I was housesitting out at my parents’ ranch the morning Christmas 2006 bloomed, the first “white” Christmas we had since I was a little girl. My parents were out in north-central California, visiting my brother and his family. My grandmother, who I would be celebrating the day with later over brunch and dinner, was at her house in downtown Boulder. With my human family dispersed, I had my animal family instead. Brio and Willa, two black labs from a long lineage of labs bred at my parents’ ranch, sneezed and shook their ears expectantly the second they saw my eyes were open. Wishbone, a Border Collie / Golden Retriever mix I was watching for a married couple that consisted of two of my best friends, simply gazed steadily at me, a slight, non-threatening curl in his lip that spoke of expectations as well. When I arose from bed, Wish let out his characteristic speak-squeal, Willa bounced on her front feet, and Brio’s slapping tail sent her backend sideways, knocking into the other dogs.
The bedroom door opened, and the race began – first to the front door of the house. Waiting for me to unlock and open it was almost unbearable with Brio now joining Wish in a much less cute rendition of squealing, and Willa bouncing, bouncing, bouncing. Now on the opposite side of the glass front door, I was watched with the intensity of first year medical students in their first anatomy class: “now she’s putting on the shoes: we’re waiting for the left one to go on – oh, it’s on! Now for the gloves – why does she have to wait and put every single finger in?!” Once prepped for venturing outside into an environment with at least two feet of snow on the ground, I opened the front door. More squealing and jumping. I was followed like a rock star down the front walk, across the driveway to the garage, fans squealing and jumping on me the entire way. I entered the garage through the “human” door, and a hush fell over the crowd. Suddenly, the garage door roared open, and the fans bum-rushed into the garage like it was Wembley Stadium. Willa grabbed one of the sticks she kept handy in a bucket full of sticks. Brio was now screaming. Wishbone, ever the gentlemen in his natural, all-body tuxedo coat, observed my actions silently with a more pronounced lip curl, as though he was about to start singing “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You” as I dished up their breakfasts.
For the labs, breakfast was over in two gulps – one for the green beans they ate to keep the weight off their hips, and one for the dry food that was, well, just more food. Wishbone ate his dry food without complaint, but keep eyeing me to see if I was getting ready to serve up dessert: dried pigs’ ears. Once Wish was finished, it was time to “sit, SIT!” Only until all three dogs were sitting before me, did I grab the red bag that contained dessert. At the sound of the plastic crunching in my hands, all three dogs leap up with excitement: Willa bouncing, Brio tilted sideways, and Wishbone with his Elvis sneer. “Sit, SIT!” I commanded, and they obeyed. First Willa – she grabbed the pig’s ear delicately with her mouth and bolted out of the garage. Brio snapped up the ear like she was auditioning for the Discovery Channel. Wishbone allowed the ear to hover in front of his mouth, his sneer simultaneously registered disbelief and delight, and then he took it, wondering what good fortune he had acquired to be dog-sat by Aunt Tamar. “Merry Christmas!” I cried after the departing dogs, each seeking a space in the snow to savor the crispy, greasy remnants of a pig’s external hearing devices.
As I picked up the dogs’ dishes, I heard a sound inaudible to most human beings. A second later, my cat, Hootie, shimmered into the eating area and took her place on the shelf where she was fed. A little dry food and a full can of “Savory Salmon Mix” in her dish (it was Christmas), she vocalized her cat-specific appreciation and dug in. I returned the compliment in a dialect incomprehensible to both her and me (it just felt intuitive) and left the garage to feed the horses.
Ladore, a black Quarter Hourse mare who was the last in my mother’s lineage of race horses, pawed the green gate to her corral in anticipation. Her daughter, Rosie, a spunky paint horse with brown and white body markings and a shock of black mane and eyes, gave me her “What’s up, T-mar?” neigh, which I followed with a song, again intelligible only to the intuition, that carried the melody of an old Duran Duran song. George, another paint horse (this time with the shock of one blue eye and terrible trail riding abilities) straddled the snowy ground and peed once he saw me coming. Egypt, a solid bay gelding as fast a lightning, put on his Scrooge face, tucking his ears back, his eyes clouding with ill humor. When my dad’s new horse, a towering Fox Trotter by the name of “Chilly,” emerged from the barn and entered Egypt’s radius, Egypt shot his neck out like a Saharan cobra and nipped at Chilly. Chilly, who I call “Chilly-horse-asuarus” because of his dinosaur like stature, side-jumped from Egypt, good humor and hunger still flashing in his eyes.
“Merry Christmas!” I cried, and all I got back was “I’m hungry!” neighs, foot-stomping, post-elimination groans, and ears that would not face forward until breakfast was served. Each horse got two flakes of grass hay, rounded out by a Christmas treat – a short pour of grain. I threw the hay first, yelling at Egypt as he chased George and Chilly around after each round of hay was thrown enough for the three of them. When I emerged from the barn with the bucket of grain, each horse must have known exactly what I was doing, because they had forgotten about the hay and were at the fence, watching my every move. Commando training would not have prepared me for what it took to distribute the grain – I was dodging horse teeth and rear ends like a ninja. Good thing I can pack a verbal punch, because for as long as I have known these horses – even Chilly caught on immediately – they knew I meant business through voice power alone. And they knew that I had nothing but love and respect for them too – enough carrots in the middle of the night after coming home from enough beers formed us a bond that was unbreakable.
Horses fed, I began walking back to the house, preceded by dogs who found no greater joy in life than living in the moment where they could simultaneously dive through snow like a porpoise and strain the snow through their mouths like a baleen whale. Once at the house, I began strapping on my cross-country ski boots, again watched like an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy.” When I emerged with skis and poles in hand, you would have thought I was one big walking pig’s ears at the response I got from my fan club: squealing, screaming, bouncing – I felt like Bono at Madison Square Garden. Strapped in, we headed west, across the bridge over the creek that cut through my parents’ backyard, and to a trail on “open space” – land set aside by the city of Boulder to never be developed – except for grazing, cross-country skiing, and a wickedly enforced dog control program. Sometimes I was so nervous about what constituted bad behavior about my dogs that when I saw them pee on “open space” I wondered if I should be collecting it lest it should be considered polluting substance.
Once we crossed the creek and the western-most pasture on my parents’ ranch, I ducked through the wires of the fence separating their property from “open space,” and suddenly I was exactly that, on open space. The front range of the Rocky Mountains rose before me as it characteristically does in Boulder – jabs of red sandstone in the shape of the flat face of a pressing iron, myriad frosted trees, bluebird sky, and the contours of a mountain range that I had witnessed so many times at so many different times of day at so many different points in life that I have come to regard this eight mile track of mountains and foothills from Eldorado Canyon to Flagstaff Mountain as an altar upon which I have laid countless prayers and dreams. As I paused to wish the mountains and open space a merry Christmas, dogs were porpoising past me, seeking a beginning to our trek on Christmas morning.
A fresh snow had fallen, about six inches, on Christmas Eve, covering up the trail that had been there just yesterday. I had been on this trail so many times, though, that I could eye ball a path in the generic canvas of the fresh snow. Nothing gives you a greater workout, however, than breaking trail. Luckily, Brio is the type of dog who likes to trail blaze, and so I followed in the wake of her footsteps except when I snagged a rock or thought she was going off course. We climbed steadily, the mountains’ presence becoming closer and more palpable with our approach. I thought of all the different ways I had seen this trail. What it is like when you first heard the Meadowlark in the spring, sitting on a dried head of a yucca blossom, singing greenness into the spikes of the plant. When the bluebirds flit down the wire on the fence as you approach, then realize that you are going their way, so they take off and fly at length in a way only birds can do. Or when you are heading home on a glorious run, the sun having just sent, sending rays of light onto the bellies of clouds that make you think of the aura borealis; the type of sunset that you are so enthralled by that you don’t watch where you are going as closely as you normally do, and you clip your foot on a rock; and when you finally get around to picking yourself up from the ensuing fall, you realize you have torn your hamstring so badly you think you have broken your leg from the pain you feel. It was exactly this kind of fall I took on this very trail about four months prior that had kept me from coming out here in the ritualistic way I once had. But today, instead of breaking my leg, I was breaking trail, my breath as laborious as it would be if I were on a good run.
I wanted to make it to a spot I usually turned around on a short run, but as I watched the dogs dive and disappear, dive and disappear in the snow, I knew that the trail only got deeper and that I was ready to turn around. “We earned our turns!” I exclaimed as I turned around and glided out on the trail I had just cut for us. A moment later the dogs were passing me like dolphins next to a sailboat. I sailed down the trail, the dense crunch I repeatedly heard on the way up was replaced by the shimmer of skis across sugary snow. As we went through a family of Pondersosa Pine, I suddenly smelled their vanilla perfume on the wings of an incredibly pleasant, soft, warm breeze. Growing up in Boulder, one of the strongest memories I have of the natural world at wintertime is the unlikely combination of fresh snowfall being kissed by a “Chinook” a warm breeze. I figured I had not noticed the Chinook on my way up the trail because I was not traveling in the direction of the wind – but had I not been traveling west, toward the mountains, and slightly south where most Chinnok winds come from? I paused to consider the unexpected warmth of the wind and found myself at the top of a ski-able little hill. The dogs did not know what to do with me as I careened down the hill – Brio dodged my path on the way down just in time. But by the second try, they got the picture, and while I glided alongside the streams of the wind, they dove and tumbled down hill with joy only a dog can communicate in their own particular body language. After a few more times up and down that small hill below the pine tree family, we set out for home, the Chinook guiding us the entire way.
A few days later, when my family had reconstituted itself through grandmother, parents, daughter, and the barnyard menagerie, my dad informed me that Burrlito had died on Christmas Day. Burrlito had been the horse I grew up with, and we had both been the same age. He was 28 when he died – a good, long life for a horse. We’d been out riding one day when I was in high school when he tore his hamstring and turned up lame. We sent him out to pasture with some friends who had property on the prairie, close to the Colorado-Kansas border. “Burr” had first been a Racing Quarter Horse, and then been brought into our family as a roping horse for my dad. Then somehow we got the notion I could train him in Dressage, so at the age of twelve I was saved some of the horrors of adolescence by training a racehorse/rodeo horse/Quarter Horse to stick it to those warm blooded, predigreed horses and their riders. Being first and foremost a racehorse, Burr had come to master his left-sided gait like a champ, so our only real issue in training had been his picking up his right gait. He passed the higher levels of Dressage tests beautifully, but it was always when I asked for this fundamental, right-sided gait without any complexity that his racehorse instinct kicked in too greatly. I remember getting so mad, so frustrated at him when we would ride on our own in our neighbors’ arena that he would just stop and not move an inch, no matter how much I urged him to go on – and this time I have to ashamedly say I had not yet mastered the firm-compassion of my voice-only power of persuasion. It was as if he was saying: “I’ll do anything for you except to have you get your way through anger.”
Our best times, however, were when we would flaunt our training and just go ride. I grew up in a neighborhood full of “bridle paths” and we had a particular route that took us to the top of a plateau that not only overlooked our entire neighborhood, but the entire Boulder Valley, including the contours of the mountain range that would later become so familiar and sacred to me. We would take in the view, and then turn it loose. Burrlito was first and foremost a racehorse, and on these occasions I would let him be that once again. Not flying lead changes, no gathering trot from A to B, then a posting trot from X to Z. Across that plateau, Burrlito would shift gears until he would “breeze” a term especially given to the gait racehorses achieve when they are going their ultimate fastest. Tears would stream down my cheeks, and often I would let go of the reins and just hold on to his mane. Back then, before the development of “open space” with trailheads, trail markers, and bags provided to pick up your dog’s doing, Burr and I ran until he just couldn’t go anymore. Then we would turn around, and a slower run, we would come home.
When I heard Burr died on Christmas day, I thought back to the Christmas when I got my first Dressage riding bridle, complete with this bizarre bit called a “snaffle.” I could not get my britches and boots on fast enough to go out with Burr and try it out. Photos show us riding in the round-pen at our old house, me with embarrassingly styled bangs, and Burr with his head up high, wondering what the hell was in his mouth and what I wanted him to do with it. Like I said, somehow we got good enough to place in our first show, but that was all we ever did. I think preoccupations of being a teenager set in, and I suddenly became painfully aware that not only would I ever join “Pony Club” with a Quarter Horse with too small of hooves, but that I did not want to join “Pony Club” if it meant giving up Burr. So instead, we stuck with trail riding. When my parents’ moved to the ranch they live at now, I was a sophomore in high school. I used to go over there after school and ride the horses. One day, when I was riding Burr and a girlfriend of mine was riding Ladore, a thunderstorm came upon us – I won’t say “suddenly” because I am sure there were all the signs but we were just too young and ignorant to read them. We were out pretty far on open space when the bolt of lightning hit next to us. Ladore reared, but my friend hung on. Burr “spooked” big time – it was like an entire lifetime of fear and emotion welled up in his legs and then exploded underneath us like a Christmas popper. It was particularly concentrated in his back left leg, and when I finally got him to stop running, he could barely walk because of the hamstring he had pulled in that leg. We trudged home in the pouring rain and constant lightning, I kept crying out and pleading to Burr as he kicked out his pained back leg each time he tried to step on it. I cannot remember how I told my parents, I do not remember when I decision was made to send him to pasture. I do know that I never saw him again.
When I found out all these years later that he was dying, I wanted to go with my dad to be with him when he put Burr down. My dad cautioned me against doing so, asking me to remember Burr as the awesome athlete, teacher, explorer, and friend he had once been. I did not have to decide, the weather decided for me, sending in a blizzard of the kind I had not seen since I was a young girl. This was the day of the winter solstice. We were marooned at the foot of the mountains for more than a week. During a telephone conversation with my brother who is a horse veterinarian, I suggested that this blizzard, especially intense on the eastern prairie, might do dad’s job for him. And it did, on Christmas Day. So when I felt that Chinook, so uncanny and unexpected at first, it was perhaps Burrilto’s spirit finding his way home.