Thursday, March 8, 2012

Who Said this Would be Easy?

My watch read 2hours and 52 minutes. This meant that, by my own volition, I had been running through the woods on my own two feet for a very long time. Even more surprising than the fact that my legs hadn't crumpled yet was the realization that I was fairly perky and still smiling at hikers and bikers I passed along the way. After three hours of hard continuous exercise and elements, it's an annoying discovery about oneself.

After greeting a group of cyclists with a hearty "Good morning!" while my heart monitor beeped rapidly, I admitted inwardly that I had become that person--the one whose cheeriness agitates others. For me, that person, the one whose enjoyment of arduous long distance events never faltered, was a well-groomed gentleman named Steve Rojek. In recent years, this decorated equestrian has represented the U.S. in international endurance racing. I first encountered Mr. Rojek competing in competitive trail rides around central Vermont in my adolescence. He had a reputation for remaining so upbeat during rainstorms, fatigue, bee stings, and other trail maladies that it irritated the rest of us mortals. Primarily, his bionic good nature highlighted the fact that the rest of us were...well, not very good natured after mile 20. Our spirits sagged, our energy failed, and our smiles turned to crabby exchanges, leaving us just plain puzzled by guys like Mr. Rojek. I've used the plural "guys" there, but I should clarify that there was only one rider as invincible as Mr. Steve Rojek.

In one event so predictably difficult that we called it the Hartford Heartbreak 40 miler, we hit rain, snow, mud, and ice all in one morning. At mile 12 my mare refused to cross a river that swelled overnight to frightening heights for a pony, so I dismounted and entered the water to reassure her. For the next several miles, my cold wet breeches chafed my calves raw. The overnight rain also knocked down trail markers between miles 16 and 22, which meant most of us added an unnecessary loop to climb Heartbreak Hill TWICE.

After the second 800-foot ascent, my tired mare's pulse and respiration inverted. Veterinarians put us on mandatory hold while she puffed and puffed and finally recovered. It was about this time that Mr. Rojek crested Heartbreak Hill on his dappled grey Arabian gelding. His tailored pale blue shirt now bore a swath of blood across one sleeve and his neatly trimmed mustache showed a clump of mud. The visor of his helmet, too, was cracked and muddy, the evidence I heard later of his horse bolting across the river and scrambling madly up a bank into oncoming traffic on Route 12A. En route, the horse launched Mr. Rojek into a rock-strewn stretch of trail and galloped two miles towards the nearest town before someone caught him.

Nonetheless, Mr. Rojek was smiling. His was a genuine smile, too, I should add, not an act he feigned for the rest of us. Something about the gnarly mishaps of the day agreed with him. He loped past the vet station where I stood pouting and flashed an open-palm wave. "Lovely day, isn't it?" he called out on his way to tackle more miles, the pursuit that brought this man so much solace.

I looked at a fellow competitor who withdrew from the ride mid-way due to knee pain. We puzzled over the complete lack of sarcasm in Mr. Rojek's salutation. What on earth could be so lovely about this? For years I pondered over that as I encountered Mr. Rojek out on the trail. Always-- at mile 18, mile 47, mile 92-- his face came through the fog and downpours and snow with a grin. When you're on the other side of that grin, mired in the difficulty of your endeavor, you start to wonder if the person might be alien. When you are aching, tired, and hungry, how can the person next to you still be smiling?

Then I became an adult myself and took up sports like marathoning, bike touring, and yes- still long distance trail riding. These long miles out in Mother Nature agree with me on every level and, while I hate to admit it, I have become a version of Mr. Rojek. Finally, I understand the man who puzzled me for ages. Now, I too annoy others with a hearty wave and toothy grin. As others grunt and gasp up hills, I waste extra energy reflecting on the sweet smell of eucalyptus in the woods at this time of year. I incite annoyed looks from others on the trail.

Let me be clear. It's not that I don't feel the suffering or the sheer effort or overwhelming fatigue to get to the next mile. I do. When my watch approached 3 hours last Sunday, though, the small details of my discomfort paled beside my solace and satisfaction of long distance in the woods. The larger joys far outweighed my flaming ankle, crampy calves, and thirst. I ached and fatigued just as much as anyone on the trail that day, don't be fooled by the grin and don't start wondering if I am alien.

For some of us, long distance nourishes our souls. Tired legs and sore knees aside, it is the antidote to our busy minds, the peace inside us. Our smile despite the discomfort.

So, Mr. Rojek, I raise my electrolyte filled glass to you. Thank you for being an early inspiration and please forgive any annoyance I sent your way. Ride on!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Merry Christmas, Tree

My favorite Christmas tree remains the one that got away.

All these years later, I long for its perfect shape and just-right pine needle scent. Just like the bad boy in high school whose handsome looks and charm were bolstered by the fact that he never became my boyfriend, this particular Christmas tree was one of life's flirty objects that resisted ownership. And, oh, how it broke my heart that winter, my 11-year old self bawling with a conviction reserved for devastating events. How it broke my heart that, even though the tree had been chosen and cut by us and therefore should have been erected in the Ballou home, it never got close to our living room. How it broke my heart the way it splintered and snapped into clumps of green across the half mile from the woods' edge to our barn.

In spite of what seemed like the truncation of a merry holiday season to this 11-year old standing mid-shin in a snowbank, the event did imprint me with a critical lesson. That lesson, gentle reader, was the spooky nature of horses.

In a Ballou tradition involving snowshoes, chainsaws, and a dose of parental bickering, my parents trekked with us into the woods behind our house every year around December 5. A few hours of squabbling later, we reached agreement about which tree to saw down and bring home. We all regarded this selection process seriously, given that it kicked off a season of no-holds-barred merriment and magic in our home.

To get four opinionated people to agree on the best elements of a tree is no quick task. My Dad always wanted to tallest one in the forest, never mind that it wouldn't fit inside the house. My brother wanted trees densely packed with enough branches and needles to hold up our impressive collection of ornaments. My mother, on the other hand, insisted on aesthetic balance and overall visual harmony. For her, the tree needed to be shaped exactly conical with a consistent number of branches (but not too many!) on all sides. Not too bushy, not too lean.

I, meanwhile, preferred the forest's sparse, short, and sickly looking trees probably because I felt sorry for them and wanted to bestow them with some lively joy and happiness that the rest of us felt during Christmas. Selecting a tree required compromise on every one's behalf, but mostly my father's. We never cut down a tree that was satisfactory in height for him. Even if the living room ceiling could have accommodated a 15-footer, the logistics of hauling such a behemoth home on snowshoes with two small kids in tow proved too much.

That particular year, though, my father brainstormed a new plan. Heck, we train horses for a living, he said to my mom. Why not get THEM to do the work? Why not drive Sunny, our best horse, up to the wood's edge with a sleigh and then leave him tied at the fence until we get the tree? Then, we could secure our tree in the sleigh and let Sunny do the hard work of hauling it home. Sunny had done a number of July 4 parades and competitions that involved all kinds of noise, standing around, etc., so he was the best choice for the tree harvest.

It all began quite well. We left Sunny tied to a fence post while we waded deeper into the woods through knee-high snow drifts hunting down our tree. Right on cue, the bickering started. My brother insisted we cut down one of the first trees we came to. I argued that we should wait for a more worthy one, a tree that required more hunting and effort. Then, we remembered Sunny. With a strong steed to carry home our tree this year, we all decided in a moment of selfless Christmas spirit that we should allow Dad to select the tree since his choice got voted down in past years. To this news, my chainsaw-toting father cheered up like a young boy.

Within moments, he found a healthy monster of a yule tree, a 16-foot wonder with an impressive number of branches. We Ballous stood in the cold snow beholding his tree. We each pictured how, once decorated and lit, its deep green needles and symmetry would be the envy of every party-goer at our annual holiday celebration. This was the kind of tree reserved for town squares and magazine covers. Our pride turned into giddiness as Dad fired up the chainsaw. My brother and I begged Mom to decorate it immediately when we got home. Mom, meanwhile, was too speechless by the tree's beauty to reply.

In radical departure from previous years' bickering, we all sang Christmas songs on the way back to Sunny. Dad dragged the tree with a rope harness while my brother and I trudged ahead breaking trail. We walked side by side stamping our feet hard into the snow to clear a path for the tree, so it could slide along smoothly without snagging branches or losing precious needles. It grew cold in the woods as dusk approached, but our reverence for The World's Most Perfect Tree slowed our efforts to a fine-tuned precision. When the trail cornered right or left, all four of us lifted and swung the tree around it methodically, as though this member of the forest just became our family heirloom.

Back at Sunny, we tied the tree into our Cutter sleigh, which had a flat section behind much like a pickup truck. We each secured a designated section of tree in place-- again, taking painstaking effort to preserve needles-- and then unbuckled our snowshoes and put those in the sleigh, too. My Dad checked Sunny's harness connections and then began to take up his reins and climb aboard the sleigh while the rest of us waited beside him.

It was exactly at this moment that my brother, prone to hyperactivity, surged with a jolt of unbridled Christmas spunk that he apparently could not rein in. For reasons we'll never fathom nor forgive, he bolted across the field springing through the snow like a Broadway dancer, yelping something about cookies and cocoa. His mittens flung, his snowsuit flapped, his voice echoed off the frozen tree trunks.

And Sunny freaked out.

This cookie-seeking, snow-bounding bundle of colors terrified him. Before my Dad could throw himself up into the sleigh, Sunny bolted away with our sleigh and tree attached behind him. He ran like a horse tasting freedom for the first time. He ran with no intention of stopping. Our antique sleigh bounced and jumped and split apart. Its curved runners broke into pieces, causing the sleigh to collapse onto its belly and drag across the snow until it, too, split apart one board at a time. I remember its decorative paint flaking off in peels as each board hurled through the air and settled in the snow. By now, our tree looked like green confetti. Its few remaining branches dragged behind Sunny until, arriving back at the barn, they looked like pulp. What we once envisioned as a festive promenade from woods to barn with a magnificent tree in tow now became a half -mile smear of evergreen detritus and antique sleigh splinters.

Sunny returned to the barn unscathed and we found him standing quietly in his stall munching hay, a few tattered pieces of harness hanging from his sides. Somberly, we removed the tack that his runaway had not and brushed him down. I wiped off the bit while Dad picked snow out his hooves. Nobody mentioned the tree. By now, my brother caught up to us. As disappointed as the rest of us, he asked a very legit question, the type of inquiry that repeats again and again for horsemen.

"Hey Dad," he began, "I thought you said Sunny was our BEST horse. If he's the best one, how come he freaked out?" His eyes twinkled a little as he asked, clearly finding humor in the irony that a non-verbal small-brained animal just decimated the well-laid plan of four human beings in the blink of an eye.

And therein lies the question many of us ponder in regards to our steeds. My brother's eyes grew bigger.

"What would the WORST one have done?"

Monday, October 10, 2011

An Outfit Defines the Person

Recall the last time you saw a smartly dressed man or woman gracing down the sidewalk in fabrics so finely made, they caused you a double-take. Chances are good that within your double-take, in that calculation and appreciation for such exceptional threads, you formed an idea about the person behind those clothes. With the outfit as your leaping off point, you arrived at a description of its wearer.

Just as my fellow Philosophy students and I did in ontology class, you briefly pondered what made that person who he or she was and arrived at a rough sketch. I'll argue here that one's style of dress plays a heavy role in determining that. Start with me as an example. Sometimes my idea of dressing up means pulling on a clean baseball hat. If my socks match and my pants don't show visible stains, I'm ready for a night on the town.

This fashion, or noted lack thereof, goes with my personality. I'm the type who focuses on the practical necessities in life, leaving any luxurious pining to be the fluff that I might occasionally daydream about on airplanes while flipping through magazines. I dwell in the realm of simple and basic. It never occurs to me to tailor a T-shirt for a better fit or that a hair barrette might actually MATCH my outfit. Maybe this will change, but for now it's who I am. Meanwhile, I often give lots of thought to why other people dress the way they do.

An outfit I have often pondered is the Western riding outfit. Assuming I would never in my English riding career wear such a thing unless for a Halloween party, I have frequently stared at cowgirls in their fringe-laden, blingy get-ups and wondered how practical any of that could be.

Then, I decided to enter a Western Dressage show and found myself needing to don just such an outfit. That is where the transformation began, where this new outfit began to define a new me.

First off, getting dresses required two helpers. Probably not since Fourth grade had someone else helped me put on pants, but I found the chaps too tricky to master myself. All that dangling fringe kept catching in the zipper. So, finally I let two bystanders help cram me into my clothes. One zipped the chaps on while the other shoved me underneath a cowboy hat. With a long-sleeved sparkly shirt and a pair of jangly spurs, I was ready for the arena... and very hot.

By Sacramento, CA standards it was an average summer day-- nearing 100 degrees. Inside that Western gear felt like an incubator. I peered from under the hat's enormous brim-- no easy task- and walked slowly over to where my horse stood wilting in the heat. Sleeved in glittery Lycra, my arms began to sweat. Meandering to the warm-up pen, I started to understand why Western riders often seem to be moving so slowly compared to us English folks. Normally, I would have launched into an array of high-energy warm-ups moves with my steed. Instead, we slowly limbered up and found our groove. Melting under my big stiff hat, it occurred to me why Western riders never seemed as frenetically paced as us.

Not only do they need to conserve energy lest they suffer heat exhaustion, but after investing so much time shimmying into an outfit that includes both fringe and sparkle, why not enjoy it? At shows, we English riders change back into street clothes as soon as our class finishes. We hurry out of the jackets and collars and tall boots that make most of us look like newspaper boys from the 1800's. Now that I was wearing this Lady Gaga-style Western outfit, I felt no urge to hurry back and take it off, despite sweating at a rate that guaranteed dehydration.

Long puzzling concepts began to make sense, namely the reason that things happen slowly in the Western world, and I'm not not talking about the riding. For one thing, the dialect has always struck me as exaggeratedly unrushed. Western folks use the same time to deliver their mono-syllabic equivalents of our English multi-word phrases. For instance, Western show announcers take the same time to drawl through "pen" as it takes a dressage steward to blurt out "show arena." The same amount of time for one syllable versus four. We English trainers hurry through telling our students to "apply your inside leg" in the same time a Western coach relaxes through suggesting a student "bump" her horse.

Without realizing it, by wiggling into this borrowed costume, I was sampling a world that long intrigued me. My steed and I moved at a markedly slower pace than normal. And maybe because of that, or because of the blissed out costumed feel-good of his rider, my horse offered up more relaxation and submission than he often does. Our movements were quiet and graceful. We went smoothly through our paces with our fringe and bling catching the attention, I hoped, of anyone watching. I pondered the unhurried conversations I've overheard among cowboys, their "we've-got-all-the-time-in-the-world" interactions with their horses. For this brief moment, I got a taste of that. And I'll admit that, in my snug sparkly shirt and eggplant colored chaps, I felt pretty darn cool. For one wonderful hour, I was my own John Wayne style hero-- full of smooth moves, good swagger, and long pauses.

That is what initiated this reflection about a person's fashion defining her to some extent. It might be hyperbolic to say that an outfit can change a person, but it sure helps create a mindset. In my case, it helped me leap across the Great Divide of equestrian sports: English vs. Western. Had I always viewed that other discipline while clad in my tight breeches and polo shirt, I would have continued to see it as, well, a bit funny. By adopting the look and feel of it for a day, though, I experienced it genuinely. Having done so, I experienced that I long suspected: that we each have tons to learn from each other if we can be open-minded.

It's not that I want to close the chasm between us so that we share one world. Rather, I actually like the separation because it allows riders to fit in wherever they feel most comfortable. I would just like us all to be open and accepting of each other in different disciplines. Plus, I want the opportunity to cross-dress my way through each one. Er, I mean cross-train.