September 2007 horsenews: Nueva Mexico (pictures at September 2007 slideshow)

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 Weather Underground.
            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 in perpetuity.
            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.

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            Finally taught Traveller to sidepass, at least to the right. This allows me to pick the late summer blackberries pedestrians can’t reach.

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            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.

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            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.

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            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 2007 pix.