Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Lost in the Wilderness - Part 1

My mother, Kathy Murch, lives on a small – non-working ranch – unless you count all her work to keep it running – in a New Mexican town called Piños Altos. After college, I was lucky enough to spend some time there that changed the way I view life forever.

In 1994, I had just graduated from a university in Northern New Jersey and decided to do some traveling.  So I put all my belongings in storage, packed my car, and sedated my cat for the three-day journey out West.

I was a city mouse, and had spent the last four years living and working in New York City.  However, I had had enough of urban life, and was looking forward to the relaxing atmosphere of my mom’s ranch, which is filled with horses, a donkey, dogs, cats, rabbits, chickens, peacocks, and one mean old turkey named Hank Williams.

No sooner had my car rolled into her driveway than did my mother, who is an avid equestrian; start making plans for a trail ride bright and early the next morning.

By 8 a.m., our caravan, which included my mother, her then-husband Rob, and myself, set out on our horses, with their three dogs following at our hooves.  We were all excited to enjoy a beautiful ride through the wilderness.

Even though most of New Mexico is desert, the area my mother lives in is surprisingly green and lush.  She resides on the edge of a state forest called the Gila Wilderness, which spans from New Mexico to Arizona.

As we were trotting along, I became lost in my own reverie.  I tried to imagine what it would have been like to be a Native American woman during the early part of the century. I could almost envision Geronimo and his horse materialize on the mesa before my eyes.

With all the great scenery and daydreaming, it was 11 a.m. before I knew it.  The canopy of leaves that had provided cool shade was quickly turning the forest into a sauna.  We all decided that it was time to head home.

After an hour of traveling, we ended up on a dead-end path.  So we changed our direction, but ended up on another dead-end.  I was trying to remain calm, but panic was beginning to set in.  Horror stories about inexperienced hikers, who get lost in the wilderness and are never seen again, kept flashing in my mind. And I wasn’t being dramatic, this sort of thing happens all the time where my mom lives.  One of her neighbors even got partially eaten by a mountain lion but THAT is whole other store.  But just so you understand, this is the Gila Wilderness not the Wilderness Park.

At this point, not only were we hot, thirsty and tired, but the dogs and horses were as well. I was so parched that my bottom lip split open when I tried to smile at my mom, who looked as miserable as I felt.

Rob remembered seeing an old quarry with a pond a while back, so we decided to backtrack to it.  We were finally able to find our way to the main trail and return to the quarry. Once there, we realized that in order to get to the pond, we had to trek down the side of a steep ravine.  This did not look to promising to me, but I tried to be optimistic.

I dismounted my horse J.J., and began to lead her down the steep incline. I wasn’t feeling very confident and, as I headed down the hill, I began to pick up speed…and so did J.J.  I was so scared, and when I looked behind myself to see where the horse was, I lost my balance and fell.

She was coming too fast and too close, so it was inevitable that she would trample me.  Luckily, I was able to roll out of the way and she only stepped on my foot.  I honestly thought I was going to die at that very moment.

As I lay stunned, J.J. came over to sniff me; I think she wanted to make sure that I was all right.  J.J. had been a pack horse.  She was accustomed to being tied to a dozen or so other horses traveling through rough terrain.  If one horse fell, the whole pack went too.  So, she was trained at an early age not to loose her footing. I think she realized what had happened and instinctively did not step down too hard.

You would have the thought the 15-year-old mare was a monster from the horror flick “Saw” because I started to howl when she came close to me.  Rob came over and led her away, while I managed to hobble down to my mom, a nurse.  She examined my foot and said it looked like a either a break or a sprain.

Needless to say, the old adage is true…you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.  Because after all that, not one of those damn horses drank the water. But I don’t blame them, the pond was black muck and stagnant.

Unfortunately, we were back at square one: still lost and thirsty. Now we had to get back to the top of the ravine. I was truly terrified, but I managed to hobble up the ledge while Rob led J.J. Afterward, I reluctantly climbed back on top of the horse.

It was 3 p.m. when we finally came to a sandpit that we had seen earlier in the day. I was in bad shape physically and mentally, and felt that I couldn’t go on.  I remember dramatically climbing off my horse – petrified – refusing to go any further.

At that very moment, two mountain bikers emerged from the wilderness, just like my imaginary Geronimo.  At first, I thought they were a mirage, but soon realized they were very real. I wiped my tears, while mom and Rob flagged them down.  The bikers told us that we really weren’t lost and that there was a house about a mile or so down the road.

I had never felt so relieved in my whole life.  I didn't even care that we looked ridiculous because we thought we were lost and we actually weren't.

Little did I know, as we headed down the road toward our salvation, that this was only the first part of our saga.  Mother Nature would continue to teach me a lesson more valuable than any concrete jungle ever could.

Stay tuned for part II on Thursday...

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