August 07 horsenews – Mostly in the Yolo Bypass of the Sacramento River.

For a slideshow of pictures from this month, click here (F11 for full screen recommended)

            First ride in the dead dry 90s of August was from north of Davis, north up the east side of 113, then behind the Woodland sewage plants which back up on the outer western floodplain of the Sacramento River. Thanks to the following south wind, our dust cloud kept up with us. Traveller kept clearing his windpipe and my contacts got gritty.
            A herd of goats was deployed to crop down the weeds behind the sewage plant, and their guard dogs came out and barked at us across the water of a deep ditch. We passed by, and crossed over I-5 on an overpass that seems to be dedicated only to farm vehicles. As we descended the other side the sunburned goatherd caught up with us in his pickup truck and apologized for the dogs, mainly I think because he wanted to talk to a fellow madman in the noonday sun. He said he only had two of his more mellow dogs with the herd because larger packs tended to egg each other on and could be dangerous, i.e. to people like me. I told him that it seemed to me that dogs tended to be vocal up to the limits of what they took to be their territory but satisfied to stand and bark at that line. He said that one of the two had got across the canal behind me, in case I hadn’t noticed. I hadn’t, but truth was I wouldn’t have been worried anyway.
            I carried along into the northeast outskirts of Woodland beside the railroad tracks and behind the big warehouses to buy something for lunch at a gas station, and ate under a tree on the manicured grass of an industrial park. Then back over the freeway and east across fields of some stalky crop, nothing resembling anything I ever saw on the end of a fork, maybe sorghum? It was being harvested by big combines moving like mechanical ducks in a shooting gallery, bopping along in straigh lines and making 180s right around at the ends of rows without cutting speed. At the western levee of the bypass we headed south into the wind, looking east towards the towers of Sacramento. The enticing stretches of water and expanses of green of the bypass were rendered unattainable by a slough running along the base of the levee.
            The first crossing over this slough appeared a few miles later, unfortunately just opposite a substantial complex of agricultural buildings, wherein even on this Sunday human stirrings could be detected. The leveetop had horse-circumventable anti-vehicle barriers with no trespassing signs on the north (the way I had come), east (into the bypass), and south, while to the unobstructed west was a paved road with sloping, weedy, unrideable shoulders. I was afraid that if I ducked into the bypass I might not be able to find another escape hatch and we would have to come back out right here, where agents of the corporate farm might be waiting, perhaps with hightened ire if they noticed me as we stood there calculating. So I reluctantly dismounted and began to lead Traveller west.
            As we trudged past the ag buildings 30 yards away, a grey-bearded man came out onto the porch of one and looked at us, and I gestured an acknowledgement. As I continued, I had second thoughts: even though the man might put two and two together and give me hell for having been on the wrong side of his no trespassing signs, maybe he might have decided that anyone who thought he lived and worked in a beautiful place deserved to have a chance to spend more time in it. But I was already well past when these musings had fully unfolded, and I did not turn back.
            Then from behind me a Jeep SUV approached, and the bearded man stopped and rolled down his window to talk. Swiss, I judged. He liked Traveller, wanted to know why I was leading him, and seemed pleased to learn it was because I thought the pavement was too hard for riding. So he asked where I was headed, and when I indicated a destination about five miles to the southwest, began suggesting how I could ride through the rice paddies in the right direction. I told him that if I could just get to the other side of the canal running along the south side of the road I could surely pick my way through, so he told me he’d make sure the next gate, a hundred yards ahead, was unlocked. When I told him that even though I didn’t have enough time left that day, what I really wanted to do was come back and go out into the bypass, he gave me his phone number, said his name was Claude prounced like a cloud in the sky, and said to call ahead and he’d make sure I could get through the gates.
            Ho-ho! Beauty and permission! We set out through the green and blue of the rice paddies on the soft black silt tracks, elated. Joy is monotonous in the recounting, I suppose. Out in the midst, looking up in the sky, I saw a flight of pelicans soaring in their wide, looping circles. As they bank around the far side of their arc they show the sunbright tops of their wings, and on the near side the unilluminated undersides. At first the flock is white, then grey, white, grey, white, grey, and as their circles slip further from me I can see in the same slow rhythm only white specs, then nothing, then white, then nothing, until finally they have drifted so far away I lose sight of them altogether.
            The next weekend we started near the east end of Road 27 and headed into the paddies again. Ahead of us four shiny wet muskrats trundled one after another across our track, from the rice paddy to the ditch. (Their crossing left a unique set of scuffs and water drop craters in a pattern in the dust that I began to notice elsewhere near water.) Many white herons were about, and long pure white feathers were to be found. We crossed the levee into the bypass and turned right, planning a counter-clockwise loop. The air was hot and still, and resting in the shade of a patch of willows I was surprised to hear their leaves rustling in a breeze I could not feel. It was a small flock of blackbirds that wheeled a few feet overhead.
            We followed the slough at the base of the levee south to the railroad bridge just north of the freeway, then turned left across the bypass, and left again, north now, near the levee separating the bypass from the Sacramento River. In the late afternoon, level with the point at which we’d entered the bypass that morning, we turned west to head back. The bypass is the collecting basin for whatever water hasn’t been sucked out of every stream coming from the Coast Range that used to flow in the the Sacramento before our forefathers built the levees, so it seems like it has more creeks, sloughs, canals, ponds, ditches and soggy dirt per square mile than any other piece of inland California. Before we were halfway back we came to a deep wide canal lying crossways to our path.
            In the spirit of completing a loop, I pushed to the right along the thinly-weeded canal bank hoping to find a crossing. But after half a mile, nothing looked promising – in fact the water was on a line to gradually merge with the much bigger canal which sloped towards it from behind us – this canal delimits the east side of the bypass and is separated only from the Sacramento itself by a levee. It looked like busting brush and collecting tail burrs for another another mile was only likely to corner us in a waterlocked peninsula.
            So back south we went, approximately retracing our steps, something I find unsatisfactory to one degree or another. Finally we could cross the canal, but another quarter mile west here was another one. I cursed and plugged on south, the crow’s flight distance to the truck, according to the GPS, increasing with every step. Eventually this canal petered out, and by crackling through a half mile of neck-high dried weeds we made it back to the western levee and our original inbound route. I think we finally hit the truck about seven, a couple of hours later than expected. It was along in here, trying to thread our way down a bramble-plagued track, that the incompatibility of termino and star thistles was brought to our attention.
            The next weekend we started from about the same point, went straight in to the bypass and when we hit the blocking canals went left this time. Eventually we came to the point on the opposite bank from where I’d given up and turned back the week before. A few hundred yards further on there was a crossing, dirt shoved over a big pipe. Not pushing on that quarter mile had added five to the previous weekend’s expedition.
            That day’s ride took us up the far side of the bypass into a little segment of fairly wild, overgrown lowland close to where 5 comes over, then a little north of 5 and along it back across the bypass, back under 5 and again back to the uncultivated patch on the far side. Now we turned south (i.e. downstream – 50 miles further at the foot of Mt. Diablo the drainage curls to the right and becomes San Francisco Bay) on a nice dirt and grass track. But after a little ways it became impassible, and we were forced to turn west into the bypass just where two huge tracked harversters were roaring and thrashing through the muddy fields. They had mills in front like riverboat paddlewheels mowing down and shoving the unidentifiable crop into their maws, and horizontal whirling flails behind, apparently to decapitate any survivors. Traveller was impressed. In fact, I had to get off and lead him past the one that was next to the track, churning and lurching towards us. He was fixated on the whirling rails of the mill, and the rear flail took him by surprise and if I hadn’t already been leaning into his shoulder to keep him going straight, his jump would just about have sent me caroming into the canal.
            Last weekend of the month, we set out from the excellent little town of Yolo, just across the freeway from Woodland. Yolo, named after an Indian tribe that had been politically important in the Spanish and Mexican days and the namesake of the bypass which has given me so many days of happy riding, is enormously relaxing to be in, a ramshackle, undeveloped, ungentrified, untarted-up little village, with some 19th-century buildings, some still in use, false-front commercial buildings, a two-block main street, and a house with a Betty Boop bas-relief covering one wall.
This is where Cache Creek comes out from under Highway 5, across from where we left off on the Woodland side last month. There is a nice flat dirt track above the creek bulldozed along the bench below the left bank levee, shaded with full-grown oaks at intervals. It takes you all the way down to the creek’s settling basin in the bypass, on the north, upriver side of I-80. We crossed the basin, stopping for water in the irrigation ditches, and at the far levee turned northeast, along the Knights Landing Ridge Cut. Along the way here I stopped and  lay down for a nap in the shade of an oak tree, but the ground belonged to tiny black ants that started biting me, or maybe were actually eating me.
            Carried on, and turned into Knights Landing itself, for lunch at the grocery store and to let a couple of boys touch and feed Traveller. Then further east along the Ridge Cut, which now started to get more interesting, the terrain more broken up, corn, rice, alfalfa, sloughs, uncultivated patches. But before long we were five or six miles north of Yolo, time to turn back, pretty much a straight shot through the fields back down. Now is late in the tomato season, vines in shambles, trampled, stripped of most their fruit by the insensible harvesting machines, some fields scraped clean to the bare dirt for the next crop.


            Got a DVD of the horsiest horse movie ever: Nomad, or The Warrior, set in Kazhakstan. All the tack and gear and costumes and yurts and wrangling looked like the real deal to me, and I’ve read a lot about and looked at a lot of pictures of central Asian horse cultures and their artifacts. My only complaint was the wrong guys won – the people inside the mud walls defeated the khan who lived in the tent on wheels. One other thing: virtually all the riding was at the canter, and I know from reading that the Mongols travelled at the trot. The books say they mostly stand in the stirrups – knees like springs, they say, with the consequence that they don’t walk very well, but they leave their horse saddled outside the tent all day and will ride it any distance greater than four yards. At times they also sit the trot, necks limp and heads lolling. Not so photogenic, of course.

            September Dawn: to demonstrate his sensitivity before the pretty immigrant, the Mormon hero quotes John Lyons and round-pens the hitherto unrideable stallion.

            Horse: How the Horse Has Shaped Civilization, by J. Edward Chamberlin. This is the book Deb Bennett wished she knew enough to have written (Chamberlin does actually cite a chapter she co-wrote about horses on the pampas). Chamberlin knows something about horses first hand, but mainly he has read far and wide on the subject, from Blackfoot mythology to Assyrian art. He covers the evolution and prehistory of the species, its psychology and society, its physiology, gaits, uses drawing carriages, chariots and plows, use in migration, transhumance, warfare, mythology. The longest, and to my mind the most interesting section, is on the horse’s roles in various civilizations – Greek, Jewish, Egyptian, Persian, Chinese, Mongol, Assyrian, Roman, Hunnish, Arab, Berber, Japanese, Ottoman, European, Amerindian. He mentions the first identified bitted horse, a stallion from the grasslands of the Ukraine 6,000 years ago; deduces that Muhammad rode a gaited horse with termino; discusses horse sacrifices and horse burials; asserts that horses are nocturnal, adducing their trait of foaling at night; says that they can detect footfalls of potential preditors through the soles of their hooves. The book is easy to read; in fact it suffers from over-popularization, the kind of facile cultural references, for example to Marshal McLuhan, that tend to glamorize a professor with his undergradates. My other complaints are the distracting forced mysticism, and his anthropomorphizing horses more than I would, saying for example that they show off because they want to look good.
            One of his references caught my eye: Tschiffely’s Ride: Ten Thousand Miles in the Saddle from Southern Cross to Pole Star (1933).
            The best book by a long shot I’ve ever read about horses is still Arnold Rojas’ These Were the Vaqueros.