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Cut Loose from Purpose in Tahoe National Forest

www.sherriharvey.com

by Sherri Harvey

In a moment of stupidity, I coerced my friends into taking the halters off the three horses we planned to ride along the Pacific Crest Trail to let them run free through the picture-perfect meadow, with no halters on– as I stood by with my Nikon D90. The terribly beautiful sight of a horse galloping away from me through the lush vibrant green Little Lasier Meadow both enchanted and agonized me at the same time. We had come to Tahoe for a weekend camping trip with our horses to escape our busy Silicon Valley hustle-and-bustle grind.

“Go ahead and remove their halters–they’ll stay close.” I tell my two friends.

As I stood at one end of the meadow and shot away, they galloped toward me–and kept going. The horses fled the meadow and took off for the dirt road that sat about half a mile below the PCT. Since I was still under the impression that they would stop, the swirl of dust around pounding hooves enhanced their beauty, until they disappeared. When I could no longer see them, I started to worry.

I ran back to base camp to get the truck. When I returned, my friend had employed her tracking skills and followed the hoof prints and horse poop on the dirt road. She jumped in the driver’s seat and I rooted myself in the bed of the truck, whistling and calling the way I usually summoned the horses from their pasture during feeding time.

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

My friend drove while I yelled for forty-five minutes. Why did they run? Because they could? Because it felt good? After twenty minutes, my voice became hoarse and my anxiety increased. Each minute that passed left me with a vision of them dodging traffic on the freeway. Each minute, another drop of sweat dotted my forehead. As a Type 1 Insulin-dependant diabetic on a pump, I usually have candy or sugar in my pocket. But since I ran after them in a hurry, I had nothing.

Standing in that truck and calling, I lambasted myself. I began questioning my own logic and my own sanity. Because I had recently written a memoir and was looking for an agent, I was constantly plugged in to the virtual world. Over and again, from agents, I had heard them say, “excellent writing, Brilliantly crafted. BUT do you have a platform?”

Uh, a PLATFORM?  I was a veteran English teacher, not a marketing consultant. I had been trying with all my might to Tweet and Retweet, post on IG, and to plaster Facebook with pictures for exposure. How do I build a platform? I wanted my book published but couldn’t figure out how to brand myself. How do I build an audience? Through pictures! I had thought. But what was I thinking letting them run free to snap a picture? Was any photo important enough to risk my precious horses lives as they ran away? What a horrible horse owner I am!  

This went on for twenty minutes. I rued my decision and questioned my sanity. Then, out of the dense forest about a football field in front of us, all three horses appeared triumphantly, heads high and nostrils flaring. They took one look at the truck and veered the opposite direction in full gallop. They saw us and ignored our calls.

We followed a bit until they were out of sight. As my friend slowed down, I hopped out of the truck and we made a plan. My friend stayed in the driver’s seat

“GUN IT. GO GET THEM. GET IN FRONT OF THEM!”

Off she sped, gravel flying in the wake. I stayed on the road on foot, halter in hand, and waited for them to turn back towards me. After I could no longer see or hear the truck, I stood in the quiet blue-green breath of the Ponderosa Pines and the Jeffry Furs. Being alone in the middle of the forest was sacred and profane at the same time. I had, like Thoreau, come to the woods to be alone. I had come to the woods to disconnect. The stillness amplified my own thoughts exponentially.

What the hell did I do? Why was I so stupid? Why did a photo matter so much to put them at risk? Is this really a way to build a platform?

And as I exerted more and more energy, walking and calling, my blood sugar continued to drop. I had no sugar on me at all-no granola bar or Life Savers. Nothing. And no way to call for help. In the middle of the trees, I was no longer tethered to anything. Nothing to lean on. No internet or phone, no Facebook, no Instagram. No Snapchat. It really was both sacred and profane at the same time. The craggly skyline of the Tahoe crest, the blue-grey rocks jutting up toward the sky, no buildings in sight. The blue butterflies moved along with me and the tree swallows and crows echoed through the pine trees.

I was certainly alone with just a halter and lead rope and the tool of my voice in the middle of Tahoe National Forest.

After a while, my thoughts began to scatter and become fragmented, as only low blood sugar can do to the mind. I headed after the direction of the truck in case the horses had turned around. All the while, I lambasted my decision to encourage their freedom for a sensational shot to post on IG. After about an hour of self-loathing, (I’m so dumb! How did I make it this far in life?) I was hungry and thirsty. I started to get shaky. I decided to sit in the shade for a bit because as a Type 1 Diabetic, maintaining good blood sugar control was always about the balance between insulin, exercise and food. Since I had no food, I needed to try to stop exerting so much energy.

As I sat, the profuse sweating was another low blood sugar indicator. The ringing in my ears got louder and louder. I wasn’t sure–low blood sugar or was it the traffic on the freeway in the distance?

I realized just how low my blood sugar was when I felt the urge to lay down and close my eyes. I came undone with visions of doom about the horses: what if they ended up on the freeway? I questioned my ability to make good choices about anything in my entire life.

They ran because they could. They saw an opportunity for freedom and grabbed it. Part of me was jealous.

I chewed on the weight of a phrase that returns to me repeatedly in my own life…obligation to purpose…The internet has created a false sense of purpose in my own life vision. Here in the forest, unplugged, disconnected, the virtual world of platform-building and image-crafting makes little sense, and I had become a slave to technology.

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

My low blood sugar thoughts spiraled downward and paranoia and despair started to set in. As an insulin-dependant diabetic, my pump was just one more link in my chain to technology, yet it saved my life every day. Since I felt faint, I ripped off the pump and waited for my blood sugar to start rising.  In case I passed out, I wanted to be somewhere obvious, like right in the middle of the road. I squatted, with my head in my lap, and I started to fade out. I tried to focus on naming the bird sounds: Killdeer. Tree Swallow. Mountain Chickadee. Somehow, in the fog of my thoughts, I gathered the wherewithal to rip off my Insulin-delivery device and wait for my blood sugar to start to come back up.

I lay in the middle of the trail and waited. I knew that with the pump not feeding insulin into my system, my blood sugar would eventually come back up. I just needed to keep my thoughts active.

As I waited for the shaking to stop and sanity to reappear, my mind returned to childhood in the woods back in Brown County, Indiana. I started thinking about the lightness of my childhood before the days of the internet. My mind returned to summer camp days of fireflies, campfires, s’mores, a time before being constantly plugged into the feed. I was trying so hard not to pass out. I wondered: is this my ultimate demise?

After about fifteen minutes, I started to come back around into a state of hopeful consciousness, I made myself get up and walk, putting one foot in front of the other. It required 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 came back into normal range, I forced myself to think happy thoughts. As I looked around the natural world, a world not plugged in to anything, the Monarch butterflies darted in and out of the lupine and pine filled my nostrils, I attempted to imagine the reality I wanted: my three lovely steeds running toward me, ready to give up the fight.

I imagined my future self looking back and laughing at this escapade and remember the impressive feeling of the horses’ great untethering as they galloped off.

After a few more minutes, out of the desperate depths of my own self-loathing, I felt the ground rumble before I saw the flash of their manes. Ahead, around the bend of the pines, three horses abreast, a bay a gray and a chestnut came trotting toward me, necks dripping with sweat, nostrils flaring, tails swishing. As I saw them, relief overcame me. My grey horse had a cherry red dog leash finagled around his head which tells me someone had made contact and somehow turned them back toward me–and in this moment, I didn’t care about the “how.”

I waved my hands and whispered to them–whoaaa…whoaaa. I murmured as I watched for their bodies to soften to grant me permission to approach. I didn’t want to spook them. When my big chestnut, the leader, made eye contact, I put my hand on his nose and threw the lead rope around his neck. I reached up and slipped the halter over his massive head. Once the halter was on, I hugged his tree of a neck as I heard a truck come up the road.

My friend got out, face red with tears and sweat. The look in her eyes said “boy do I have a story for you” but as I started to ask, she shook her head and uttered “Not yet–I will tell you later.”

So I took the dog leash off of the grey and made a set of reins out of the leadrope and the leash. I looked for a log to climb aboard my broad-backed chestnut beast of burden–clearly the leader–and banked on the fact that the other two would follow. As I balanced astride his back, rocked by his rhythm, my connection with him felt awesome. Somehow, I was plugged back into life through plugging into his movement. And just like that, plugged back in.

Although I expected him to be tired, he pranced–trotting along from the glory of an afternoon out of reach from obligation as he relished in the glory of his own moving body. And all of a sudden, I understood his jigging. I got why they all ran.

In a world fraught with the pressure and responsibility to serve others, and to constantly plug in to the world around us, being cut loose from purpose, even if only for a short time, felt sublime.