Posted by Jo Wunderly on Aug 12, 2016 1:44:00 PM
Before Wyleya, my eighteen-year old quarter horse mare, came into my life, I avoided being alone in nature, particularly in the dark. This summer I began to feel pulled to the places I used to avoid. I no longer wanted fear to dictate or put limits on my life. The plan formed to go camping on my own, with Wyleya for company and to transport my gear.
I started scouting places to camp, each ride venturing farther from the places I parked my trailer. The campsite I decided on was nestled alongside a small lake, a two-and-a-half hour walk from parking on Grouse Ridge in the high Sierra Nevada Mountains. It is an area of gently rolling granite out-croppings and high peaks, strewn with Jeffrey and sugar pines, white fires, and several warm swimmable lakes of various sizes.
I set out on a Tuesday in early August, hoping to avoid weekend campers, and planning to stay two nights. The over four-mile walk was beautiful and long enough to make me appreciate an afternoon swim at my camp. The place was perfect—two level areas a short distance apart, much of it surrounded by water.
I couldn’t contain my excitement as I set up camp. Using my newly purchased rope, I stretched a high-line between two trees to tie Wyleya. I had watched videos on how to do this and it seemed to go smoothly. The setting sun warmed Wyleya’s shiny dark coat and she seemed unfazed by this new form of confinement.
I cooked a delicious meal of quinoa spaghetti with tomato sauce, canned sardines, and spices. It‘s true—meals do taste better in the wild! Wyleya received her usual soaked alfalfa pellets and a generous helping of grass hay.
The light faded and I settled cozily in my sleeping bag, inside my two-person tent. But Wyleya was restless. Twice I climbed out to offer her more hay and each time she finished she grew restless again. At this rate she would eat through her food storage much faster than planned and I would get little sleep. Still, I fell asleep to the sound of her rhythmic chewing.
I awoke what seemed a short time later to find it was completely dark. There was no moon and innumerable bright stars spanned the sky. With only a mosquito net separating me from the outside, I lay quietly in the stillness and beauty of night. There was no sound coming from Wyleya and I wondered if she had gone to sleep. When I pointed my flashlight in her direction, the beam found her rope hanging straight down with the karabiner still attached. Wyleya was gone.
Thoughts and images raced through my head. Was she stumbling through the dark, without a sense of direction, getting farther into rocky terrain, tripping and falling, breaking bones, becoming prey for wild animals? Would the lone wolverine that had been sighted in the area make a meal of her?
I hurried into my clogs and followed a footpath to the main trail. Shining my light in both direction, I called her name and listened. Nothing. There was a huge vacancy where I’d felt her presence so strongly the evening before.
Not knowing what to do, I got back in my sleeping bag and looked for comfort in the night sky. My body was tense and my thoughts were racing. The sound of the wind gently tugging on my tent had me frozen in terror, a familiar doubt from early childhood. Was it the wind or a bear on the other side of the thin nylon fabric?
I realized I was at a junction, at a choice point—I could continue terrifying myself with frightful stories, or, I could come to terms with my fear once and for all. I realized this was the moment I needed to meet. The situation was precarious enough to devour me with fear, unless I could find a way.
Somehow I realized that the wild beast roaming in the dark was not outside chasing Wyleya; it was in my mind. When I pried my attention away from my thoughts to my breath and sensations, I realized that without my agitation my surroundings were quiet and even peaceful.
As I relaxed a decision formed to wait for daylight and look for Wyleya’s tracks. I knew this would be my only way of finding her.
With increasing calm, a love and trust for my horse welled up inside of me. I prayed, “may you (Wyleya) be well, may you be safe.” Sending healing thoughts to my horse brought a sense of wellbeing and warmth into my chilled body. As my thoughts changed and I began to see the possibility of things working out, I drifted toward sleep.
I woke with the first light of dawn and had to adjust again to the reality of Wyleya being gone. I had just dreamed a vivid dream in which Wyleya had found her way home after walking for many hours. Along the way two friends joined her on her journey—two horses, one a beautiful tall “gray”, so light in color he was almost white. The gray struck me as a spirit horse, a carrier of power and confidence. It dawned on me that he must belong to someone; he was too beautiful to be a stray, but I longed to keep him. Strangely, in the dream, I trusted that a way would emerge for me to keep him.
Packing snacks, water, truck keys, and Wyleya’s lead rope, I headed back to the main trail. Heeding the message in my dream, I started toward home.
Soon I was able to make out Wyleya’s bare hoof tracks on the dusty trail, just like I had hoped. It was hard to believe, but for the next two-and-a-half hours to the parking lot Wyleya tracks were clearly recognizable. She had not veered once off the trail. Without moonlight to shine her way, and on unmaintained rocky ground, she retraced our every move, even through two forks in the trail.
As I walked in the company of Wyleya’s hoof prints I sensed her even pace, her steadiness of character and spirit. I could feel her presence, step by step, now with the first sunlight on my back. My heart swelled with joy and love for this creature I came to trust more with every step. Doubt fell away and tears of joy wetted my cheeks. It was true, the universe was kind, and this is how it worked its magic.
Approaching the trailer, I wondered if Wyleya had considered it home enough to stop. I found many hoof prints around it, but no sign of her. She had continued on down the long road toward home (1½ hour’s drive). Again fearful thoughts began to form, but there was no time to waste.
I unhitched the trailer and started down the very bumpy one-lane road in the truck. After half a mile or so, I slowed for a bend in the road and saw movement out the corner of my eye, just off the side of the road. It was Wyleya raising her head to see who was coming. She was standing near a cluster of trees, having apparently been asleep. She was as calm as ever and eager for the food and water I brought.
She remained unfazed, chewing her hay rhythmically as I hugged her all over ecstatically, wetting her with tears of relief.
At the trailer I loaded her up with extra hay and we started back for our camp. I replaced the karabiner with securely tied rope. That night Wyleya was calm. It was as if she accepted her temporary home and felt safe. She stood quietly, sleeping while standing. I too slept well.
On the last morning I noticed Wyleya related to me in a different way. Each time, as I moved around in the campsite, she whinnied softly to me. We now seemed to belong to one herd.
As I packed and loaded Wyleya’s saddlebags to leave, I noticed a mix of emotions—both sadness and satisfaction. As we walked the long trail back to the trailer for the last time, I sensed Wyleya’s steady movements a few paces behind me, and felt gratitude. I marveled at how the universe had lined up the necessary events so that I could break through old and stale barriers of fear.
I also sensed the presence of the tall white “gray” dream horse. His gait steady, confident, and strong. He too belonged to the herd now; we had earned his keep.