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Back in the Saddle : A Day on the Trail in the Laguna Mountains, Near Julian

November 17, 1985|CHRIS HODENFIELD | Chris Hodenfield is a Los Angeles freelance writer

"Anything out there I should see?"

"No, just . . . a bunch of trees."

The stableboy finished cinching up the horse. He looked far too grumpy and enigmatic for this early hour of the morning. He wore the expression that you often see on young actors and pop figures--a weary brand of soulfulness. But I couldn't stop and figure it out, because I had a date with this horse. Her name was Cuss, an 8-year-old appaloosa with a small head and a steady gait. The urge to ride a horse had been creeping up on me for some time, and the night before, when I passed the Mt. Laguna stables, the deal was done. I had to ride. At dawn. I do not claim any mystic relationship to horses, although I do think that time spent with them tends to be epic. A horse can turn an ordinary morning into a real occasion. It was all I could ask of an autumn day.

From the stables, the trail went up a steep and narrow path. Cuss' hooves clattered on the rocks and slipped in the mud from recent rains. She decided that enough was enough and stopped in her tracks. I looked down the hill and saw the stableboy watching all this with a sad regard. The hill must have been a test for the new riders. Not one of life's supreme tests, perhaps, but a test just the same. And I had betrayed myself as just another rube from the city. The stableboy finally walked away, shaking his head, and I gave Cuss a meaningful prod with my heel.

My basketball shoes carried no spurs.

She grunted and heaved, and all that muscle and bone rolled around under me as we climbed. This, it occurred to me, was no way to get acquainted. I jumped off and pulled her unwilling bulk up the last few hundred feet. At the summit, we were suddenly out of the shadows and in the bright morning sun. About 6,000 feet closer to heaven.

I pulled myself back into the saddle and returned to the slow work of getting to know a horse. You've got to reckon with their sense of pride before you get their sense of humor. There were oaks and pines up top, and tawny sheaves of dried grass and purple wildflowers. In this brutish clear light, even the bare, dead trunks of trees looked alive with omens. Through the mazy latticework of branches, the world was mauve and gold and watery bright. The wet leaves slapped past my face.

The Laguna Mountains are among the places in California where the terrain changes every nine miles into something completely different. An hour's drive over the hills and you'd be in San Diego, on the seashore. For all the times I've floorboarded up and down the Interstate between Los Angeles and San Diego, I had forgotten about all the crazylegged geography to be found up here in the hills. To the north are rolling grasslands that remind you of the high Colorado plains. Tumble east off these mountains and you land in the scorching flats of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, a place not unlike the Lower Atlas Mountains in Morocco. Some of the hilly sections another few miles south could be northern Mexico. In fact, if you were of a mind to be anywhere but where you are, this would be a good place to be.

It took about half an hour for Cuss and me to become compadres . The testing period was over, and she barely needed a pull on the reins to change direction. A line from William Blake's "Proverbs of Hell" came to me: "The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction." Like the thread of a song, it kept replaying, and it had a different meaning every time. "The horses of instruction"? Say, I'm just waking up out here, and the country reverie is all I need to drive away the city and all its wised-up tigers of wrath. I'll settle for the horse's instructions. The horse knows the way.

The path wandered up culverts and along ravines and through a thick and silent woods. I could just as well have hiked this trail. But with a horse you've got a guide, a pal who won't take any guff, a ton of muscle straining beneath you, ready in an instant to take off in calamitous soaring. Her ears pricked up when I called her name. She bobbled and trotted along.

His name was Ed. Twenty years old. Doleful, green eyes and thick, dark hair that was powdery from the stables. From the looks of him, he could have been descended from Irish revolutionaries. But he seemed half asleep, and when he spoke, it was with a low, scratchy groan. He had to struggle for expression. While he loosened the saddle on Cuss, I asked him how he came to work at Mt. Laguna Stables. Ten or so horses wandered around under the pines, and the usual dogs lazed in the hay.

"I was removed from my home," Ed said in a slow, matter-of-fact cadence. "And shortly after that my father removed me from the ranch. I got in my car and drove. I just said, 'Well, I'm going as far as I can on this tank of gas.' "

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