Marching on MLK Day

Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday, January 15, 2018, Atlanta Georgia

This march in particular was a reminder that for all the progress that has been made with respect to civic rights for non-whites, there’s still so much more to be done. For all the words of support, progress has been slow and,  with the intentional unraveling of the social safety net by the current political administration, can’t be taken for granted. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” called out the biggest obstacle to civic equality: not those overtly against civic equality, but the “do-nothingism” of white liberals who actually—and so often unconsciously—resist the kind of changes that would lead to social equality because they themselves benefit from policies designed to keep the bulk of resources under white control. It’s easier to be liberal toward those you readily identify with, whether it’s by skin color, social standing, or other shared interest or quality. It’s much harder to extend that generosity to people you find it hard to relate to because of what you’ve been trained to believe, even if it has no basis in truth.

Women Marching On

As 2017 comes to a close, it seems appropriate to revisit how the year started: with an inauguration of a newly elected president followed, the next day, by a protest march by thousands of women and, I presume, many men. I’d ridden from Atlanta to DC a bus full of women I didn’t know. The Friday night departure was a comedy of confusion in the Home Depot parking lot and the bus ride was long, dark, cold, and wet. I brought too much of what I didn’t need and not enough of what I did. At least I was assigned to the same bus as  Kaylinn Gilstrap, whom I’d assisted for a pre-march portrait session she was doing for The Bitter Southerner. On the bus, Kaylinn gave me a toothpaste-loaded travel toothbrush and I was grateful for it.

Kaylinn and I agreed to stick together and promptly lost contact at the first intersection. I met up with friends who’d ridden another bus and it wasn’t long before we joined the throngs flowing toward the capital.

Marchers walk from RFK Stadium to the capital.

I’d never done a protest march before. My mother had protested in the late-60s, when we lived in Southern California, but it wasn’t discussed at home. Something about a sit-in at UC Northridge where she was a student.

What I remember most about the Women’s March on DC is how confused many of us were most of the time, how disconnected from the schedule of events by dint of arriving later than planned. “What’s going on?” “Who’s speaking now?” “When are we marching?” The closest we got to hearing any of the speakers was on the bus TV on the ride up. We crammed into a crowd on a parallel street and heard not a word from the stage, but did hear distant cheers now and then. Sometimes the cheering would ripple around the corner and through us, though we had no idea what we were cheering about.

When we’d been standing for a couple of hours, word was passed along that the actual marching part of the march had been cancelled because the route was already full of people. “The hell with that,” the people around me said, and as a group, we did an about face, walked back toward the capital, and then fanned out onto nearby streets. On Pennsylvania Avenue, bleachers were still in place from the previous days’ events and I and others sat and stood on them to watch waves of people with and without signs pass by.

Hours of walking, standing, laughing, arguing, yelling, high-fiving, taking photos, and looking for food or a bathroom. And then it was time to head back to RFK stadium and, in the falling light, search for our one bus out of more than a thousand. We were cranky and petulant.


Another long ride back, with stops at gas station centers where we crawled painfully out of our seats to wait in line for food and to use the women’s restroom, and then, when bladders overrode patience and social convention, to use the men’s, too. Initially startled, the men adapted quickly and no one got hurt.


When we arrived back in Atlanta Sunday morning, Kaylinn turned to me and said, “Let’s never do that again.”

Not long after the march, as I considered my experience and looked at the photos I’d taken, I wrote the following:

The march route was full of people before the pre-march rally ended. Not to be contained, marchers spilled onto adjacent streets, including Pennsylvania Avenue, the street of the presidential inauguration the day before.

The march’s overall message was to be of love, but anger and fear were also in play. Marchers wore slogan pins and pink “pussyhats.” They carried signs that praised, insulted, or demanded.

For some black people, the march was a co-opting of their ongoing struggle for equality and they didn’t believe these well-meaning white people were truly acknowledging their racial privilege.

Eleven months later, that last paragraph looms large. I’ve since read, heard, and seen enough to know they were right.

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Horse Camp

Big Creek Trail Ride
Hartshorn, MO; May, 2017

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I’m halfway between Nashville and Hartshorn when it occurs to me that maybe I should have brought more cash.

I’m right to wonder.

“Do you want to pay the three percent for using a credit card?” Brett Howell asks when I check in. “Because it’s not worth it to me.”

Brett waves me off when I offer to have my husband immediately send a check. “Send it when you get home. I just got a check from a guy today. I know you’re good for it.”

The ride officially starts on Sunday, but most people come in on Saturday, because lodging and the evening meal are free that day, an effective enticement to get folks settled in before the routine starts.

There’s also the orientation after Saturday dinner. Only us newbies need the rules explained, but the old timers are here, too; nothing like prizes to fill the seats. Prizes are given for the oldest rider (90), the youngest (19), and the one who’s come the farthest (from Idaho via Texas). Brett gives out pins and buckles for 5-, 10-, and 15-year attendees. Our meal tickets double as lottery tickets for a jacket, ball caps, and various coupons. We’re introduced to the trail bosses, to the family members to turn to in need, and to the store manager (who also doesn’t take credit cards).

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The Dining Hall

The camp headquarters is the dining hall. In the low-slung building are the business office, a living area with bookcases and TV, a stage with microphones and a drum kit, the kitchen, and areas for local entrepreneurs: the camp photographer, a graphic artist, and a seamstress/knitter. Across from the hall is the camp store which serves as a secondary hangout and the place to get ice cream bars.

About 125 riders are here, fewer than originally expected because of the storm that came through a week or so before and the intense flooding that resulted. People didn’t want to risk not being able to get on or out of the camp. Big Creek is like a river right now and the damage is dramatic.

The basic camp schedule:

  • Breakfast – 6:30-7:30 a.m.
  • Morning ride – 9:00 a.m.
  • Lunch – 12:00-1:00 p.m.
  • Afternoon ride – 3:00 p.m.
  • Dinner – 6:00-7:00  p.m.

On two days, instead of two rides, there will be one sack-lunch ride. Normally, they have a trail-lunch ride, where they cart a big grill up to the lunch spot, but the messy road conditions make that untenable, so we’ll make and carry our own lunches.

Not only do they have two rides a day most days, but for each ride, they have three groups, based on riding pace. Everyone who’s going to ride meets in front of the dining hall on their horses, ready to go. The fast group goes out first, then the medium, last the slow.

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Bob Howell, 80, patriarch of Big Creek Trail Camp

Four generations of Howells are here, from 80-year-old Bob down to the newest grandchild, born nine weeks before my visit, and everyone has a role in how the camp operates, from feeding the masses to entertaining them (especially five-year-old Annabelle and her younger sister Charlie).

The Howells aren’t the only family here. Numerous riding groups are made up of families. Don Langeneckert, 90, has come with his sister Kathleen, his niece Kathy, and her boyfriend Mike. The woman in the room two doors down from me is here with her granddaughter. Denny Sanders is here with his wife, son, and daughter-in-law. I’m here with my dad and his wife Kathy. As the experience of running a camp is passed down, so is the experience of attending one.

Everyone brings their own horse. My dad and Kathy have brought three of their six: Thunder, Callahan, and Feisty. Feisty is Kathy’s favorite, but because I’m so much less experienced and Feisty is such a good trail horse, I’ll be riding Feisty and Kathy will ride Thunder.

• • •

Sunday morning, we decide to do the medium-paced ride. Last year, when I visited my dad and Kathy at their ranch, my dad gave me brief riding lessons, on Feisty, around the barn. We culminated my visit with a trail ride. Within five minutes of getting on the trail and only a minute after my dad had told to me what to do if Feisty stumbled, Feisty fell to her knees in soft dirt. I’d like to say I’d absorbed my dad’s instructions, but it was pure luck that I did what he had suggested; there was so little time to react, all I could do was hang on and breathe slowly while she got back up. The rest of the ride was easy enough.

A whole week at a horse camp was to be a whole other order of riding, however. As soon as Kathy and I agreed upon dates, I looked at getting more riding time under my seat. A friend had been taking lessons at a riding school outside Atlanta and I asked if I could join her. Every 4-6 weeks, I drove out to Conyers for an hour in the arena and an hour on the trails. This allowed me to progress to where I was still alert to the risks of interacting with such large animals, but no longer petrified of them. As much as I hoped I’d be a riding prodigy or horse whisperer, I was simply a new rider who needed to learn the basics. And I was still that when I drove off to Missouri to ride an “alpha female” that wouldn’t pay any attention to my dad’s training methods and who would have been sold if she hadn’t turned out to be so reliable on the trails. Because my dad and Kathy go on many multi-day trail-riding trips every year, a good trail horse is worth the annoyance of putting up with her stubbornness at home.

One of Feisty’s great gifts is that she doesn’t care who’s in front or behind her. She doesn’t play favorites, doesn’t seek out or avoid other horses. While she actively maintains her top rank at home, on the trail, she’s fairly unflappable.

Kathy is not so fortunate with Thunder. He’s very “prancy,” unhappy, Kathy guesses, with being behind so many horses. By ride’s end, she’s been jostled so much, she feels beat up. Callahan, my dad’s mount, with a fast walking pace and also an eagerness to be at the front, hews to my dad’s corrections more willingly than Thunder does to Kathy’s.

I’m grateful when we agree not to do the afternoon ride. I want to be an agreeable guest and companion, but by the end of the morning ride, I had wondered how I was going to do 10 rides in six days. As it turns out, we aren’t alone in choosing to ride only once a day.

• • •

During lunch, I hear talk about flood damage. The nearby town of Eminence has essentially been washed away. The horse camp out that way had water up to the store on top the arena. People have lost homes and animals have drowned.

After lunch, I walk down to the creek. Some trees are still rooted, but are horizontal instead of vertical. Others have been torn out of the soil, their limbs sheared. Branches everywhere are draped with clumps of leaves, river grass, and twigs, making the scene looking like an abandoned bird colony. The opposite bank has been undercut to become a small cliff. Word in the dining hall has been that the current’s too strong, so none of the rides will involve crossing this creek. I step into soft, mud-laced sand that sucks my foot down. Is there quicksand around here? I’m immediately aware how little I know about quicksand. I recoil quickly and find my way to stable ground. I stand inside a V of leveled trees and imagine the water rushing toward me, dragging trees, then me, in its wake. Even though it’s a warm sunny afternoon, the image frightens me.

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Intense flooding tore trees from their moorings

Big Creek Trail Ride has been in business for 18 years. This fall, my dad and Kathy will have been coming here for 15 years and they’re not alone in their loyalty. As a first-timer, I was in a very small minority.

Paula Cazzato’s horse, “River,” is 17 years old. Seventeen years is how long Paula, a petite woman in her late-70s, has been coming to Big Creek Trail Ride. She’s here so often, she has her own room with a carved sign over the door that says, “Paula’s Pad.”

“It’s not really a room,” she says and opens the door.

It’s more of a utility closet—the hot water heater is in there—but she makes it work. A twin bed, a microwave, a couple of plastic drawer organizers. She keeps her boots outside in the entry room.

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Paula Cazzato with River

There are more women here than I expected. Lots of couples, not so many single men, but lots of single women. I’m told it’s because the husbands have died, but the women didn’t want to stop coming. The widows get together and continue the tradition. They travel together or meet here, park side by side, and hang out together while here. Paula’s husband is very much alive, but he’s not here.

“He knows I have to ride a horse every day to be happy,” she says. That understanding and acceptance no doubt plays a factor in their being married for 56 years.

I’ve been taking photos with my “fancy” camera everywhere but on the rides. Paula tells me that I might want to drive around with Carl, the camp photographer, who routinely takes people along when he goes out to make photos of riders. I approach Carl at mealtime and he tells me to meet him outside the hall fifteen minutes before the riders are to meet.

“Hope you don’t mind dust, because you’re gonna get dusty,” says Carl when I approach the Polaris at 8:45 the next morning. Carl’s wife Cammie is in the front passenger seat and hands me a bright pink beach towel. Carl isn’t kidding. As we race out of camp, the dust swirls up and coats everything. I wipe down my camera, then realize the futility of this and wrap the towel around the camera. Carl keeps his equipment in a Pelican brand case on the back of the cart.

“I had a bag, but things just got too dusty. The Pelican keeps all that out.”

The first guy hired to take photos asked Carl to assist him because the guy wasn’t local.

“He didn’t have any sense of direction. North is that way,” Carl points right, “And he’d go in the opposite direction. He lasted one week.”

Then the wife of the pastor took over, but that was short-lived, too. Brett called in Carl for the job seven years ago and Carl’s been doing it ever since.

“It was a blessing from God that this job came up for Carl,” says Cammie. “He has health issues. He had multiple myeloma, which made it hard for him to do certain kinds of work.”

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Camp photographer, Carl Younger

Carl pushes the Polaris pell-mell over rutted trails  and through high grass and rushing water. Carl and Cammie, married for 36 years, have an easy way with each other. This week the camp is a welcome break. They live in Ally Spring, about 60 miles from Big Creek Trail Ride, and the recent storm flooded the bottom floor of their house. Their two cars sustained extensive water damage. Their son’s house next door was hit just as bad. Both houses are currently being gutted on the lower levels. The car Carl and Cammie just bought has a protection plan, so they’re getting some money back for that, but for the house, nothing. They’ve been dealing with emptying both houses, taking care of the grandkids, working (Cammie works for the University of Missouri Extension), and all the paperwork and calls entailed with disaster recovery.

“It’s very unsettling,” says Cammie.

Carl talks to the trail guides before heading out so he can be at a prime portrait location before the riders get there. He stays in walkie-talkie contact on the way, updating the trail boss on his progress. One spot is by a creek. Carl puts on a long lens and mounts the camera on a monopod. I take photos of him taking photos.

“Sometimes they don’t even know I’m here,” he says.

It’s true. Some of the riders are chatting or catching up to the horse in front of them. Others wave. I see my dad and Callahan go by with the fast-ride group. I know my dad’s happy to be riding alone while Kathy and I take the morning off. We’ll all ride the slow ride together this afternoon.

Carl and I jump back in and start off to the next spot.

“By the way, that spot’s especially bad for ticks,” says Carl. “I don’t have a problem with ticks. Maybe the chemo has made me unattractive to them.”

Cellphone coverage is available only in the dining hall and on the ridges, so when we reach a high spot, we stop so they can check their messages. One voicemail is from a man who’s heard of Carl and his family’s losses.

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Carl and Cammie check messages

Carl gets out of the cart and paces as he calls the man back. He tells the man that he’s grateful for the offer and wants his son to get help first because of the grandkids. He mentions a sum of money and says that at this point, money is the most helpful because they’re having to pay the carpenter working on the houses right now.

After the call, Carl gets back in the Polaris and tells Cammie the caller was from a church I don’t catch the name of. I ask if the caller is a member of their church. He is not; he’s from a church nearby.

“This is an area where people really help one another. I’m not saying that other places aren’t like that, but here, even such a poor area, people want to help. I had insurance for the cancer, but not the other stuff. They had fundraisers for me. I went to one of them. They raised $20,000.”

Carl pauses.

“I’ve not been on this side before. We’ve always been the ones to give. I don’t like being on this side.”

When I say that receiving is a gift to those who want to help, he agrees and paraphrases what I’ve just said, like a mantra.

Carl tells me about Bill, also known as “Wild Bill,” an ebullient man with the biggest brimmed hat in camp; it looks more like a sombrero. He’s good natured about all the ribbing he gets about using his indoor voice. Bill noticed the very first morning that I was new. Carl tells me that Bill has something akin to rheumatoid arthritis and gets treatment at St. Judes.

“In the mornings, he can hardly roll out of bed, but once he gets on a horse, he feels fine. Says being on a horse seems to help.”

• • •

After a couple of days, I notice that quite a few people don’t go on all the rides. Kathy tells me that on the three-day rides she and my dad do here twice a year, known as the Fox Trotter Rides, they ride at a good clip twice a day every day, but the pace for this week-long ride is leisurely. I suggest that maybe it’s more of a riding “vacation” than an intense retreat, more about socializing and having someone else cook and clean, with some riding thrown in.

• • •

I’m getting more comfortable in the saddle, but there is a point in each ride when I’m ready to be off the horse. This morning, I was riding behind my dad when he turned around and said, “Isn’t this better than hiking?” I said, “Well, I like hiking, so I wouldn’t say it’s better, but it’s enjoyable.”

• • •

Big Creek Trail Ride is in Shannon County, but the next county over is Howell county, named after an ancestor. The overgrown Howell cemetery contains the remains of Confederate and Union soldiers. Bob showed us a cabin in a small clearing and told us of the woman who fed Jesse James and his gang after they’d committed a robbery nearby. The Howells came into this area of Missouri in 1820.

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Howell cemetery may get a new fence made of pipe

It’s not that there’s no divorce here, or addiction, or other societal problems, but I’m struck by the commitment to preserving continuity and relationships. I’m aware of family longstanding bloodlines here in Atlanta that are reflected in street names and the like, but their influence seems more dilute, if only because the population in Atlanta is so much larger, transient, and more diverse.

Most of the crowd here is over 50. More than one of the trail guides is at least 80. The oldest rider is Don, a fine-art painter from St. Louis responsible for many of the beautiful, though faded, reproductions that line the dining-hall walls. I learn later that Don also likes swing dancing, which helps explain what good physical shape he’s in.

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Don Langeneckert, 90

There is not a single non-white person here. I’m told that there are a lot of black rodeo riders, but not trail riders, and the person who tells me doesn’t know why that is.

Everyone I talk to is friendly. People greet each other readily and laugh at what are obviously oft-repeated corny jokes and stories. They appreciate being among like-minded people with similar backgrounds. The overall vibe is of contentment.

Before I left Atlanta, friends told me I was brave for venturing so far away from the city into conservative territory. I’d fully expected to be surrounded by vocal, right-wing conservatives of the type I’d seen on TV at Trump rallies and whose comments and articles I’ve read online, but when I entered the dining hall that first morning, CNN was on the TV. The other days it’s tuned to one of the major network or local affiliates. People seem more concerned about the weather, community events, and paying their bills than national politics.

One morning, a nearby conversation is about the healthcare plan that has just passed the Republican-dominated House. A woman says she heard that it’s going to have a bad effect on their insurance. The man across from her says, “Where did you hear that?” then says, “I’ll wait and see.”

Another day I hear men at the next table over talking about lazy people getting paid just as much as those who work hard and I hear the word “union.”

On the rides, the complaints I hear are about “the conservation guys” not following through on promises and refusing to admit that cougars and wolves have been spotted in the area, even when presented with tangible evidence by the locals.

Every day at home, I read or hear about racially biased comments or behaviors, but I’ve seen and heard none of that here. That doesn’t mean those beliefs and feelings don’t exist here (they certainly exist in my Atlanta neighborhood, which is why the topic is a part of my every day awareness), but I would not say with confidence that everyone here supports a far-right political agenda.

What I do find myself uncomfortably admitting is that it’s a relief to focus on a shared experience, to not be on edge all the time about the possibility of conflict. I know this feeling is temporary. After all, Missouri was a slave state and saw the third greatest number of Civil War engagements. Many of these people own homes and large parcels of land. Even if they’ve never expressed any racial bias, they (and I) have had access to resources that have been denied others based on skin color.

Yet, I resist the urge to oversimplify. I’m constantly reminded of a James Baldwin comment that African Americans don’t want whites to save them; they just want them to get out of the way, to stop being obstacles to them having jobs and caring for their families just like whites are able to do. In Atlanta, I ask myself almost every day how I’m being an impediment to a person of color’s progress. Not that I want to stay in this camp forever, and there are systemic causes of inequity at work even here, but I can’t deny that a few days’ reprieve from critical self-evaluation is welcome. And I know the reprieve is a privilege many others don’t have.

I caution myself to not extrapolate whole lives from the narrow slice I see here. I have no idea if anyone here is gay or has people of color or gays as friends or family. I have no idea if they live in more diverse communities, though Kathy does tell me that there are lesbians in the small town where her office is located and it’s a non-issue for the townspeople. An African American family moved to that town last year and while the man wants to move away, his daughter likes living there, so they’re staying.

Upon my return, I read a personal essay by an African American woman expressing a similar sense of relief at being with a group composed only of other people of color. The not having a “white perspective” intruding on their gathering is a weight off their shoulders for the time they’re together.

• • •

Being at Big Creek Trail Ride is like being in school or at summer camp. (I’ve heard that Lisa Howell, Brett’s wife, is a school principal.) The dining hall is the school cafeteria scene minus the cruelties school kids perpetrate upon those outside their clique. The Texas group sits at the first table; the St. Louis group has claimed the table next to ours. We sit at the same spot by the back wall. Down the table from us sits Denny and his family.  The Howells have the table near the cash register and baby “pen” that Charlie plays in when she’s not being carried around by an adoring family member or camp guest.

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Lisa and Brett with granddaughter Charlie

This place is run like a school, too. There’s a schedule. The rides start on time, even if it’s drizzling. The meals are served on time, if not early, and end on time. If diners dally in bringing their dishes to the dishwashing window, the staff will come out and pick them up.

The food is plentiful and much of it home cooked. While there is the anticipated “country” food, like chicken-fried steak, biscuits, and various gravies, there is also a salad bar and fruit bar. I rarely eat three meals a day at home, but I am here. I’m packing in the cantaloupe and honeydew melon each morning and evening and almost overdosing on mixed greens with kale as part of lunch and dinner. For every fried item, there’s a baked one as an alternative. And like at home, anything left from today’s entrée is likely to become a leftover meal tomorrow. Chicken tenders from Monday were available for our sack lunches on Tuesday.

• • •

One morning I end up riding with Denny and his friend Robert, having decided that keeping Feisty a significant distance away from Thunder is best for Thunder and me. Denny is an incredibly friendly man, especially considering that for 44 years, he commuted 73 miles each way to a manufacturing job he didn’t enjoy. We talk about health and marriage and technology leading to job losses in the manufacturing sector.

Denny says, “I believe that overall, things change for the better and it’s best to accept and work toward that.”

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Denny Sanders, followed by son Robert

As someone constantly exposed to admonitions to follow my bliss, to be passionate about even my work, because I can be happy only if I’m being validated every moment of the day, his upbeat attitude startles me. I’m reminded of a conversation I had years ago with a woman thirty years my senior who was working part-time as a medical transcriptionist. I had asked her about job satisfaction.

“For my generation, a job is a way to make money so we can do the things we need and want to do outside of work. We never expected, like you young people do, that our jobs meet all our financial, emotional, and spiritual needs.”

I admire Denny’s dedication and endurance, though I’m not cut of the same cloth. My dad was born on a farm and is a hard worker, but he needs to be interested in his work and I’m the same way, as is my mother. In my family, boredom is powerful motivation to change gears.

• • •

Keeping and riding horses involves many routines: the pre- and post-ride care of the horse, the use and maintenance of the equipment. There’s the saddle blanket, the saddle, the bridle, the reins. There’s brushing, saddling up, tightening (more than once), and then the hosing off, wiping down, brushing, and checking for and removing ticks. The feeding and medicating. There’s the figuring out which horse needs to ride where, how fast, and how often. There’s the trying to figure out why the horse did what it did; what it was responding to that you didn’t notice or account for.

My dad often contemplates the nature of the bond.

“There’s something about the relationship between a human and a horse. You take care of them and then you get to ride them.”

• • •

When we’re not riding or eating, campers are chatting, napping, walking the dog, reading, browsing in the store, or caring for horses. I’m often walking around camp with my camera.

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“He’s spoiled.”

There’s no doubt these folks love their horses and trail riding. They sit at the tables, and in clusters on the grass, and talk about their horses’ personalities, about memorable rides and challenges. They admire each other’s horses, trailers, trucks, and related equipment. They compare notes and ask for recommendations. There is no alcohol allowed in the dining hall or general public areas, but people are allowed alcohol at their own camp sites. After dinner, a few groups socialize around a bonfire, but they’re quiet and it’s lights out by 8:30 p.m.

Horses whinny and nicker from their stalls or while tied to a trailer. Sometimes a call and response seems to be happening among them.

• • •

One afternoon, I run into Don with his camera. He uses photos as inspiration for his paintings and he tells me about the yearlings in the nearby field that he wants to get some photos of. I eventually find my way over and he’s still there, watching them. They’ve got patches of winter coat and what look like wispy beards. A few have a wart or barnacle-type growth on their muzzles. They graze and don’t pay us any attention, though they do get curious when I come in close with my camera.

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When I ask about his wife, Don tells me she died twenty-three years ago.

“But if she was still alive, we’d have been married for 70 years!”

He sounds like he’s just realized how young he was when he got married. To hear him describe her, it sounds like their interests strongly diverged. I’m struck by his assumption that even so, were she alive, they would still be married. Like Denny’s commitment to a job that he didn’t enjoy. Maybe Don would be doing what Paula’s doing, spending lots of time at horse camp.

This is a community intimate with and dedicated to the acknowledgment of loss. Just before the camp opened for the season, Bob’s wife died. Each table in the dining hall has at least one flower arrangement with a sympathy card attached. By the west door is the memorial board, with bereavement notices overlapping each other. By the cash register where they punch our meal tickets is a plastic jug for donations to help a trail guide who’d been leading a ride when, apparently, something happened with the horse and the horn of Jerry’s saddle rammed into his belly, breaking through the muscle wall, and he was dragged along while the horn tore up his insides. Big Creek posts regular updates on Facebook about his condition, which is slow going, and people keep in touch with him, visit him often. Kathy tells me that funerals and memorial services are important and well attended, public rituals that keep the community bound together.

It’s not all loss, though. Birthdays, too, are celebrated. Three times this week we’ve sung, “Happy Birthday.”

“It never fails that we celebrate both my birthday and our anniversary while here,” Denny tells me as we laugh at the birthday card his son has given him.

• • •

Feisty’s got a long neck and carries her head low. For this reason, she has a good eye for the trail. On challenging terrain, she naturally eases back to get a better look at where to step next. That’s not to say she never slides or stumbles, but she doesn’t get excited when she does, which allows me to remain calm, too.

This is terrific because after the pummeling Kathy received riding Thunder, we’ve decided to stick with the slow group. But slow does not mean easy and Bob Howell leads us up and down such steep grades that only his metronomic horse doesn’t lose footing at least once. After the second day of this, Kathy tells me, “This is as hard as these trails get. This was a very technical ride today.” On the last ride of the week, after another bar-graph of a course, Bob pays us a compliment.

“There wasn’t any whining.”

I’ve told my dad and Kathy to stay healthy so we can do it again next year.