Horses, a young girl and three old guys

Locals call the squat mountains surrounding our ranch Los Picachos—”The Peaks”—which is way too grandiose; most are no more than scraggly hills. Google Maps says our ranch is about 7,000 feet above sea level, and the Picachos could not be much taller than another 500 or 700 feet. During the dry season the Picachos turn particularly barren and dreary, some resembling the scraggly heads of old men, with only scattered tufts of brownish green hair left.

Friends who’ve hiked some of the Picachos, though, returned with far more exciting tales, about crater-like holes atop pointy hills, evoking this area’s distant volcanic past. Also they reported seeing  exotic trees and animals—exotic at least for us living down below—such as old oaks, deer, coyotes, foxes and lots of snakes.

Since moving to the ranch some ten years ago, I’ve wondered what goes on up there.
Two weeks ago our friend Ron mentioned there were horseback rides to the tops of some of the Picachos. It might be an exciting adventure or at least a gear-shifter in the daily tedium of looking out the window first thing in the morning to check if it’d rained overnight, even though we know damn well that’s not likely to happen for at least another three months.

So we said, let’s go.

In retrospect, this project had “hare-brained” written all over—the notion of three out-of-shape septuagenarians with no clue about riding, spending six or seven hours atop a saddle. But for me it turned into both, a quite serious accident and a real mind-opener. During the two long days at the hospital I had time to remember Esperanza, the 21-year-old daughter of Don Vicente Rico, my neighbor, who six years ago broke her neck on a rock when she was thrown by a horse, and who has never been able to walk again. It even allowed me to wrestle with my idea of gratitude: Who or what should I thank for surviving a serious, but not permanent, accident and why a young girl next door was not so lucky.
Our five-man cavalcade to the Picachos began at Calderón, a ramshackle, no-there-there smattering of mostly unfinished houses, off the main road from San Miguel to Celaya. At an open rendezvous point we encountered five or six chunky men—whom the tour organizer kept calling “cowboys,” I suspect to add a bit of frisson to this mundane occasion—and a couple of pickups loaded with bales of hay, tents, plastic coolers and other supplies for our expected overnight stay at an open area atop a Picacho known by the bad-vibe name of “Palo Huérfano” or Orphan Stick.

Our orientation about riding was about as brief, if not briefer, than our actual riding experience. Hold the rein with the left hand, tug it right or left to point the horse here or there, pull back to make him stop. My horse, an eight-year-old palomino criollo called Dorado had a beautiful blond mane on a 1,200- to 1,500-pound frame of taut muscle. He showed no apparent streak of skittishness or meanness. Still, when one slowly caresses the necks and sides of these animals one I can feel the idea of horsepower and wonder if, gentle as they may seem, animals this size could ever be one-hundred-percent predictable.  

Dorado, my docile ride until he wasn’t. 

The plan was a three-hour ride up to the campsite. Pity my poor skinny butt, I thought, especially  after an overnight stay in a tent, followed by a similar trek back down, through mountains, dirt roads, sometimes dense brush of prickly bushes, and rocks, everywhere rocks, with no open paths.

For the first hour, the ride was tedious. Slummy Calderón quickly disappeared behind us, and to the left the only vista was the four-lane highway to Celaya, winding through canyons of recently carved stone and concrete, and farther still, a view of San Miguel and its polluted water reservoir, the presa. 

Your mind wanders when you are killing time, and you tend to think of anything more interesting than the matter at hand. I was surprised by the sheer size of the presa. I wondered how San Miguel’s water scarcity problems might have been alleviated or even solved, if the city’s fathers and mothers had had the foresight not to dump sewage and other debris into the presa, which from a distance could pass for a placid recreation area.

Dorado, left, sharing a moment with Stew’s no-name horse.

We turned right when the road dead-ended after two or three kilometers, and from there we entered the gate of a cattle ranch, on which the riding was going to get considerably less easy.

David was our affable lead, the Mexican version of a good ol’ boy. He was round-faced and smooth- skinned which made him look considerably younger than 44 years old. He had a smattering of facial hair struggling to become a credible goatee. His hat was larger than the normal ranchero topper and his belt, decorated with silvery details, battled with the beginning of middle-age spread.

David was bilingually chatty. He had spent ten years south of Dallas working construction, after which nostalgia brought him back to Mexico, leaving his brothers and parents behind. He works at construction here and regularly goes back to visit. He owns a monster, Texas-plated 2011 Dodge Ram with a Hemi-something moose of an engine, and occasionally leads these horse tours for extra money.

David and Dorado.

“My family all have papers,” he said, for a moment making me feel as if my questions in Spanish had made me sound like an undercover U.S. Border Patrol Agent. Never had the thought even occurred to me, I chuckled.

About 90 minutes into the ride, which was slowly becoming steeper and rockier, the other leader, Juan, yelled out “Do you guys want to gallop?”

At this point our pace was in fact meandering and poky. David pointed to a mountain, which appeared to be at least two kilometers away, and topped by a red Tinker Toy jungle of bright-red telephone antennas. He said our destination camp was on the other side of the transmission towers. About now the ride was starting to feel like a Sisyphean schlep: The antennas didn’t seem to get any closer no matter how much we rode.

Ron said “yeah!” but Stew and I waited. To an inexperienced rider, the sensation of galloping, the sheer brute force underneath you but barely under your control, is frightening. To keep from bouncing helplessly on the saddle like a sack of potatoes, we’d been told to maintain control by tensing the legs up on the stirrups, which seems contrary to what your thighs instinctively want to do, which is to tighten around the saddle, as if to embrace the belly of the horse. Besides, your nervous legs quickly grow tired.

Either Stew or I quickly yelled “NO!” to the invitation to gallop and Ron didn’t last more than 20 seconds. Though the campground was still far, we’d have to take our time.

About a half-hour later, Stew’s hat blew off and David stopped his mount to go get it. But as soon as David dismounted—and with no provocation whatever—his horse made a U-turn and headed downhill, riderless, at full, lightning gallop and soon disappeared in a cloud of dust. David instructed Juan to chase after the errant horse, and so he did, also at full speed.

Going after the horse that got away. 

While we waited, David told us he’d never had had that happen before and that, anyway, a horse couldn’t gallop much farther than two or three kilometers before running out of breath. So we waited for about 25 minutes or so until Juan showed up with David’s exhausted ride.
Back at our ranch, one of the most thrilling and graceful equestrian stunts I have witnessed are teenagers racing horses full-speed and bareback, apparently controlling the animal by hunching over its neck and grabbing its mane or a rope.

Occasionally, as when 15-year-old Esperanza was thrown on the ground and broke her neck, this dazzling pas-de-deux between man and beast ends tragically for one or both partners.

As our ride progressed, and I became more exhausted and less sure of myself, I thought of Esperanza, or Esperancita, as her mom calls her. Even after surgery and years of twice-weekly physical therapy, the only thing she can offer visitors is the welcome of her enigmatic smile. You wonder what she is thinking. She wears thick eyeglasses apparently to correct some damage to her vision caused by the fall.

She lives in a small casita Vicente built on one corner of his ranch, furnished with a bedwheelchair and small altar displaying a Virgin of Guadalupe along with another smaller statue of a young boy with its hands extended heavenward in prayer, as if begging for a miracle.

Esperancita, waiting. Esperanza in
Spanish means “Hope.”

Outside, a pack of motley dogs, which Stew and I feed daily, is Esperanza’s only company, except when her parents bring food and a van appears to take her to physical therapy once or twice a week. Last Christmas I brought her a lemon pound cake from Costco, which she and here family seemed to enjoy immensely. Her father Vicente reciprocated with bags of black beans harvested from his ranch, and recently, a chunk of terrific homemade queso fresco.
After the second hour on the trail, one of the leaders of our group suggested we go off-road as a shortcut to our destination. We didn’t seem to be gaining on the red transmission towers.

Cutting through spiny, desert brambles didn’t make things easier for the horses which began to get skittish. Besides, in order to reach our shortcut to the top, we first had to go down steeply, almost vertiginously, on a slope littered with rocks some the size of volleyballs.

One by one the horses bucked and refused to move. Later Stew and I talked about how, telepathically, we’d shared the same panicked thought: We were afraid of one of the horses breaking a leg, an injury almost invariably fatal for the horse, not to mention the rider if the horse lands on top of him. Maybe these are silly fears for experienced riders, but not to us.

I think it was Stew who muttered to the team leaders that perhaps we should dismount and gently lead the horses down. The leaders though, insisted on click-clucking, and tapping the the horses with twigs, to keep them going.

So far, tip-toeing to the bottom of that ravine was the second scariest point of the ride. The most frightening came at the beginning of the ride down the next day, when my gentle palomino freaked out, reared up while I was trying to mount him, and threw me and the saddle six feet up in the air. At least that’s what Stew told me. I couldn’t remember a thing.
When we finally reached the campsite, the set-up crew had already been at work for an hour of so. The vista of San Miguel from that height and distance was not one for oohs and aahs because a thick layer of either fog or smog covered the city, whose features didn’t become clear until after the dusk, when the lights gradually began to light up. The horses munched on the bales of alfalfa and later were led somewhere to spend the night, while a dozen head of cattle, including a calf only a few weeks old, came out from somewhere and inched up to the perimeter of the campsite, the better to stare at us. Clearly, this was familiar territory for them: The campground was paved with cow pies around which we tip-toed around attentively, particularly after dark, not always successfully.

One of the large oak trees we found at our campground, which
reminded me of live oaks in Texas. None of our guides knew
which species they were, they guessed white or chinese
oaks. They were impressive but their numbers had been greatly
reduced a few years back by some sort of disease. 

As night fell, and the beer, tequila and mezcal began to flow after dinner, Stew and I, the only abstinent ones in the party, crawled into our tents and sleeping bags to shiver and sleep through the night, in equal measures. It was not a relaxing sleepover even though neither Stew nor I awoke as sore or exhausted as we’d expected. At breakfast we seemed to be the only ones wide-eyed and fully alert for the avalanche of fried eggs and bacon.

Shortly after breakfast, when I tried to climb on the saddle for the ride back, using a tree stump for foot stool, the normally tranquil Dorado reared up and went berserk.

For what happened I have to rely on Stew because I can’t remember a thing past starting to put my left foot on the stirrup. Stew later told me that the horse had bucked as if spooked by something, throwing me clear up about six or seven feet up in the air, while the saddle came loose and flew off the horse’s rear end. The horse kept bucking and jumping wildly for a few more minutes.

Stew said I landed on the ground with thump, but that none of the crew, some already nursing beers at ten in the morning, seemed to know what to do with either the horse or me. Stew said he screamed for someone to help him get off his horse so he could come to help me. I don’t know who helped me back on my feet, but I recall coming-to sitting one one of the blue plastic folding chairs nearby.

Initially I wasn’t either out of it or fully aware what had happened, except for Stew asking me repeatedly if I recalled the actual accident or hitting the ground. Later he said he feared I had hit my head or neck on a rock and suffered some brain damage.

Ron was already on his horse and the so-called cowboys in charge didn’t seem particularly concerned, and in fact one suggested I get back again on the saddle, once it was strapped back in place. Stew emphatically said no and loaded me onto one of the pickups for the ride down to the starting point. We reached the meeting point, about 30 minutes later, to wait for Ron and a couple of the people from the crew to get there on their horses.

I don’t recall much except sitting on the passenger side of the truck waiting for the final stretch of the ride, and seeing a few of the ranch hands still sucking on beer and chatting among themselves. No one, except Stew, asked me how I was doing. David finally approached me to say that everyone falls off a horse sooner or later, and that they then just get back of saddle—a hackneyed consolation that  sounded particularly so at the moment.

When Ron finally arrived and got off his horse he could barely move or straighten up, so Stew drove Ron’s truck to the emergency room of the new MAC hospital in San Miguel, one of a national chain, where for an hour or so I was examined, X-rayed and questioned about the accident by an emergency room attendant, an internist and an traumatologist, before being IV-ed and admitted. There might have been other people looking over me, I’m sure.

The initial exam rendered no signs of broken bones, particularly along the spine, but as the examination progressed it quickly became a ying-yang of good and bad news. The no-fracture finding was followed by the somewhat less-good discovery that one of my vertebrae had been slightly knocked out of place. The traumatologist played with my lower legs, feet and toes and didn’t detect any sign of paralysis or loss of sensation. That was good to hear, but followed by a second discovery of a small fracture on one of my ribs that had led to a small puncture of my right lung, which had deflated. The escaping air had created a bubble outside the lung that prevented it from fully inflating when I breathed.

I was brought down to a small operating room off the emergency room so a catheter, almost hair-thin, could be inserted into my chest to bleed the air pocket that had developed in my chest. The operation was done at midnight and declared a success. Not quite so fast. An X-ray the next morning showed the air was again accumulating in a cavity over my right lung because the catheter had become twisted on its way in. A new one was inserted and functioned properly.

The surgeon was a tiny, take-charge Asian woman who directed the operating room staff without any display of hesitation or doubt. Her last name was Lim and it was not until the next day that Stew and I realized that she was the daughter of Antoinette and Joe Lim, two of the most memorable members, both now dead, of the Community Church that we attend occasionally.

Not an inch taller than her daughter Grace, Stew and I both fondly remember Antoinette, always arriving meticulously coiffed, as if going to opening night at the opera. She was also one of the most genuinely Christian persons we’ve ever known—a truly generous and non-judgmental person, even to a gay couple like us whose relationship, I’m sure, didn’t at all jibe with Antoinette’s hard-core evangelical beliefs.

I have much and many people and things to be grateful to, during this most serious injury I’ve suffered and the only one that has sent me to the hospital. Trying not sound like an Oscar acceptance speech, I am most grateful to my husband Stew who reached out to help me after the accident when others around seemed too hungover or otherwise immobilized to react.  And also grateful for the prompt and excellent medical care I received. Thankful that my dead-weight fall on my back, which could have turned into some lifelong disability, somehow didn’t.

Then thanks to God, with Whom I have no intrinsic disagreement, only some profound doubts. For instance, how do I thank Him (or Her) for sparing me more serious injury but, for some reason, sentencing young Esperanza to life in a wheelchair? I have only visited her at her casita once, but will never be able to get her faint, welcoming smile out of my head, particularly now that we’ve been joined by fate and horses. Maybe it’s time for another lemon pound cake.

San Miguel barely awakening amid the early-morning fog. 

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