Then Willow's posse of six, led by Kaycie, the kiddie wrangler, exits the corral. In the sudden quiet that follows, Ellen and I go to meet the horses assigned to us for the week. I can't stop worrying about Willow, but soon we pass the kids, and . . . they're in heaven. For years, at home, Willow's been told not to bully the dogs; now she's being instructed to kick a giant animal and pull on its reins. I abruptly remember one of the reasons riding had been such fun: at a time in your life when you have no power or control over much of anything, you're suddenly given permission to make a huge creature do whatever you want. And though I know horses can be dangerous, the ones selected for the children are almost like big dogs. And Kaycie, an 18-year-old from North Carolina, seems to be the ultimate in capable instructors.
For our first ride, head wrangler Toby leads Ellen and me, along with Jean, a 73-year-old Minnesota matriarch, on a slow horseback walk up a mountain. Before we take off I explain to Toby that my childhood riding skills have disappeared, and that Ellen never had any. She is, well, not anti-animal, just not fond of pets. Knowing this, perhaps, animals love her. Visiting us in our apartment, she's been known to accidentally kick a ferret across the room. Toby puts her on a coal-black gelding called Darth Vader.
"Tama?" Ellen inquires from across the corral as she mounts the, uh, steed. "Why am I doing this?"
My horse, big and brown, is called Alazan. We cross gorgeous dusty fields, redolent of sage. The heat is so dry, it's almost like being in a sauna—one with a landscape of brown mountains, streams, and sandstone canyons. Alazan isn't too happy, though; in fact, the animal is undeniably depressed. I rename him Ativan, after the tranquilizer.
"Move, buddy!" I keep shouting. "Pick up your feet! You're falling over, man!"
Ellen takes to riding at once. Sometimes I hear her, prancing ahead of my comatose creature, talking.
"Oh, Darth, take good care of me baby, you handsome lunk."
"Hey!" I shout. "You never talk to my animals like that. What's gotten into you?"
"My life is in his hands. I love him."
On more than one occasion, she announces, in all seriousness, that she wants to bring him home. Within a day or so she is flying across the meadows.