He was young and full of himself when we set off from Ventura, California on April third, 1974. Born on the first of February, 1970, he was just four years old, still pretty green and inexperienced, but honest and dependable. We had already forged a strong bond and knew each other well by the time we started down the trail. I had raised Gizmo from a six month old weanling, and we had spent several months prior to the ride training hard, building ourselves up to the time when we would leave the Pacific Ocean and head out toward the sunrise on a journey that would last seven months and cover over four thousand miles.
Gizmo never had a bit in his mouth his entire life. He was still losing his baby teeth when we started the ride. Incisors and premolars were being replaced by his permanent teeth, and I had followed the old Spanish method of using a hackamore bridle on him instead of a bit. Hackamores have a rawhide noseband (bosal) in place of a snaffle, curb, straight, or spade bit, so as to free a horse’s mouth while his adult teeth grow in. Once we were on the trail for a few weeks, I sent the hackamore bridle home and simply rode him with his halter, and used a long lead rope for my reins.
He was a registered American Quarter Horse with a diverse family tree. He stood fifteen-one, with a slender build and a handsome, refined head. He was a sorrel—called chestnut by some—with a blaze that ran down from his forehead and widened to cover the entire front of his nose and upper lip. His left front leg had his only white stocking that ran up almost to the knee. Long pasterns with strong slopes down to the hoof enabled him to float freely at the walk and trot. He had a long overstep behind, which meant that each hind foot stepped far in front of the print left by the front foot, and this enabled him to cover ground quickly and smoothly. His front feet were striped with a mixture of dark and light, and his hind ones were all dark. They were small and fit his overall frame. He wore a double-ought shoe (size 00).
A horse’s eye is the first thing I notice when I look at him. It says a lot about his intelligence and signals the amount of trust he carries within himself. Gizmo’s were inquisitive, intelligent, and kind. They were soft enough to be reassuring, yet had enough white showing to display a sense of curiosity. His head usually turned to follow his eyes, and that indicated an awareness of his surroundings and an inquisitive mind.
His dam was a chestnut Quarter Horse named Wayward, who had a flaxon mane and tail and stood fourteen-three. She was a fine example of the classic “bulldog” Quarter Horse—short, stocky, quick, and smart. His sire was a well known West Coast racehorse by the name of Palleo’s Note, who had a lot of Thoroughbred breeding in his background. He was a big, long legged stocky stallion who earned his Racing Register of Merit by the time he was a two year old. Gizmo was destined to follow neither his mother’s ranching heritage nor his father’s racing history. Instead, he became his own free spirit, and he never hesitated to express that essence.
He was a tough little horse who never quit, and was as game a critter as you could find. Horses can be compared with people sometimes. There are those who soldier on by sheer force of will and there are those, like Gizmo, who seem to push forward through the inertia of their own curiosity. A strong will is tough, but curiosity is resilient, and I reckon curiosity is the stronger force.
He quickly learned that whatever I ate, he could eat. This included everything from Snickers bars (his favorite) to hamburgers, apple pie, ham sandwiches, cookies, green chile enchiladas, ice cream, bisquits and gravy, chocolate cake, hotdogs, cotton candy, beef stew, and a whole smorgasbord of other delicacies. He drank water from a gas station radiator filler hose without spilling a drop, and always demanded that I share any sodas, beer, iced tea, or other drinks I had. These included coffee (cold), root beer floats, and chocolate shakes as well, though I drew the line at whiskey shots. I watched what he ate and wouldn’t let him have anything that might hurt him. Things like bananas, celery, oleander, and other equine food hazards were off limits to him. And I never fed him too much of any of the food I ate. He usually only wanted a bite or two, just to be included, but he was known to eat an entire pie or chocolate cake.
Gizmo was a sound sleeper much of the time, though not always. I staked him out at night on a thirty foot rope that was fastened to his front foot by a hobble. I buckled the leather hobble onto his pastern and clipped the rope into it. This let the rope to stay flat on the ground, so he wouldn’t get it wrapped around his hind legs and end up with rope burns. He could easily lie down with this rig, and could even have a nice roll if he wanted to. When he was finished eating and checking out his surroundings, he would generally wander as close to me as he could get, then lie down. I learned early on that I needed to give him enough room, or he would end up sleeping on top of me.
He knew he was something special, and knew we were doing something extraordinary. He took our celebrity in his stride, posing for cameras and enjoying the attention he received along the trail. He didn’t mind when other horses were around, but didn’t seem to care when we left them, either. He was never barn sour or herd bound in his entire life, and I think the ride helped to cement that disposition in him. Horses are herd animals, gregarious by nature. Gizmo was certainly gregarious with people, and he enjoyed being with his own kind as well, but he didn’t mind leaving them behind in the corral whenever I took him out on a ride. He maintained that attitude for the rest of his life.
He was a precocious colt, inquisitive sometimes to the point of being annoying. He was always into everything. If you left a bucket on the ground nearby, or a halter hanging from a fencepost, he had his nose in them immediately. He’d drag my coat away from my gear and just drop it on the ground beneath him. An equine magpie. He didn’t actually want my stuff. He never chewed it or destroyed any of it. He just liked the idea of having unlimited access to it, and he wanted to make sure I knew it.
He came over to listen to the radio if one was playing. Music seemed to be a sort of tonic for him, and oftentimes I wished I had a way to play a radio while we were riding along during the days on the trail. Many claim that horses can feel the music, and have a sense of rhythm. They maintain that the dressage horse in a freestyle can sense the music and will move to it, accordingly. I happen to think that it’s anthropomorphic nonsense, and that a horse has no real concept of music as beats and rhythm—at least, not something he can relate to. Musical rhythm is a wholly human notion. It is the concept of sound measured against time, broken into specific lengths and beats. Horses don’t care about time. They don’t measure the universe in a linear fashion like we do. I don’t think a horse can sense rhythm as we know it any more than we can sense the frequencies of light or sound, except by color or pitch. They affect us, but we can’t dance in time to them because we can’t hear or see their rhythm. And having said that, I know that music has profound effects upon a horse, and upon other animals as well. Gizmo loved listening to music, and responded to it. But he didn’t try to dance to it.
Once the ride was over and we were back home in California, he spent a good deal of time out to pasture, just hanging out with his equine pals. We lived in Santa Barbara for a while and made some pack trips back into wilderness areas around those parts. He was ruined as a show horse prospect, or as a cow or reining horse, though we did help gather cattle now and then, but he was great on pack trips and trail rides. We moved to New Mexico a few years later, where he lived out his days under big skies and open country. When he was twenty two he grew ill. He lost weight, had intestinal and urinary problems, and his disposition grew cranky and erratic. Tests revealed that he had Pars Intermedia Pituitary Adenoma. That’s a fancy medical term for what is known as Cushing’s Disease, which is basically a benign tumor in the brain. Though benign, it causes lots of serious problems, especially in older horses, and there is no cure. It was late in the year and he would have to face the cold and snow. He was twenty two years old and I didn’t want him to have to go through the punishment of another winter.
I spent Gizmo’s last morning alone with him, just talking and sharing some final hours together. It was a cold, bright October autumn day. Spending the hours with him was entirely for my own sake, and I knew it wouldn’t do him any real good, but I played my harmonica for him and just visited with him for a long time. He seemed relaxed and happy, listening to the music. I called the vet out and held him while the doctor gave him an injection. I eased his head down as he gently settled to the ground, and I sat there cradling him as he died. I dug his grave with the tractor and buried him there, on the high desert of northern New Mexico. As I shoveled the earth over him, dark clouds rolled in overhead and it began to snow lightly. But I didn’t see the coming storm as a dark sign or bad omen. The snow fell gently, in big flakes, and by the time I had finished burying him his grave was white. It was a peaceful scene. It felt like he was saying thank you.
Coffee has been a constant in my life since I was seven or eight years old. My mother always had a pot of coffee on for as far back as I can remember. I can’t imagine how many cups of coffee she drank during her lifetime, but it must have been in the millions. Back then it was brewed in a percolator that sat on top of the stove. It was one of those metal things where the boiling coffee bubbles up into the little glass cap that sits on top of the lid. It was store bought coffee with names like Folgers, HIlls Brothers, and Maxwell House (Sanka wasn’t real coffee and was considered undrinkable in our house). Coffee came in a big can that you had to open with a can opener. Some of them used one of those keys that attached to a metal strip on the side at the top edge and rolled around to open it, like a sardine can. Later on, in the sixties or seventies sometime, they invented those plastic lids that snapped on so the coffee would stay fresh. Of course, that sort of coffee was never fresh to begin with, so it didn’t much matter if you kept the lid on the can or not. The coffee always tasted pretty much the same. It tasted great, and it’s still the best coffee I ever had.
As a kid I started out taking my coffee with cream and sugar—lots of each. It was more like a mocha milk shake than real coffee, but I felt grown up when I drank it, and I liked it better than hot chocolate, which was just about the only other hot drink they served to kids back then. I don’t think any of my friends drank coffee, and some of them gave me a hard time about it, but I didn’t much care. Coffee was something that accompanied things you did. For me at first, it was mostly reading. I loved to sit and read with a cup of that milky white, ultra sweet hot liquid. I felt like a grownup and looking back, I think the coffee provided incentive to read those books. It helped to provide an escape for me, especially after my old man left. I felt comfortable when I was alone with a book and a cup of coffee. Still do.
If we had company over, my mother would always have a pot brewing and everyone would sit around smoking cigarettes and drinking cups of coffee while they visited. I usually didn’t take part in these grownup discussions, but often sat quietly and watched. And eventually for me, conversation became the second thing that accompanied coffee. As I entered my teens I hung out at the local malt shop in my hometown. Most of the kids sipped malts or root beer floats, but a few of us drank coffee. By my mid teens I had dispensed with the milk because it didn’t look as cool as black coffee did, but I still added sugar to it. I learned that for ten cents I could sit in a coffee shop and read, right in the middle of the bustle all around me. And the waitress would fill my cup up over and over, all day, while I sat reading my book. Sometimes I had conversations with friends or strangers who wandered in. Eventually, when I was playing in bands, I would sit with my musician friends and discuss life over a cup of coffee. None of us had regular jobs then, so we sat for hours at a time, solving the problems of the world. Having coffee in a café was a social experience, and it became a sort of ritual to me. It’s one that continues to this day, a cup of coffee and something to read.
As I got older, into my late teens, the coffee switched from black with sugar to just plain black. Hardcore, no frills coffee. I was facing some hard truths in my life and I suppose my choice in coffee mirrored them. Cream and sugar were for kids. I was an adult. The prospect of being drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam loomed large. I was against the war in principle, but I didn’t think of myself as an antiwar activist. I did perform at those sorts of events, and I was caught up in antiwar rallies and other events that young people did in those days. Looking back on it, black coffee seemed to coincide with all of that.
The black coffee phase lasted through my stint in the Navy, but I started taking a little milk with it (no sugar) after that. Oftentimes a roadside diner would only have powdered creamer (“whitener”, they called it), that came in a cardboard can, like salt, and I’d use that. If you poured it over an open flame it would almost explode, and you could do cool fireworks tricks with it. There’s no telling what was in that stuff to make it so flammable. Coffee shops also had what they called half and half, either in a small metal pitcher that sat all day on your table, or in individually packaged miniature plastic cartons. They still have those in a lot of places. Real half and half was basically just light cream, but the stuff they put in those little plastic things… I still have no idea what’s really in them. They could be left out all day and never go sour. They lasted for months. But I didn’t care back then (and I still don’t), because the half and half tasted okay with my coffee, so I used it.
By the time the ride started I drank it as I do today, black with a bit of milk (though I still take it black sometimes). I have never gone back to sugar or sweetener, though. I just don’t like it. Nor do I like the designer coffees they make nowadays, where you have to wait in line for them to make a single cup for you. Since most cafes no longer offer coffee in a pot, I’ve had to adapt. Now I drink what they call an Americano, which is like an espresso with a some hot water added, so it’s in a big cup. Then I add a little cold milk to it. I don’t care for all that fancy fluffy steamed milk stuff. Whenever I find a café that still has a pot of coffee brewing, I’m happy, though those places are getting harder and harder to find.
The ride presented a problem because I couldn’t really carry coffee. In fact, I had a headache for the first four or five days of the ride because of my caffeine addiction. It was the first time I had been without coffee in a very long time, and I hadn’t considered the effects. I was a bit surprised when that headache started blasting the inside of my head, but having no alternative, I just had to toughen up and soldier on until it went away. And it finally did, and I kicked the physical addiction cold turkey. But the social addiction never left me, and whenever the opportunity presented itself I always had a cup of coffee someplace. If it came to a choice between spending money on dinner or spending it on coffee, the coffee won out every time.
A cup of coffee in a café, along with a book or a newspaper or magazine, creates a social contract between you and your environment. This environment includes the coffee shop, its work staff, and its other customers. It even includes the street outside. The contract requires that you notice what is around you and learn something from it. The knowledge usually isn’t earth shaking, but you can observe people’s habits, their actions toward each other, and sometimes you even notice another who is observing you. The social part of the contract allows you to communicate with the staff and patrons. It doesn’t require you to, but you’re allowed to because you’re sitting there with a book and a cup of coffee, minding your own business, so a casual comment or hello is acceptable. You can converse with people, you can say hello, and you can strike up a conversation if you like. And you can respond to others who might want to join in.
There were times during the ride when a simple hello between me and the person next to me at the counter would turn into a conversation, and that exchange would somehow leak out into the room and eventually, I would find myself in the middle of a group of people all taking part in the discussion. Some would know each other if we were in a small town, but often they were all strangers to each other. And though we never acknowledged it, the coffee bound us together in some way, if only for a few minutes. I experienced this many times during the ride and, odd as this sounds, it was something I wished Gizmo could have experienced.
If you walked into a café back in 1974 you would see that most of the customers had a cup of coffee in front of them. It was the drink of choice. The coffee back then was a thread that bound all of you together for the short time you were in the diner. It wasn’t made for you, individually, like it is today. There wasn’t a different, made to order cup of coffee in front of each person. They didn’t call out, “Double trim mocha andante decaf chai with extra foam” in place of your name. They didn’t call out anything. They just turned over the cup that was already on your table and filled it from the communal coffee pot. Back then, all of the coffees were the same. Some had milk or sugar or both in them, but it was the drinker who doctored it and not the waiter. All those cups of coffee came from a community pot that sat on a burner behind the counter. Everyone drank from the same pot. Each dipped his ladle into the same well, so to speak. Everyone received the same coffee, like it or not. That no longer happens in today’s self-centered world, where each of us is the center of our own universe and expects everything made to order.
Today a community coffee pot at a fancy coffee bar is ridiculed and scoffed at. Brewed coffee is considered substandard and unacceptable, shoddy and second rate in a growing number of places. People in restaurants turn their noses up at coffee in a pot. But just as their handheld digital phones divide and isolate them from each other at their tables, so do their individually made lattes and espressos and long blacks and flat whites. You can make the comment, “This is really good coffee,” but no one else can truthfully say, “Yeah, it is,” because they are experiencing a different drink. They’re not drinking the same coffee you are. We’re no longer sitting in the same café together. We’re no longer a small community that has come together for the moment, tied together by a common thread.
We’re not drinking from the same coffee pot anymore.
I was sittin’ at my stitch horse, was a cold day late in the fall
sewin’ up a saddle skirt with two needles and an awl
I was plantin’ stitches six to the inch, and I stropped the awl every two or three
A spool of six cord linen thread and a ball of beeswax was on the workbench next to me
The shop was cluttered, like it usually was, with scraps of leather on the floor
There was some new saddle trees that had just come in, sittin’ on the Jake knife over by the door
There were shelves full of patterns, bins full of hardware, and a room full of glues and dyes,
And there was a butcher’s block with leather punches of every shape and size.
My work bench must have had two hundred tools, Hackbarths and Osbornes and Randalls.
There were edgers and creasers and overstitch wheels, with rosewood and hickory handles
There was a big block of marble set into the bench, where a splitter would normally be
The gravestone company had spelled the name wrong, so they gave it to me for free.
It had been lyin’ around in their yard for years, the monument fella had said
Wasn’t worth the trouble to grind the name off, so they threw it out instead.
Well, I brought it home as a carving stone, and it did the job right well.
With the name, “James P. Smiht”
lyin’ face down, it was hidden so you couldn’t tell.
Now the last name was sorta spelled backwards, it was, “S-M-I-H-T”
and everyone knows “S-M-I-T-H” is the spelling that “Smith” should be
So the monument maker’s loss was my gain, and I felt real glad to have found it
‘Cause a stone like that ain’t easy to come by, and I built my whole workbench around it.
Well, I used that gravestone all through the summer, carvin’ flowers and leaves and vines,
Makin’ basket stamped saddles and squirrel gut patterns, and all sorts of hand tooled designs.
And that four inch thick piece of marble, well it took all them blows mighty well
And I was proud of that stone, and I wondered about all the stories that ol’ James Smith could tell.
But when I opened the shop up each morning, that stone… well, it had moved just a bit
And I noticed it wasn’t lined up on my bench, as if someone had fooled with it.
Now, this went on for weeks, every morning, and I couldn’t figure out what it was
‘Till that day in October, as I sat at my stitch horse, and the beeswax began to buzz.
I always use a small stick of beeswax, for stitching with a needle and awl
I melt it in a pan along with some rosin, and roll it all into a ball.
When you make up a thread for hand sewing, you taper each end with a blade
You twist ‘em and wax ‘em and pass ‘em through needles that go through the stitch holes you’ve made
That little ol’ ball of beeswax, it didn’t look like too much, but I’ll say
It made them stitches look tidy and tight—it was sticky, so they stayed that way.
But this little ball, it wouldn’t sit still, it was making a terrible sound
And the buzzing grew louder, my workbench it shook, and the lights in the shop all went down
Well, I thought that maybe a bumblebee was trapped inside that little wax ball
But I couldn’t for the life of me figure out, how he had managed to stay alive through it all.
And at first, I couldn’t see nothin’, but then it began to glow green,
and an eerie light came from that old marble stone, it was the strangest thing I’d ever seen.
And all of a sudden a fella appeared, right there in front of my eyes
He wasn’t a big man, but his green apparition made up for his lack in size.
And he sorta just stood there, not sayin’ nothin’, as the beeswax continued to buzz
And I no longer knew if it were daytime or night, or where in the world I was.
His ghost like appearance got to lookin’ more solid, and the buzzin’ it seemed to just stop
and everything suddenly got real quiet, there weren’t a sound in that old saddle shop.
I got to my feet and stood up to face him, so I wouldn’t feel so small.
There wasn’t no way to defend myself, all I had was a diamond shaped awl.
But then the man spoke, he said, “Hold on there, son, I know this ain’t goin’ too well,
but if you’ll bear with me for just a short while, I’ve got a story to tell.
When they made this here marker to put on my grave, they thought that ‘Smith’ was my name.
But it dang shore isn’t—they made a mistake, though no one is really to blame.”
And he tilted that carving stone up on its side, so the writing was facing at me
And to me it looked like “Smith” was spelled wrong, and the man said, “Yes, I agree.”
But then he said, “Y’see this old headstone? Well I tell ya, they done it all wrong.
My real name’s Smiht, just like it says here, this gravestone was correct all along.”
And he said, “I’m gonna ask you a favor son, and this ain’t how I normally behave.
But I ain’t had a decent night’s sleep since they put the wrong marker on top of my grave.”
And he asked me if I would consider a trade, a straight across one-fer-one swap.
The old marble headstone that stood on his grave, for the one I had there in my shop.
Well, the upshot of this crazy story is one that you probably guessed.
I drove that old stone on out to the graveyard and finally put it to rest.
In the middle of the night I left my headstone, and brought home its counterfeit twin.
and I’ll be danged if it didn’t fit perfect in the place where the other had been.
Now a lot of leather’s been carved on that stone, it’s even better than the one before.
And when springtime came around and the days got longer, the man showed up once more.
And he looked at me mighty grateful like, and his eyes they filled up with tears,
And he said, “Thank you, friend, I owe you one. I ain’t slept this good in years.”
I saw her from a half mile away, standing alone amidst the dry sage and rabbit weed. Truth be told, Gizmo spotted her first and signaled to me as he always did, with his ears. He didn’t take his eyes off of her as we trotted slowly in her direction. I saw that her head was down, neck drooped and sagging, as if asleep on her feet. She didn’t move as we got closer. Gizmo began to call to her, and by the time we had closed the gap to a hundred and fifty yards I knew something was wrong.
I didn’t ride straight up to her for fear she was sick and might infect my horse. Instead, I reined Gizmo off to the side and stopped to tie him to a small acacia tree. There was some dry scrub grass that distracted him, and he began to nibble on it while I walked over to check on the troubled horse.
I was able to walk up to the mare slowly, extending my hand until it met her sagging neck. I spoke softly the whole time, “here, girl… easy… I’m not gonna hurt you… easy girl…” She flinched a bit when I first touched her, but once I began to stroke her down the side of her neck she settled, as if it were just too much work to be frightened. I could see she was blind. Her eyes were a cloudy, whitish blue and stared ahead, unresponsive and unseeing.
She was a sorrel mare, a wild horse with no facial markings, no stockings and no brand. She would never have passed as a fancy horse, conformation-wise, with her parrot mouth and Roman nose, but to me she was beautiful just the same. Her tail was knotted and filthy, and her flaxen mane hung in clumps down both sides of her neck in a haphazard hairdo, separated in places as if it had been parted that way on purpose. Her breath came in short gasps, husky and labored, with a rasp on the inhale and a wheeze on the exhale. Her tongue hung from one side of her mouth, and I ran my fingers down her face until I could take it lightly in my grasp. It was dry. I walked back to Gizmo and fetched my canteen from the saddle, returned to the mare and poured a small amount onto her parched tongue. She lapped at it eagerly. I began to dribble it into my cupped hand so that she could drink. She slowly gained a sort of rhythm, sucking and lapping the water as I poured it very slowly, until the canteen was empty.
It was impossible to tell the mare’s age just by looking at her. She looked very old, probably well past twenty, but that was because she was just skin and bones. I managed a cursory look at her teeth. There were still some small cups on her uppers, and by the angle of the teeth I could tell that she was well past a mature eight year old, but probably not much more than twelve or so. Her black hooves were those of a wild horse on the range, dry and hard, but in good shape and kept short by the rough miles she had traveled. Her skin hung off in hunks, dry and lifeless. Her extended backbone and ribs were her most prominent feature. She was a skeleton with a hide draped over it. She wasn’t a big horse, and I guessed her nominal working weight should have been about eleven hundred pounds, but I doubted she weighed much more than half of that.
She was completely dehydrated, and god only knew how long she had gone without water. I knew what was wrong with her, because I’d seen it several times in the weeks past, out there on the Navajo rez. It was a tough year, dry, almost no rainfall, and what little grass grew was parched and empty of nourishment. Many of the wild horses had taken to eating locoweed. Gizmo and I had passed a few corpses along the trail. I knew that even if I could somehow move the mare to food and shelter, her condition was not curable. She had been loco’ed for too long. It was ironic, how the plant seemed to thrive the drier and more inhospitable the environment became. While everything around it was drying up and dying, the weed was lush and moist, displaying its vigor with a sort of arrogance, its shiny green leaves and beautiful blooming purple flowers in stark contrast to the dull browns and beiges of the surrounding prairie plants. The locoweed exuded a healthiness that offered an empty promise of wellbeing to any critter attracted to it.
I sat down next to the mare and started talking to her for what seemed like a couple of hours or more. Gizmo didn’t mind the break and he finally just dozed off. I spoke to her about what a great world we live in, and I told her how I wished she could see it all. I talked about the ocean that Gizmo and I had left, and I described the mountains back to the west, with snow on the peaks and great parks of lovely green grass in the meadows there. I spoke of railroads and automobiles and of other human things. I told her how people love each other and kill each other all at the same time. I described a waitress I had met back in Flagstaff who was waiting tables at a little café, and how pretty and friendly she was, and how she had flirted with me, and how the place had a great jukebox full of fine old country music. I told the mare what it’s like to ride across the southwestern desert through the night on a freight train, with no company except the sound of the boxcar’s wheels clicking against the steel rails. I don’t really remember what all I talked about, but I just kept on talking and I know I sort of unloaded on that little sorrel mare. And I asked her about her life, and what trails she’d seen, and if she had any family nearby. I told her I hoped all her babies had grown into fine horses and that I hoped they were safe and healthy. And finally, I told her how happy I was that our trails had crossed, and how honored I was to meet her.
I stood up and laid one hand on her withers, and reached to scratch her behind the ear with the other. “You see ol’ Gizmo over there? Well, he’s still a youngster and he’s just startin’ down the trail. But I reckon you’ve about come to the end of yours, haven’t you, old girl?” As I reached down, I said, “I guess all of us come finally to the end of the trail at some point. And I suppose none of us really gets to choose when that happens.”
The mare’s eyes were closed now, and she had relaxed and become used to my voice. I continued, “It’s just that, well… I’m guessin’ those coyotes out there will come for you tonight, and I’m thinkin’ maybe you deserve an easier way out. And maybe I was put here to see to that…”
I pulled back the hammer as I raised the old single action Colt and placed the end of the barrel just behind her ear. “Safe travels, old girl. Rest easy now. I love you.” Tears welled up and I couldn’t stop them.
Gizmo jumped as the gun exploded and the mare went down. He looked at her warily for a few seconds, then dismissed her and went back to nibbling at the surrounding plants, as if it were all part of a normal day’s work. I holstered the pistol, then knelt to make sure the mare was dead. I was sobbing now. “Goodbye, sweet lady,” I said. I walked back to my horse and untied him. As I stepped up into the saddle I looked back at her. “Goddammit”, I whispered softly.
The coyotes would have her tonight, but she was past caring.
I finished reading Matthew Crawford’s, “The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction”. Great book, by a thoughtful person. Crawford writes:
“Our emergence from (what Kant described as) self-imposed immaturity seems to have stalled at an adolescent stage, like a hippie who hasn’t aged very well. The irritants that stand out now are the self-delusions that have sprouted up around a project of liberation that has gone to seed, ushering in a ‘culture of performance’ that makes us depressed.”
He is describing our popular culture’s framework, based within the so-called “open culture” of the internet (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram…. take your pick), as compared with what he describes as “the well-ordered ecologies of attention” that are found within fields that REQUIRE discipline, and in which we are obliged to follow a prescribed order. Carpenters, fry cooks, motorcycle racers, jazz musicians, glassblowers…. all are required to follow established, conventional methods set down by their predecessors before they can fully come into themselves as craftspersons or artists, before they are set free to become truly enlightened individuals.
This open world of digital ecosystems that we live in is seductive. It sets each of us at the center of the universe. It wants us to believe we can have it all (knowledge, wisdom, compassion, and enlightenment) without doing the hard yards. We can learn at the feet of masters, over a long weekend, without actually having to spend years living the frugal life of spiritual master. We can google our own reality, without having to plow through Plato and Aristotle and Kant and Nietzsche and all that other boring stuff.
The upshot, according to Crawford, is that individualism (the idea that each of us is unique) arose from the political context of The Enlightenment, and served to liberate us from authority. It elevated each of us to a place that we think we belong: to the status of individual…. moreso, it’s a place each of us thinks we DESERVE to be, whether or not we have earned it.
A jig can be said to be a custom made tool that is used to control the location and/or the movement of another tool or device. Traditions, or “cultural jigs” as Crawford calls them, often create communities of practice in which true independence is possible. I served a saddlemaker’s apprenticeship, became a master saddlemaker, and apprenticed others under me. I lived for many years (and continue to live) within the saddlemaker’s tradition, or cultural jig. I know what Crawford writes about. It is not until the apprentice follows the discipline and finally masters its techniques that he is able to become a master himself. And it is not until he becomes a master that he is fully free to become an individual within the discipline, and to finally place his own self within the universe.
Saddle up. It’s a long ride ahead.
Here’s a little tale about horse tradin’, loosely based on a true story. Enjoy….
I’m walking down the center aisle of the ancient horse barn, headed back to the tie stalls. It gets darker the farther back you go because there aren’t any windows, and the box stall doors are all closed up these days. We stack hay in most of them now. It’s easier than loading it up into the loft, and you don’t have to climb up there to throw it down to the horses. Most people don’t use haylofts anymore, at least not in horse barns.
We keep horses in the box stalls up front, but not in the ones back here. There is more daylight in the front of the barn, and you don’t have to walk as far to get a horse out. But in the very back of the barn, in the tie stalls, we put up a few horses during the day. What light there is shines in vertical shafts, from the spaces between the old weathered pieces of barn siding.
I usually go out into the corral early in the morning and catch them up, two by two, usually ending up with two or three lead ropes in each hand. I lead four or five, sometimes six horses out of the corral all at once. They pile up at the gate, but I manage to get them through, one or two at a time, until they’re all outside. The small remuda follows me into the barn and back to the tie stalls for the day. It gets a little crowded when I try to lead six horses up the barn aisle, so I usually stagger the lead ropes, letting two or three of them out all the way so those horses can walk behind the others. It always feels like I’m leading a parade.
The horses spend most of the day tied up in the stalls. They stand patiently in the dark, saddles on, bridles hung from their saddle horns, waiting to take dudes out on trail rides. There’s a bit of light for them, but they don’t seem to mind the darkness. It offers cool relief from the sting of the hot summer outside, and the barn flies don’t bother them back here.
Whenever I walk back into the innards of this old barn I take my time, letting my eyes adjust slowly to the poor light. If you hurry you’re liable to trip on something. Could be a water bucket, or maybe a manure fork. It’s easy to end up face down on the old bricks that line the center aisle. So I don’t hurry when I head back into the depths like this. It’s better to let your eyes adjust. And I reckon that going slow lets your mind adjust, too. No need to rush things. Horses don’t take to people who are in a hurry.
Right now I’m headed to the tie stalls to get the little dun mare out. The old man sold her this morning, and I’ve got to get her ready to ship when the buyer’s driver comes to pick her up. The buyer came driving up this morning in a fancy grey car. I think he must be a lawyer, or a doctor or something. Somebody rich. You can tell he’s never spent any time around livestock. You don’t see people in suits and ties around here much. Mostly just H-Bar-C snap down shirts and Wrangler jeans. The only ties I see are on some of the hardware and feed salesmen who stop by every once in a while. And even they have H-Bar-C’s and Wranglers on, except they wear a tie and they always look uncomfortable in it.
The buyer had on an expensive looking suit and tie, with shiny black shoes. He came to look at horses and ended up buying the little dun mare. I hung around when he was talking with the old man this morning. You can learn a lot by listening to what the old man says, sometimes. Especially when he’s horse trading, which is what he does best. The suit came into the yard and went straight to the old man, who was sitting on the beat up overstuffed porch swing under the big cottonwood tree, where he always sits during the day.
“I’m looking for a horse to buy”, the suit says. He has a real air of authority about him, but it doesn’t seem to faze the old man.
“What sorta horse you lookin’ for?” the old man asks.
“My girlfriend rides hunter jumpers. She’s a very accomplished rider, and she has a beautiful, and very expensive horse. I need a horse to match hers, so that we can go on trail rides together,” says the suit.
“Ridden much?” the old man asks.
“I rode as a child,” the suit responds, “I was told I was a very good rider.”
Now, I hear this every day. Everyone likes to think they’re a great rider, even the ones who look like a sack of manure sitting on a horse. Usually, the worse they look, the better rider they think they are. I don’t know why horses put up with it. But I guess they get used to it. They say you can get used to anything. You can get used to hanging if you hang long enough.
“Well, I don’t know what sorta price range you’re lookin’ at, but I do have a nice little horse that’d be real good for trail riding. You’d be lookin’ at about four hundred and fifty dollars”, the old man offers.
“Oh…” the suit says, tentatively, “four fifty…I don’t know…” He looks unsure. “Actually, I was looking for something a bit better than that.” He glances quickly around the yard, jerking his head this way and that. It looks to me like he’s trying to spot a hidden gem through one of the outside stall doors. I get the feeling he expects to see something put there just for him. He’s out of his element, but I give him credit. He doesn’t let it show much. I can see he’s used to getting whatever he wants, used to being in charge.
And I can see that the old man sees this, too. But he doesn’t interrupt as the suit continues, “My girlfriend keeps her horse at a very nice stable. I wouldn’t want to embarrass her by bringing home anything too, well… I hope you understand,” the suit says. I watch the old man’s expression, which doesn’t change at all, though I sense a flicker of amusement in his eyes. I’m angered by the suit’s insults —to the old man, to our barn—but the old man doesn’t seem to mind, and lets them pass without comment.
“Well, sure I understand,” the old man answers, “I do have another horse that’d take care of you. Just didn’t know you were looking at a higher price range.” He looks over at me and says, “Go get that little dun mare out of the tie stall and bring her up here.” As I turn toward the barn I hear him tell the suit, “I think this little mare might be more what you had in mind.”
The deal went like this: I bring the mare out for the suit to look at. I lead her around, walking and trotting her back and forth in front of him. I throw a saddle on her and ride her around for him—the suit can’t get on her because he’s wearing a suit. I can tell that the suit has no idea what he’s looking at, or how to go about appraising the mare. But he’s making a strong effort at convincing us, and himself, that buying a horse is not something beyond his capabilities. I stand and hold the mare while he dickers with the old man.
The old man starts it out with an offer to sell her for three thousand dollars. The suit counters with an offer of twenty-five hundred. The old man balks at this offer, countering with twenty-nine hundred.
“Look… I can give you twenty-six hundred, but that’s it,” the suit says. The old man makes another counter of twenty-eight hundred, but the suit is determined to win this battle. To my surprise the old man agrees to sell her for twenty-six hundred dollars. You can tell that the suit is pleased with himself for having bested the old man in the deal. They shake hands, sign the sales papers, and the suit says he will send a man to pick up the mare later. He climbs into the fancy grey car and drives off.
And so here I am on my way back to the tie stalls again, on my way to lead the dun mare out so that I can clean her up, wrap her legs, and hand her over to whoever comes to pick her up for the suit. I find myself thinking about horse trading as I make my way down the dark barn aisle, seeing the worn out halters and old harness hanging in the dim light, smelling the mixture of manure and alfalfa, noticing things that go unnoticed. It occurs to me that sometimes we get what we want, and sometimes we get what we need. And sometimes they end up being the same thing. The suit got what he wanted, and the old man got what he wanted. I’m not sure what I wanted, but watching the whole process, I could see that we all got what we needed.
I untie the dun mare and back her out of the tie stall, pausing on the ancient worn brick in the center of the aisle. As we walk back down the aisle together I can see the outside light coming in the other end, where the big front doors open out onto the yard. As we walk down the barn aisle my eyes slowly adjust to the gathering brightness. I gently pat the mare’s neck, giving her a scratch behind the ear.
“You’re gonna have a good home, sweetheart,” I tell her. She pushes against my hand as I scratch her. “You want to know something, just between you and me?” The dun mare waits patiently for me to continue, “Your new owner doesn’t know it, but he could have bought you for four hundred and fifty dollars.”
I’m in Oslo, Norway today. Never been here before. Egenes is a Norwegian name. My sister, Jane, says it means “know-it-all” in Norwegian. I’m not gonna argue with her on that one.
So, I’ve come halfway around the world, up to the frozen north, to give a talk on record production, to a bunch of record producers and academics and such. Should prove interesting (the conference, not my talk…), but being here in Norge isn’t why I’m writing this. It has more to do with the trip over, and probably the trip back.
I finally made it to this little AirBnB apartment downtown, after 36 hours of travel. Starting in New Zealand and traveling east, you go back in time a day, right off the bat. So, you get to Los Angeles before you left. By the time they gas up the plane in LA and fly you another 10 hours over to London, you’ve pretty much lost track of which day it is. Even my smart devices and iGadgets don’t know. They all say different things. All I know is, It’s now exactly 12 hours difference from New Zealand, though I don’t know if I’m a day ahead or behind. It feels like it should be late night, since it was pitch black when I landed in Oslo at 4:30 in the afternoon. My computer says it’s 4:16 in the afternoon, but my iPad says it’s 4:16 in the morning. I don’t know which one to believe anymore. Maybe there’s an app for it.
But I digress. Jet lag and the travails of travel aren’t the topic here, though they do have some influence on it. I noticed, when hanging out in the club lounge at the airport in Dunedin, waiting to head off, that the place was reasonably full of people, but no one was talking to anyone else there. I was reading my book, and stopped to count heads. Twenty-seven people there. I counted 4 people who were NOT looking down at a handheld device, though two of the four were looking at laptop computers. So, out of 28 people, all up, three (including me) were not absorbed in their electronic gadgetry. I noticed the same thing at my other layovers. Not exactly surprising to me, especially since I work at a university, where most are under 30 and spend a great deal of time so engaged. Oh, and I should add here, this continued once on the plane. TV screens everywhere (including my own), and people sitting in very tight quarters but not really acknowledging each other. Still drawn into their own devices, headphones attached.
And except for the two clueless blowhards who were both walking about the place, talking loudly into headsets to disembodied recipients on the other end, all were quietly attached to their iphones, droids, bluetooths, ipods-pads-gadgets, and blissfully unaware of their own surroundings. Most were obviously conversing with someone… texting, e-messaging, and the like. Connecting by disconnecting. Attachment through unattachment. Embodied through disembodiment.
Time was when a gathering place such as an airport lounge, a train platform, a grocery store line, or a dentist’s office was where you’d meet strangers, strike up a conversation for a few minutes, and enrich your life by a small amount. No, you didn’t usually get to know the other person, probably didn’t get their name, and might never see them again. But you came away the richer for it, anyway. Tidbits of lives. The viewpoints of others. Human body language. A cross-fertilization of ideas and feelings that somehow are not quantifiable as ASCII text, or as the ones and zeros of machine language, and so are not deliverable over a network. Seems like all of that’s on its way out now, leaving us to flounder about in the wake of our ubiquitous digital connections.
I know, I know… I sound like some old fart pining away for the good old days. Maybe I am, though I must say that I love our digital connections. Seems a shame, though, to lose the ability to engage in a face to face conversation. Young people may grow up without it, and that’s a shame, too. But we older people, those of us who used to have that, those of us who have given over to texting and plexing and facebooking and such… For us to abandon the art of conversation… well, that’s more than a shame. It’s a tragedy. Next time you’re sitting in a cafe, look around and see how many are caught up in this digital diversion. That is, if you can pull yourself away from your handheld long enough.
Coming up on forty years now…hard to believe. Back in 1974 I rode my horse, Gizmo, across the North American continent. I know, sounds like a goofy sort of thing to do, but what’s done is done and I can’t take it back. And besides, it gave Gizmo something to put on his resume. As horses go he was young (just 4 years old… an adolescent), very handsome, and full of himself. He and I had lived together pretty much all his life, after he was weaned at six months old.
At 3 years old I broke him to ride, although I wouldn’t exactly call it breaking. Persuading him is probably more like it. He soon learned that if he allowed me to sit on him while he walked about, he could have adventures that took him far beyond the confines of the barn area. As horses go he was a curious sort. Not peculiar curious. Inquisitive curious was more like it. His ears were always up, pointing this way and that, listening to the stories that the world whispered to him all the time. His eyes followed his ears and naturally, as horses do, his head followed his eyes. So, we’d saunter down the trail with him winding his head back and forth, taking in his surroundings. Did I mention that the ride pretty much ruined him as a show horse prospect?
He was what horse people call ‘green’ when we set out from the Pacific Ocean at Ventura a couple of months after his 4th birthday. He didn’t know a lot, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t smart. He was coyote smart, with the memory of an elephant. I am forever grateful that he was easy going and such a good sport. Otherwise I’d have probably been left in a heap and he’d have lived out his days running with a pack of wild horses in the high deserts of northern Arizona somewhere. Whenever we spotted a herd I could feel the pull on his heartstrings.
Times were different in 1974. There weren’t mobile phones and the internet back then, not like they are today. There was pretty much no digital anything then. Nixon resigned that year. The Vietnam War wouldn’t end until the following year, although US troops had just pulled up stakes and headed home. Patty Hearst had her picture taken holding an M1 carbine. Muhammad Ali knocked out George Foreman. Some of the people born that year: Kate Moss, Robbie Williams, James Blunt, Penelope Cruz, Cee Lo Green, Alanis Morissette, Hilary Swank, Amy Adams, Jimmy Fallon, Joaquin Phoenix, Ryan Adams, and Leonardo DiCaprio. Pretty impressive list.
And some of those who left us that year: Samuel Goldwyn, Adolph Gottlieb, Chet Huntley, Bud Abbott, Agnes Moorehead, Duke Ellington, Charles Lindbergh, Cass Elliot, Walter Brennan, Oskar Schindler, Ed Sullivan, Walter Lippmann, and Jack Benny. Not to disparage those born that year, but I’m thinking that all up, the world took a bit of a loss in 1974.
But I’ve digressed while attempting to draw a backstory. Suffice it to say that 1974 compares with today as 1934 would have to the year Gizmo and I took our little sojourn. Different times, different universes. While on that trip, Gizmo and I were pretty much cut off from anyone back home. Pretty much cut off from everyone, most of the time. Any letters had to be mailed to me via general delivery, at whatever small town I thought we might pass through in the weeks ahead. If I wrote a letter, I could never expect an answer. I wouldn’t even know if the person received it. No phone calls, no email or texts, and no posting selfies on Facebook. Those paths to self indulgence simply didn’t exist.Gizmo was my company, and I was his, for whatever that was worth. I spent the idle hours twirling my single action Colt and practicing gun tricks, and listening to my companion’s incisors tearing off blades of grass. Gizmo spent his off hours grazing, dozing, listening to the world around him.
And we would see a world unlike anything shown on the nightly news. We saw real people, real wild animals (and domesticated ones), and real countryside. None of it was filtered. We saw mountains and valleys and rivers and deserts. We traveled through empty lands and straight through crowded cities. We slept on the prairie under the stars, and in big fancy mansions, and in abandoned mines, and in graveyards. There were times when I longed for company (and I know Gizmo did, too), and times when we couldn’t leave civilization fast enough. Wild horse herds tried to steal my young horse away. Sometimes a complete stranger would bring me a plate of hot food, or some hay and grain for Gizmo. I came to know that most animal slaughter is not performed with a gun, but with an automobile, and not on purpose but through indifference.
Trying to experience America (or anyplace else) by watching TV news programs is like being in water carried through a clear pipe. You can see your surroundings at a distance, and they can see you, but neither actually experiences the other. There’s no real contact, and it all flows by too fast. The internet is a step in the right direction because it talks back to you, and you can talk back to it. But walking, step by step, foot by foot, mile by mile, is the way to go.
We finally made it across America, to Virginia’s Atlantic seacoast. Seven months… 213 days, a little over 30 weeks. A long time to be taking a walk. I won’t take credit for it. Blame, maybe, but not credit. That has to go to the tough little sorrel Quarter Horse I was privileged to know for almost 23 years.