Brumbie is twelve years old, and is only a handful of weeks away from his thirteenth birthday. He's got a mangy white coat and needs a bath. His right foreleg carries a slight limp, but he walks with the dignity that comes with surviving. He lost his left eye to cancer five years ago, you see, but after some rehabilitation and good care at the hands of Leslie, his owner (and the proprietor of the Eastern Slope Ranch in Baker City, OR), Brumbie walks tall and proud.
"Since you're a beginner," Mary Jane, his trainer, tells me, "you get to ride Brumbie."
"Sounds good to me," I say, brushing his mane with the steel brush Mary Jane provided me. Between his empty left eye socket and my dead right eye (retinal detachment in 2006, if you're curious), we make a completely sighted horse and a totally blind man. Probably better that than vice versa.
Mary Jane hands me the saddle and I'm surprised at how heavy it is. I'd estimate about thirty pounds to my untrained hands. It slides over Brumbie's back right into place, and he doesn't flinch. This is something normal to him. I don't know how these creatures to it; weighing in at half a ton, capable of a 30+ MPH gallop, and they've been broken by people that weigh a fifth of what they do. My dog Ben had been kicked by a horse when he was a pup, and that gave him brain damage and some severed nerves. I, on the other hand, once kicked Nic in the stomach and he got back up after about five minutes. The power dynamic of the man/horse relationship is severely unbalanced, but somehow, they're subservient. I'll never understand.
One foot in the stirrup, swing my leg around his rump, slide it into the second stirrup. I finally understand the point of cowboy boots: solid heels slide the foot right where it needs to be and keeps it in place during trots. I take the reins in my right hand and feel the rush of ten-year-old memories flooding back to my fist. I put heels to belly and Brumbie picks up his gait. Mary Jane guides us into the small, fenced-off arena.
Brumbie and I are not the first ones through the gate, either. There are four middle-aged riders atop their respective steeds, waiting for Mary Jane's instruction (it's a group lesson).
Ken and Jenny are probably in their late-40s. They hail from northern Washington, where Ken works as a lawyer and Jenny runs a non-profit dedicated to the proliferation of the arts. Their horses, Sarge and Marney, are both dark brown with black fringe (I'm sure there's an actual term for the line of hair running back from their foreheads, but I have to content myself with describing it like a jean jacket from 1983).
Tom and Carly both grew up in Baker City, but got married immediately after high school and moved to Boise, where Carly got her MBA and Tom started a prominent welding business, which Carly now manages. They bought a house here a few years ago to keep in touch with their roots and visit family--none of their relatives ever saw fit to leave this town--and they spend about four months a year here. Their horses, Bud and Thompson, are both paints, and look like they rolled around in a can of Imperial White immediately after getting their coarse brown coats.
The four of them have been friends for about twenty years, ever since Ken (successfully) defended Carly and Tom from some false embezzlement charges after their accountant up and R-U-N-N-O-F-T to South America with five years of profits tucked under his greedy belt. The trials of litigation bonded these four, and now they spend their seasons together as often as possible.
They're all preparing for a competitive horse show in Pendleton next month. They've only been riding about three years--Carly worked on a ranch while she was in school, but that was more administrative and less horse-centric--but they take it very seriously.
This motley gang of upper-middle class equestrians is working on their "simple changes," which involves changing the leading foreleg (front leg) from left to right or vice versa. This is something that beginning competitions take very seriously and is, apparently, a foundational skill of advanced riding technique. They get in a single file line along the eastern corner of the arena and wait their turn to try their hand (and hoof, respectively) at the routine. As Brumbie and I are merely watching at this point, we have a chance to get to socialize.
"Ken," he says, extending a hand across the way. I accept it and am surprised at the strength of his grip. Not that he's a small man--I'd put him at a healthy, relatively lean 220 lbs.--but the cold Oregon breeze coming in from the north has chilled my hands to the point where I can scarcely grip. Ken remains unaffected.
"Andy," I say. "That's a damn fine horse you've got there, Ken."
"Ol' Sarge here? Yeah, I've had her for about nine years. Saw her get pulled right from her momma's womb, no less. Haven't spent more than a few days apart since. Hell, I've spent more time with her than I have with my lovely wife."
"And how does your lovely wife feel about that?"
"Oh, she feels just fine." He smiles a mischievous grin from beneath his salt-and-pepper mustache. "What do you do?
It occurs to me that I am in a rare position.
"I work at a software company and came up here for a few days to clear my head."
"It's a damn fine place to," he says, surveying the landscape. "I can't spend more than a month--at absolute most, you understand--away from here without feeling like someone's amputated my legs. This is a real, actual place. Everywhere else is just pretending to be as authentic as this place."
"I think I know what you mean." I don't, but I really, really want to.
"Anyway, what brings you to Baker City? You got some family out here?"
"Nope," I say, squinting invisibly behind $10 Target sunglasses. "Got stuck here about a year ago during a snowstorm and fell in love. Been trying to get back ever since."
"Glad you finally made it. This is a damn fine place to be. Best-kept secret of the northwest." He gives Sarge a little kick with his left foot and lifts the reins in preparation for their movement. "So don't tell anybody, and we'll keep to to ourselves, and it can just be ours. Glad to meet you." They gallop off.
"Likewise," I call out. Brumbie neighs in amiable agreement.
Jenny, having just finished her first practice run, to much acclaim from both Mary Jane and her fellow trainees, pulls up on my right. Marney's slightly panting--I had no idea horses panted, but it make sense, considering the exercise she's been getting--and Jenny looks exhausted.
"Goddamn, riding these things makes me sore."
"I understand," I say with a smile. "I'm Andy."
"Nice to meet you, Andy. I'm Jenny. You just met my husband, Ken. I'd call him a horse's ass, but I don't want to hurt Marney's feelings." She pats her pony and gives her a scratch behind the ears. "Just here for a riding lesson?"
"Sort of. I'm a student, and it's spring break. Everyone else went to Cabo or San Diego, and I came to eastern Oregon."
"You made the better choice," she says, pulling Marney's reins until she coughs in defeat. "Whoa, Marn. Anyway, Mary Jane here is the best. You'll more from her in a day than you'd learn from any other trainer in six months."
"Glad to hear it. How long have you been riding?"
"Not as long as I'd like."
"Not a from-birth person?"
"Afraid not." As natural as Ken looked, Jenny rides Marney the way a torso rides a pair of legs. This is a single creature. When I get home, I'm telling everyone I met a centaur. These two are connected by something deeper than a leather saddle. "But God bless the horses, you know? I used to speak French until I figured out that they eat horses over there. Can you imagine?These incredible beasts getting slaughtered and consumed by some gang of mimes drinking overrated red wine. I tell you, I never spoke another word of their goddamn language and I won't until the eating of these things becomes as forbidden as eating people parts."
"Isn't that just a rumor?"
"Hell if I know," she says with a suspicious grimace. "Better safe than sorry. So why Baker City?"
"For my spring break?" Jenny nods. "Best burger I've ever had in my life was at Barley Brown's, and I figured I needed to eat during my vacation, so I might as well come here."
"Eight hours is a pretty hefty pricetag for a cheeseburger, regardless of how good it may be. Doing anything special up here?"
"Not really," I say. "Just writing a lot."
"Riding a lot?" she asks for clarification.
"...yeah." I don't really want to get into it.
"Well, this is the place. Untouched frontier as far as you can see, and horses to match. There's something between these horses and this land, too. Can't quite explain it. But it's worth knowing about. In any case, it's been a pleasure, Andy. Gotta get back in line."
"Nice to meet you, Jenny. Good luck at the competition." They depart and Brumbie stirs beneath me, clearly wanting a turn.
"Sorry, fella," I say to his pinned-back left ear. "Not our spot just yet."
Amidst the applause of her compatriots and trainer, Carly and Bud pull up on my right like we were at a common stoplight.
"Andy, right?" she says, holding out a gloved hand.
"Yeah, how're you doing?"
"Good, thanks. I'm Carly. This here's Bud."
"Nice to meet the both of you." Brumbie looks over in acknowledgement and gives the classic head-dip-hello primarily utilized by jocks and other assholes. Great. My horse isn't just half-blind, he's a total prick.
“What’re you doing up here? I heard someone say you were form Utah?”
“Yeah,” I say, scratching the sunshine from my forehead. “The Provo Orem area, actually. Right down there by BYU.”
“What do you do?” she asks.
“I play guitar at a Christian church.”
“Are you pretty religious, then?”
“Not really,” I say, brushing the wind-blown hair from Brumbie’s eye. “Although I’m considering going to divinity school to teach.”
“Really.” She looks out against the horizon “That’s interesting. Do you have a girlfriend back in Utah?”
I don’t know why everybody here asks me that.
“No.” I scratch Brumbie behind the ears and chuckle when he sneezes. “Not a big market for people who want to go to divinity school down in Mormontown.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” Carly says. “Are you Mormon?”
“That’s a complicated question, so I’ll just answer ‘yes.’ Are you religious at all?”
“No, but I grew up in a pretty heavily Seventh Day Adventist town. I myself left at about thirteen years old, but I think religion’s pretty damn interesting.” I ignore the low-hanging pun and nod in agreement. “So you gonna go into ministry or what?”
“No no no,” I protest, “I can’t think of a church that would let someone like me preach, regardless of denomination.”
“Well, you seem like a straight shooter. If you decide to preach, I hope you find a denomination. And a girlfriend to sit in the front row. HYEAH!” she calls to Bud, and they trot away. I wave an unseen goodbye.
Tom pulls up to my side.
“Howdy,” he drawls, his diction mirroring a young John Wayne to a marginally frightening extent. “Tom.” He’s even got the harsh vowel tones of the guy. I wonder if he’s doing an impression, so I ask him some questions.
“How’s it going, Tom?”
“Purty good.” He coughs into his elbow. “Purty darn good.”
“What brings you to Baker City?”
“The lady and I have a home here at the base of the mountain,” he says. “We farm potatoes nine months o’ tha year, and ride the remaining few that we’re able to make it out here.” He spits to the side. “What about you?”
I’m sad he hasn’t yet addressed me as “pilgrim.”
“I’m just here on vacation,” I say. “I’m a writer, working on a novel, looking for a place to inspire me.”
“Well, I don’t know much about those things,” he says, drawling like he lost an elocution bet, “but ain’t nothin’ can inspire you like the land or a woman. Sounds like you picked the former rather than the latter.”
“Feels like the land picked me, I guess.” I examine the skyline. “The woman didn’t seem to want much to do with me.”
“That’s a damn shame.” He pulls back the reins on his stallion. “There’s nothin’ like a woman with love in her eyes. That’s why I got my hands on Carly up there. You meet her at all?”
“Yeah, spoke with her a bit.”
“A damn fine woman, she is.” He stares at the back of her head and the trot of her horse. “Damn fine. Enough to wake up the sun from a winter hibernation.”
“Yeah, she does. And she’s twice as good as you’d imagine. You got a lady back home?”
“Not really,” I say, brushing the dust from Brumbie’s saddle. “Not any one that cares to be, anyway.”
“Then you keep going,” he says. “Ain’t no man worth a damn without a woman by his side. Or another man, I guess, if you lean that way.”
“No offense, but, uh, good.” He adjusts his sunglasses. “I’m not a man of much, uh, ‘progress,’ but I just don’t understand it. They can do as they please, I s’pose, and I won’t get in their way, but a man ain’t nothin’ until he’s got himself a owman. Or, uh, a really pretty man.” He leans his head toward mine in a conspiratorial whisper. “The wife says I oughta be more open-minded. I imagine she’s right, as she’s wont to be on most things. Even so, you don’t look like you play for that team.”
“That’s fine enough, I guess.” He pulls down his brim. “But let me just offer some unsolicited advice.”
“You find that girl and you hold on for dear goddamn life. You think these horses are hard to understand? These horses are simple creatures. They’re easier to understand than goddamn apple pie. You pull the reins, they stop movin’. You say ‘hyeah,’ and they run like they was losin’ a race. But you get your eye on a woman you think it prettier than the mornin’ and you don’t let it offa her, because she’ll just keep movin’ if you don’t make chase. And there’s nothin’ more wasteful than a love that’s withered in vain. You unnerstand?”
“No,” I want to say, but I’d hate to disappoint this guy, who seems like he’s given this speech to a crowd of 150+ at the Holiday Inn. I nod. Brumbie does likewise.
“Good.” He extends his legs against the stirrups and gently brushes his boots’ spurs against Thompson’s side. “You stay on tha straight an’ narrow, now.” He steps away. “Ain’t too many of us on that path and you’ve gotta keep on it if it’s to remain unsettled.”
He’s got a point.
Watching Tom ride Thompson, I don’t think for a second that his accent—and his down-home advice—isn’t put-upon, a persona for an adopted homeland. But that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.
The four finish their lessons. Now it’s just me, Mary Jane, and Brumpie.
“So what made you want to ride a horse?” Mary Jane calls out as Brumpie and I make laps about the edges of the fence.
“Don’t know, really. Just watch a lot of westerns.” She nods, and Brumpie seems satisfied with my response. We keep riding, moving from walk to trot to lope. I can sense all four feet beneath me leaving ground simultaneously, and it’s terrifying and wonderful and I feel disconnected from the earth and attached only to this mare beneath my legs.
“You’re doing a great job,” she says. “You’re not doing wonderfully or anything, but you’re properly above average.”
“Well, Clint Eastwood fell off his horse all the time.”
“Yeah,” she says, “but John Wayne didn’t.”