Friday, June 4, 2010

day 19: i rode a horse in the rockies

I have always feared horses in the way other people fear god; I regard them with such respect that approaching them - and much less riding them - makes me feel as though I've crossed some unspoken boundary and will pay the price with broken bones and possibly my life.

But today I climbed on the back of a sweet old mare named Dixie at a ranch in Rocky Mountain National Park, and accompanied by a small group of other inexperienced riders and two young guides, she carried me along a dusty trail through the mountains.

Once I got over the initial feeling that I was at the mercy of a creature much greater than I (according to guide Lindsey, you can hang your entire body weight from a horse's insanely thick, muscular neck), the feeling was actually kind of exhilarating. 

Dixie obediently followed the horse in front of her - "they're pack animals," Lindsey explained - and would turn or slow with the gentlest tug on her reins. 

As we rode past snow-capped peaks, lodgepole pines and countless grazing elk, guide Jake pointed out the Aspen trees fenced off beside the trail.

"They're the world's largest living organism," he explained, "because they all share a root system. They're all connected underground."

He was referring to Pando, an Aspen grove in Utah with a root system that is approximately 80,000 years old and covers 107 acres. 

My shock and awe intensified as Jake explained that elk eat Aspen in the winter, and the bacteria from their lips turns the white bark black.

"Other animals don't want to eat it," he said, "because they assume it's dead."

This led to an intense "holy shit, everything is connected" moment that ended abruptly when Lindsey told us the park was becoming overpopulated with elk, so the blue collars worn by some of the females were not tracking devices as I'd assumed but actually birth control. 

When the ride ended I went to the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory and barfed up the rest of my cash for specialty chocolates and espresso bark. But I enjoyed my two-hour retreat from it all.

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