Tevis Cup Part 1
“Whoa, Gara! Calm down… Sorry, Marol!” Jen exclaimed, squeezing her legs together in a futile attempt to keep her horse from backing up. “It’s okay, boy,” she reassured the lean, muscular grey Arab gelding, realizing how wet his neck was when she patted him.
Gara was agitated, but he was not tired. In spite of trotting, cantering, and galloping for the last twenty miles he remained keenly in tune with his task, continually moving his head back and forth, scanning the terrain while traveling forward. His ears turned this way and that, each independent of the other. The perspiration Jen felt was from the adrenalin rush, the thrill of the race. Gara's anticipation started as soon as a saddle was put on his back. He was sweaty even before the person in the front yelled: “Go!”
Gara's tendency to become amped up was exacerbated by Jen's personality. Her eyes displayed a steely will, and her strong jawbone suggested that stubbornness accompanied the determined actions. She was an attractive young woman with short brown hair in a pixie style, long enough to show everyone she was a girl, but short enough not to have to fuss with it.
She held her toned body taut as she rode out Gara's little tantrum. “Whoa!” she repeated. It was now mid-morning, three hours into the ride, and the temperature was rising. Any remaining morning coolness was rapidly vanishing with the unrelenting onslaught of a harsh, ascending sun.
The starting group had moved single file in the predawn darkness through Squaw Valley and climbed twenty-five hundred feet to Emigrant Pass. Now they were all bunched up together at a bottleneck in the trail.
“Whoa, whoa,” Jen yelled, as Gara backed into Marol’s horse, again. Babe was a pretty brown and white Tobiano paint filly, a thoroughbred and quarterhorse mix. Jen owned both Gara and Babe.
Marol, a charming blonde in her late twenties, had long, silvery blonde hair and a British accent. Marol and her brother Hugh were visiting from South Africa. Jen allowed Marol to use the young filly for this uniquely American endurance ride.
When Gara backed into her, he pinched Marol’s left leg against the saddle. “Oww… that hurts, Jen,” Marol complained.
“Sorry, Marol.” Jen’s eyes traveled over the group of riders ahead, and she sighed. “We’re waiting to get over Cougar Rock.”
“Calm down, Jen,” Marol said. “You’re the one who has done this, remember? Where’s that rosewater we’re supposed to be drinking for calmness?”
Sometimes Marol didn’t know if Jen’s friendship was good fortune or a wicked curse. Jen’s intensity was hard to handle sometimes, and Marol wondered how much she wanted to invest in the nascent friendship.
Jen, edgy and irritable, leaned away from Marol, first focusing on someone ahead of her, and then looking down at Gara’s hooves. She looked everywhere but at her friend, while still registering her complaints.
“Afterwards, this fellow comes up behind me… and he wants to tell me all about his riding history. I thought we were supposed to be in a race here. Finally, I told him I needed to catch up with my partner. I didn’t know if you were in front of me or behind me, but it didn’t matter. I just pulled off the trail and let Mr. Talkie talk his way right by me.”
Marol liked horses as much as Jen, and in spite of the apparent differences in everything else, the two got along pretty well together. “I never realized you so competitive,” Marol said. “Possibly, your stress is what is causing Gara to work up such a sweat.”
“Probably so,” Jen acquiesced, still irritated by something.
“Jen, let’s just calm down and enjoy this, okay? You’ve told me every two hours for the last three days that we have a hundred miles to go, and we have twenty-four hours to do it. What happened to that thought? We’ve gone twenty miles in three hours so we can do eighty more in twelve hours. That plus two one-hour waits puts us in at eight-thirty, nine-thirty, ten-thirty tonight if we continue at this pace,” Marol calculated, as they made their way single file along the spine of the mountain. Looking to either side of her, she could see the tops of rock-covered and forested mountain peaks scraping the cloudless, azure sky. She slowed Babe and stopped until Jen caught up, so they could ride side by side.
“Are you ready for Cougar Rock, Marol?” Jen pointed to a large grey rocky volcanic outcropping at the peak of the trail. A fellow was standing about a hundred feet in front of the summit, where the path branched into a Y.
“I guess. Why is that guy there?”
“He’s pointing to an alternative path, a longer one that you can use if you feel this way is too hard.”
“You mean take the flat way around?”
“Sort of. Some riders who are not as experienced feel better going that way. Do you want to follow the sissy path?”
“Oh, for Pete's sake, I don’t think so.” Marol liked Jen’s ballsy attitude, but sometimes she found herself making decisions too quickly, like now. “Okay, I’m ready,” she said before she was really ready.
“Just remember, lean forward in the saddle, Marol, and let Babe have her head. Oh, and especially, remember to keep her moving until you are all the way up to the top. You need to stay confident. Most of the problems at Cougar Rock happen because the rider becomes tentative. Don't give your horse a chance to think about what you ask of her. Just keep her moving forward.”
“Must I go first?” Marol looked up at the one-hundred-foot incline of hardened magma, uncomfortable in her decision to do what few others had done before her. The steeply angled hillside forced the horse to traverse the rock face in a semi-crouched, hopping stance, using the embedded rocks as footholds to obtain traction.
Jen nodded yes.
Marol clicked at Babe, squeezed her legs, and approached the Rock, overshooting the target launch area. She would not have enough speed to make the run. Marol pulled Babe backward a few steps, refocused her to the right, and urged her to try again. Leaning forward, she grabbed her horse’s mane to keep her and the saddle from slipping backward. She squeezed her legs yelling loudly, “Hah, yah!” The horse lurched forward. Marol hunched down above Babe’s withers and dug her heels into the stirrups.
“Don’t lean too far forward, Marol or Babe will hit your head on a forward lunge,” Jen yelled.
Again, Marol clicked at Babe, squeezed her legs, and encouraged her verbally. Babe gave a try and inched and clawed her way up the slope, to the top. When she reached the top, the spotter offered his congratulations, wishing Marol a good rest of the ride.
Soon Jen joined her, and they cantered single file along the narrow mountain ridge. Once the path spilled onto forest service roads, they were able to gallop side by side, maintaining speed while praying the horses remained sound.
The first dismount vet check and enforced rest period, at Robinson Flat, 36 miles into the race, was still another sixteen miles, just over two more hours of ride time. The trail remained level after Cougar Rock, and the two women cantered along the red dirt fire road, trading conversation as whimsically as if they were two eighth graders on their walk to school.
“How long have you known Rory, Marol?”
“Almost a year. I met Rory on a pig hunt when Hugh and I were filming scenes for our otter documentary. Why do you ask?”
“He sure acted familiar this morning.”
“Well, we've gotten to know each other pretty well."
"You were with him on the trip when Katie and René disappeared, weren't you?"
"Yes, everything ended horribly."
"How did it happen? Rory hasn't shared any details with me."
“Katie and Rory were on their honeymoon in Greece. Afterward, she met her co-worker, René to go to Iraq. They went there to study a brucellosis flare-up in the Kurdish mountains above Mosul. When they were hiding in a temple in Lalish, it was overrun by ISIS. Reinforcement soldiers killed the invaders, but neither Katie nor René’s bodies were found. No one knows what happened to them.”
“Have you gone there yourself; has Rory checked it out?”Jen asked.
“We can’t, not until ISIS is cleared out of northern Iraq.”
“So, no one knows whether they are alive or not?”
“Rory believes Katie is still alive. He says that’s why he has been having visions.”
“Visions? Of what?” Jen asked skeptically.
“He told me they are signs from Katie. At first, he thought he was going crazy. Then Pelipa, Katie's friend, told him she was still in touch with Katie, that she’s alive, far away, and can’t get back yet.”
“Why would Pelipa know that?” Jen wondered.
“Rory says they developed a special bond after a healing ceremony when Katie laid hands on Pelipa in the hospital. Pelipa says Katie brought her back; she was almost dead. They have been able to communicate spiritually ever since and Pelipa says she knows Katie’s thoughts."
Jen looked at Marol, but she said nothing. She wasn't sure if she believed any of that stuff, but she didn't want to offend Marol. Instead of continuing the conversation, Jen clicked at Gara and pushed him into a gallop. Marol urged Babe in pursuit and quickly caught up. They rode in long, loping strides, maintaining their pace for forty minutes, alternating galloping and cantering for the rest of the run into the grassy meadow that was Robinson Flat. Signs directed them to the vetting station; the area teemed with horses, riders, and ground support personnel.
“Can I have your rider card?” A trail secretary asked as Jen dismounted. She handed her card to him and walked Gara to the water trough. The fellow jotted the time she arrived in camp and gave the card back.
Marol sat in the saddle, surveying the vet area, and looking for someone. “There he is! Hey Doctor Rory!” she yelled, in her British accent.
The stocky, handsome man in a cowboy hat looked up, scanning to find the voice. Although he was thirty feet away, Marol could see his bright, blue eyes. And as before, she was drawn to those eyes. It was terrific to see him.
He looked toward Marol, squinting to see who it was.
“It’s me, Marol! Marol Pemberton!” She announced to the hills.