Many years have passed since I’ve felt authentically like me, except when I’m writing, but not that long ago I remember a time when I felt incredibly capable, confident, and secure within my own skin. I felt as if anything life hurled at me, I could tackle and overcome with Ease and Grace. A few years have passed since then but lately, I’ve noticed my authentic self is coming back. I have to work at it but she’s still there. I think she’s waiting for me to discover her again.
I decided to enter this challenge for the sake of a distant memory I won’t ever forget. It’s a memory of me I wish I could grab back from the whispers of the past when I, Caroline, long ago shined through as my authentic self.
Grab a seat and let me tell you a story….
Years ago, when my husband and I first began our guest ranch business, around the same time we purchased my barrel racing horse, Pajaro (Pa-Ha-Ro). We were swamped with visitors at the ranch every weekend.
We took our guests on pack trips and trail rides through the rugged mountains of Baja on our ranch. During this time, I participated in barrel racing events on the rodeo circuit here in Northern Baja where we live and where our ranch is located.
My horse and I were a unique team. A previous ¼ mile racehorse, he ran like the wind. When we participated in barrel races, he never knocked down a barrel. He turned on a dime. He was also fast and sure-footed in the rugged mountains surrounding our ranch.
In 2006, I wrote a short story about him that was included in a book called Angel Horses. In the last paragraph of the story, I wrote, “I know if I had to ride Pajaro to the ends of the Earth he would get me there.” And I believed with all my heart this was true. When I rode Pajaro, he and I were one. He took me anywhere I wanted to go. He gave me a sense of wholeness and purpose. One weekend clearly stands out in my mind when I truly felt my authentic self shine through.
We began a late afternoon ride up into the canyonlands heading east on the ranch. Part of the ride involved old cattle trails, barely visible, chiseled out by wandering cows alongside a mountain slope with a steep drop off into the canyon below. This trail led farther up the property to a grassy meadow where our cattle lived during the Spring.
The canyonlands were tricky but the horses knew the way. Another sketchy spot on this trail was the Tunnel. The Tunnel trail required either ascending or descending (depending which way you were riding) a mountain while passing through a narly grove of trees; about a 500-yard stretch. The trees and manzanita bushes were so dense, the horses had to push their way through with their strong chests which formed a small path for the horse. Visibility was next to none. This left the rider to deal with the branches and leaves flung into their faces and tree branches that appeared to grab hats and rip clothing. The trail definitely had its exciting spots but the beauty of the land itself was pristine and untouched.
On this particular ride, we had six people with us. My husband and I were trail guides along with our guests, four men, a woman, and a little girl around the age of twelve who was an experienced rider.
That ride took place in the Fall. The days were shorter. What we planned as an hour ride, leaving the ranch at 4 pm turned into a three-hour ride. The group was so excited they wanted to continue although the sun had already disappeared behind the mountains. Even if we decided to turn back then we’d find ourselves riding in the dark.
Not many people know this but horses see as well at night as they do in the day. My husband and I reassured everyone of this but the little girl and her mother had grown tired and wanted to return to the ranch.
My husband asked me, “What should we do?”
I laughed inside and thought, What? He’s asking me? He usually gave the orders.
By then, darkness was already upon us. I looked up at the sky. Lucky for us the full moon was up. It gave us plenty of light.
I said, “I’ll take them back. If you want to take the men out a little longer go ahead.”
My husband stared at me.
He knew the ranch was far away, a good hour and a half riding in the dark.
“Are you sure?” He didn’t sound convinced.
The moment he asked me, I glanced at the mother and her daughter. I looked at Pajaro underneath me and at the moon. I felt confident I had everything I needed to bring the two people safely back to the ranch. Never mind the Tunnel or the narrow cow trails. I knew with every fiber of my being I could do it and so could Pajaro.
“Yes,” I said. “Don’t worry, I know the way. We’ll go slow and take our time. Safety first.” I reassured him.
“Alright then.” He said. He knew riding back to the ranch wasn’t a problem for me but he worried about the little girl and her mother.
“Go slow. I’m going to take them just up to that ridge and we’ll turn back.” He said pointing out into the darkness. “We’ll be right behind you.” The men were experienced riders as well. I was confident when they reached the ridge, my husband would make sure they headed back double time.
I started to turn Pajaro towards the mother and daughter who patiently waited for me on their horses.
A final glance and my husband, “See you at dinner time.”
When it comes to trail rides, my husband was the real trail boss. I rode along usually in the middle of the group while eyeballing saddles for loose cinches or anything else that looked out of place. Most of our groups were novices but this particular group was all experienced riders.
That night I became the trail boss. My job was to get us back to the ranch safely down the cow trails, through the Tunnel in the dark with only the light of the moon to guide our way. Within myself, I felt confident with this task because I knew the trail backward and forward. Although I’d never ridden it at night, I knew Pajaro wouldn’t miss a step.
My husband and his riders took off in one direction and the three of us in the other. I told the little girl to stay right behind my horse so she could see me. I also reminded both of them not to worry. The horses had excellent night vision.
We began our descent down the mountain on the cow trail alongside the canyon. On my left, I felt the emptiness of space, the cold air hovering within the darkness of the canyon below. Another aspect of my job was to talk with people. Sometimes when people are scared, if someone else strikes up a friendly conversation they forget about being scared and concentrate on the conversation. So that’s what I did.
I asked the little girl about her school, what sports she liked, and about her favorite hobbies. We chatted for the duration of the precarious cow trails. Every fifteen minutes or so I called out to her mom in the back. She affirmed all was well.
I continued to point out locations on the trail which indicated we weren’t far from the ranch. As we rode, the night sky, the land, and our horses gave me great comfort. The only sounds we heard were the hooves of our horses as we rode the trail. When we approached the rough spots, I reminded the little girl to keep her eyes focused on my horse’s butt and to trust that her horse knew where to place his feet.
She asked me again. “Can horses really see that well at night?”
“They sure can,” I told her.
I asked her mother again how she was doing. “All good back here.” She reported. Her answer was a huge relief so I could concentrate on the little girl.
We soon approached the notorious Tunnel. I gave them a quick speech on what to do and how to protect their faces from the branches. If the Tunnel was difficult during the day, I thought, it would be worse at night.
“Remember, right now your horses have perfect vision. They see the trail even if you don’t. Trust them. Hunch down close to the saddle with your head on one side of the horse’s neck. Use your hat to cover your face and let the horse take you through.”
In addition, I added, “You might feel the branches pulling at your legs but your chaps will protect you from getting any scratches. Just keep your feet securely in the stirrups with your heels down.”
My two riders agreed and in we went. The tree line was so thick the moonlight momentarily evaded us. The trail ahead was pitch dark. I slowed Pajaro to almost a crawl so I wouldn’t lose anyone within the trees. The little girl and her mother rode behind me almost nose to butt. The long branches felt like they purposely grabbed at our clothing as we passed by. Our horses passed through the tunnel relaxed and at ease. Once we reached the other end, I let out a silent sigh of relief. The hard part was over.
“That was fun!” Exclaimed the little girl. I had to admit, it was fun. I felt like we were on a great adventure of some kind. Her mother laughed while she searched for something.
“I think I lost my hat back there but it doesn’t matter. This moonlight ride is certainly worth it.”
We could see the lights from the ranch in the distance. I started off down the path towards the ranch. Suddenly the little girl let out a cry.
Without even thinking I whirled Pajaro around to face her, worried she had fallen off but no, she was laughing.
“Are you alright?” I asked her.
“That’s so cool!
“What is?” I asked, a little bewildered at her laughter.
“The lights! I see bright green lights flickering on the ground around your horse.”
I laughed. “Oh, that’s his shoes clicking on the rocks when he’s walking. Those are sparks you’re seeing.”
Not long after that, I announced we were home. Everyone cheered. We rode another ten minutes before entering the courtyard of the ranch. We tied our horses at the hitching post. I unsaddled Pajaro while the wrangler took care of the other horses.
The little girl thanked me for the cool ride back to the ranch. Her mother, obviously tired, rolled her eyes and smiled at me while whispering the words, thank you. They promptly returned to their cabin to wash up before dinner.
I turned to Pajaro and patted his red bay coat which felt moist with sweat. He looked at me with a big brown eye and nudged me on the shoulder with his head. Yes, I thought, it’s time for dinner. After he cooled off, I led him to his stall and bedded him down for the night.
The entire time during the ride with the little girl and her mother, my awareness of the huge responsibility I took on when I offered to take them back alone in the dark rode along with me. We rode for almost two hours with only the light of the full moon to guide our way.
Then it hit me. Yes, the light helped but my knowledge of the area, of horses, and the strong confidence I felt in myself also guided us home. During those two hours, my authentic self shined as brilliant as the moon herself. I knew what I was doing, where we were going, and what was coming ahead; even in the dark when others I know, doubt my capabilities.
Within these last few months, I’ve felt her presence within me again. I’ve had to make some tough decisions but I truly believe the universe knows what we need and when we need it. Perhaps my authentic self is on her way back from somewhere she’s resided for many years. Personally, it will be a joy to welcome her home.
Note to reader: This story happened many years ago when we first started out as a guest ranch. We wanted our guests to have a great experience, and we still do but we no longer take people on night rides especially over precarious terrain. I write this with a smile on my face. Sometimes my husband gets overly enthusiastic and right before he’s about to lead a group down a steep mountain, I notice our guests’ eyes widen with surprise and sometimes fear if they are not experienced enough for that particular trail. This is when I step in and firmly tell him, “Pick another trail.” Usually, he listens to me.