Modesto (May 2007)
Click on any photo to see a full screen version. For complete slideshow of May 2007 pix, click here.

            At the beginning of the month, Traveller and I went to the California Donkey and Mule Association Playday at Del Paso Park in Sacramento, where we took a blue in the trail class, which goes to show the rather low quality of the mules, mules being reputedly more surefooted trailgoers than horses, and Traveller being completely incapable of sidepassing. One of the muleteers actually decided to lead her animal through the course rather than riding it when it started acting up. There was a lot of refusing going on, but nobody resorted to 2x4s or fires.
            Running along the back of the park there is a five mile long single track down one side of Arcade Creek and back up the other, very good for gaiting (there’s a few pictures in the May slideshow on the website). On the far side of the creek the trail passes alongside a golf course shaded by tremendous deciduous trees, widely spaced, with branches trimmed off for fifty feet up into the air. It is as arresting as the nave of a gothic cathedral, the trunks like pillars rising to soaring leafy arches. Although rather profaned by the little Boschean figures in their polo shirts and bermuda shorts.
            One of the Playday attendees, an old guy with pot belly and red suspenders who wasn’t riding that day, said they Along the trail around Arcade Creek owned 20 gaited horses, including one Peruvian. When they rode it on the Arcade Creek trail, he said, its termino frightened walkers. I’ve had people mock my horse’s way of going by churning their arms like they were clawing their way through pudding. On the other hand I’ve had mommies snatch up their children and back up against the bushes until we passed.
            The next weekend we went to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco for a Trail Trials and some turf gaiting. Lots of wildflowers were in bloom, so I stuck some in Traveller’s headstall. One of the other riders, a gentleman of a certain age, sang a bar of “If You’re Going to San Francisco.” None of us had any weed, though. At least I didn’t.
            The Trail Trials course and another circuit around the west end of the park only gave us 7 miles, so we took off for Haight Street – Stanyan, actually – down the length of the park. The east end of the park has a lot more pavement, but we were able to get about 85% dirt or grass. Seeing the new DeYoung parking structure for the first time, and from the west, it rises out of the trees as strikingly unexpected as if it were some giant space invader. Traveller got a lot more desensitization to skaters, baby carriages, and bicycles. A bike passing us towing one of those little bicycle trailers made his ears swivel right around. When the trailer somehow happened to flip over just as it pulled level with us, he did bow strongly but still kept gait. However when the big cardboard box in the trailer bounced out and came bounding towards us he gave me quite a jerk and then lept forward, demolishing any pretense of nonchalance I might have been affecting. Amazingly, as we jolted to a stop two well-dressed matrons on the sidewalk next to us asked me for directions to the Conservatory of Flowers.
            On the return curcuit, we started around the periphery of Sharon Meadow, which must be twenty acres of grass, filled, on a Sunday, with young people playing all sorts of games with balls, frisbees, or just running and cavorting. Traveller, excited and finding himself on excellent footing, was glad to gait fast and hard, and shouts and a cheer went up. I looked over, and a few dozen twenty-somethings seemed to be playing some kind of game that had them standing spaced equally perhaps ten yards apart. Human cones! So I gave him my heels and strained back against the sidepull and we did an arc to the right around a boy and an arc to the left around a girl and then found a stright shot through the kids towards the trees on the far side.
            All told, we got in 19 miles.
            Next weekend, back up to fields and orchards of the trapezoid between 5, 505, 80 and 113. Didn’t meet a single person, just one or two figures, spots out in the middle of fields adjusting the irrigation, hundreds of yards from their pickups. A couple of trucks passed near us on the farm tracks, but I guess horses or other tourists are too rare for them to have formulated an attitude and I expect they found me more unusual and diverting to look at than I found them to be.
            In the heat of the afternoon, gaiting along between a field of beets or collard greens or some other unappetizing greenNot far from where the turkey flew into the wheat leafy to one side and an expanse of tall golden wheat on the other, we passed a lone tree, and three big turkeys burst out. Two flew off towards some trees across the field behind their roost, but one flapped a couple of dozen yards out into the wheatfield and settled, flattening a substantial patch of grain where it landed, hiding about as effectively as an ostrich hiding burying its head in the sand. Charmed by the prospect of a turkey in the wheat, if not the hay or straw, who was I to disabuse it?
            For two days on the Memorial Day weekend I took Traveller horsecamping by Modesto , where we wandered around the area encompassed by the Tuolumne River , the San Joaquin, the Stanislaus, 99, and the aptly-named Modesto itself. Mostly orchards – almonds and walnuts, although on Monday I purchased a basket of new-picked cherries. I spotted a couple of coyotes trotting purposefully down the rows of trees, and plenty of unconcernedly noisy gangs of crows in the dense crowns. There are also some big, smelly dairies in the west-central sector of this region, and it was unfortunate that the weather on these days was characterized by rather stiff westerlies that almost anywhere else in the Valley summer heat would have been unconditionally welcome.
            But mostly we were out of their downwind plumes. Sunday, the first day, we made a big north-south oval mainly through the middle of the one mile square sections of farmland bounded by numbered north-south and east-west county roads, occasionaly diverted by one or another of the seven Lateral Canals that bring water to the cropland from the Sierra to the east. County authorities have posted signs all over the countryside announcing in so many words that if you are caught trespassing, as long as you are not hunting or damaging anything you will get a citation in the mail that you can pay like a speeding ticket; check, money order or credit card accepted, no doubt. I can work with that. I would rather go on the wagon trails, but they have covered them with crushed rock and hot oil that has hardened, and now they’re ugly, noisy and dangerous.
            We arced up northeast around Modesto , struck the Tuolumne a mile or so west of 99, and made our way along the riverbank through the orchards and then a nursery and a soil amendment plant until we hit the freeway. We went down the freeway until development forced us west. The grating new subdivisions are here and there crowded up against the pathetic dilapidated old farmhouse whose land the subdivision developers had stripped from it. These are usually a plain midwestern-style dwelling backed by a tottering barn with daylight showing through the rafters, alongside it rusty old farm implements, some not even designed to be pulled by engines, now half-hidden in the weeds, at best picturesque, but mostly disregarded and ultimately to be nothing more than debris.
            And so we completed the loop. That night I parked off the pavement on a very quiet one-lane road, under the walnut trees across from a huge high thick hedge. The next morning the inhabitant behind the hedge came out and greeted me, doubtless an active Neighborhood Watcher, said I’d looked so purposeful and organized with my little head light getting ready for bed that he’d decided I was not a problem, particularly was not a dumper, their most common problem. When he saw Traveller tied behind the truck he recognized him as a Peruvian Paso – he’d been a Peace Corps worker in Peru , lived on an estancia whose Jewish-Peruvian patron and all the other landlords had ridden horses of the breed. I told him I was there to ride the canals, eliding my inter- and intra-orchard forays. He said when his wife used to ride she liked it better here than her previous home in the foothills; there you had to get permission from all the ranchers to go through their gates, while here you could just go down the canals at will. Not exactly true, but social camoflage enough. He mentioned that his “egalitarian” 60s liberal attitudes weren’t always appreciated by the Peruvian padrons. I didn’t want to complicate his picture of the good fight with Jean’s horse Margaretta’s biography – when the Sendero Luminoso machinegunned all the Pasos in the don’s stable as symbols, yea, as vehicles, of domination and oppression, she only escaped because they overlooked her lying down in the back of a dark stall.
Don Quixote sights his nemesis in the orchards of Modesto            On Memorial Day we picked up Lateral Canal #3 at the north edge of town, a few yards from the freeway, and took it west out of town, about eight miles until it peters out, drained for irrigation not long before it would otherwise have emptied into the wetlands surrounding the San Joaquin. Before the land was cleared and drained these tule wetlands were so extensive that Indians running from the missions used them to hide out from the Spanish troops sent to round them up.
            I’m not sure why I went this way. Traveller doesn’t like the canals that much, less than me. The footing is almost totally dirt, but it’s mostly packed down so hard that in the dry season it might as well be pavement, and I think it bothers him to gait on such hard surfaces. And I think he finds it monotonous. In the orchards when the footing is springy – in a couple of places it appeared to be crushed almond hulls, pretty cool to ride on with iron shoes – he cranks pretty good, and in particular he goes like a freight train when we cut down the dark aisles between the tree rows dodging some imminent or surmised human surveillance. The footing is soft, damp earth, damp leaves, great footing but the heading is tricky, branches meeting low overhead, making me twist and duck, we have to keep moving fast because they don’t want you in the orchard because they’re afraid you’ll go among the trees just like this, and sometimes they ride those damned fast four-wheelers.
            I usually ride on Sundays, which seem to be the least-worked days of the week. Memorial Day is no different than the other Monday holidays in the fields – unobserved. This time we got thrown off of the western ends of both Lateral Canals 3 and 7 by the same landowner, who was four-wheeling in his bermuda shorts supervising employees with limited English and perhaps questionable documentation who were baling his alfalfa.
            Looping back, we zig-zagged mostly through orchards again. This was when I located the afore-mentioned cherry stand. I ate the whole basket sitting underThe Tuolumne is just beyond, so we crossed a walnut tree watching Traveller scarf up fresh-cut but yet unbaled alfalfa. The woman at the stand asked if my horse wanted water. “That’s ok; it’s all over,” I told her, pointing to the water standing in the orchard behind her – half the orchards in the county are on drip lines but the rest are flooded with the bounteous flow from the range to the east.
            Coming up a dirt track between an orchard and a row of cattle pens, the track took a dogleg and we were surprised by a little house. As we passed, from behind it a retriever-sized dog came running at us silently, which is usually an extremely bad sign. I jerked Traveller around to face the dog, to fend it off and to alert T. to it so he wouldn’t be surprised, which of course surprised him. At that instant a pack of cattle came charging at the fence which was now behind him. Surpised by two things from opposite directions at once, he went straight up in the air, the first time he’s executed that maneuver. I barely clung on with my thighs as he flipped back around headed the way we had been going and took off again, but the maneuver had been so violent that the saddlebags flipped over to where they were all on one side. I didn’t notice this until I got off for a break later on. The side with the binoculars and truck keys was upside down on the wrong side, but thankfully I’d just gotten new bags with velcro flaps that held.
            15-year old beanpole Alex, whose stirrups are set to the same length as mine, has been riding Grandiosa and Diedre for us twice a week – Grandi because she’s my backup horse and it’s good to have her conditioned in case I need her, and because she’s the most nervous horse we’ve ever had and I figure the more she’s ridden the calmer she’ll become, although I’m not sure it’s true, and Diedre because her torn tendon has healed and she needs a long period of gradually increasing riding to bring it back to maximum strength. I have no idea if Alex is smart or dumb – we have probably exchanged a dozen sentences since we met – but she enters very perceptively into the feedback cycle with her horse in terms of catching, desensitizing and eliciting that paca-paca sound so sweet to the Peruvian rider’s ear.