April 1, 2023
The scenery sped by. Grace and Skye had never been to Acton, never been on Soledad Canyon before. The boss plied the highway at a leisurely pace with her old favorite truck. It was no pavement queen, but, she said, it made a fine camper once everything was emptied out of it.
"Is that where we live?" Skye asked, pointing with her nose toward the snow-covered ridge.
"Yup" Grace said.
"We're on the other side of that ridge" the boss said, "and to the left of those big power poles."
Grace noted the wide open spaces. Thick vegetation. Wild canyons. There wasn't much but open country between them, as the crow flies. There was actually quite a lot of open country, dotted with the occasional ranch or fence line.
They reached their destination in the late afternoon. Willow Springs International Raceway. It was mostly silent now, the desert breeze making its way through low scrub, the sun moving across a wide open sky. The tracks were all behind locked gates, but there was plenty of open asphalt. As soon as the old truck was unloaded, Grace and the boss freed the Jeep from the tow hitch, and Skye took the wheel. It was a perfect place to get some driving practice.
Grace was lost in thought. Thoughts about what she's just seen. The big, wild country between their home in Chilao and the hills of Acton, a land still at least partially devoted to a rural lifestyle. There was plenty of room for horses there. And some of those steep canyons might even boast year round water.
The desert ground was hard, as if it had never rained. But it was also mercifully flat. Gradually Skye would relax, sit down in her seat, let her shoulders fall naturally. Driving the little Jeep was fun.
Grace took the wheel for the track day. The girls didn't have a lot of experience with motorcycles, so the whole of it was new and exciting. The smells, the sounds, the beautiful machines, the leather riding suits and shining helmets. Everyone seemed happy and friendly. Many people had dogs with them.
"You know" Skye said, "if we had a tent, we could do stuff like this more often."
Grace was quiet for a long time.
"If we had a tent..." Grace trailed off mid-sentence.
And the girls were not the only ones with an old Jeep.
The day had gone by fast. At some point, the wind claimed Grace's black hat for good. When it was over, the truck was packed back up, the Jeep hooked up behind it, and the journey back into the snow line began. Grace's head swiveled from side to side as the boss drove. So much open country. What if. What if the wild horses came from this place.
Monday dawned cold and threatening to snow in Chilao. Then the wind picked up. The girls were a little worn down from the weekend, and decided to turn out some horses in the relative warmth of the indoor arena.
"Funny" Grace said, "When I made these ponchos they were really just to hide your Christmas present under. I had them draped over the saddle trees. And now we've worn them all winter long, and it's spring, and we're still wearing them. When are you going to start working on those saddles?"
Skye let out a deep, long sigh. "I have...artist's block. Or something. I don't know. I can't seem to get things started, or finished. I want to, but then...I think I'm scared of the saddles. I don't want to screw them up, you know?"
The girls watched the twin grulla horses.
"There's still two of them" Skye noted. "Did the boss decide not to sell the lighter one?"
"I don't know" Grace said. "She hasn't said a word about it, and I'm sure not going to bring it up."
Skye went to see the old Coulter pine. It seemed to be clinging to life by a thread. It was a thin thread. But there was new green. It was sparse, it was tenuous...but there was green. There was a little bit of hope left. Maybe, just maybe it could recover.
Skye found Grace in the tack room. She was making quite the mess.
"So" Skye questioned. "I guess the calla lily experiment is concluded?"
"Yup." Grace answered. "I can't take it any more. I quit."
"Can we at least keep those two giant ones?"
Grace really wanted to say no.
"Even though we now have until October to see if they will bloom in pots, I don't think I can stand another minute of lugging them around trying to find the right place for them. They dry out, then they freeze, they get too much water, not enough water...we tried."
"The boss asked me if I wanted to do another guest blog on the website."
"Skye that's very cool. What will you write about?"
"The Raramuri criollo. Well, the criollo cattle in general and then specifically, the Raramuri. I wish I knew where Mikki was these days, she could probably help me. But there's a ton of stuff on the internet. I think I can do it."
"Yes you can" Grace affirmed. "Maybe we'll chase some calves around this weekend and see if we can inspire and inform your creativity. If I let you ride Cookie will you let me get rid of all these dang plants? I won't burn them at the stake or anything. I'm going to...liberate them. Yes, that's it. I will return them to freedom."
Skye laughed. "I'll think about it..."
"The boss helped me make these posters" Skye said. "We struggled with the words a little, because we don't really own the mare, but I wanted to do something."
Grace studied the poster for a few moments. It was a lovely image of Petrichor, the pale mare and her foal, taken on the last day they had seen her.
"I think it's good" Grace finally responded. "I mean, it assumes someone has the pale mare, but any other consequence is out of our control, so I think it's fine. I think she was probably further away than one hundred yards from the ranch when we saw her last though."
Skye looked perplexed.
"It's not a big deal. You get the idea. This horse is missing and we want her back."
"It's still light out" Skye responded. "Let's go out and calculate the distance."
The air was heavy with moisture. It was more than a hundred yards. And that was okay. Pretty soon the girls were entranced by the green. Green grass, green trees, everything so vibrantly green, the moist earth drawing close the moisture in the air, the dampness setting on them, invisible and yet present.
The sound, fainter now but nonetheless omnipresent, of seasonal streams everywhere.
They heard a sound. Skye jumped up and spun around.
They scanned the landscape.
And then they appeared, quite close. Crazy's band.
The twin foals were both in good shape. Crazy saw the girls, but didn't respond except to do a little more head shaking and hoof stomping than he normally did. They were going to wherever they went for the night, wanting for neither food nor fresh water.
And the night came softly.
Grace got her wish. Apparently the boss had connections. Arena sand from the quarry up the road had been delivered. The load was apparently thirty per cent water and the truck stopped twice on the way down to tilt and drain. But there it was. Arena sand. It just needed to dry.
The boss also got a new lighting system for the indoor arena. She asked the girls if they could bring out a couple of black horses. Of course the problem with black horses is you have to watch your camera metering. But as far as the lights working, it appeared they did.
Grace turned loose a particularly proud, lithe Thoroughbred stallion.
"Oh, who is this handsome boy?"
"He's got the best name" Grace said. "My Darkest Hour."
"I bet the old black mare looked like him in her day."
"I bet she did."
And it was laundry day, although Skye isn't sure there was any saving the white shirt. It had stains she didn't even recognize.
The boss was on a role. When they got done with the arena lights there were a few hours of daylight left. She asked if Grace and Skye could help her get a few horses photographed. The first one was a pony named Joey...and Joey hit the dirt and rolled before anyone got a picture.
"Ooooh! Joey! Why? Why?"
Grace laughed. "I think it's a pony thing" she said. "They seem to have a special sense of humor."
Grace got Vinnie to take a bow. The boss was impressed with the bow but not with her pictures.
"He's so hard to photograph" she said. "I never quite get that shimmer in his coat. But you did a great job grooming him."
Grace wasn't sure she liked his ribbons colors. But it sounded like this might not be the last photo session with Vinnie.
Last horse for the day. Another looker. Wild Bill, a gift from Carissa Kirksey.
"So" Grace said to Skye, "Tomorrow morning let's get up really really early, and we'll go out and play with the calves before the boss can catch us and give us another all day chore list."
Skye grinned. "Okay."
The alarm went off at 5 AM, but Grace silenced it. The girls had been up watching programs until the wee hours of dawn. A little after 6 AM they began to stir. First slowly, then more quickly. But the dawn came even faster.
Grace managed to break the buckle on her chaps, and then they could not find Cookie's bridle. The one they put on her was made for a draft horse and barely clung to her head. They turned the calves loose, and watched as they immediately went to the eastern ridgeline...a rocky ground wholly unsuitable for stock work.
"Just go easy" Grace said. "I guess our goal will be to get the calves out of here and on to softer ground."
"What if we split them?" Skye said. "You take six, I take six."
It sounded so simple.
"I'll take the slow six" Grace said. "You are on a real cow pony. I'm on a horse that may have never seen a calf before."
So far so good. The sound of rocks against Cookie's hooves was unsettling, but she seemed able to navigate them.
"I thought cows just followed the leader" Skye said, as her six calves continually proved to have independent ideas about which direction they should be going. The reins on the drafter bridle were very long, and she mostly didn't need them, but they were cumbersome.
Dawn's light spread across the landscape.
One calf back in the bunch, and another one veers off in the wrong direction. Separating the group was easy. Keeping them that way was proving challenging.
Just as the sunlight crested the ridge, Grace lost two of the slow calves. The two fast slow calves. They joined Skye's loosely knit group.
La Barilla was more or less getting the idea, but his style was a little different. When a calf tried to break rank, he threw a strike with a front hoof. And for the most part, it worked.
"All right" Grace said, "Enough separation anxiety. Let's get them out of here."
And once the calves were all together again, they did more or less move as a unit. Or at least, in the same general direction.
A gentle breeze swayed Skye's shirts, swinging from hangers on the arena fence. It seemed like a good idea at the time. But the next thing she knew, Grace was turning out horses. Skye scurried to grab her shirts as Anamar got ready to kick up some dust.
The grey seemed to have a fondness for Skye. He certainly wasn't afraid of flapping shirts.
"So I have a plan for next weekend" Grace said.
"Let's have it" Skye replied.
"Next weekend, let's do a traditional regalia ride."
Skye smiled. Bewildered.
"Okay I don't have anything to wear but we'll get Anamar in his traditional tack and we'll get you on a horse in traditional native regalia.
Skye smiled, and remained silent.
"I know, your saddle isn't done. It's okay. I have a plan."
What that plan might be, Skye couldn't even begin to imagine.
"Okay. Let's do it."
Skye stood looking at her beautiful dresses. "I'm kind of scared to put on the buckskin dress" Skye said. "I don't want to get it dirty."
"If you're going to try riding in a cloth dress, I'd say wear this one. I think the extra leg room will come in handy."
Skye was excited. She still had no idea what Grace had up her sleeve, but she was excited.
"Did you find anything to wear for riding Anamar?"
Grace shook her head. "Not that I have anything even if I did find some reference photos, but so far I've not seen any traditional women's regalia for him."
Grace had also thought it might be fun to watch the meteor shower tonight, and let Skye try to get some pictures. The boss had done a pretty fair job on a whim just yesterday evening. But it wasn't looking hopeful. The girls watched the sky as it filled quickly with what people referred to as chemtrails, a word which never failed to register emotional and opinionated responses.
"Do you think it'll blow away by tonight?" Skye asked.
Grace paused and looked around before answering.
"I'm thinking X marks the spot and today it's our turn. It looks like they're just getting started. We could be under a glowing white sky by noon and a night devoid of stars entirely. But we'll see, I guess.
Skye didn't recognize the horse she was about to ride. He was a solid black quarter horse gelding. And he was tacked up in a lovely, older plains saddle and beaded bridle. This was a surprise indeed.
"You good?" Grace asked.
"Yeah I'm good!"
Her feet didn't quite make it into the stirrups. It was close though. She could do one stirrup or the other, both not both at the same time. The saddle was big and roomy.
Grace handed her the blanket that would make everything look proper and acceptable. Anamar was ready to go.
Grace watched the sky. She was almost positive there would be no star gazing tonight. No meteor shower, no mountain magic.
Although Skye was mostly absorbed in her first ever ride in regalia, she saw the look on Grace's face. She looked up too.
"You know what's ironic?" Grace said.
"I'm pretty sure today is 'Earth Day.' "
Skye's mount was calm and steady. Anamar was animated.
"Is this the first time you've taken him out?" Skye asked Grace of Anamar.
"It is. I really like him. He's very alert but also sure of himself. No hesitation."
Skye imagined herself in a time long ago, riding across the prairie, through mountain passes, seeking out what wild foods she might harvest.
"This is a big saddle" Skye said out loud.
"It is" Grace said. You could carry a baby or a child in that saddle with you. Or...whatever."
Grace was probably right. It was just about noon and the sky was nearly transformed from blue to white.
"So if we are so woke" Skye questioned, "how come we can't talk about this? The sky. I mean we watched it. These aren't clouds. This time for sure I know you aren't crazy. We watched a blue sky get transformed and we watched commercial jets fly through that same sky and their vapor trails dissipated. This is not a natural phenomenon and it covers a whole region."
"Because we aren't that woke" Grace said.
"If humanity was all that woke we wouldn't kill each other over religion or racial differences. If we were woke we would be engaging in global environmental restoration and we would go about progress thinking of long term impact. People would care more about the quality of air and water and less about fashion and make up. Now as for the sky that's a slightly more complicated issue. Two things are happening. Most of the world's population is bent down over their jobs all week, and then consumed with whatever they do to forget about their miserable lives over the weekend. Or they are working seven days to feed their kids. They don't look up. People haven't seen the sky in a long time. The other thing is denial. We know that some day in the near future humans are going to try to colonize Mars. But we don't want to believe under any circumstances that something is going on right now in the skies above us. No way. Not possible. There's something deep and psychologically terrifying about that. People don't want to be woke about that. Let's argue over language, or bar soap versus liquid...or anything. Just don't tell me the sky is being manipulated."
Skye thought about those things for a little bit. She thought about the times she'd spent off the mountain. Tried to think if she looked at the sky, except here, being on the mountain. On the mountain it was different. For one thing, the sky was big, and everywhere. For another, what you paid attention to was different, and more immediate. A sound in the bushes meant something and you better look. Around people and cities there's the whole created world. Traffic, shopping, eye candy, small talk, being proper, choices, needing money for everything...the sky didn't figure too prominently in that world. You would have to really focus and look, and pay attention over time to realize how it got cloudy.
They rode in silence for a little while. Their shadows grew soft, the sunlight filtered. There were few flowers blooming, save for the filigree, but there would be more flowers soon. Skye tried to find her way back into her happy dream place. It took a few moments, but eventually the gentle sway of the black's smooth walk and the rhythmic sound of the horses' hooves on the not exactly soft soil worked its magic, and she let go of the sky above for a little bit, and focused on the view from between her horse's ears.
There was a sudden and immediate shift in awareness that brought Grace out of her head and into the moment. She and Anamar spun around as one.
They faced Petrichor and his band.
Skye watched the stallion and forgot everything previous. She imagined writing a blog about the morning. She composed it in her mind as a gust of wind tussled her blanket and tugged at her hair.
"My first ride in regalia. To be true, it was pretty much one long wardrobe malfunction. First there was the matter of getting situated in my ribbon dress. And my moccasins coming untied again and again. The saddle itself was adorned with an aged wool blanket that seemed to come to life as the day grew warm. The wind and sunlight felt delicious on my bare legs, which would not have been showing except for the trouble I had keeping the modesty blanket arranged. And then, just as I was trying to get all these things under control and look like a proper lady...a wild stallion appeared!"
Petrichor looked fit. There had probably never been better pasture in the Angeles than there was this spring.
Grace kept Anamar gathered under her, and for the first time ever hoped Petrichor would keep his distance. It was still just the bay mare and the two foals, her own and the orphaned black foal. She waited for the appearance of Highlander and his band, but Highlander never came.
Petrichor and his band lingered only for a moment, then turned westward, disappearing into the jagged landscape as suddenly as they had appeared.
The rest of the girls' ride was uneventful. Grace had been a few hours off on her prediction. When they returned to the barn at 3 PM, the sky was a mass of white, as far as they could see. The juxtaposition of dreams and reality, past and present had been a little difficult for Skye. Still. There was something radically different about the ride they had just taken. She would need some time to process all the things.
The day was warm and glorious. The girls waited for the wind to die down. As the afternoon wore on the wind rose and fell, took long pauses between breaths, but never really stopped. And wind made it hard to control horses.
So they made the mutually unpopular decision to turn the ponies out in the indoor arena. Particularly since they'd never taken the ponies - as a group - out on the property, or through Chilao. It was definitely on the to-do list.
Joey, the smallest of the ponies, was quick to roll. Surprising, with so many other ponies in the arena.
Grace watched a pretty bay riding pony interacting with one of the welsh type mares. She was sure he was a gelding. His expression wasn't convincing somehow.
Although big and sturdy, the Chincoteague foal was a bit shy.
Skye was entranced with a pinto mare.
Whether or not it was smart was debatable, but Skye decide to ride Mischief. So far, so good.
"Eighteen!" Grace counted. "That's a lot of ponies! I think we're at capacity."
Except for the mares with foals, Skye tried to get them all moving in the same direction.
"You better stay on" Grace said. "There's a lot of tiny hooves in here."
"I'm ready this time" Skye said. "I'm either gonna grab a hand full of mane or just jump off."
In the last hour of daylight, the winds lessened, the gusts becoming an occasional breeze.
And finally, as the sun set, it was wind still. Skye's beloved tree was probably not going to make it. The boss had taken a pictures of it dappled with snow, and Skye thought she might like to try and paint that scene. It wouldn't be too long before the firefighters felled it, leaving it to lie next to its sibling, collapsed onto the ground.
Aerosol particulate refraction made a disorderly rainbow in western sky.
Home at day's end, Grace and Skye examined the American Saddlebred bust. Skye had done a little more work on her NaMo horse.
"I can see lights and darks emerging" Grace said. I think you're going to survive this."
Dawn, April 30
The girls rode the eastern ridgeline on La Barilla and Ladyhawk. Birdsong filled the air and dewdrops clung to the vegetation. The sky grew ever lighter at the sun's approach.
They left the race property, crossing the road toward the fire station, dipping down into the tributary stream above Mustang Rock. The sound of hooves striking the occasional rock hidden in the soft sound, La Barilla pawing at the water, raven's call just above. But not a word out of Grace.
Skye couldn't take the silence any more.
"What are you thinking about?" she asked Grace.
There was a long, serious pause before she answered.