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The magic number 15

May 20, 2009

Camp Elliott Barker
Angel Fire, NM
July 1987

It’s just past dawn and my world is walled in by a thick fog that swirls around me as I lead my horse down the camp road.

At first, the light is thin. But when the sun clears the eastern hills, everything brightens, softens through the fog.

If I believed in a heaven of sky and clouds, I’d think I was already there.

I’m 15 years old and working at my first paying job as a horse wrangler at the residential camp where I spent several summers as a camper.

My friend and fellow wrangler, Joy, is leading her horse a few paces in front of me. When we awoke, the fog was so dense we couldn’t see more than a foot in front of us, much less find the other horses in the huge pasture. So we saddled our two wrangling horses and decided to go out scouting for the gate at the bottom of the camp road. We figured that when we found it we could ride out along the fence line until we saw the rest of the herd.

But as we walk through the camp and down the road past the parking lot, the fog is so thick we begin to doubt that we’ll ever find the gate. We don’t talk. The only sound is the plodding ring of our old camp horses’ hooves. They walk with their heads down, indifferent trail horses. Mine, however, is exceptional.

Though fairly even-tempered, Honky is a former a boy scout camp horse who once, while tied in a paddock, was attacked by a mountain lion. The double row of scars that streak his hind quarters look like some furry captain’s bars. Sometimes he resists being tied. Wind and rain frighten him. I imagine that he hears padded cat feet on the breeze. Just the week before, I stood in the driving rain, sinking into the mud with water running into my eyes as I coaxed Honky in toward the fence for tie-down. He tossed his wet head, but kept looking at me. One hoof at a time through the muck until he was close enough, then I flipped his lead rope around the rung into the appropriate knot.

Now, he walks through the fog with his ears relaxed, eyes fixed on the road ahead of us.

Suddenly, the light brightens above, casting our shadows against the shifting fog which thins in an instant and begins to pull away. The edges of the road appear and the world widens into sloping grass and wildflowers. I stop to watch in awe as waves of fog roll in the rising heat, break on an invisible shoreline of moving air and shatter against nothing before lifting away.

The morning falls open all around us.

We find the gate and lead the horses through. As we climb into the saddle we see the herd grazing, knee deep in the summer grass. We ride toward them at a lope, and one by one their heads rise, grass hanging from their lips. Soon they are all running and we’re caught up in it. The morning air rushes past and the world blurs as I dig my heels into my Honky’s sides, urging him on.

Then we funnel into the paddock, morning light etching the breath of our horses into the dust that swirls as the fog had before.

Another perfect morning settles.

I am 22 years older now, but remember the nuances of this day clearly. It stands as a morning that defined something for me. It taught me that there is so much beauty in the world, blocking our vision at times, perhaps, but perfect even as it’s blinding. I learned that I can see … but that I don’t have to know the exact path ahead.

I learned just a little bit more about trust that day.

When this issue of the paper hits the stands, I will officially be a 15-year veteran of this thing called motherhood.

And on the eve of Soren’s 15th birthday, I would like to make a wish of my own. Soren, I hope that you one day find yourself in some swirling mist that steals your bearings entirely. I hope that you center yourself and trust your feet. I hope as well that one day you will stand in awe as the world cracks open all around you in stunning beauty that will change you forever.

Never stop seeking that magic … those moments that break you down and lift you up again all in one instant.

But … a warning. If you, like me, land a magical job that offers you a rare glimpse of heaven, don’t under any circumstances go AWOL in the middle of the night and wander around at 2 a.m. in a tiny New Mexico town full of rocking biker bars. Because if you do, you will lose that job and go home early to spend your summer days bored to tears in tract house suburbia earning nothing.

Believe me, I’ve seen heaven and I’ve also seen, shall we say … the flipside.

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