[Photo by Hugh McCarten]

Our second day at the ranch was marked by the arrival of John's wife Elaine, who'd been back East visiting family when the revelers started rolling into town.  She and John share a birthday, but John's 60th was a milestone, and Elaine worked overtime to make it remarkable — first by letting such a crowd of John's mostly disreputable friends into her home and then by engineering two incredible evenings of great food, music and hilarity, about which more later.

That second day also provided the spiritual high-point of the gathering for me — a horseback ride into the hills above the ranch houses.  I rode a horse for the first time at this ranch, back in the early Seventies, and it was was one of the great moments of my life.  I felt instantly at home on the back of a horse, as though riding was something I'd grown up doing, and ever since then, time in the saddle has been precious to me.

                                                                                                                              [Photo by Eli Dokson]

But none of that time can compare to riding up into the hills of this ranch.  The view of its valley grows more and more awe-inspiring — then you find yourself crossing streams in high meadows, passing through aspen and pine groves, arriving finally at Gus's cabin, which once belonged to a homesteader on the property, a place to pause and rest the horses and grab a bite to eat, perhaps, before heading back.

I was holding a young mare by its halter rope while John saddled up horses for us — John told me to just let her go if she got nervous, but when she got nervous and started backing up I instinctively held on tighter.  She bolted suddenly and the halter rope whipped though my fingers like hot iron.  It took out a chunk of flesh and blistered my whole palm as though I'd held my hand over a fire until it was cooked medium rare.

It hurt like hell until we mounted up, and then I didn't feel the pain at all, until we got back from the ride.

[Photo by Eli Dokson]

Six of us started off.  Corinne, an experienced horsewoman, also has a bad back, and after our first gallop she had to call it quits, she and her dad walking their mounts home.  John, Eli, Hilmar and I continued on.  I hadn't been on a horse since my last visit to the ranch, seven years before, and by the time our nearly four-hour ride was over I felt about half past dead.

But exhilarated.

[Photo by Eli Dokson]

There's a spring with cold, sweet water up by Gus's cabin.  Near there, John's father's ashes were buried.  Otis Carney, who passed away a few years ago, was the guy who first dreamed the dream of this particular ranch, buying up parcels of land around it over the years to keep the area pristine and in the family.  He was always funny and kind and hospitable to the preposterous dudes —
including this one — who showed up to experience “the West” on his ranch.

He's still there, of course — everywhere, now.  At his grave I took off my hat and spoke some words that the poet Yeats had carved on his own tombstone:

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.

Horseman, pass by!

I hope that the Big O, as he used to be called, appreciated the Irish of it, if nothing else.

Yeats's lines make a lot of sense, if you study on them a little.  Life and death on this earth are, you might say, pedestrian concerns, the concerns of people on foot — a horseman has other things to think about, business elsewhere.