Night crawl

CamargueHorses_20101219I awoke to a diminishing sun and the real sense that everything was backwards. I was supposed to be turning in now, not getting up and out. Everyone else in our little party was readying themselves for travel while I was just trying to get myself painfully up on my sore legs. All those untried muscles were shooting back warning messages to me. I would have to ignore them if I chose to go on with this group. In reality, I didn’t have much choice. I was one full night of hard galloping away from anything familiar, and a keen sense of adventure gripped me as soon as I was up. I’ve come this far; I’m not turning back now.

The first few hours of travel were relatively easy. I was pleasantly surprised at being able to keep up with the others. It was definitely painful, but it was a good pain; I was already becoming stronger. And the night was so glorious that even if I had wanted to, I couldn’t have focused on my pain for more than a moment. The air was crisp and cool, the ground was just hard enough to make a horse feel like flying, and the moon was so clear that it appeared to be resting on the crest of each new hill. Once I glimpsed the dark horse silhouetted in the center of that moon, as if one grand leap would send him flying into it, tearing it away from its moorings in the sky.

Which … way … do we go now?” someone panted.

“Down,” said the dark horse.

We were standing, our backs steaming, at the edge of a deep, narrow canyon. Strong gusts of warm wind blew up over the lip where we stood, throwing hair back and forth across my eyes. There was a faint roar of rushing water below. The moon now at our backs threw its silvery light halfway down the opposite canyon wall. The descent before us, however, would be cloaked in moon shadow. I could see my hooves, the rim of the plateau where we stood, and then total blackness.

“We’re going down there?”

“That’s what the horse said.”

It was the longest night I have ever spent. We descended single file behind the dark horse, our noses pressed against the tail of the horse in front of us. Loose shale would force our little party to slide into each other, sending a cascade of rock into the river far below. In this manner, by taking two steps and slip-sliding three, we picked our way down the canyon wall.

The mounting rumble of the water below was as gradual as the approaching dawn. By the time I could make out the silhouette of the rump in front of me, we had reached the river, and the roar was so loud we couldn’t hear each other speak.

Dawn revealed the dramatic landforms that had turned our moonlight canter into a groping crawl. We had descended a virtual crack in the ground — a thin gorge that was only wide enough at its floor to channel the rushing river that had created it.

The dark horse first attempted to lead us downstream, but that soon proved futile. Not far downstream, the river made a flying leap into still another, deeper gorge. We had no choice but to reverse our direction and head upstream. Reversing our direction also reversed our order, putting me in the lead — a most inadequate, fearful leader, I thought.

When we reached the spot where we had first turned downstream, I stopped and looked longingly up at the steep canyon wall we had descended during the night. I figured it would be impossible to climb back up the loose shale, but somehow going back seemed preferable to contending with a screaming river that clawed with frothy talons at the rocks and canyon walls.

The dark horse would have none of that. Splashing through the dangerous, shallow white water at the river’s edge, he overtook the lead, to my relief, and struck out upstream.

It must have been mid-morning by then, but who could tell in that deep canyon, where even the sun could not go. Two colors dominated everything — black and gray. And those colors were close to the feelings in my heart as we staggered along the water’s edge — sometimes at river level, sometimes higher on impossible rocky shelves when the water challenged both sides of the gorge. One was a claustrophobic feeling of being pinched by the towering walls. It was as if we had fallen into some yawning chasm in the earth’s surface that at any moment might decide to close up and swallow us whole. The other was a feeling of foreboding. The river was rushing headlong to the precipice downstream, preferring its own death rather than face what it had seen farther up. My horse sense tugged at me with invisible reins to join the river in its flight — to flee the unknown terrors upstream. But as that ribbon of light began to widen, letting the vibrant colors of the outside in, we lost all sense of caution. Racing down the embankment and splashing through the rough stones on the river’s edge, the five of us exploded into the dazzling sunlight at a full gallop.

One by one we made our grand entry into that arena of light, furiously twisting and turning, leaning our bodies first this way and then that, and tossing our heads up and down as if to cast off a hated rider.

Have you ever watched birds soar and wondered if they do it just for fun? Have you ever heard a coyote howl and wondered if he does it just to feel the lonely night shudder at his ghostly shrill? Have you ever caught a glimpse of horses with their ears laid back in full gallop and wondered if they do it just to hear their hooves beat the ground and echo back off canyon walls like a thousand pounding drums?

We do it just for that. And I had just found out.

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