But topping the Ridgewasn’t to be the end of the challenges: as they began to head along thefire road, they found themselves engulfed in cloud, with 4-foot driftsyet to plow through. “At the top of the Ridge, you couldn’t see eventwenty feet in front of you,” Will Callan reports. “We were all prettyantsy to get down into some clear weather, but with all of the mist infront of us, there was no obvious turnoff in sight. Finally, we saw it:a small, rusty sign saying that The Thacher School was four miles downthe trail.”

Not fifteen minutes later, the totality of whitedissipated, becoming a sunlit sky above the variegated green of theOjai Valley. Will continued, “You could look behind you and see thedense, white wall that [we] had just passed through hovering there.”From there, it was down through The Pines and, eventually, on familiarswitchbacks, to school.

The funny thing was—and this perhapsaddresses Kendra’s first question, “Why did I sign up for this?”—thatthe group returned to a quiet, unperturbed Sunday afternoon campus.Most of their peers were studying, or taking naps, or watching theSuperbowl. If they were outside, it was under blue skies; looking up tothe Los Padres, they saw snow that seemed merely lovely, picturesque.

Yetthese seven riders had been to a whole new world and back. “It was,”declares Kendra, “the hardest trip I had been on both mentally andphysically. After walking through snow, our feet and hands were numb,and our stomachs wanted food.” It was, the kids agree, a little surrealto be back on terra familiaris.

Kendrasees the benefits this way: “As captain of the trip, I learned to bepatient and to trust myself.” There’s that—and the fact that theyounger, far less experienced students trusted Kendra, Mr. Meyer, andtheir horses to get them back home—as long as, together, they all kepthome in their sights. “We bonded through laughter, struggle, and acommon goal,” Kendra concludes.

So, then, back to Kendra’sfirst question, now many miles, many days distant. Why sign up for acamping trip, or for the Horse Program, or, more generally, for thelock-stock-and-incredible-barrel that is The Thacher Experience?

The answer is in the third stanza of C.P. Cavafy’s Ithaca, a poem the 9th graders read each year when they’re studying Homer’s The Odyssey:

Always keep Ithaca fixed in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for long years;
and even to anchor at the isle when you are old,
rich with all that you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

It’s all about the journey.

And at Thacher, there’s not much metaphoric about it.

Photography: Lili Pike CdeP 2011, Christopher Land, Joy Sawyer-Mulligan


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