Saturday, July 25, 2009

Of Horses and Girls and Summer

It's summer and summer was always my time for horses as a kid. This rambling essay is a brief glimpse at what my vacations were about in my growing years.

Querencia, this is a Spanish word that lacks an equal in the English language. And some declare the fact that many such words are absent from the most spoke language on the globe make it inferior. I tend to agree. The romance languages are certainly more descriptive and at 17 years of age in my advanced placement composition class I had an assignment to write an essay about this word to try to put it to use in my language. As an English-only speaker, for me, the word querencia is only associated with my horses as a pre-teen and teenager.

Ramos Ranch was likely the only thing that saved me from the evils of being a teenager in the ruthless world of high school. As a fast maturing girl who turned heads quicker than I could think to speak, I found my self shy and uncomfortable with boys and the other more aggressive girls of my age group. Instead of investing time in my peers, I spent ten years, ten summers, at Ramos Ranch which were filled with riding my horse through the never changing and always changing hills.

The borders of the ranch always remained the same since Stanford University leased the lands to John Ramos and developing them was not in the plans. The ranch spanned over 500 acres, divided between the mare's and geldings pastures. Imagine rolling hills dotted with oak trees and grassland, open space untrammeled by modern development. To this day it remains an incredible tract of land that has not been assaulted with development. Even Ronald Regan, when offered a portion of the ranch as a site for his library, declined to develop any of the Ramos Ranch, since as a horseman himself I don’t think he could bear to see the horse pastures scarred with buildings. However, all around the pastures the gigantic homes of millionaires were being constructed at a breakneck pace.

At Ramos Ranch, a little tributary to San Francisco Bay called Deer Creek bisects the 200 acre geldings pasture. Moments of querencia could be found within the creek channel. Narrow single tract paths to access the creek bed were frequented by us all on horseback. There was a pack of us, teen age girls that is. The packs size varied from year to year and from winter to summer. I think at the height of July our numbers would reach into the teens with ages ranging between 10 and 16.

Old John Ramos, who was already in his late 60’s when I met him, would loosely oversee our activities with the horses. John would be sure to yell at each girl at least once. As a 10 year old I was about 5'8" and growing; I towered above John's 5'3" figure, but he could still bring me to tears with ease. He was a Goliath of a man in a tiny body; with snowy white hair, brown leathered skin and fingers atrophied by decades of hard work, John had seen an eternity in his life before I ever knew him. With his half English, half Spanish rants, he'd scare the crap out of me and the rest of the girl-pack regardless of our size. After he established his authority he was kind and generous. Although for the tougher, more daring, girls he would give an extra mean ass chewing when someone got out of line.

John had a lease system where we girls could rent his horses by the month for a minimal fee. His horse fleet consisted of the best mismatch assemblage of Heinz fifty seven's you've ever seen: sugar flaxen manes, gangly chestnuts, blotchy black and white paints, jet black Tennessee walker, morganquarterhorsethoroghbred cross, touches of draft horse, and big eyed arabs with flag-like tails, to name just a few.

When I started leasing a horse in the summer after fifth grade, it cost $35.00. Under his program you were handed a halter with a lead rope and a mechanical hackamore, each spray painted with red somewhere on the metal hardware to denote John’s ownership of it.

The red paint was not quite a scarlet letter but an indelible mark to remind you that the tack was not yours to keep. It did not matter to him that he was defiling perfectly good horse gear. It was known that if John saw you using his red painted tack at a later date with a horse that you owned, he would repossess that which was his. And of course after you accepted your red-tagged gear, you got some type of equine to go beneath it.

Girls, horses, and virtually no adult supervision, are a combination for unlimited innocent happiness, well mostly innocent... Daily excursions in to the rising hills behind the ranch included mini-packs of 4 or 5 girls riding their horses bareback in dolphin shorts and t-shirts tied with a knot on the side, maybe on their way to the town ring, Rossotti's or to sneak into Felt Lake for an illegal swim. Our days were filled with cleaning tack, rounding up the horses, trail riding or drinking sodas in our tack sheds. After 17 or 18 years of age the girls were turning into young ladies and started to drift off to other interests like boys with tans and sun bleached hair, their first cars, or summer jobs, and some were even leaving to go to college.

But the creek, I can’t forget the murky creek. We would ride, singly or a few at a time, down to the water holes and let the horses splash and paw until the surface churned with algae, mud and dead tadpoles (probably tadpoles of the now threatened California red-legged frog (Rana aurora draytonii)). The most popular spot was called “Belly High” since it would touch the bottoms of our horses big, round hay filled barrels. To get to the best spots you had to walk your horse in the creek bed and navigate through the deeply incised earthen walls that formed either channel bank.

Overhead, huge live oak trees formed a complete canopy that shaded the water. Quercus agrifolia, the scientific name for my gnarled friends, grew from the bank top, their branches bridging over the channel to touch and mingle in the middle.

The leathery leaves from last years growth shone darkly while the bright green of the new years leaves reflected the sun more brightly. Then you entered the shadows and everything became muted and subtle beneath the cover of the old trees. The shadowy brown colors of the earthen banks and the layers of leaf debris clinging to these walls through a network of silvery spider webs gave the place an almost subterranean feeling. Fat, exposed tree roots twisted their way down through the earth to reach the moisture from the creek.

I was just like them, seeking water. An occasional gust of wind would blow the tree tops just enough that a sunbeam could strike the black surface for a moment or two reminding you that indeed the sun and sky was hiding just above you.

I would go down to the creek to relax and escape from the smoldering heat of the burning July sun. Sometimes I would lie down across my horses back and doze, other times I would slip off her back and wade in the shallows; whatever I did I felt a sense of comfort in the shady waters. The ancient oaks hung over protectively dropping leaves on to me just to keep me in my place. The majestic old trees were the rulers after all.

I could tell the creek my problems even though I never got any answer, but then that was a kind of support in its self. The lazy river projected its serenity upon all things in and around it. There time stood still and peace filled my mind. The cool waters soothed the cuts, bruises and calluses I had acquired by walking barefooted everywhere all summer long. It healed not only my soul but my body as well.

Sometimes the creek would play games with me, stealing my tread bare shoes, sucking them down to the black shadowy depths. Sometimes it would chill me to the bone with an unexpected splash. But I usually relaxed and enjoyed the calm friendly waters that flowed through my querencia. I always found what I wanted when I ventured down to its level of pure nature.

Reflecting back upon those lazy summer days, I know that the other critical part of the querencia was my horse. Without the horses I would have never got to the creek in the first place. It now makes me sad that I know my daughter could never have the same type of experience as I, since the world is vastly different with our litigious culture and paranoid parenting.

I was left on my own with the other teens for eight hours a day. I know I could not release my child in such an unlimited fashion without my conscious nagging me or some other adult passing judgment or probably calling child protective custody. If I am lucky and my daughter likes the horses as much as me, I will be blessed. She will get a thorough horse experience, but it will just have to be different than mine. And I can't help but think what an amazing experience it was to grow up riding horses like wild Brumby girls at Ramos Ranch.


Kritter Keeper said...

wow, that was really good! you are so right about today's world and it is a shame. we too were left on our own but closer to home, in the woods and outside all day. (i think mom needed a break from all of her girls!) but even on vacations, we were allowed to wander down to the lake, take a long jog or bike ride, whatever...they never worried. horses are magical with good for them. i know you and your daughter will have an awesome moments together sharing 'horse time'!

Pricilla said...

It is a shame that times have changed but you can surely SHARE with your daughter, yes?

I loved to ride when I was a teenager. Even in New Jersey...

Suzi said...

Yeah, I couldn't let the boys leave after breakfast and expect them home when the street lamps came on. Not today. People, society, all very different, more uptight.

MsSnarkyPants said...

That is such a lovely story! I never had quite so much freedom. We played in our yard which had a reservoir and nice woods, but if Mom looked out and didn't see us she went hunting pretty quickly. I can't blame her. I would do exactly the same thing!

Leigh said...

Your little essay here actually brings tears to my eyes. So nostalgic. It's such a shame that things have changed so much. I'm so glad you shared this. I plan to read it my horse loving girl.

blueviolet said...

Julia- I felt like I was right there with you and your horse as you described it. It sounds like a place of daydreams and definitely a place to heal the soul.

Beautiful, beautiful post.

Aunt Spicy said...

Wow! Wow! What an amazing experience! I am secretly envious of the world you grew up in!

Olde Dame Penniwig said...

Quit this botany business and write a bestseller, dearie! You have the talent, the heart, and the vision.

Kirra said...

Wow, that was truly beautifully written! I felt like I was 13 again. Thank you for the wonderful trip down good ole memory lane.

Yaya said...

Wow you've been riding horses forever! This sounds wonderful and of course I'm jealous! ;)

Michelle said...

I have a 26 year Morgan named Eli that I have had since I was 10. Oh I love my man,

Ratty said...

This sounds like a good experience that goes a long way in helping a child grow up. You're right, it's a shame things can't be like that anymore.

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