July-August 2008 horsenews

Los Banos … a tale of two playdays … best ride of the summer … an insight

            As the years roll by Traveller and I are working our way down the Central Valley. For the 4th of July three-day weekend we went horsecamping down by Los Banos.
            Between the Coast Range and the San Joaquin river, a series of roughly parallel canals cross Hwy 152, which runs E-W across the valley. These canals seem to come from somewhere out in the middle of the valley, to the south east, maybe from the great depression of the San Joaquin, and we spent the days travelling out and back alongside them, the nights camped out beside them.
            Upon arriving, we went down the first, western-most of these, Outside Canal, and returned along the Delta-Mendota Canal. In picked-over apricot orchards the few fruits that had been too hard when the harvest came through were now as ripe as an apricot can get, sweeter than any you can buy, and so soft and juicy as to be more drunk than eaten. It’s nice this far from the population concentrations. Nobody seems to object at all if you ride through. Everyone is involved in their own struggles and pastimes, and yet not immersed, not convinced that their concerns and interests are of paramount importance, and they seem therefore ready to take a look at the world and themselves through someone else’s eyes for a moment. This gives the stranger the comfortable feeling that he will be taken on his own terms. The morning of the second day, Sunday, I had set the alarm for 7, at which time a trim hispanic gentleman with a neat grey beard, pressed jeans, dressy cowboy boots and a large silver buckle, pulled up in his pickup truck, said he had seen the horse tied up and did we needed anything, water, hay, as he also had horses. To my everlasting chagrin at that late hour of the morning I was just sitting up in my bag in the truck bed, gathering up the day’s change of clothes and in no condition to visit.
            We set out from next to the water tower in town, southeast up Main Canal. The first mile is a shady strip park. But then it breaks out into open fields and goes on farther than you can ride in two days. This is where they’re talking about when they say California grows more of the country’s vegetables than anyone else. Off to the west a combine was proceeding right, left, right, left, in a vast field, the green it had passed over a lighter shade than the green it was mowing. When we came back by five hours later it was still at it, for all I could tell on the same row in the same field.
            It was hot, in the 90s, and the sun blasted down on us. I could see the water tower from five miles out. In more than 20 miles our only shade had been one little eucalyptus grove. When we reached the dark under the first trees of the town park, Traveller simply stopped. I let him wait a while. At the other end of the park, next to the water tower where we had begun, there was some sort of big vacant house with a couple of acres of lush, uncut lawn, and I turned him loose to graze under an oak. As I lay in the grass watching, a woman in a minivan stopped and asked if I’d seen her lost dog, and I said no, not between there and the other end of the park.
           
A road leads in from the side to about the point on the canal where we’d turned around, so after an evening among the Harley bikers who hang out at the Los Banos Starbucks we drove there to camp out. A clutch of middle class fishermen were bonding – quietly, fortunately – by lantern light nearby. Next morning I rose in the bloody-fingered dawn and we set off southeast again while the sun was low.
            After a few hours, ahead on the horizon to the left a water tower began to rise behind a line of trees. As we reached a paved road a Mexican bicycled by carrying his shovel, the first farm hand I’ve seen not at least riding in a beat-up little pickup. We used the road’s bridge to cross the canal and headed north along the fields to see what might present itself.
            In a couple of miles we came to an ag machinery yard, then some run-down houses, some with unkempt, weed-grown lawns; some with shiny, ostentatious pickups out front. It was a very small town, a grid of five streets by five streets, which included a few lots either empty or with the remains of some abandoned structure of no longer identifiable purpose. There was a post office the size of a cargo container, closed. The only operating commercial establishment was a combination gas station and grocery store. To stay off pavement we rode down alleys. A corrida came out of a window with a torn curtain. A dog barked behind a chain link fence. I caught a whiff of celantro and frying lard and flour. The noontime sun beat down. I felt like a character in a spaghetti western.
            We turned back at the other end of town and rode back to the gas station. The gas prices were merciful and the store was mostly in Spanish. Under a tree a fat man in a wheelchair with a government check sticking out of his shirt pocket was drinking with an unsteady grey-beard in jeans and cowboy boots and a campesino in his Sunday best, shooting the breeze in Spanish, laughing at the yappy little dog that kept running back and forth behind them and barking at Traveller. I tied up and went in to get some lunch. While I squatted under the tree in the heat and ate, another campesino in pressed white pants and fancy boots rode up on his bicycle. The fat guy in the wheelchair welcomed him with the honorific “Hidalgo”. My Spanish-American dictionary rather arrogantly translates that as “hidalgo,” but the authorities tell us that derivation and historical usage imply lesser nobility/inheritor of property. I’ve been looking for a town like this for a long time.

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            “Summit Riders Horseman's Association schooling show. English, Western, Trail classes in the morning, play day games after lunch. BBQ burgers, dogs and soft drinks available for sale onsite. Please join us for a fun day with nice people!” Turned out to be a bunch of little girls living out their Silicoln Valley noveau Beemer moms’ Anglophilic fantasies. Embarrassed, I took off back down Hwy 17 to check out the South Bayfront. Beyond the Yahoo headquarters, next to NASA Ames, we could get onto the low levee channeling Stevens Creek out to the bay. We wandered around along the berms and summer-dried marshlands behind the space center, then got chased off one of the Shoreline Amphitheater’s auxiliary grass parking lots (excellent turf gaiting) by a ranger in a pickup truck who threatened to arrest us, there amid the exhaust fumes, leaked crankcase oil and asphalt walkways, for intent to poop.
            Between the 101 freeway and the bay, Stevens Creek, namesake of Stevens Creek Boulevard and Stevens Creek Auto Mall, is sandwiched between some of the priciest and most congested real estate in California. It is a green little waterbird haven just a couple of cartwheels wide straitjacketed by two ruler-straight levees, and looking upon it it is possible to imagine Stevens coming by to look at his cattle. With more effort one can see an Indian working a fish trap, his spouse grinding acorns on the bank above, the baby in its cradle of woven reeds watching and dozing.
            A couple weekends later we buzzed the Contra Costa County Horseman’s Association playday at their Don Fernando Pacheco Adobe Arena, a knob of Western-style barrel-racing types protruding from the flat East Bay splurbs. Traveller and I got a little respect in our first class by naturally running the egg and spoon event five seconds under anyone else’s times, and at the end of the day we lost an unscheduled gait race with the club’s fastest trotter by no more than a whisker. But T is getting irritated by being shoved into situations where he can’t predict what’s  wanted of him and has started resisting going into the arena. The next weekend when I found a long new trail south of Sacramento he took off with a will. I suspect his enthusiasm came either from a sense of relief or to remind me what he was really good at, or some of each.

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            The early summer Elk Grove All Gaited show is just beyond a rails-to-trails crossing east of the town. A month later we came back to check it out. It turned into my best ride of the summer. It was long, it was interesting, and now and then some of the manmade obstacles required a little re-engineering. Fortunately on Sundays construction sites are usually deserted – must be the double time pay – because that orange plastic temporary fencing is a lot tougher than it looks.
            We were able to take the route of the old Central California Traction Railway all the way to a tasty lawn in town, at 23rd Avenue and Florin-Perkins Road. The way is almost totally inaccessible to motorized vehicles, and doesn’t even have many bike tire tracks. At least 90% gaitable footing runs along between ranches fenced with plywood and corregated tin and ranches fenced with bluegrass country style whitewashed post-and-rail setting off rose bushes and olive trees; picturesque trailer slums, run-down pre-sprawl farmhouses, brazen McMansions and post-war ranch-styles with fifty-year-old landscaping; the backs of industrial parks, gas stations and warehouses; a mobile crusher smashing away at heaps concrete chunks; and in the scorching Sacramento heat the tules, moss and sweet water of Morrison Creek winding along the bottom of its concrete canyon, just when Traveller was really ready for it.
            The temperature was pushing 100. There comes a time in the summer when one is acclimatized to the heat, when it feels good all the way to the bone, when the sweat is welcome for the cooling. I drank a gallon of water. Jackrabbits abounded; at one point were were driving a herd of seven of them. A line of boxcars on rusted rails was a gallery of graffiti, good as any I’ve seen. They’d been there five years, according to one tag. The obstacles were all surmountable: three gapped, unrideable trestles over cross creeks, a couple of illegitimate fences and a construction site all yielded to scrambling or the geared Leatherman, although I cut my fingers during an over-hasty attack on that orange construction netting.

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            The reason horses are so much spookier in familiar places close to home is that predators study the regular movements of prey.

Pictures at July-Aug 2008 slideshow.