July 2007 – A ride [click on any picture for a full-screen version]

            Pulled off of Road 99 after the bridge over Willow Slough, west of Highway 113, about 10 am on a bright sunny Sunday. Set off east down the dirt track that runs alongside the slough and borders the field. Half way to where the creek goes under the freeway, turned left and headed north across the fields. (This ride is virtually all flat dirt, i.e., 90% gaitable, and gait we did, with a little walking and some leading interspersed, to rest the horse and to stretch my legs. For non-Californians: it does not rain from May to September, so all the weeds are dead, dried yellow.) Crossed a road, entered fields, jogged right around the end of  a treeline, entered the next field. Stopped in the middle, dismounted, through the binoculars spotted what looked like might be a way under the freeway half a mile off; remounted, rode over to check it out. Dismounted to hop a ditch; crossed a dead end stub of a paved road and a field, and saw it was a railroad undercrossing and that we could have gotten under and carried on east this way.
Crossed back over field, road and ditch, headed north, jumped another ditch, crossed the railroad again, another road behind it, and into the fields next to a yuppified farmhouse, vineyards on the left. Rode to the back of the vineyards, to the freeway fence, up the dirt track to an overpass, into the back of the once cutsey but now semi-derelict Satiety Winery. Crossed the road, rested and cooled the horse in the shade of some big trees. Examined the buildings ahead down the dirt track with the binoculars; spotted a basketball hoop, indicative of a residence, much more likely to be occupied on a Sunday than any industrial or agricultural installation. Skirted the buildings to the right, running alongside the freeway again, now around the right end of a tree line. Down the dirt track through a weedy field to a shady clump of trees, a tire swing hanging from one; beyond was a dirt parking area for a Christian middle and high school which itself was on the southern edge of Woodland. Rode up to the cul-de-sac debouching on the school to see if there might be a fairgrounds; nothing but subdivisions. Back to the trees; rested in the shade and cooled the horse. Bum on bike approached from the direction of the town; when he got close and noticed us in the shade he started a bit, greeted us and carried on south.
Confronted by the town, we turned west, separated from the subdivisions by a field. Back at the railroad track, which here had wide dirt sides, went north into town to see what happens. Big sharp gravel required dismount and leading; Mexican apartment slums on left, shopping center ahead on right; turned back. (It turned out that that another long block further and we’d have found the fairgrounds, although we might have been cut off by a chain link fence on this side.)
A canal coming from due west disappears under the road and railroad at the edge of the housing. The canalside footing looked fine but was sealed off with impregnable chain link gates. A paved road ran parallel to the canal; we went a few yards south of the houses fronting on the road and zig zagged along on the nice dirt ag road backing the houses next to fields. One house had goats. Passed a man with a shovel; he had a broad-brimmed hat and his back to us so I didn’t get to see if he was brown, so I zipped by to avoid being challenged if he were not.
We found a leaky irrigation pipe near a well pump; T drank. Crossed another road and went around beside and behind a post-war ranch-style mansion with extensive landscaped grounds, the last house in the row. Here we could get across the canal. The footing was pretty nice dirt; backyard dogs barked hysterically and lept wildly at at their fences as they heard us going by. The canal turned north into town; we pursued it for a hundred yards but soon encountered impassible chain link gates. Heading back, someone in a back yard called to someone in the house to look at the horse. Lead Traveller across the canal on a narrow cement footbridge with low railings and continued east, a branch of the canal with houses on the right, fields on the left.
At the next road in a shady patch with half dozen very big walnut trees, really a little orchard, I had a snack and a short nap. A white pickup, indicative of an owner or foreman, passed once in each direction, seeming to take no notice of us, but waking me up on the return trip. It looked like we had gotten to the southwest corner of town: across the road there were fields ahead and on all sides. So we went straight on in, and soon turned north at a dirt track to skirt Woodland’s west margin. Crossed a road; went east to the city edge; no cold drinks in sight, only a church; returned west a bit, headed north on a track next to an uncultivated field on the right and a chain link fence securing some sort of equipment yard on the left, and encountered an east-west canal. Turned west along the canal, between walls of 12-foot tall flowering bushes, oleanders or something, on all sides. The canal gradually curved northwest. A white pickup with insignia on the doors came towards us on the opposite side and slowed, but no crossing was available and it picked up speed again. At the next road the canal carried on a few yards by a ratty house with pickup truck and madly barking dogs; a young woman came out and yelled harshly at them.
Behind the house a chain-link-fenced equipment yard blocked the canal, so we headed north alongside the road on the edge of the field. At a 4-way stop intersection next to a grocery, volunteer firemen were selling fireworks. I stopped  for Gatorade and teased the Volunteer firemen raising money ...?firemen. The east-west road was busy with traffic to and from the Cache Creek casino. A young loser type in the grocery was buying beer from the east Indian proprietor wife. After a rest in the shade we headed up the edge of the field on the west side of the same north-south road, and turned west at a single lane paved crossroad where we could ride behind the row of trees lining the road. We were now at 12 or 13 miles and it was time to begin to loop. We came across the loser, who had bicycled with his beer to a semi-private shady spot under these trees. T shied, the guy said, “Nice horse;” I said the horse was scared; the loser apologized; I told him there was no need to, it wasn’t his fault. When I looked back he was peddling away.
            Now we entered walnut orchards, and stopped under a bit tree to pee, cool off and graze on the Bermuda grass. The temperature today reached the high 80s, and T’s flank felt quite warm at these stops, then distinctly cooler after a few minutes. We continued west in the wide grassy shady margin between the orchard’s outermost row and the road. It end in a T intersection. We went south a little alongside the road looking west into the orchard; eventually I could see daylight so we cut straight through and came upon a north-south canal. We headed north. The canal began to curve west. There was a treeline in view further to the north, which later I figured out was Putah Creek, which we came down on a later weekend. We crossed the canal on a bridge for ag machinery and turned south on the west bank. South, southeast, south along fields. We approached a beautiful big old 19th century farmhouse on the other side of  a ploughed field from the canal bank. We rode over to look closer. It was for sale, and I picked up flyer and called on the cell phone to see if I could take a look at the interior, but there was no answer. Back in the day the original occupants must have ridden to town. They might even have been rich enough to afford gaited saddle horses.
We crossed the road southbound again on the canal. Passed fenced pasture inhabited by some horses, including a couple of babies. T drank from a puddle where an irrigation ditch drew from the canal. We continued south along the canal. It curved easterly. We could see an oldish farm house compound on the right. Dogs barked, and the owner returned my wave. On the opposite bank ranks of sunflowers had their backs to the sun, heads drooping, like shades shuffling through Hades. The canal crossed a road and went south along it, then turned east again. I started to recognize the terrain – in fact we were on Willow Slough – and remembering looking west from the truck and seeing some buildings on the north side of the slough I figured I should be on the south bank. But then a secondary canal cut off due south with no bridge, so I had to go down it looking for a crossing. There was an orchard to the right and a new-mown field across the canal.
I could hear recorded music ahead beyond the orchard. The canal seemed to be getting dryer, and I located a place where the sides were not too steep. We went down; there was no water, only light mud under the weeds, and we scrambled up the other side. From there I could see the truck and trailer about where I and the GPS expected it to be, half a mile northeast across the field. We went straight east across the field, strewn with golden stalks of mown hay, sweating when we got into the lee of blocks of bales, back to Road 99 again, then north a quarter mile along edge of the field and across the bridge to the trailer. 25.1 miles; it was a little after 5.
Upper Cache Creek            Next weekend, set out from 505 and followed Cache Creek over to Woodland, up to Highway 113. The creek is sweetly unspoiled for half the way, but above Woodland the gravel miners are tearing at it, and near the town the ORVs, shooters and trash dumpers are visiting the human holocaust upon it.
Next weekend, 113 along the north edge of Davis to the Yolo Bypass. Almost nothing of beauty, aside from one single field of cut golden straw glistening in the sun. Otherwise it was just fields of uncut dead summer weeds, dirt tracks alongside gravel railroad beds or between weed-grown levees next to canals, bare fields in between plantings, copses stewn with trash and junked vehicles, burned-over levee sides – and yet when I was finished I felt satisfied, and remain satisfied any time I put myself back in the ride in my memory. I thought about it for a week or so, and I believe it’s just a primitive urge to be moving across ground under the sky thatTraveller was gratified.
Actually, some satisfaction also came from the fact I wasn’t bothered by the heat, which hit 92 degrees. I had finally completed my annual adaptation to the summer heat, which the boys in Iraq say takes them two weeks. That sounds about right. Of course Iraq does have 40 degrees on the Central Valley, but then the boys have 40 years on me.
            Went to the Clements Buckaroos Extreme Ranch Trials, east of Lodi on highway 88. It was basically a Trail Trials course but harder on the horse – there was a jump over oil drums and a couple of big step-downs that I didn’t want to subject my horse to. But apparently there is some kind of cult associated with this, separate from Trail Trials – a couple showed up to practice who the course owner told me had their own smaller version at home, and I think there is also some kind of TV show related to it. The cutest obstacle was a rocking bridge – looked to be 3 foot wide by 24 feet long plywood teeter-totter with a railroad tie crossways under it in the middle. The standard approach was from the down end, so that when you crossed the tie it tipped. The challenge approach was from the up end, so the horse’s first step onto it brought it down, and then it tipped again when you crossed the middle. After a couple of rounds Lower Cache Creek through the obstacles and a lot of time getting Traveller to agree to drag the two tires around the bales, we headed over to the Mokelumne river to see what we might find.
            There are tracks winding through the hydraulic gold mine tailings upriver, but they are so gravelley that you can do no more than pick your way through the star thistle leading and walking. However downstream, between approximately Clements and Lockeford, there is about three miles of beautifully soft dirt-topped levee between shady walnut orchards and the overgrown riverbottom. Midway, a half dozen carloads of Mexicans of all ages and genders had found access and were having a Sunday barbecue and swim. The next afternoon at home I got in the car, fought my way through traffic, located a slot in the hot, crowded shopping center parking lot and waited in line at the bank. When the teller asked me how my weekend was, I glanced at the clock on the wall and told her that yesterday about that time I was sleeping in the shade of a walnut tree next to a river while my horse grazed.
            Last weekend of the month, heading east from 113, we passed downwind of another field of alfalfa in bloom. Alfalfa smells sweet, and flowering alfalfa rivals the cosmetics counter at Magnin’s, but I didn’t remember ever seeing any flowers in the alfalfa fodder I’d come into contact with – we used to feed half alfalfa/half oat hay 15 years ago when we started with horses. So I imagined that if it had flowered it was too late to harvest, it meant the farmer had abandoned the crop. But just past this fragrant field I met a gentleman farmer on his tractor, who explained that alfalfa has reached peak biomass at the time of flowering, and sometimes the farmer is a little behind in his harvesting. And some times it is on purpose, he said, since horse people are coming to believe alfalfa is too rich for horses, so some farmers plant a mix of alfalfa and grass hay, and grass hay matures later than the alfalfa, after it has blossomed.Weird sight along the Mokelumne
            I made it a short ride so as to get to the Yolo County Fair Horse Show at the fairgrounds in Woodland for the trail classes. The show turned out to be totally female riders, none over about 25 that I remember, evidently as anxious to display their costumes as their equitation. The part I saw was called Western Pleasure. I can visualize a fairly straight line evolution of most disciplines of horse showing from a germinal form of everyday riders getting together socially on weekends or at local fairs and showing off their horsemanship. But I have a hard time projecting in my mind’s eye a natural transition from cowboys on big butt quarter horses, with saddles with horns designed for dragging firewood and hauling on livestock, to fancily-dressed girls going around on the same type of horse and saddle in a heads-down walk and an absurd trot no faster then the walk. Still, girls will be girls. The very pretty bronzed, blonde 17 and Under Western Pleasure champion, sporting her saucer-sized gold and silver prize buckle, blew the trail class and withdrew midway, kicking her horse in surreptitious pique, and jerked it angrily by the bit when she was leading it away after coming off the course.
            This year, at age 10, Traveller has finally learned the pleasures of the whole body shake with rider. This is also the first year I’ve seen him shaking branches to get apples, a trick he and I have both seen Margareta do for years.
            I finally figured out, I pray not too late, that the manure I shovel out of the trailer is killing the big old chestnut tree I park it under.