My childish enthusiastic shouts of “giddyap,” always gained the same response.
An exasperated blast of sour nicotine tinged breath followed with the sullen instruction to, “pipe down, kid.”
Being a Bronx Zoo pony ride attendant, limited to squiring children around a muck littered oval circle was probably a boring occupation. However, why could they not join in sage-scented scenarios my fertile imagination had concocted?
Freed from the concrete existence of upper Manhattan, I rode the open range under a never-ending blue sky, shiny spurs sparkling in the sun and adventure waiting around every butte.
Decades later, my long-forgotten cowgirl yearnings were renewed when asked to join the annual 1860s era wagon train trek over the Sierra Nevada. Every June it honors the pioneers of old by journeying from South Lake Tahoe to Placerville – near the site of California’s gold discovery.
The night before departing, excitement turned into terror as my lack of horse sense surfaced.
“Bring one of those hanging pine-scented air fresheners,” suggested the love of my life, unfortunately also a city child. “Horses smell.”
As the bright glow of the early morning sun rose behind the lower boughs of towering pines, a friend drove me to the departure location. Born in the Sierra foothills, her lifetime spent around horses was evident by her confident strides past them and occasional stop to stroke a muzzle of these equine giants – all draft horses and larger than a Mini Cooper.
Unfortunately, this gifted horse-whisperer was not to accompany me, despite the desperate non-verbal pleading messages flooding out of my eyes.
“You looked like a scared kid, being left at their first sleepover camp,” she remembered later.
Surrounded by reanactors wearing period calico, leather and lace my anxiety only grew. I was dressed for comfort and warmth not historical accuracy.
Pointy-toed cowboy boots poked out under buckskin while a steaming horse patty squished around and up from my left boot’s waffled sole. Skirting away from a lumbering mountain of two Percherons, my eyes had been up, not down.
The trip had yet to begin and literally, I was in sh#t. Wiping brown goo into a tree’s coarse bark my sock-clad foot soaked up morning dew from crunchy pine needles I struggled, one-handed, for wet wipes buried deep in my backpack.
“Got a problem, little lady?”
Standing close to 6’, and am armed with curves “little” is far from a descriptive word used for me.
I turned to a mountain man whose face ringed with a straggly salt and pepper beard, fringe-lined jacket and raccoon cap atop his head was more 19th century than 21st.
Finding the wet wipes, Mountain Man offered to walk me around.
Obviously, the deficiency of my pioneer life skills had been noticed. My next comment cemented the observation.
“How nice many people have decorated their horses’ tails with ribbons and bandanas,” I said. “It looks so festive.”
From under bushy eyebrows, Mountain Man trained sad eyes on my virgin face.
“They are not a decoration. It means they kick.”
I swear the glossy black Shire and Russian Curly to my right snorted in disdain.
By mutual decision, riding astride a noble beast was not the best place for me. Instead, a seat in a 19th century wagon was located.
Within minutes, my posterior made me aware of the hardships endured by emigrants to the West. Wooden wheels and seats had no padding, and my natural padding was half-off the narrow seat slats.
I panicked wondering how long I could sit in pain.
Then as often happens when traveling, serendipity occurred.
The beauty of Highway 50 with its craggy mountain ranges, the rush of the American River’s white water and views of hawks and eagles soaring on air currents swept over me. Added to it was the excitement of the drivers of vehicles made to park on the two-lane road so our mile-long train could pass.
Instead of grumbling or hit horns in anger, everyone was thrilled to see us. Applause and cheers erupted from cars, trucks and even the front seat of a hearse. Cameras and phones appeared everywhere documenting this often unexpected scene of days long past.
Despite my idiotic fears, this was great fun. How fortunate I was to be reliving history.
Sheer joy made me yell out “giddyap.”
An enthusiastic chorus echoed back.
Finally, I was a cowgirl!
L J Bottjer
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