September 2007 horsenews: Nueva Mexico
(pictures at September
Labor day: horsecamping between the San Joaquin River
to the east and the Delta Mendota Canal and California Aqueduct to the
west. Saturday, a nice long ride through the fields and orchards from
Vernalis down to Westley. It was hot, though; hit 101.8, according the
The valley is getting very Mexican. On the outskirts of Westley we
passed some kind of weird Catholic religious institution, a blazing
chromium Mariolotrous shield mounted on the wrought iron gate. Tried to
get directions to a grocery store from a Mexican sitting on his front
porch knocking back a 12-pack on his day off, but he was too drunk to
string words together.
When we did hit the town, half of it was boarded up. The half that
was alive was illuminated with hand-made off-kilter south-of-the-border
graphics, and the only pay telephone called itself a telefono. At the
grocery, I only found out the cashier was bilingual when she heard my
crippled Spanish and switched to the fluent English of a resident from
infancy. It looked like no other customer spoke much English, nor any of
the staring loungers out front. I felt paranoid.
We went on over to Grayston. The San Joaquin was a muddy, writhing
gutter six feet across and a foot deep. Back up to the truck near
Vernalis; 28 miles all told. En route I had picked out a grassy field
under a big tree at a scarcely-travelled intersection for a campsite. But
after dinner when I drove by to see about setting up, it was occupied by a
couple of carloads of campesinos drinking. I found a nook along the Delta
Mendota canal, at the corner of an almond orchard.
Sunday was a rip-snorter. At six the orchardist gave us five
minutes to leave before he called dispatch, refusing angrily to “sell”
me any of the almonds underfoot. I took one extra minute to change my
underwear and scatter the night’s poop, but even so we got an early
start on the day’s ride.
I crossed to the east side of the river and pulled over at a likely
spot. We were close to the foot of the famous, or infamous, Kesterson sink
and wildlife refuge. I was hoping to get in at this end and ride up it. We
went upriver for two or three miles along a levee, under oaks, next to
cornfields, into the river bottoms, waved to some fishers on the other
bank, but were eventually balked by fences. I looped back away from the
river, crossing the road to circle behind a cornfield.
Behind the cornfield we ran
into a turf farm, scored by ditches of colorful, toxic-looking fluids. As
we pattered along, a four-wheeler appeared diagonally across the turf
headed in the opposite direction to us. I gunned Traveller and turned the
corner at the end of the corn. The ATV hadn’t broken stride.
We hit a cross-canal at the point where to make the truck we wanted
to turn left anyway. There was a stench in the breeze that intensified as
we advanced. Ahead on the opposite side of the canal was some kind of
ag-industrial installation. When we drew level with it I could see a scoop
loader roaming to and fro across a slab, its backup bell dinging the
mandated E above middle C on the reverses, its blade shoving around soggy
heaps of quadruped body parts. We were only yards from the truck, but the
wind was blowing from that direction, which is why I hadn’t smelled it
when we set out.
The stink of this place stayed on me all day. It lingered in the
sweatband of my hat – I caught a whiff whenever I lifted it. The strips
and sheets of the skins of dead cattle I put between my horse and me
brought the smell back to me for days. If the guy on the scoop loader had
a two-day weekend – which he didn’t, this being Sunday – he probably
would have got the smell out of his nostrils by the time he got out of bed
on Monday mornings.
I rode around to the front of the place just to get the name but
maybe they felt bad about themselves because they had no sign. So, back
into the trailer and further up the river, scouting for Kesterson.
Kesterson is a big wetlands and drain that has reputedly been poisened by
tainted runoff from irrigated cropland in the San Joaquin valley, land
that was seasonal grassland before and didn’t take well to having
synthetic rainfall all summer. There were stories of mutant, monstrously
deformed birds, and I was hoping that it would be a home-grown Chernobyl,
an Eden for wildlife because humans were too afraid of what they’d done
to it to hang around and really make a mess of it.
But on the way, we came upon a bunch of horse trailers and horse
activity. The security guy at the entrance had no English, but I got the
word “rodeo.” There are pictures in the September 2007 slideshow of
this event. I was the only Anglo, bar maybe one. They had a brass band
that had come in a hand-painted bus. Budweiser had provided a pyramid of
cases of free Bud Light for the charros. It was all about flipping running
yearling bulls by the tail. The basic maneuver was this: the horse runs on
the yearling’s left, keeping it crowded against the fence to the right.
The rider leans down and grabs the yearling’s tail, then swings his
right leg forward, up, over the tail, and down against the horse’s flank
– this is hard to see, because it happens between the horse and the
fence, away from the spectators. Then the horse has to accelerate and veer
to the left, which lifts the yearling’s hindquarters and brings them
around faster than it can run, throwing it to the ground. The competition
was to flop the calf in the shortest distance – a bottle of tequila hung
from the wall at the 25-yard mark, and it was claimed before noon by the
first rider to bring down a calf before reaching it.
In the morning they used younger calves; as the day went on there
were more horsemen and bigger quarry. They had all been dehorned, one
recently, blood stippling his flat stubs. Only about 60% of the runs ended
with the cow going down. Rojas says that the vaqueros used to do this for
sport with full-grown, horned bulls and no fence to keep them in line. The
art, he said, was to catch the bull at the right point in its stride. I
don’t think those real cowboys measured how many yards it took to bring
down the animal – I think the question was whether you did it at all.
I think I was the only native English speaker there, and I’d bet
there was a fair number of totally non-English speakers. Someone laughed
to see Traveller gaiting. Ignorant cowboy. But they demonstrated more
casual horsemanship that I’ve ever seen in one place – crowding up to
the starter pushing their receipts out to get the next run, sidepassing in
and out of the arena with a beer in the rein hand, handing the gate to
each other if someone was coming in while they were going out. In the
crowded arena, one spun his horse in a space two horselengths across, but
nobody seemed impressed.
After a few hours we trucked on towards Kesterson. It seemed to be
thoroughly fenced, set up for hikers only (and uniforms in pickups with
keys), but by flipping the stirrups and saddlebags over Traveller’s back
I was able to snake him through a pedestrian access. We were in Great
Valley Grasslands state park, a name to conjure with. Mud Slough runs
through here. We wandered around for a few hours, stopping for water,
grazing a little. There were no trails to follow except for a
gravel-topped berm for the pedestrians, and the surface was a little too
irregular and roughly-vegetated to allow for gaiting. Eventually I checked
the GPS and got a bearing back to the truck.
One of my goals has been to camp in a place I could simply ride out
of in the morning like a nomad crawling out of his yurt, and I found the
right spot near Los Banos, beside a gravel road next to a canal. I set the
pressure lantern on the fender of the trailer and unfolded the chair next
to it and read until bedtime, Traveller munching his grass next to me.
Bullfrogs croaked back and forth up and down the ditch next to us, and out
in the fields coyotes called to one another as well.
The next morning we headed north into the rising heat and, after
making our way through various types of ground, got on a canalized creek
that ran down from the Coast Range foothills, northeast into the drain.
Five turtles sat on a semi-submerged log like fat old cigar-smoking
cronies at a club, then slipped off into the water one by one with
discreet little splashes when they felt our approach. We peeled away from
the creek, and the ground got dryer as we went further. Then it became
covered with reeds in the standing water that finally collected there.
Here we could go no further, so we reversed. Leaving the area of
the drain, we eventually struck the canal we’d camped on and made a long
arc back. The temperature was over 100. I exchanged salutes with a farmer
on a tractor – crossing paths out in this heat was like two white men
meeting in a jungle.
On a subsequent weekend we went back up the valley, north of Yolo,
and headed up towards the Knights Landing Ridge Cut. At the corner of Road
98 and Road 15 an old settler graveyard and church, called Mary’s
Cemetery, was being tended by a crew of a dozen Mexicans, acolites
performing ritual service to vanished gods of a different race and
language. It made me think of what is hoped for bythe anthropologists who
design radioactive waste dumps that will remain lethal for millenia, that
our unknowing, unknowable descendants will superstitiously honor a taboo
The ride’s morbid theme persisted. A couple of miles further
north an unofficial roadside memorial for someone probably named Calderon
had been half turned under, the splintered wooden cross still draped with
a dirty garland of plastic flowers. And, determined as ever to make a loop
rather than retrace, a half mile from the truck I had to cut across a
stubbly field and through a stand of old valley oaks, under which we came
across an abandoned and untended cemetery from the century before last.
Along the way, to the east in the afternoon heat, scattered oaks
stood in a silver sheet reflecting the sky.
+ + +
Finally taught Traveller to sidepass, at least to the right. This
allows me to pick the late summer blackberries pedestrians can’t reach.
+ + +
On my daylong rides I lead the horse for a mile or so, and this
month I figured out a better way, as long as he agrees to follow rather
than try to shoulder me aside or drag me along behind him. If you drape
the lead rope over the back of your neck and let it hang down on both
sides of your chest, the standing end going under your arm to the horse,
you can walk along with your hands free or in your pockets. If the horse
decides to go back or sideways, to secure him all you have to do is clamp
your arm to your side; on the other hand if you stumble and don’t want
to jerk the horse or he snaps his head around to bite a bug, you can let
the rope slip.
+ + +
I was getting tired of using the Spanish saddle I have to ride
Traveller with because it sits clear of the lumps on his spine, so I
ordered a reproduction US Cavalry McClellan saddle in the expectation that
the open slot down the middle would keep it off his spine as well. It did.
It also fulfilled the saying about McClellans, that they are designed for
the comfort of the horse and the discomfort of the rider. I have never
ridden on such an uncomfortable saddle – my butt hurt from the moment I
sat. I believe the statement that they were designed to force the cavalry
recruits, draftees of random degrees of horsemanship, to stand the trot.
Uncle Sam doesn’t care if they have to stand every other gait too.
+ + +
After seven months, Verdadura settled down and started gaiting.
This is the most unfriendly horse I’ve ever had. We brought her here in
February for Jean as a second horse, and the next day Jean crashed the car
and smashed her ankle, so Verdadura lay fallow for several months. Then I
started riding her to try to get her into the flow, just 10 minutes at
first in deference to her ill-conditioning. On the gaiting circuit through
the orchard she wouldn’t maintain the gait for more than two paces,
either dropping into the walk or hopping to accelerate. I kept up 10
minutes per day every other day for a couple of weeks, then went to 15
minutes. After 15 exercise sessions she was no better. Jean still down and
out, I put her back in the herd and formulated a plan to give her back to
the ranch we’d bought her from, even if they wouldn’t refund us –
it’d still be a savings not to have to feed her and we’ve got enough
horses trampling the property as it is.
A couple of months later on a whim I saddled her again and took her
up the dirt road, and she held the gait with only one fault for fifty
yards out and fifty yards back, and she did it again a few days later.
She’s pretty ouchy, so now I’ll get shoes on her and we can really go
to town. To ride, she’s like a rough-edged Margareta – short,
short-coupled, quick, real four-four, but really needs practice to make
all the changes smoothly. Like Margareta, she’s a quick study – the
first trailer loading required adamant butt-roping, while the third or
fourth one went pretty easy.
For pix, check out September