Death Valley Encounter 2017: There and Back Again

Welcome to the latest saga dear readers, as indeed I can once again deliver a wild tale of adventures gone awry in pursuit of endurance riding. The calendar year of 2017 was one for the record books for me as far as rides traveled to and vehicles gone wrong, and I really wrapped the year up with a smoky, flamey bang!

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The morning after Christmas once again found me with gear packed in preparation to catch a ride to the Death Valley Encounter 4 day. Last year I traveled down to this ride with my old school chum E and another buddy and I catch rode different horses each day ; this year found me with a whole lot more gear to transfer as Kenny and I were going as a unit, with a goal of 2-3 50 milers as part of our conditioning for a first 100 miler attempt next fall.

Plan A had already become plan A.5 as a rookie hoof boot gluing attempt by my husband and I never even got out the gate thanks to clipping the end of the one glue cartridge that I had bought too short, effectively ensuring the glue would never make it all the way down the tip to the boot; instead it exploded gloriously out the base of the tip no matter what we did, and I had zero time to go driving about in search of more glue. Err, right then, I brought all my gluing supplies, all of my Hoof Armor supplies, my meager Easyboot Glove supplies, and even the Renegades Kenny despises for good measure. Kenny barely tolerates strap on hoof boots due to his knock kneed conformation and deep striding gaits, but I knew that the trails were part sand, part wildly rocky mountain crossings, so I figured worst come to worst I could put his Gloves on for the mountains and pop them off in the valleys (with Hoof Armor on all around too, of course).

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Christmas/packed/well we tried/Kenny in his extra grocery pen

With my husband dropping Kenny and I off, T and I rendezvoused at a convenient Walmart on Tuesday which also allowed us to finalize grocery/supply items.  That transfer all went smoothly and we set off for the 500 mile drive to ride camp well past noon with T at the wheel of her semi-Bullet-proofed ’05 Ford 6.0. It had only been a couple of hours when she mentioned that there was rather more exhaust output than she was to accustomed to; not knowing the truck myself I had no useful input on the matter, but the Oh Shit spidey senses definitely started to tingle. We sent out inquiries to a host of diesel savvy folks in our lives, from tire guys to log truckers to T’s dad who usually worked on the truck, and they all advised that it was likely a stuck injector, we should put it in an additive, and keep on driving. So we did. The exhaust output was by this point definitely excessive, white, then black, and soon the truck sounded like shit as well, being particularly unhappy if it had to idle at all–imagine panicked perusing of google maps to find us a Walmart not too far off Hwy 99 where we might find an additive while idling at traffic lights as little as possible–and yep, it was already dark outside.

We managed to limp along Nowhereland with a Googled goal of a safe spot to stop for the night and morning reassessment until somewhere outside of Bakersfield, when we heard a terribly ominous KACHUNK, followed by billowing black smoke out the passenger side exhaust pipe, then a volley of sparks. It would be melodramatic to call them flames, but sparks barely encompasses the alarming sight of such an output. Profanity echoed through the failing truck cab as T steered us for the nearest off ramp, a steep uphill sandwiched between two overpasses, and there we came to rest, barely out of the off ramp lane, in the dark, on a semi route, outside of Bakersfield. The truck still started and we debated trying to get off of the off ramp, but being dead on an overpass was probably worse and in the end the truck didn’t have the oomph to drag the LQ any farther anyway. In an all too familiar scene we began calling USRider, various family members who needed to know, and this time we called CHP too for good measure, figuring we needed some flagging assistance so an exiting semi didn’t take us out.

We spent the next five hours or so on that off ramp, eventually joined by CHP who didn’t set out flares but did set out cones, which the exiting semis promptly ran over. USRider proved themselves worthless once again, essentially boiling down to an out of country call service that uses Google and fills out pre set forms with no understanding of what a horse person is dealing with. Finally CHP reached a semi truck towing service out of Bakersfield who found towing a truck and 3 horse LQ with 2 horses on board totally doable and by the wee hours of Wednesday morning the very capable tow truck driver was hooking us up to his big ole sleeper-cab rig.

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salvage attempts/well that’s not good/rescued at last

Once hooked up and after double checking his work thoroughly, the kindly tow truck driver asked us where we would like to be taken in Bakersfield at 2 am. We were operating on disbelief and waning adrenaline at this point and had only a Google’d diesel mechanic name to offer up; the driver, a local, shook his head decisively and told us that his boss at the yard had Andalusian horses and might have a better idea. The boss, that dear, kind man, told his driver to bring us back to the semi yard and park us next to his horse trailer as there was nowhere else safe to be in Bakersfield at 2 am. By 3 am we were parked in the razor wire lined yard, next to a freshly painted horse trailer and a burned out RV hull, across from a fleet of semis, and so very grateful that T has her CCW and always carries. Our horses were un-phased, no doubt judging this an odd ride camp location but settling right into their hay bags and shared water bucket next to the burned out hull.

The semi yard was in use all night, with trucks and drivers coming and going, and not long after daylight we were up and figuring out Plan B. It truly took a village to pull this entire shenanigan off and we would have many thank you baskets to send out, dinners to buy, and repair bills to help with by the end of it.  By mid morning my buddy E who I had gone to Death Valley with last year offered up her diesel Dodge with a gooseneck hitch, my husband was driving my old Ford to E’s to start driving her Dodge down, and T’s dad was rounding up another truck and a trailer big enough to put her dead Ford on and haul it back home, planning to take my husband back north with him. They would get to us Wednesday evening.

Meanwhile, T and I decided to ride to Taco Bell. I had never ridden through a drive thru and how many people can say that they have checked off a bucket list item in Bakersfield, CA?

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Post Taco Bell we applied Hoof Armor to all 8 hooves and T clipped her mare’s coat, watched over by the friendly truckers and mechanics of the commercial yard who also lent us a tape measure and were just generally salt of the earth good people. My husband arrived in E’s truck about 6:30 pm and we pulled T’s truck out of the way, hooked up the Dodge to the LQ, and abandoned my husband to wait out T’s dad’s arrival a few hours later.

7:30 pm Wednesday found us heading out into the night Trona bound,  with me at the wheel of my friend’s performance enhanced manual truck, hauling my other friend’s LQ, all our gear, and both our horses. Deep breathing ensued. Somewhere in the dark desert miles from Trona the headlights in the truck suddenly turned themselves off, but were resurrected by pumping the headlight switch, and decided to stay on if I didn’t use the high beams. Okay. We found and rolled through Trona sometime around 2 am and a few miles later pulled into a very quiet and very full ride camp, completely lucking out with a spot large enough for a simple pull up, back in maneuver. We whispered apologies to our neighbors as we emptied the LQ living area, pulled corral panels off the LQ, and settled both ponies in, then fell into bed with alarms set for a few hours later as we were determined to check in, vet in, and ride this Day 1 50 if it killed us.

Fortunately, it didn’t! The Duck and co are very relaxed and accommodating so we managed to tack up, check in, vet in, and hit the 50 mile trail only 15 minutes late Thursday morning. I forgot my phone in the trailer so T and I collaborated on photos on her phone that day. Day 1 was run in reverse of last year, a decision that I greatly enjoyed as it presented us with the most challenging climb and descent of the Slate range in the morning, a cruise through the Panamint Valley to the 25 mile lunch vet check, and then a kinder crossing back over the Slates and home to the Finish at ride camp in the Searles Valley, well after dark at our speed.

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Due to the epic shenanigans getting to the ride, I had adopted my last ditch plan of riding Kenny with front Gloves in the nasty rock portions and pulling them off for the sandy Valley miles while leaving his hinds entirely bare (and Hoof Armor’d), which met with his approval. The scenery was stellar, the steeds were reliable and excellent on self care, and it was overall a lovely day in the saddle wrapped up with a 10 hour finish on strong ponies.

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Day 1 50 miler, photo credit Steve Bradley

Day 2 we headed up the Slates again, this time riding along the ridgeline in a long climb to the radio towers at the summit before descending to Searles Valley again in a truly challenging 30 mile first loop. Kenny hit his first and only doldrums about halfway through that first loop, convinced his human was an idiot who had gotten them lost in a faraway land. He trotted past the photographer part way up the mountain but he did it his way, as ever..

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“gdamn stupid human got us lost up another mountain and is up there waving like a fool grumblegrumblegrumble” photo credit Steve Bradley

Day 2 Loop 1 was the truest of true endurance, featuring stunning views, arduous miles, questioning of sanity and recreational choices, and saddle bags thoroughly emptied of horse and human snacks miles before anyone though it appropriate.

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Day 2 50, Loop 1

We were thrilled to get back to ride camp after the 30 mile loop, even as I realized that our enthusiastic final zip in had abandoned one of my front Gloves in the desert, and a brand new hind sized Glove that I carried on the back of my saddle had also parted ways with us at some unknown juncture. Fortunately Kenny’s fronts are only a half size bigger than his hinds and Gloves are supposed to fit snugly so after T reapplied Hoof Armor to all hooves at lunch and we all snorfled through as much food as we could in the time frame, I managed to get the remaining hind boot I had onto his front hoof for the last loop. It was a shorter loop than the first thank goodness, around the Searles valley this time, and with our Rumchata filled flask on board Kenny we had a good time navigating our way in to the Finish via moonlight once again.

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Loop 2/moonrise/pointing at the radio towers we had climbed to/sunset

Our steeds cantered into the moonlight finish on Day 2 and vetted out nicely but we were all well and truly tuckered at that point and I knew that Day 3 was essentially Day 2 in reverse, with more epic Slate range climbing. We pulled the Adulting card on this one and decided to take Day 3 off, something which I am still pleased/proud about to this very moment. Would our horses have gone all four days? Probably. Was it fair and intelligent to ask it of them, all things (existing condition, travels, future goals) considered? We didn’t think so, and so day 3 was spent sleeping, eating, strolling, applying one more coat of Hoof Armor, and eating some more, with a plan to the hit the trail again Day 4.

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walkies, snacks, more walkies, more snacks, Kenny..

We vetted in again on the afternoon of Day 3 and at dinner that night it was revealed that a buddy had picked up my Kenny-flung front boot on trail from Day 2, and the Duck had picked up the brand new Glove that had leapt off the back of my saddle somewhere, too. Score!  Day 4 was two loops around Searles Valley with no mountain crossings, so both ponies went entirely barefoot, but it was sure nice to get the boots back.

A bit of weather rolled in at this point just like the last day of the 2016 ride, but just enough to make beautiful clouds and interesting light at various points throughout the day on trail. Our horses snacked and drank and peed and trotted their way around as steady as ever and it was the perfect wrap up for 150 miles riding; without the intense climbs we cantered into the Finish before sunset.

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Loop 1, wherein Kenny tries to roll in deep sand and Aurora shrieks

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Loop 2, in which there is drinking and music and high fiving

Sunday evening after finishing we got the ponies tucked in with vittles, had the first showers we had taken since leaving home early Tuesday, and took our bottle of wine over to the ride management provided New Years Eve dinner. We were well fed throughout this ride and there was a live band NYE, however we didn’t last much past eating that night, finding our warm quiet bed preferable. After all, the Voyage Home would begin early the next morning.

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Rig/NYE gathering/my 150 mile pony

T and I are quite efficient at breaking down camp after so many road trips together so we had everything stowed, manure and hay bagged, ponies loaded, and were back on the road for northern Cali by 8ish on Monday morning. We got through two fuel stops successfully but on the third the Dodge started making an ominous whine when I accelerated to get back on the highway. It seemed to happen only if I accelerated too strongly, so the truck and I settled on a non-whining 45 mph cruising speed while once again we sent out the uuhhh, Guys…. messages. 45 mph on Hwy 99 and I-5 is a pretty piss poor speed to get things accomplished but it’s better than 0, so 45 we went, for hours, shuffling through contingency plans. Finally we settled on limping the truck to it’s home at E’s which was the closest base (and only 20 miles from my house); she and her ever tolerant and helpful Airforce husband met us at the base of the last climb before their house and he got the rig in the driveway while we rode in disbelief in E’s car. Two for two on trucks! Humans and steeds sank gratefully into guest accommodations at E’s for the night, with yet another plan to be formulated come morning.

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Kenny stretching his legs at E’s, a week and 150 miles riding since Home

Fortunately we had not yet exhausted our pool of kind friends. Tuesday morning yet another Dodge headed South, this time to pick up T, her LQ, and horse, and get her home. My husband had left my Ford at E’s when he picked up her Dodge on the first rescue mission, so I hooked up my old Ford to E’s two horse trailer, loaded my gear and Kenny in it, and made it the 20 miles home with no further issue, trailer to be returned later. T’s final leg of the voyage went smoothly as well and finally, a solid week later, everyone was back to their barns by last night. PHEW.

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I didn’t even realize it at the time but Sunday’s 50 miler completion on Kenny bumped me over 1,000 AERC miles, something I have been after for a long time. This entire adventure made us question everything a number of times, but there is no question in my mind regarding my love for riding horses, far and long, over mountains, through valleys, beyond the threshold of comfort zones, through Plans A-Z. We couldn’t have done it without each other, our great horses, and a whole bunch of kind humans, strangers and loved ones.

THANK YOU, EVERY ONE.

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Day 4 50 miler, 3/3 50s, crossing the 1,000 mile mark ❤   photo credit Steve Bradley

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10 thoughts on “Death Valley Encounter 2017: There and Back Again

  1. As much as I enjoy living vicariously thru your blog posts, this is (probably) an adventure where I’m glad to have been an observer, rather than a participant….
    Congratulations on crossing the 1000 mile mark, and a big hurrah for good rides, good
    ponies, and good friends to help you there!

  2. Hot. Damn. You did it BIG this time in all the ways! What an outstanding kickoff for the season. Huge congratulations on all fronts. You deserve this!

  3. Thank you for writing this. I so enjoyed traveling thru it with you and am glad you enjoyed it.
    Many years ago, I would have enjoyed it also, but I can only say now, I’m glad it was you and T
    and not me. My hat is off to both of you, we’ll done ladies, well done ❗️

  4. Well that was beyond epic! And enlightening read and a hope that I’ll never experience such adventures myself (but if I did, I’d know who to turn to)

    Congrats on 1,000 miles. I’ll have my first mile sometime this spring.

  5. Pingback: Chamberlain Creek 2018: To Plan, and Not | Redheaded Endurance

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