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Friday, June 5, 2009

Horseback Riding, or Why Mom doesn't say No

Mom and I walked around Jamaica Pond the other day until I had to leave for a show at IA. "It's just as well," Mom said, pausing to stretch her leg, "my knee's been bothering me since the horse incident."

Mom, Jack and I had a leisurely lunch and got on a van that brought us to a reservation of sorts across the street from one of the entrances to the Arenal Volcano National Park. Once we had all mounted horses and gotten a quick orientation to riding them, we were off.

Cantor, I thought humorously as the guide explained how to make the horse cantor, yeah, I'll be needing that a ton.

My experience with horseback riding is nonexistent save a trip up a mountain in Vermont when I was nine. My horse was tied to the back of an experienced rider and all I had to do was hold on.

The way to the top of the mountain was a mix of open rolling hills with staggeringly beautiful panoramic views and steep rocky trails through a primary rain forest. We started off walking, but soon we were trotting and cantering over the gorgeous landscape. The guide surprised us by signaling vocally to all four horses to just make a run for it. At first this caused a lot of chaos (Mom and I almost ran into each other), but then I got hooked on the cantering, finding it easier than trotting and more practical for long stretches than walking.

As a result I rode up front with the guide a lot, and occasionally even went on ahead with his permission.
This freedom combined with the guide's praise at my "quick learning," as you might imagine made it even easier to fuel some ridiculous fantasies about a small cowgirl, a faithful horse and a rain forest.

(Photographic evidence , courtesy of our guide, indicates that I in fact resembled a cowgirl in almost no way).

I wasn't the only one with the romantic visions, Jack lit a cigarette and asked us if he looked like the Marlboro man. Then he added, "Man, I tell you, cowboys have little balls." He readjusted in his saddle and smiled uneasily at the guide unsure if he had offended him.

The guide spoke mainly Spanish but tried his best to point things out in English. Occasionally he would speak Spanish and I would struggle to translate for Mom and Jack, the improviser in me not willing to give up without a try.

We saw wild pigs, a deer, turkeys, toucans, parakeets (an entire flock of them), and a family of howler monkeys (with whom we stopped to communicate). We rode right into a stream (my cowgirl delusions multiplied), and passed a sulfur lake covered in lilies.

At the summit of the climb we let the horses drink and eat while we did the same. There, at the top of the mountain, was this open air stone chapel. I was fascinated. It had no walls, and where the pulpit and altar would be was only empty space overlooking Lake Arenal and rising above the lake, the Volcano itself. Like the Volcano is going to sermonize, I thought. Like the Volcano might try to break Bread with us.

The day was so cloudy the top of the volcano was lost, but the peace and magnificence was not. In my journal I wrote: How can you see something like this and not acknowledge the existence of God? It was impossible to sit, surrounded by so much beauty and not be overcome with humility and thanksgiving. And also to not feel like a cowgirl.

When we got back on the horses, something happened to Mom's knee. She's not sure what, but it was a Bad Thing. This made her trip downhill less pleasant. Still, we all laughed when Jack hit a particularly hard part of the road and quipped to his horse, "It's okay, Tonca, I didn't want any more kids anyway."

I mentioned that the guide flattered my fast learning, and he even gave me a small lesson in galloping, which was exhilarating. And although I'm sure my form was nonexistent, he complimented me anyway.

As Mom dismounted at the end her knee took a turn for the worse. As the guide helped her down her foot missed the bale of hay and she fell.

She recently recounted this tale to her aunt, my great Auntie Mame. "I'll bet you never do something like that again," Mame clicked.

My Mom told me she responded resolutely that she absolutely would do it again and in a heartbeat.
"You see," she said, "I know what it's like to not be able to walk at all."
I nodded grimly. My mother has Multiple Sclerosis and the time she is referring to in 1996. She woke up one morning unable to walk. The paralysis was temporary, limited to a few days, but after that she was on Canadian crutches for a while.

"I didn't know if I'd ever be the same again," she says now. "And with MS, I never know if that's going to happen again. Or if it will be for good." She paused, "so, no I wouldn't say no to horseback riding again, or anything else."
"That's also what made me try the zipline*."

There are only a few things more spirit lifting than rising a fast and fleet footed horse through a rain forest and up a mountain with sky all around.

Equally spirit lifting is knowing that my mother is the great person she is. It's incredible to me that I get to be her daughter. Here is a woman who refuses to give up, give in, or quit living her life despite any obstacle that gets in her way.
All I have to do is think of that and the journey becomes easier, the sky becomes clearer and everything is more beautiful.

*Story coming soon to a blog near you.

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