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A Boy and His Horse
By Al Derue
On our last afternoon in Chile, we were told we could go hiking OR horseback riding OR rafting in a canyon that readily reminded me of central Arizona: towering red-rock cliffs, bright blue skies, abundant trees and high desert shrubs abounded. Hiking would have been my first choice, since I did that often in the southwest. But I was quite dehydrated after tasting many wines and drinking even more during lunch at the last winery we had visited mere hours before. Horseback riding was equally tempting in this scenic locale, but rafting I chose, and before long 10 of us were heading down a calm river for a short but wet ride.
I ended up in the middle, oarless, so I freely scanned the cliffs and side canyons we passed. A pleasant, if excessively safe, trip ended at a snack bar where beer, wine and empanadas (read: 'pizza puffs') were soon served. Some clouds drifted overhead, thunder boomed here and there, but no more than a drop or two of rain spoiled our surprise picnic.
But this is really where this story starts, not ends.
Despite our recent large lunch, we all displayed ample thirst and hunger. We quickly cleaned off several trays of food and drained more of the local beer, 'Cristal', than wine. To our surprise, we were then asked if we wanted to get in an hour on horseback after all. I jumped at the chance, although the sun was setting and none of us had ridden in decades, if at all. A quick change of clothes (pants were highly recommended), and we were on our steeds.
"Este caballo se llama RAMON," I was informed. I tried to get on his good side, for good reason. The setting sun has created some anxiety, as the paths were steep and our experience minimal.
"Ramon, mi amigo nuevo, you are a good horse, no? Si..." I asked and then answered my own question. Our fears were not at all assuaged by the explanation as to WHY a rider on last year's trip was thrown. I would have rather not heard the tale at all, but understood our guide's rationale.
Our horseback escorts, a couple of broad-smiled but burly-lean women, quickly got us mounted and provided quick instructions. As one of (the only?) Spanish speakers among us gringos, I quickly thought that the others were going on instinct or perhaps faith alone.
The horses prefer a specific order, we were told, and Ramon quickly confirmed this by butting in front of several other steeds while we climbed a short slope. I thus began conversing with him more so than everyone else combined with their respective mounts: "!SIGUE, RAMON, SIGUE!! !PARE, RAMON, PARE!! !VAMANOS, VAMANOS!!"
After a quick turn, we began ascending a slope nearing 45 degrees that was littered with loose rocks. But the steeds were slow yet steady, and soon we were atop a picturesque cliff, anxiously eyeing the last of the sunlight. "Very SEDONA," I told a fellow gringo-turned-gaucho.
Around a bend, into a canyon, we were greeted by a rising FULL MOON. Without it, this trek would have been impossible or simply suicidal. While the amount of useful light was better than none at all, it prevented not an occasional wisecrack about equipping the horses with headlights. A little ways down, around another bend, back up again, and then we were surrounded by killer views. The moon's light highlighted the deadly drops, steep slopes, and blood-red terrain. RATTLESNAKE PARADISE, I suddenly thought.
Ramon continued aimlessly while the others had stopped, having decided to turn around. Verbal commands failing, and the cliff's edge approaching, I resorted to the heels-in-the-ribs manner of conveying my request to Ramon. While vastly different mechanically from emergency brakes, the result was the same. Repeated work with the reins had us back on the right track. Backtracking offered us views of the main canyon. The moon illuminated slightly the path but brightly the tall canyon walls.
I have always suggested that a return trip inevitably seems shorter. But this was definitely different. Perhaps the pace had slowed as the trail became more difficult to determine; I quietly hoped Ramon could visualize it better than I. With a tug now and again of the reins I helped to the best of my marginal abilities. He stopped for a snack a couple of times; surely dinner was on his mind.
The adventure culminated down the first big slope. It was blocked from the moon's guiding glow, which did show the far canyon wall's details. Our eyes focused on the barely visible path as we leaned back for the slow trek down. Ramon showed his trail savvy, picking out the path without the least of my help.
I had developed full faith in him just as it was time to dismount and say goodbye. I offered him thanks in his native tongue, petting him along the mane in appreciation, but I was quite certain that his thoughts were far more dominated by dinner than the continued presence of some smelly gringo he had just trucked around in the dark for mere leisurely purposes.
Copyrightę2001 by Al Derue.
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