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Cut Loose from Purpose in Tahoe National Forest

by Sherri Harvey

The terribly beautiful sight of a horse galloping away from me through the lush vibrant green Little Lasier Meadow both enchants and agonizes me at the same time. We have come to Tahoe for a weekend camping trip with the horses to escape our busy Silicon Valley hustle-and-bustle grind. In a moment of stupidity, I coerce my two friends into taking the halters off the three horses we plan to ride along the Pacific Crest Trail to let them run free through the picture-perfect meadow as I stand by with my Nikon D90.

Go ahead and remove their halters–they’ll stay close. Not my brightest moment.

The horses flee the meadow and take off for the dirt road that sits about half a mile below the PCT. Since I am still under the impression that they will stop, the swirl of dust around pounding hooves enhances their beauty, until they disappear. When we can no longer see them, I start to worry.

Carla remains on the road in case the horses turn around. I run back to base camp to get the truck. When I return, I learn that she has employed her tracking skills and is following the hoof prints and horse poop on the dirt road. Carla gets in the driver’s seat and I root myself in the bed of the truck, whistling and calling the way I summon the horses from their pasture during feeding time. I whistle and call…high-lo…high high high high lo…

All the while, I bemoan my rash decision to let them run free.

So reckless! What was I thinking? Why am I tethered to the idea of somehow commodifying my four-day camping experience with pictures and words? When is being present enough? Why worry about how to anchor the image of horses running in the minds of my Instagram followers? Who even looks at my Instagram photos, anyways? What have I become, tethered to this virtual world? What is wrong with me?

I am wrecked in absolute panic.

Carla drives and I yell for 45 minutes. Then, out of the dense forest, they appear, triumphantly resplendent, heads high and nostrils flaring. All three of them take one look at the truck and veer the opposite direction in full gallop.

I hop out of the truck, halter in hand, in case they turn around. Carla stays in the driver’s seat.


Off she speeds, gravel flying in the wake of her truck. I stay on the road on foot waiting for them to turn back towards me.

After Carla’s truck is no longer in site, I am in the quiet blue-green breath of the Ponderosa Pines and the Jeffry Furs. In the middle of the trees, I am no longer tethered to anything. No internet or phone, no Facebook, no Instagram. No Snapchat. All I have is Carla’s puppy, Hunter, a halter and lead rope and the tool of my voice in the middle of Tahoe National Forest. The stillness amplifies my own thoughts exponentially.

I walk after the direction of the truck in case Carla can get them to turn around, lambasting my decision to encourage their freedom. After about an hour of self-loathing, I start to get tired, hungry and thirsty. I decide to sit in the shade for a bit because I am a Type 1 Diabetic and my blood sugar starts to dop. On the verge of passing out, my thoughts spiral deeper. I come undone with visions of doom about the horses, and about my 48-year-old life. I question my choices.

Was any photo important enough to risk them running away? What was I thinking? What is my purpose in their lives? In my own life? Do I even have one? Am I doing enough with my life?

They ran because they can. They saw an opportunity to be released from the obligation of purpose.

I chew on the weight of the phrase…obligation to purpose…here in the forest, unplugged, disconnected, the virtual world of image-crafting makes little sense, but in which I have become enslaved to. Post, publish, commodify, serve. Teach, be seen, be heard.

What would John Muir make of the virtual world, I wonder?

As my blood sugar drops, so do my thoughts. Low blood sugar paves the way to paranoia and despair. As an insulin-dependant diabetic, my pump is just one more link in my chain to technology, yet it saves my life. It’s a fine balance, Since I feel faint, I sit.  In case I pass out, I want to be somewhere obvious, like right in the middle of the road. With my head in my lap and the puppy pressed up against my body, I start to fade out. I try to focus on his cotton-soft fur against my leg, the sounds of the Killdeer, the Tree Swallows and the Mountain Chickadee in the fog of my thoughts. I gather the wherewithal to rip off my Insulin-delivery device and wait for my blood sugar to start to come back up.

As I wait for the shaking to stop and sanity to reappear, my mind goes crazy. I start thinking about my childhood. Somehow, I romanticize about my childhood, to a time of fireflies, campfires, s’mores, a time before being constantly plugged into the feed. I try not to pass out.

I lie in the middle of the trail and imagine that this is my end, but it eventually passes. As I come back around into a full state of consciousness, I make myself get up and walk, putting one foot in front of the other. It requires immense effort to banish images of the three horses with a bloody, broken leg, or worse, not finding them at all. As my blood sugar comes back into normal range, I force myself to think happy thoughts. As I look around the natural world, a world not plugged in to anything, the Monarch butterflies dart in and out of the Lupine and Bitter Cherry Flowers, I make myself imagine the three beasts running toward me, ready to give up the fight.

With the scent of pine filling my nostrils, I focus on images that parallel the glamour and power of a galloping horse…a white house on the shores of an azure harbor, snow angels in freshly-fallen snow, ocean waves, thundering midwest lightning storms, dew on a burgundy rose petal at sunrise.

My future self will be able to look back and laugh at this escapade as I remember the impressive feeling of the horses’ great untethering as they gallop off.

After a few minutes, out of the desperate depths of my own self-loathing, I feel the ground rumble before I see the flash of their manes and Hunter, the puppy, runs, tail wagging, up the trail. Ahead, around the bend of the pines, three horses abreast, a bay a gray and a chestnut, come trotting toward me, necks dripping with sweat, nostrils flaring, tails swishing. As I see them, I am overwhelmed with relief. I feel tears carving grooves in my dirt-caked face. My grey horse has a cherry red dog leash finagled around his head which tells me Carla had made contact and somehow turned them back toward me–and in this moment, I don’t care about the “how.”

I wave my hands and coo to them–whoaaa…whoaaa. I murmur as I watch their bodies to grant me permission to approach. I put my hand on the chestnut’s nose and throw the lead rope around his neck as I slip the halter over his massive head. Once the halter is on, I reach up and hug his tree of a neck and then I hear Carla’s truck come up the road.

Carla gets out, face red with tears and sweat. The look in her eyes says “boy do I have a story for you” but as I start to ask, she shakes her head. “Not yet” she says.

So I take the dog leash off of the grey and make a set of reins out of the leadrope and the leash. I look for a log to climb aboard my broad-backed chestnut monster–clearly the leader–and bank on the fact that the other two will follow. As I balance astride his back, I am rocked by his rhythm. We are connected, and it feels good. I expect him to be tired, but instead, he prances–trotting along from the glory of an afternoon out of reach from obligation, and all of a sudden, I understand his jigging. I get why they all ran.

In a world fraught with the pressure and responsibility to constantly connect, being cut loose from purpose, from obligation, feels sublime, but life hangs in the balance.