So last weekend’s camping trip went quite well, but it was camping. I wasn’t pre-riding Tevis, no matter how slowly; I was just out there to relax. I was in no hurry to wake up and saddle Dixie that Saturday (or Sunday!) And Dixie was, as you may have gathered, her usual irritating self. I’d sort of planned on doing at least ten miles at a good clip, just to see if I still had an endurance horse for Wild West, but Vacation Brain got me. Dixie certainly wasn’t eager to go trot off alone with Roo and show me what she’s got, and we ended up doing almost no miles. We’d deliberately done nothing in April after Derby, and then we’d done almost nothing in May, what with the pukey exhausted pregnant rider, and I really didn’t know what I’d have for Wild West.
And honestly? It had been so long since I’d done a 50 I wasn’t sure if I really truly wanted to. But I knew that this was a great chance for me to get in a ride, and if I don’t ride this summer and can’t ride this fall or winter or next spring I’m really going to regret it, so off we went to Wild West.
It’s staged out of Skillman Campground, just east of Nevada City, CA. I’ve been there twice — once “horse camping minus horses” when Mel and I wanted to get out but both of our horses were broken, and once last year with Sanne when it was too smoky to preride VC. I knew it was a lovely area, I knew the ride management was great (the Ribleys also run Twenty Mule Team), and by god we were going.
It’s always a big ride, and it’s not the biggest campground, so I wasn’t really surprised to see this:
I ended up squeezing Adventure in a little alley right by the highway. It was four thousand miles from the vet area and the water faucets, and I spent the whole time I was parked there worrying about whether or not I’d be able to back out of the spot, but at least I wasn’t forced to park on the side of the camp-road like so many others.
She certainly looked good! This is, sadly, the cleanest she looked all weekend. I groomed her really, really well, braided her mane, and led her over to grab my rider packet and vet in. Vetting was in a big open dusty area, and as I was leading her across the open area to the hitching post, she flung herself to the ground and rolled in the silty dust. Sigh.
I tied her and got my rider packet and got distracted talking to people, and every time I’d glance over to make sure my horse hadn’t untied herself and gone walkabout, I’d think, “whose palomino is that? Oh dammit.” Yeah, it was my palomino. But we vetted in fine.
I am really, seriously, no fucking around going to try to fix my water tank and/or buy a wheely cart to haul water. Carrying jugs of water from the decorative yet barely functional hand-pump up to the trailer at RF sucked a lot, and carrying jugs of water from the hose to the trailer at WW wasn’t much better. You’d think I’d bring more water from the barn, but you’d be underestimating my skills at procrastination. I always think “ehhh too much trouble; I’ll just get it in camp” and then I always end up like a half a mile from the water.
The ride meeting went smoothly, and the Saturday ride was easy: red ribbons all day, pink and black arrow-signs marking the turns. Two highway crossings (eek), one “very steep” downhill to a creek then “up a hill that might have a bear.” For a boot user, there’s just nothing more exciting than a creek followed by an uphill — it’ll destroy glue-ons if you’re not very lucky, to say nothing of mere strap-ons. And maybe a bear too!
It was 20 miles (plus creek, hill, bear, and highway crossing) to the away check. First hold was 30 minutes, tack on, 60 pulse, then a 15 mile loop and back to the same check. Hour hold, tack off, 60 pulse, then 15 miles back to camp. 68 (64?) within 30 minutes of the finish, then vet out, tack off, within the hour.
I checked on Dixie, then headed back over to the campfire. It wasn’t literally all of my endurance friends, but it was almost all of them, and I had a blast talking to people. There were marshmallows too! Baby wanted marshmallows. Using the baby as an excuse to eat stuff is both funny and true — I am not a sweets person, and normally I probably wouldn’t even bother with marshmallows, but little Lemongrab (the nom de semaine) really did want marshmallows.
Literally everybody I talked to was excited about the baby and cheering for me to keep riding. I heard so many stories of “I rode til X months” and “my mom did 50s til X months before I was born.” I wouldn’t catch-ride, and I wouldn’t jump, but I’m certainly comfortable that Dixie will keep me safe.
When it got dark, I stumbled back to Adventure, filled up one more hay bag and mash pan, and crawled into bed. I wasn’t even cold, and I slept pretty well — but I couldn’t sleep past daybreak and I ended up wide awake and tacked up far too early.
Dixie knew what was up, and she was ready. She gets the shakes when she’s excited, but look at how contained she was! She was not screaming and pacing in circles, just quivering and ready for me to get the hell on already, human.
We spent about fifteen minutes walking around camp, then let the frontrunners start while we walked some more. About 7:05 we headed down to the start and got underway. I had the finest of intentions to ride with my friend Angela (of the bear video, above, and most recently my ride buddy at Derby), but it was not to be. Dixie took off with her Big Walk and we didn’t see Angela (and Kim, doing her first 50!!) the rest of the day.
My strategy, as such, is to let Dixie go along at a dull roar in the early morning, when it’s nice and cool. We’ll do the first 15 or 20 miles in two or three hours, and then usually she slows down and we plonk along for the rest of the day at 5 or 6 mph. This is not a smart racing strategy; I hear that one should do negative splits and get faster as the day goes by. But we’re never racers, so we go fast in the morning and slow in the afternoon. Except this time…
Dixie was actually passing other riders at the big-walk. I wasn’t letting her trot faster than the other horses, but when we’d get to an uphill or downhill where we’d all slow to a walk, Dixie just walked straight past them and kept moving. I got to some slightly steeper downhill and got off and ran for a while, then when it evened out I got back on and kept riding. Eventually we got to the “steep downhill,” which Robert had promised was very obvious, and I got off to lead down again. I’d lost a boot — damn! — so I tied her on the side of the trail, slammed the boot back on, and raced on down the hill. It was, as advertised, quite steep — as steep as my training hill at home or as steep as the worst SOBs in Nevada.
Dixie was still in no mood to slow down, but I was determined to make her walk up the (long, monster) hill so her stupid boots wouldn’t slip off her wet feet. We kept picking ‘em off at a walk on the way up, until somebody (Hilary and John, I think!) went trotting past us on their very fit horses, and Dixie broke into gait for a second and flung another boot off. I kept riding (with people helpfully pointing out the boot was off) until I found a wide spot with a stump, and I got the boot re-seated. Then back on and up up up some more!
The view back down the hill!Eventually the hill got less steep and we entered civilization, of a sort. Lots of houses back on these dirt forest-service type roads, with colorful characters watching us go by and walking dogs and stuff. I want to live there.
There was no bear. I don’t know whether to be relieved (I’d have lost all four boots for sure) or disappointed (I kinda want to see a bear!)
We popped out at the highway, gave our numbers to a number-checker, and got across safely. Then we ran along a beautiful Gold Country Trails Council trail, right beside the highway, for maybe 3-5 miles, past both the photographers.
I’d lost yet another fucking boot right after the highway crossing. Dixie and I don’t generally have the same fears in life — she’s very worried about puddles, sometimes scary rocks, hikers, and getting separated from all the other horses and dying alone. I’m worried about falling off cliffs and getting hit by cars. So losing a boot on good footing right beside a busy highway was suboptimal. The boot was still there, firmly attached by the gaiter, and Dixie gave zero fucks about the whole thing, so I kept going past the first photographer. (Hi Rennie!) As I passed and was passed, people kept helpfully pointing out that I’d lost a boot. I got more and more irritated about it. Finally, one incredibly sweet and well-meaning woman said she thought the boot would chafe, and if I’d just stop she’d get off and fix it for me, and I snarled something about fixing it myself and took Dixie charging off through the forest away from the road in search of a tie spot. (I’m really sorry, lady; I know you meant well but PREGNANT RAGE.)
I tied my darling horse to a tree and got the boot off her back foot, then my sweet angel did that thing where she squirms around (without crashing into me! She does not invade my space!) and ends up on the other side of me, screaming for the horses who are passing her on the trail, and I lost it. I screamed “I FUCKING HATE YOU!” at the top of my lungs and hurled the boot at Dixie from five feet away.
Dixie gave me this look, like, what did I do to deserve getting stuck with such an incompetent human?
I started giggling and went to find the boot. Jeremy trotted by and yelled “Are you ok?”
I yelled back “Pregnant lady with a mare, this is as good as it gets!” I slammed the boot back on the suddenly very cooperative horse, leapt back on, and took off to the second photographer. (Hi Bill!) So these gorgeous pictures were taken moments after the boot-hurling.
We came screaming into the 20 mile vet check at 10 am. I got Dixie pulsed down in a couple minutes and she vetted through just fine. B for gut sounds (hardly surprising) and A’s for everything else. Rob Lydon vetted me, and he asked (as he always does) how my ride was going. “Can’t keep the damn boots on her, but she’s on fire! She feels so strong and she’s going so good!”
Zach’s Mom was there, and she helped me out — thank you again Karen! While my sweet angel boo bear ate, I pulled her rear boots, taped her feet and slammed the fucking boots back on yet again – I’d only lost rear boots, and I desperately hoped the tape would help. Then I settled down and destroyed half a bag of cheetos (baby wanted them) and some nuts. The hold went by fast and I got out within a minute of my out time, ready to slow it down a bit and enjoy my day.
But Dixie wasn’t ready to slow it down. We tore off down the trail, holding our place in the pack pretty well. I am not gonna lie, I was ready to slow down, but I could not get her to ease up. We gaited everywhere the other horses trotted and we power-walked everywhere they walked. The second loop was exceptionally pretty, alternating singletrack through old-growth forest and fire roads with views.
Let me go, human, there’s room for me to pass.We can walk so much faster than them downhill if you’d just let me barge past.Why won’t you let me go, human? That other horse gets to canter!I hate you too, human.Eventually she’ll slow down, right? Right?!They’re getting away!!I lost a fifth boot on the second loop. A front one for a change; at least the tape worked on the rears. Perhaps I should re-measure her feet and/or consider powerstraps.
Karen had asked when I thought I’d be back. “Oh, three hours,” I said. “Can’t be sooner than two and a half.” Hah! At 12:20-something, less than two hours after we’d left, we were back for the second hold. I stripped tack, sponged for a few minutes, and pulsed in at 12:28. Rob vetted me again, and again he asked how my day was going. “She’s still pulling like a freight train,” I wailed. “I can not slow her down but she really feels good?”
He agreed that she looked great. Again, a B for guts (I’d gotten her to stop and eat one mouthful of grass, and I’d managed to feed one carrot from the saddle), and A’s for everything else and a good CRI.
As I led Sugar Angel Horse back to our little shady rest spot, she flung herself to the ground for a half-roll. I groaned. There goes at least seven minutes of my lunch — I’d have to give her a sponge bath before I tacked her back up. I yanked and prodded and got her over to her pile of hay, then went and flopped down by Connie.
I’d been riding maybe a minute ahead of Connie all day, at the tail-end of a group of four SoCal riders. They were nice enough, but they weren’t My People, and I wanted to spend some time with Connie. I asked if I could ride home with her, and she agreed. Gina and Carolyn showed up a few minutes after us — they were on their baby horses, not their seasoned mounts, but still — me? Ahead of them? What madness is this? We sat together and munched Cheetos quite happily. The Nevadans all had beer, and not gonna lie, a beer would’ve tasted really, really good. Lemongrab: see, I tried to be a good host.
I did almost have a meltdown when I went to refill my camelback. I hadn’t done a great job hydrating on the first loop, and during the second loop I made sure to drink the whole thing before I got back to the check, and then there was no more people water! I went wailing off to the volunteers in a tizzy. I am more like a snail than a camel and I will totally shrivel up and die if I have to ride fifteen miles with no water. My friend Joanne gave me a half-frozen Vitamin Water (delicious!) to shut me up, and the volunteers assured me that more water was on the way, and I settled back down. (And I apologized. I’ve volunteered a bit, and I’ve seen asshole riders who don’t even realize they’re being assholes, and I try to be on my best behavior in checks!)
I woke Miss D up from her nap and sponged the mud-dirt-grime off of her, then tacked back up. Lost a minute stupidly making two trips to the trash bag, but I still got out one minute after my hold (and two minutes after Connie’s). We set off down that lovely trail beside the deadly highway yet again, walking slow for a couple minutes to let SoCal pull ahead of us. Eventually, we had our bubble, and we took off at a trot.
This time we rode probably 8 miles down the highway. I was more inured to the danger, and of course Dixie could care less about the traffic, or the few bikers and hikers we saw, so I was a little more relaxed. Eventually we all bunched up at the crossing, waiting to get back to the south side of the road. We got across and headed for White Cloud — the people-campground I’d been at with Mel a couple years ago.
Dixie finally quit pulling and offered to slow down. We can walk more if you want, human.Oh no, my princess. That ship sailed a long time ago. Let’s just trot for one more hour and get this done in style, okay? Okay.
We headed down onto the trail beside the ditch, and Mike and Phyllis caught up to us. We talked it over and agreed that the mysterious ditch has to be a very old disused irrigation ditch. I remembered the natural water and pointed it out when we got to it, and the other horses drank happily. Dixie didn’t want to drink, but I’d been trusting her to drink when thirsty all day so I didn’t push it. Away we went again, to the overflow parking just two miles or so from camp. But instead of staying on the perfectly lovely trail beside the road, we had to detour down into a canyon and up Hallelujah Hill. I don’t know how Sanne and I missed it last year, but I think we took a wrong turn onto a different trail.
Still smiling, only looking slightly demented.Lovely trail, thick with dogwoods. It would be great to get out here earlier and see them in bloom!Everyone agreed that it’s cruel (but sadly not unusual) for ride management to detour you away from camp and make you finish with a hill. I was expecting another climb like the one out of the creek that morning, and I really didn’t know if I had enough horse to keep up with the other three. I decided I’d make D keep trotting all the downs and flats and walking the uphills, but if the others outwalked us on the uphills, I’d let them go. I didn’t want Dixie to think she can pick her pace all day, but I certainly didn’t want to hurt her.So away we went, down one more canyon. I was holding my breath at the bottom, but the creek was dry — and the climb up was surprisingly easy. I mean, it was steep, and it switchbacked on and on and on forever, but it was a nice new trail. We hit a patch of bees, and maybe one of the horses got stung, but the rest of us just hustled through at top speed and it wasn’t bad.Honestly, I was pretty fucking done at that point. I was tired of riding fast and riding well, and my horse was a little tired, and every time we’d start up from a walk to a gait my legs would scream in protest. (And every time we’d slow from a gait to a walk my knees would scream in protest — whacha gonna do?) But Rob had promised me that it was two miles from the top of the hill back to camp, and it’s not like I had to go back out for another fifty miles that evening, so we soldiered on. After one more lovely stretch of singletrack, we popped out on one last fire road. We all slowed down a bit and walked on in, finishing at 3:28. My ride time was just a hair under seven hours, plus an hour and a half in the holds. Amazing.
We got our finish times and walked on in to camp. My brain was fried so I walked straight over to the vet. God bless Rob; he really knows how to talk to road-stupid endurance riders. He checked Dixie’s pulse (probably like 90 bpm) and spoke slowly and clearly to me. “So you need to go to your trailer and pull all her tack, then sponge her neck, then bring her back in thirty minutes, ok?”
I mean, I’ve been doing this long enough that I probably would’ve figured that out on my own. What is horse pulse? Too high! Make horse cool with water! Take saddle off! But he saved me all the mental effort. I had a task!
So back down to the trailer we went. Fresh mash for Dixie. All the tack came off and went in a pile. The helmet and camelback came off. The ride card came out of the saddlebags and got shoved in the my pocket (brilliant, if I do say so myself). I found the sponge and sponged the horse and checked her pulse and she was down, so we trudged back up the road. A quick pulse, a quick trot-out, and we were done!Dixie really, really did me proud. Boot-flinging moments of rage aside, I truly adore that horse. We pretend that we don’t like each other very much, because we both think we’re bad motherfuckers without any squishy ~feelings,~ but she’s my girl. We’ve got each other’s backs.
Music and dancing after the awards/ride meeting. I hung out til dark again, laughing and talking with my friends. Baby needed another marshmallow, too. As the sun set, I realized it was the summer solstice, and I cannot think of a better way to spend the best/worst day of the year. I was awake, outside, and hanging out with my BFF Dixie for every hour of the longest day of the year. Woo!
First, horses can just keep improving. If you look at our ride record, Dixie’s never been a fast horse. Our first fifty was 10:15 at a tough ride, and our best times have been over seven hours at easy rides. This was not an easy ride. I’d say it was easier than Tahoe Rim, sure, but it was no stroll through the park. Probably 30% of the trail was flat and the rest of it was heading up or heading down. I’m not pushing Dixie, and I’m not trying to make her something she’s not, and she’s just rocking along at the back of the pack looking great. So if you’ve just squeaked through your first few rides on your off-breed, and you really don’t know if this is going to work out for your horse, don’t despair. If they like the sport and you can keep them sound, they can keep getting better and better at it.
And second, get your shit together and get through your holds on time. If you have a lot of short holds, and god forbid if you have a lot of short holds that are tack-off, you might not get to do more than pee and refill your water before you have to get back out there. You can eat in the saddle. Every minute you spend waiting for the frontrunners to start and waiting to pulse down at the holds is a minute you’re going to regret in the afternoon. I will wait up to two minutes for a friend whose out-time is later than mine, but no longer, and I don’t expect anybody to wait for me. I have squeaked in to the finish with less than ten minutes to spare too many times, and it’s not fun! Dixie and I lost fifteen minutes at this ride — we started late, we took maybe three minutes at each hold to pulse down, and we were two minutes late leaving the second check. It’s shocking how fast it adds up. Again, it gets easier the more you do this, but you have to make getting out on time an absolute priority!