Through my month long journey I felt as if I was receiving gifts, some physical but mostly emotional and intellectual, and experienced a couple of epiphanies.
The first epiphany came in the Posada hotel at Winslow station - the last and greatest Santa Fe Railroad hotel recently restored by two artists. The Tina Mion gallery made me realise that I've reached a new high point on life my journey. I grew up in a bit of a culture desert. Not only was my family uncultured, they were antagonistic to all remotely modern art, as were the other people in their social circle. In school my friends were hostile to art. Well, of course: art exposes the unconscious, rocking that comfortable bourgeois boat. It has taken me a long time to love anything created since the Pre-Raphaelites (and even they were a bit risqué with all those ladies lounging in meadows...) I've atoned somewhat through using my position in the railroad administration to commission public art. But in Winslow for the first time I walked through a quite provocative gallery, began to understand what the artist was communicating, and found something of a personal existential meaning through that work. It was one of those rare moments (I'm sure that you understand) when one at once loves and respects the artist, and then moves along because they have opened a door and said, in effect: "walk on, think for yourself and discover".
The second epiphany came in Santa Fe, at the Georgia O'Keefe gallery. There was an exhibition of her work alongside that of Ansell Adams. At that moment I realised that I receive and interpret. I can appreciate abstraction, respect the creativity, however my role is to take things - whether documentary and abstract - and make something with them. That is important for me in my work, which is a peculiar mixture of technical, commercial and creative - and mainly the leadership of these. Now I've a better idea of what I should do, and what I should leave to others better equipped.
I suppose that all this means that "I'm not one of you artists" (which I know), a bit like not really being a musician (I play and sing a bit, well enough for a pub sing-along). But it's a pleasure to be included in the fringe of the circle, as a friend and fellow traveller, if the artists and musicians have the goodness of heart to admit me. It means a great deal to be admitted, having cast off such a heavy, dark cloak of philistinism. I have begun to push that door open.
And I do have a point of view to present, visually and in words, as well as doing my bit to keep the railroads moving people and goods. I love and appreciate the landscape with its forms and nuances, and I think that I can bring out some of its meaning (even if I do not like to stand near to the edge of a canyon to take photos).
I had been struggling to find a saddle that would fit Brena's broad frame and offer plenty of bearing surface upon her back. Before I went on holiday to the US, various people suggested that I consider a Western saddle. This seemed like a good idea - I ride in a broadly Western style and I've had good (if limited) experience in the past with Western tack. I did some research, discovering that the range of Western saddles available in the UK is small and the prices high. So why not buy a saddle on holiday and bring it back?
So I directed my research towards saddles available in the US. First I discovered that endurance-style Western saddles are available, without the horn. This is useful - I need to duck under low branches from time to time. That would the style of saddle for me.
Research led me to Tucker Saddles, a large and respected manufacturer based in Texas which makes its saddles in the US. I contacted the firm and received a prompt and helpful reply. In response I made templates (Tucker's website explains how), traced these onto paper and posted these off, and emailed photos of Brena too. Within days a suitable size and model were identified - not surprisingly Brena requires an extra-wide Quarter Horse tree. A saddle in stock was reserved whilst my questions were answered. I paid on-line and the saddle was quickly shipped to my hotel in Santa Fe. The price was very reasonable too - at a list price of around $1,600, this was half the price of a Western (or endurance) saddle supplied by a UK vendor. I was certainly excited to be handed a big box by the hotel receptionist.
It was great that a large firm took the time to make an individual sale to a foreign visitor, including assessing the fit from templates, answering a variety of questions and shipping to my hotel. They could have told me to call a dealer, or directed me to the on-line shop. But, no, an individual nicely handled my enquiry throughout. I definitely give Tucker ten out of ten for both service and product.
It's a well made saddle, and it's comfortable for Brena and me. She moves better with this saddle than with its English predecessor, which fitted well but offered insufficient bearing surface. The sweat marks on Brena's back are even, and there are no dry spots (unlike with the previous saddle). Gin noted the detail that the fenders came ready turned-out to meet my feet, which is a sign of attention to detail in manufacture. Brena was so keen today that a two-hour ride became three. It was a joy that she moved forward so freely and with such enthusiasm.
Below the saddle (as you can see in the photo) is a three-quarter inch thick felt pad with gel insert, the thickness recommended by Tucker and the model suggested by a helpful tack store near San Diego. The store owner, a very experienced rider, also suggested the thin blue felt pad that sits under the main pad - this picks up sweat and is easier to wash.
I'm back from a month travelling in the US. The time has flown, and such a lot has happened.
The journey felt like a trail of gifts: a few bought or received, the majority less tangible. Of the latter, some brought joy, others enlightened and a couple presented epiphanies.
Heartfelt thanks go to my friends Kiki and Gin for their generosity and kind help. Other good people provided help and services along the way. I'll be writing about the events and experiences in more detail, accompanied by photos. But I've just arrived and I'm still getting over the long flight and time difference. So writing in earnest will begin in a few days. Besides, it will take a while to process the wealth of experience. Writing will help me to do this.
The biggest physical gift went to Brena: a new Tucker Western-style endurance saddle. We both like it.
This photo came to light last week after lingering eight years in my email inbox. How remiss of me not to archive the images that a guest kindly sent. (Thank you Wayne & Cec.) We were traversing a rare section of trail, one that I took only a handful of groups along, above the former border between the Austrian and Russian Empires. We were riding our regular one-week trip. For some reason I must have doubled back from the valley to the ridge, ascending the track we'd ridden down the previous evening. Usually we cut along the valley for a couple of miles then took a different track upward as I didn't like retracing my steps. To do so seemed like short-changing guests. There I am, riding the second horse, the Lipizzaner gelding Pintea who now resides in England. Who knows why I broke habit? Sometimes curiosity got the better of me. Or perhaps we'd come into the village in the valley, Ciocanesti, by an unaccustomed route? Whatever the reason, we traversed a high airy meadow. Like so many former military roads in the Carpathians, the trail sliced across a long and moderately steep slope attempting to maintain a relatively even gradient. I'm not overly fond of heights however I got used to these byways. A good steady horse helped, of course, and my horses were all reliable. The views were fabulous, as you can see. If I could go back now, I'd take food and drink, then I'd sit up there all day taking it all in. One cannot get too much of the mountains on a fine day. I'd slip back down to the cozy guesthouse in the gloaming, no sooner, ready for dinner and good company. That location, between Transylvania and the Bucovina, offered it all: lovely scenery, friendly people, reliable horses and nice places to stay.
Back at the yard after a ride. Soft light, fading. Quiet. A horse wandering beyond the gate, pale moon beyond the trees. Ansell Adams would have made this into a lovely black and white image. I took a quick snap, and the horse wandered off.
I'm the last one here, past nine o'clock. Twilight carried us back, down the silent village street, past houses where people ate dinner or watched television. Ever the outsider looking in, I rode. Evening sensations abounded: cool, quiet, a little hunger, tired limbs. Nostalgic, all of them.
Somewhere distant a combine harvester hummed. I wasn't the only one out. At least I wasn't working. So many evenings I rode homeward trailing a string of chattering guests amazed by the peasant trappings of our rustic surroundings. But that was another place. Another life. A place of memories.
I washed Brena, creamy sweat cascading from shining flanks. Splashing foamy puddles I dried her with a sweat scraper. Then out to the field where the mare rolled luxuriously, coating herself with a thin brown film. She does that every time I wash her. Then she shook, flinging dust and droplets. What an atmospheric photo that would make. I expect that Ansell Adams could have captured that too. But I saw it, and that was enough, life and joy presented to me by a relaxing horse.
At its best the English countryside exudes a sense of mystery. It's the trees that do it, obscuring just enough detail that the mind has to get to work. Cloud and mist add to the atmosphere.
The ridge east of the barn provides a lovely view to the south. Villages nestle amidst a flurry of copses, their positions signalled by church towers and a few barely visible thatched or tiled roofs. The impression is one of nature dominating, of settlements put in their place by the broad green canopy.
But how to reach those settlements? Via tracks winding below leaf and bough? Navigating sinuous ways between hedges? Actually that's how it is, by motor road and by riding trail. No way is straight or direct, and each stretch yields glimpses of a mysterious, undulating land, peculiar in its granularity.
Sometimes I like to stop and dream. In those moments Brena gets an extra snack of the lush grass. What if we were travelling long ago? What if there were a border to cross? Perhaps the far hills lie in a different land? That's a favourite dream, one in which I am descended from both peoples therefore able to cross at will. The others aren't interested in what lies beyond, and I am regarded with curiosity and sometimes a little suspicion. The real world can be like that too.
I spotted this delightful group whilst out riding a few days ago. The mares and foals enjoy a lovely long field by the road. The space and varied terrain are good for the foals, which have lots of space to run and play, and plenty of passing traffic to get familiar with. The five ventured down to the fence to look more closely at Brena and I. She picked at the grass whilst I took a few photos.
Lovely scenery - the hills of Wiltshire a few miles west of Stonehenge;
Nice trails - offering good views, varied terrain, only short stretches stony, though as usual for Wiltshire trail marking is poor. We got a little off trail once, but some exploration and directions from a helpful farmer put us right;
Good company - my friend K and her gelding. Not only do the humans get along well, our two horses are glad to meet;
Simple travelling - other than some congestion in a place that is always bad on Saturdays, which mostly we avoided via a handy diversion, the seventy-mile journey was straightforward;
Food - a favourite trail repast, a pie from the farm shop, good as ever;
Parking - Downlands Equestrian, a smart and delightfully situated facility offering many miles of off-road trails; and
Details - a new CD, Alison Krauss and Union Station recorded live in Austin TX, perfect road music, played on every journey since I bought it a week ago. It'll take a while to tire of that music.
These rolling, silent, somewhat arid hills, their fields broken up by copses and woods, remind me of many miles ridden abroad. Central Transylvania was rather like this, the stretches between the villages anyway. Wiltshire villages are quite unlike the red tile-roofed settlements of Transylvania, timber-fenced homesteads with stout gates, though both nestle around churches. Wiltshire churches aren't fortified, though, thankfully Tatars and Turks never were a threat this far west. Still, it was peculiar how the similarities came to mind, and most of all the freedom to ride through an old, rather rustic, varied and slightly melancholic landscape.
The day was hot by English standards. It was just breezy enough to create the illusion that sun block isn't really needed. I soaked up the heat, so welcome in a land of long, damp winters. On such a day I was glad for drinking water, two bottles attached to my saddle. And we moved slowly in the heat on baked ground, for a day like this merits patience.
Our circular trail led through a deep old wood, the sort where trees of mixed age grow wherever a seed or acorn happened to fall. It was far more interesting than a plantation laid out in lines on a grid.
In the wood we lost and found the trail. Logging tracks and riding tracks mingled, indistinguishable from one-another. Each was wild and tending towards the overgrown. Once I stopped to take a compass bearing, for it would have been a long way around had we emerged on the wrong side of the wood. At last a bit of proper navigating to find our way.
In the midst of a spell of hot weather even the woods weren't cool. The horses had drunk from a trough in a field and we had water bottles. But for the buzzing whirling flies, a siesta would have been welcome. But there was the pressure of time. I'd driven a couple of hours to get here, and had the return journey to contemplate. I should have started earlier, allowing time in the middle of the day to rest.
Or even set out shortly after dawn - a challenge for one so nocturnal as me - so as to start in relative cool. I'd better get more sleep during the week so that I can rise earlier at weekends. As it is, weekends have become a time to catch up on sleep, the more so in a busy summer.