My life isn’t a lot different from anyone else’s in most ways. I’m an eternal optimist, but I’ve never been what you might call naïve. That is, I don’t blindly believe in luck or karma or any of those sorts of things. Well, maybe I do to some extent, but I don’t count on them. I don’t rely on them. I prefer to retain a bit of skepticism about how things might go. If I’ve learned anything through the years it’s this:
It’ll always be harder, take longer, and cost more than you thought it would.
I could give endless examples that help to prove this statement, but I don’t really need to. You can look at your own life and know it’s true. I studied up a lot, pored over books, magazines, maps and other things to learn as much as I could before setting off on that foolhardy adventure. I learned about horses, saddlery, horseshoes, but also trails, compasses, map reading, guns, and ammunition. I even read up on things like astronomy and natural foods and such. I didn’t pretend to know it all. I knew I didn’t know it all, but I thought I had a pretty good grasp of things. It turns out I knew hardly anything.
I remember saying, in one of the countless ongoing conversations I had with myself, that Gizmo and I were on what could be called the Calvinist Ride. I called it this because, according to the Calvinist doctrine, life’s objective was not to have fun or enjoy yourself. It was to subject you to the travails of nature, as a metaphor for all the hardships and cruel times that life is supposed to present you. The easiest way to think of it was this:
It’s like banging your head against a wall. It feels so good when you finally stop.
In a lot of ways, misery is a comfortable thing. That’s why so many people seem to prefer it. It’s safe, predictable, and dependable. It’s easy to find. If it’s not right in front of you, it’s easy to create it. You know where you stand when you’re in misery, even if you don’t exactly know why you’re there. You can count on it to produce the expected results. Happiness is a lot harder. It takes effort. And it usually takes time. You have to be patient to be happy. Gratification isn’t the same thing as happiness. It’s momentary and fleeting, and when it disappears (which it always does) you’re left feeling a bit empty and—yep, you guessed it—miserable. Yet we tend to reach for instant gratification instead of working for long-term happiness. It really is the little things that count. Life’s tender mercies.
Made camp in a little park. Grass ain’t the best, but it’s okay. I walked out to the road and cut a big bunch of wild alfalfa and brought it back for Gizmo. Gave him an alcohol rubdown, which he loved.
I chose a long and tedious ride like this on purpose. One of the things I did know beforehand was that it would be tedious. I knew I would need patience and some luck, and quite a bit of faith to make it to the finish line. Without the patience, though, the luck and the faith were worthless. A long ride does not make for instant gratification. There are surprises (lots of ’em) and a few spontaneous rewards along the way, but they’re not the ones that stick with you. Sure, you remember them, but they don’t mean as much as those rewards that you earned from crossing an entire desert or mountain range, or nursing your horse against illness and injury over long periods and seeing him come out of it in good health. The things that make you stronger, that feed your soul, are those that take a long time and require so much patience that you think you’re going to burst. In some ways, they’re the Calvinist things. They’re hard, on purpose.
Gizmo and I stopped at a construction site in western Oklahoma for water. I spoke with the foreman while Gizmo drank out of a hose. During our conversation, a young man drove up to the site pulling a backhoe on a trailer behind his truck. He came over to let the foreman know he was there.
“Where the hell you been?” the foreman demanded.
“Sorry, boss. I got tied up on a job, and it took a little longer than I expected.” the young man replied.
“You were supposed to be digging those footings an hour ago! I can’t have men standing around waiting for you while you’re off on some other job, dammit.” The foreman was furious, and continued. “What’s so damned important that it couldn’t wait?”
“I had to dig my mother’s grave,” the young man answered apologetically. “Sorry. We’re burying her later this afternoon, so I’m afraid I’m gonna have to leave early today, if that’s okay.” He said all of this in a stoic, matter-of-fact way.
Now, just that very morning I had been grousing to Gizmo about how hard we had it. It was getting hot, and we were traveling a bit slower than usual, and I was feeling depressed and sorry for myself. I had been asking Why me? and basically venting my frustration. (Gizmo, of course, was having none of it, nor did he care what I thought.) But on hearing that young man’s account, two things occurred to me: The young man had just suffered a terrible loss and was taking it in a stoic manner by being strong and resilient, and he saw his boss’s ire as a dilemma that was as great as his mother’s burial.
Witnessing that vignette changed something in me. I held on to it for the rest of the ride, and I’ve never forgotten it. Or at least, I have mostly not forgotten it. I still grouse about inconsequential things. I still complain and moan about my lot in life sometimes. Who doesn’t? I reckon it’s a safety valve that helps to keep us sane. And it might even help to make us happy, as long as we don’t let misery take over and become the norm in our life. Like I said, misery is a comfortable thing.
The ride was hard as hell. There’s no other way to put it. There were easy days, and there were fun days, but I’d never describe the ride as easy or fun. I wouldn’t describe it as joyous, though I experienced some of the most joyous moments of my life on that journey with my horse. This is how I would describe it: fulfilling. Fulfillment only comes the hard way, the Calvinist way. You don’t get it for free. It’s not something that’s bestowed upon you by virtue of who you are or where you are, even though they may play a part in it. It’s also about what you do and how you do it. Patience and perseverance are a part of it, too. Fulfillment is hard. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be fulfilling.
But here’s a secret. When faced with something daunting—like getting a vaccination shot when you’re seven or eight, or taking tests in school, or an obstacle course in boot camp—I’ve always taken the view that, since a lot of others have done it before me, I should be able do it. I just keep in mind that if they can do it, I can do it … like a mantra. It doesn’t make the doing of it any easier, but it allows you to attempt it in the first place without chickening out or giving up before you try. But the ride, well … that was something else again. The fact that Jeff Spivey had done it was a shot in the arm for me because at least I knew it could be accomplished. But it wasn’t as if thousands had gone before me. Other than Spivey in 1968, and Tschiffely way back in the 1920s, I didn’t know of a single person who had done what I was doing, so I had to make it all up as I went along. I knew there was no magic bullet, no single thing that would see Gizmo and me through it all. Patience and perseverance were what was needed. Fortunately, I possessed both a solid determination and a profound ignorance of what I faced, and these allowed me to step up on Gizmo and take our first steps eastward.
I didn’t think of myself as brave or especially capable (I still don’t), but I figured if anyone could do it, I could. It wasn’t so much a vote of confidence; it was a way of saying there’s no reason not to. It’s odd, the things that go through your head when you set out to do the impossible, or what people say is impossible. In my case, it wasn’t a matter of trying to prove them wrong. Just as it was with the other kids back in my school days, I didn’t much care about proving myself to anyone else. It was never a matter of “I’ll show them,” or “Just wait till they see what I’ve done.” It never occurred to me to worry about what others thought.
Stopped at a place called Reptile Village to water Gizmo. There were more people outside looking at Gizmo and me than there were inside looking at the snakes. I did my laundry in a nearby laundromat. Had to wash everything, then change clothes in the bathroom and wash what I had on.
I’m sure there were many who believed that taking a young horse across the country was an act of cruelty, that I was stupid to try it, or that it was foolhardy and selfish. And they would all be correct. It was all of those things. I wasn’t defensive because it never occurred to me that people might be opposed to our ride. Since I didn’t think about it, it was a nonissue.
As things went, I was armed with a dream and a large pile of dogged determination, and that’s what ultimately launched Gizmo and me on our way. It’s interesting, the sorts of circumstances and events that can set you on a new path toward a destination you never thought you’d seek. They can be little things that change your life in small ways, or they can be big things that forever alter who you are.