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The Best That Can Happen: The Grand Trek

The Best That Can Happen: The Grand Trek

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The Best That Can Happen: The Grand Trek

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354 Seiten
5 Stunden
Herausgeber:
Freigegeben:
Nov 3, 2020
ISBN:
9780998430515
Format:
Buch

Beschreibung

"The best that can happen is to fulfill the dreams of one's youth." - Willa Cather.  "Uh huh. Ever actually, like, try it?" - Kathleen Schmitt.  A lame joke over the farm breakfast table just after high school turns into Kathleen's decision to ride a horse from coast to coast. It took a few years to assemble 'The Trekkers' - a national champion trail horse to ride, a half-broke half-bred as a pack horse, a protection-trained Boxer dog, and a post-college Kathleen. This solo adventure travel memoir recounts the characters and challenges met along the road for each of The Trekkers,and also recounts preparing for The Trek and how The Trek impacted Kathleen's later life. Humor, insights, the occasional rant, a few slides into fiction, and one moment of real terror, Kathleen invites you to come along on one life adventure that, as all adventures do, leads to another.

Herausgeber:
Freigegeben:
Nov 3, 2020
ISBN:
9780998430515
Format:
Buch

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The Best That Can Happen - Kathleen Schmitt

1981

To Horst and Harriet

and Sue and Sarah, of course

About Bears

There were all kinds of things I was afraid of at first, ranging from grizzly bears to ‘mean’ horses and gun-fighters; but by acting as if I was not afraid I gradually ceased to be afraid.

—Theodore Roosevelt

Fact: More people are killed each year by teddy bears than by grizzly bears.

—Laura Lee

When you see a bear, the spot where you see it becomes instantly different from every place else you’ve seen. Bears make you pay attention. They keep the mountains from turning into a blur.... A woods with a bear in it is real to a man walking through it in a way that a woods with no bear is not.

—Ian Frazier

The grizzly bear whose potent hug was feared by all, is now a rug.

—Arthur Guiterman

The gypsies believe the bear to be a brother to man because he has the same body beneath his hide, because he drinks beer, because he enjoys music and because he likes to dance.

—Ernest Hemingway

Be cautious of bears at all times, even when being mauled by a tiger.

—Craig Benzine

We advise outdoorsmen to wear noisy little bells on their clothing so as not to startle bears and to carry pepper spray in case of an encounter with a bear. It is also a good idea to watch out for fresh signs of bear activity. Outdoorsmen should recognize the difference between black bear and grizzly bear poop. Black bear poop is smaller and contains lots of berries and squirrel fur. Grizzly bear poop has little bells in it and smells like pepper.

— Montana Grizzly Bear Notice

Chapter 1

Alibhai's Dilemma

Pine Grove Farm, outside Scales Mound, far northwest Illinois, 1972

Horst and Harriet Haenert’s farmhouse back porch was larger than many homes’ entire first floor. It opened from the kitchen and the living room and stretched over a multi-car garage and workshop. Its three walls were mostly floor to ceiling windows. The windows displayed the paddocks and pastures behind and to the side of the house. Beyond, the rolling hills of northwestern Illinois displayed the corn and cattle which support the sparse population of Jo Davies County. The porch windows framed the northern Midwest’s gloriously sedate sunrises and sunsets that open and close each day.

Breakfasts and suppers at the long, cluttered table gathered however many friends and farmers and family showed up. Table conversation often centered on the weather and stock prices (livestock prices, that is). Those prices were items of dead seriousness to those who depend on elements completely beyond their control.

Laugh if you will at farmers’ laconic greeting, Dry today, ain’t it? Such weather commentary holds deep implications for the rural community’s welfare. Tied up in this summary of conditions could be early spring warnings of problems above the daily dawn to dusk chores.

It could signal a cautious early summer hope that the hay on which everyone’s livestock depends will harvest up tasty and nutritious this year. A good hay crop would save some scarce dollars that otherwise must be spent for supplemental feed.

Dry today, ain’t it? could express sincere sympathy for a neighbor whose acreage everyone knew has inexplicably been passed over by all but the most massive rains this year. Dry today, ain’t it? could be a mutual questioning of a man’s fate at God’s hand.

Such people understand early in life that we all live under the mercy of larger powers, so they tend to take things in stride. They know that Man has tried about everything to outsmart Mother Nature since before a hand was first put to a plow and never gained more than a temporary advantage. They are quick to see an opportunity and slow to expect too much. They know the long arm of Nature may reap slowly, but reap it will.

Harriet and I shared breakfast on the porch one summer day and looked over the half-dozen horses dozing under the pines to the side of the house. She rather casually mentioned that Alibhai might not make it through the next winter.

Alibhai was a smallish gray gelding, not all that old—eighteen. He had suffered a condition called joint evil as a foal. Harriet, her sister and her mother, had nursed Alibhai through the troubles, a remarkable feat rewarded by a kind and generous gelding. He could be relied on to give his best to his friends and family. He would happily turn in a full day working cattle and riding fence lines, or carry small children as if presenting eggs to the queen.

He was a little picky about his adult riders, though. He had deftly rid himself of more than one visitor who fancied themselves a ‘cowboy.’ If Alibhai decided someone was unworthy of his extensive and able services, he could appear resigned to unenlightened treatment. But in the course of the ride, Alibhai would cow kick once or twice, as if brushing flies off his belly with his hind leg. There were not necessarily any flies nearby. Alibhai, however, had determined thereby precisely the amount of lift and shift required to place a rider’s own two feet judiciously back on the roadbed if they would not use his four feet with more care.

Such riders appeared back at the farm with their vanity more disheveled than the smart outfits they often wore. They arrived unmistakably on foot about ten yards behind Alibhai as he led them along the gravel roads back to the Haenert’s front yard. Having brought the rider safely home, Alibhai neighed for a responsible person to come take the pompous fool off his hands. When someone appeared at the door to hear another ‘cowboy’s’ side of the tale, Alibhai would take himself off to the barnyard for unsaddling.

On this summer morning, Alibhai was dozing in the breeze under the rows of billowing pines which gave Pine Grove Farm its name long ago. I studied him over my breakfast cereal and realized Harriet could be right. Alibhai’s stance was a hair less than content. A typical vicious Northern Illinois winter could indeed make his life miserable. He might well decide it was time to move on.

Send him to Kiki’s, I suggested, referring to Harriet’s sister who was breeding Arabians in Arizona at the time. He’d do fine down there, wouldn’t he?

She thought it over. We can’t afford to send him down there.

Well, ride him down there, I suggested, meaning to deflect a host of unpleasant facts with mild humor. Most people would have understood this and gone along with the social ploy. Harriet understood my poor attempt at sympathy, all right. She is genetically adept at social ploys herself, when she bothers with them. I think she prefers to see what comes of taking one’s less considered words seriously.

I can’t. I have to be back teaching school this fall, and he’ll have to take it kind of slowly, she said. But you could, she continued and went to get an atlas.

IT WAS THAT EASY TO expand my view of the possibilities of post-high school life. With these few words, I saw I could cast myself as an adventurer far beyond daring a tough riding school in Britain, as the post-high school/pre-college plan then read. I also reflected that I had better start watching what I was saying. Someone might take me seriously—an as yet unconsidered possibility. Is that how words become that real? By someone else taking them at face value?

These new paradigms were settling into my mind like the Cheerios settling into the milk in my cereal bowl. Harriet returned to the breakfast table with a thick book of maps. I could feel some sort of thought pattern restructuring going on while Harriet, humming, found the right map. She traced a line down the page with her finger.

You could head south down this side of the Mississippi, cross over probably at St. Louis, and head southwest.

I’ve always wanted to see New Orleans, I said, not having learned a damn thing and not over-clear on the geography. She flipped a few pages.

Well, that would put some extra miles on the trip, but if he’s in good shape and you’re making good time, you could do that. Actually, it might be quickest to head north a little at first up to Galena and cross the Mississippi there. It’s a lot narrower up here than further south. That would be an easy bridge to cross, too.

Yes, I suppose it would be, I responded, to keep my oar in the conversational waters. Meanwhile, I worked on the idea that a route to Phoenix, Arizona from Scales Mound, Illinois by horseback would include crossing rivers by horseback.

I began to look for different kinds of information from this map. What stood out now were the blanks between the roads rather than the roads themselves. I supposed the blank areas represented areas much like what surrounded Scales Mound: fenced farmland overlaid with unnamed gravel roads less mapped than the far side of the moon and more convoluted than a failed Cat’s Cradle. After a year on the farm, I was still not real sure of the ‘back way’ to the other nearby town of Elizabeth.

I focused on those thin red lines most travelers can ignore. Unlike the gravel road that ran in front of Pine Grove Farms, those roads were at least on the state map. They represented two-lane blacktops much like the road from Scales Mound to Galena. I had often daydreamed of riding along its shoulder as the school bus drove to the Agriculture class which I had insisted on taking instead of Home Economics. Ask me if I can cook muffins or whip up a yearling calf ration better, to this day.

Considering exactly what riding that road on horseback would be like, part of me realized I was afraid to ride the blacktop out of Scales Mound in any direction. Jo Davies County is one of the few areas of Illinois that isn’t flat, so the roads there aren’t real straight. The curving roads had steep drop offs and no shoulder. With few cars on the roads, drivers could get nonchalant about staying exactly between the lines. Turning Alibhai and myself into a wet red smear on the highway was not a solution to the problem of his surviving the next winter.

Not getting out of one’s own neighborhood is a stopper if one is headed for Arizona. Rather than present the issue of simple fear, I presented a logistical matter: what would I do with Alibhai at night? It was my experience that horses were stabled or pastured at night.

Camp, replied Harriet. Most folks would let you camp in one of their fields. The Haenerts would certainly have done so, as would any of their neighbors. They would have surreptitiously booted one of their own horses out of its stall, and a kid out of its own bed, to put up a traveling horse and rider. They would have fed the horse before the rider got out of bed the next morning. One of the kids would be holding it and a full canteen of water in the front yard, ready to roll after the rider was fed a huge country breakfast. Carrots for the horse and a few sandwiches would be hidden in the bedroll to be found later. The chance of the traveler leaving that day would be slim. Something interesting that a traveler ought to come along with the family to see would be going on in the area, like within 100 miles or so. The horse would be returned to a comfortable paddock and the departure preparations repeated the next day. Still, the convention of being ready to move on would be served.

But, yes, plan on camping, because planning to freeload was not the idea. That would have been detected miles away and generally known well before such a traveler arrived at anyone’s doorstep.

I mentally delayed considering the fact that I had never camped aside from summer camp-type camping, with bunk houses and three meals daily served at tables. It’s not that I insist on service. I just had no idea how to camp, make a campfire, put up a tent, or pack a horse for camping. So, I said:

Bears. What about bears?

Avoid them. They’re mostly further west, anyway. Snakes won’t bother you, though.

You mean...like...rattlesnakes?

You probably ought to leave about September and move south as winter sets in behind you.

AS WITH MOST PIONEERING ideas, the initial enthusiasm was tempered by practical considerations raised in further discussion. Could I find a companion to ride with? Starting the conversation with my folks was a formidable prospect, too. We were not on remarkably good terms, as evidenced by their youngest, a high school senior, living on a farm four hours west and a world away from their suburban Chicago condo. There could be no acceptable explanation of why I should ride a horse to Arizona because he looked like he might have trouble over the winter. Absurd of itself, it would further delay my much objected-to plan to get certified as a riding instructor in Britain. That, in turn, delayed my much-anticipated college attendance.

But when I cut to the chase, all obstacles were surmountable. I would realize this almost ten years later when I overcame even more and actually did hit a trail similar to that plotted out on the Haenerts’ back porch that summer morning over breakfast. On that summer morning, though, I was simply afraid and wouldn’t admit it even to myself. I ‘decided’ I had to go ahead with my plan to train in Britain. It was already all set, after all.

Alibhai died shortly after I would have had to start south with him. In a twist of irony, he died at Harriet’s folks’ place not a mile from the farm. Sarah, Harriet’s younger daughter, had ridden him up there to visit her grandmother along the very road I imagined as a death trap. That part was fine, but Sarah staked Alibhai out in the front yard while she visited. Uncharacteristically, Alibhai panicked when his stake out rope got wrapped around his leg. Alibhai had been staked out hundreds of times and had ropes around his legs even more often. This time, Alibhai broke his leg.

Looking back, I am inclined to think maybe he knew what Harriet knew: he wasn’t going to make it through another winter and no one was taking him to warmer quarters. He died in a fashion that showed me my fears had been groundless and also foreshadowed a problem I was later to encounter with another of the Haenerts’ charming gray Arabians.

With Alibhai dead, the idea of riding to Arizona transformed into an idea of riding from coast to coast—someday.

More to make my word good than anything else and to avoid having to wonder for the rest of my life what it would have been like, in 1981 what I call The Grand Trek became one of what I now call an Apparent Adventure.

An Apparent Adventure (A.A.) is a rather exotic event or action which you’d think would be important, perhaps even epiphanal. Real adventures change something although not always in the way expected. At heart, A.A.s are contrived or pointless, or at least not to the point. Therefore, A.A.s yield disproportionately little final effect on anything. So it seemed to me at the time about The Grand Trek, in the more obvious ways. Not to say those seven months on the road with my horse and dog were without value, but it sure wasn’t what I expected. After all, look what merely forty days in the desert did for Jesus.

I was to travel Europe and a bit of Africa before I would undertake my youthful dream of adventurously traveling the U.S. by horseback. But, thus was one dream of my youth formed, and also transformed, and finally performed to a surprising point. Looking back and having been asked dozens of times over the years why I did The Grand Trek, I now think I missed the point.

The idea had been to save Alibhai (the real adventure), not to adventure by horseback for the sake of adventure (the apparent adventure). Having some point to it, an adventure to save Alibhai might have been the best that could have happened.

What happened instead does have some interesting moments, however, as I hope you will agree.

I may leave some things out of these recollections, as would you. And I may exaggerate some other things, although probably not the ones you will think I have. But please pour yourself a cup of coffee and come along with me as I tell you stories of The Grand Trek and what happened next.

We may then consider together whether the best that can happen is, indeed, to fulfill the dreams of one’s youth.

Chapter 2

Murphy's Law

The Frost Farm, another farm owned by the Haenerts outside Scales Mound, IL, Christmas, 1977

The six years or so between the birth of a plan to ride coast to coast and another visit to the farm had not been without adventures. After getting my British riding instructor certification, I traveled Europe and a little of Africa and started college at Georgetown University. I stumbled into a few years of top-flight riding training in Germany and then took up my college studies again when I returned to the States. Throughout, Harriet kept me up to date on the many horses with sad backgrounds who had the luck to land at the Haenerts’ to be restored and passed on to other hands.

ANY VISIT TO PINE GROVE Farms would involve some saddle time. So it was that, during this Christmastime visit, I found myself riding with Harriet through a pasture at their hog and cattle farm called the Frost place. She stopped and shifted in her saddle to point across a small ravine to an unprepossessing chestnut gelding pawing through the snow to reach grazable plants.

You remember Murphy, she presumed incorrectly. Red’s foal by Mister.

I vaguely recalled Red, a touchy, nothing special Appaloosa mare. I had enjoyed riding her bareback a few times while residing with the Haenerts during my last year of high school. I don’t usually like to ride bareback, but Red didn’t like saddles even more. It was said to have to do with Red being broken by being saddled once and leaving the saddle on her for about three weeks. When the saddle was finally removed, a layer of skin on her back came off with it.

Some horses going in and out of the farm had produced foals by the Haenerts’ Davenport Arabian stallion, fondly called Mister. It was entirely possible they had bred Red to Mister. Harriet kindly assumed I kept track of these things.

That’s the horse that will take you to California, she predicted, referring to the not-yet-dead plan to ride a horse from coast to coast.

My first thought about the horse was: Yuk. I may even have said it. I like to think I said something like, Mister did improve on the mare, as I recall her.

You haven’t seen him move.

I GOT TO SEE MURPHY move about two years later when again restoring my soul with another visit to the Haenerts’.

While I headed from Scales Mound to British riding schools, the Haenerts got involved in competitive trail riding and endurance racing. Both sports call for covering many miles (25 to 100 and more) over often challenging terrain. Arabians’ desert war horse history served them well in both.

The Haenerts’ jump into these sports started on a summer afternoon when Harriet called down from the porch to me in the barnyard with the command: Take Fania out and make her sweat.

Fania was a gorgeous Arab/Thoroughbred mare who liked to work fast and hot. A full day working cattle didn’t raise more than a mild dampness on Fania’s strikingly arched neck. It was nothing you could call a true sweat. She was a blast to ride, so I was ready to give it a try despite suspecting—no, knowing—I would dissolve long before Fania raised the desired quantity of perspiration.

Harriet’s daughters, Sue and Sarah, had since earned top awards at this tough game for which Fania, Mister, and his offspring showed special talent.

Upon arriving at the farm for this visit, I learned that the Haenerts were hosting a competitive trail ride and endurance race within weeks. Preparations required marking fifty miles of competition trails and clearing livestock out of the fields the trails would wind through. We left for last the cattle pasture where Murphy was living with the cows and two unremembered Hackney ponies. Murphy was a pest whenever you rode through this field, overjoyed to see some friends who might liven up his dull routine of harassing the cattle.

Murphy’s background as a saddle horse was spotty. Horst and Harriet had given Murphy as a weanling to an Irish ex-seminarian who somehow supported any number of foster kids at a worn out farmstead in the area. Murphy grew up largely unaware of other equines. He was comfortable on the porch or in the living room, enjoyed whatever TV channel was on and was as adept at raiding the refrigerator as any of the kids. As Murphy grew up, it occurred to the Irishman that Murphy ought to be trained. Having no clue about horses, he sent Murphy to the worst kind of cowboy, one who ‘broke’ horses. Except Murphy broke the cowboy instead, putting him in the hospital for some time.

Murphy came back to the Haenerts. Sue spent some time reestablishing for him that not all people are heartless brutes, and riding might be OK even if it did involve saddles. He was then turned out in an eighty-acre field with the cows and two Hackney ponies to await events. Apparently, he had been awaiting our moving the livestock out of his pasture. We moved the cows. We moved the two Hackney ponies. We couldn’t find Murphy.

Mounted all on proud competitive trail and endurance horses, Sue, Sarah and I combed the pasture, checking thickets and ravines and high corners and low. No Murphy. We separated, each riding as parallel a track as one can in rather rough terrain. We gathered again at the other end of the field, each reporting no results.

Eighty acres is a fair chunk of land, but it isn’t big enough to overlook a horse after four passes over the land even if the horse was lying dead. Especially if the horse was lying dead. Besides, Murphy was generally the first one to join a mounted party rather than hide. Where was he? We headed back up the field.

We made it about a third of the way back up the field when Murphy neighed a challenge from behind us, where we had been mere moments ago. We turned in time to see him burst out of a thicket we had thoroughly searched. Vexed, we watched him zoom away with hooves flying and tangled mane at full mast. We spun our mounts around and thundered after him.

By the other end of the field, we had lost him again (how?) until we saw him grazing back about a quarter of the way down the field. He was grazing, that is, in between checking our positions. When he saw us turn toward him, oats and halters at the ready, he sauntered across the field toward the side fence line, checking over his shoulder to make sure we were securely on his trail this time, and disappeared again.

I saw him come this way, Sue panted when we reached the stand of trees and brush he had slithered into. I know he did. We all agreed he had indeed been exactly where we could find no trace of him. OK. Let’s try...

Oh, what all we tried! Two hours later, our usual human feeling of Ultimate Assured Triumph over mere livestock was slipping. Each of us experienced some humiliating form of Murphy leading us into blind alleys and to the edge of ravines clearly impossible for horses to cross, except he was already waiting on the other side. Our most promising entrapment plans left us empty handed, only to see Murphy somewhere he could not have gotten to, tapping his toes with impatience for us to get on with this glorious game.

I didn’t just get to see Murphy move. I got to see Murphy do things, go places, and lead us each into traps no horse should be able to do, get to, or understand. Did I still think he was unsightly? By four o’clock, I hated the cunning little bastard.

We left Murphy galloping after us and whinnying at the gate for us to continue this excellent game, as we headed our lathered, hungry and tired mounts to the barn before dark. Horst was ready with the expected tirade for having worn the horses out so. We rose again early the next day to call in some neighbors and fresh horses. We were now a full day behind schedule in marking fifty miles of trails for the upcoming competitions.

By the next evening, we were two days behind schedule marking those fifty miles of trails. Time to get serious.

On the third day of trying to catch Murphy, we had Jack, the Haenerts’ 1978 National Champion Arabian Competitive Trail horse. Fania had by then run a Midwest record for fifty miles. We had three more national top ten competitive trail or endurance horses. We called in every thundering Quarter Horse, durable Tennessee Walker, placid pleasure horse, plough horses who knew nothing less than a full day’s work, and Jeeps and pick-ups with lariat-wielding stockman we knew in the county. We could about fit everyone in the pasture without running into each other.

By golly, by mid-afternoon we had Murphy cornered. He trotted and cantered gaily inside a fenced corner and a semi-circle of overheated horsemen, machinery, and people on foot enclosing him. He darted toward this or that potential six-inch escape gap as Harriet walked up to him with a halter and a bag of oats. He stuffed his mouth into the oat bag, slipped his head into the halter before Harriet’s could put it on him herself, and declared himself caught.

He thanked everyone for the days of great sport and allowed himself to be led off toward the home farm. About halfway there, he broke loose from Harriet, galloped on toward the farm, and was home before anyone else.

Breakfast, day four.

OK. We have to get these trails marked. Harriet always was good at stating goals. Obstacles such as every horse in the county being played out from the previous days’ efforts were just part of the way things were today.

You take Murphy, she directed me.

Harriet! Harriet, y’know, that horse ain’t domesticated anymore, Harriet.

He’ll be fine. Use the hackamore. I don’t think he ever got into a bit.

    I couldn’t find a word to start speaking my thoughts, so I went and got suited up. Heavy denim jeans, denim jacket over surreptitiously bandaged knees and elbows. Heavy Western saddle. Hackamore, OK, whatever. Crash helmet certainly, for I was sure I would be flying a few times, spending countable time in the air before hitting that roadside gravel, who knew how many times?

It took a good hour and a half to saddle Murphy. An ominous hump intermittently arched his back, threatening a furious bucking spree. He relaxed slowly as the flares of an old fire faded from his eyes. I mounted, expecting the worst. Rarely have

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