It was supposed to be a straightforward adventure. And then my path turned to water and light, life and death, and deep time.
My best laid plans always leave room for surprise.
It was supposed to be straightforward. I would take another road trip to a bison destination to gather blog and story map content. I would add to the project I sweated over for 18 months to publish– and then recovered from , letting it languish online for a year. My day job swelled with opportunity to innovate and lead. I suddenly found myself mentoring two college interns. I needed to divest myself of the whole Barbie Western Ranch kit after my last horse died. The country descended into surreal chaos. Too much going on to think, write, draw, communicate anything personal.
This trip, I would take time to decompress. The interns would be back at school. I would spend more time traveling, four days driving to Northwest Territories and Wood Buffalo National Park and three weeks on the road. I meticulously penned the plan on a pre-flight wait in March. I scheduled the trip for September to avoid mosquitoes and crowds. I left an itinerary and emergency numbers with my sister, neighbors, coworkers, friends. I would check in regularly. All set.
But my journeys, no matter how strategically planned and defined in scope, always lead somewhere I don’t expect. This time, it was meant to be about wildlife, documenting travel tips, history, updating neglected blogs with new stories.
And then my path turned. The journey became all about water and light, the randomness of life and certainty of death, and deep time.
It will take me awhile and a few posts to unpack this journey. I packed not only my gear but also a strange and dangerous organism that dogged me all summer and almost won. I drove across a national border and turned off the news to ignore my country in historic chaos, anger, and agony. The unexpected changed my perspective at every stop.
I’m not superstitious, but I will always carry a small wooden square carved from an ancient tree, pressed into my hand by a Métis man who struck up a conversation with me. He insisted I take the square with me to ensure my survival and safe return to Canada in the future. He asked me to look up the real history of St Paul des Métis, where the tree once lived. He wanted me to share the story as far as I could. People needed to know the truth, he said.
At the time we spoke, I wasn’t sure I could do that. There might not be another trip. Ever. By that point in my travels, I felt overwhelmed, almost done in by a microscopic pathogen, and meaningless in the face of time. I wasn’t sure it mattered what happened to me. This was supposed to be a simple adventure and now I felt like a kayaker spilled into infinite rapids, grabbing a breath anytime I surfaced in the sunlight.
Then, after that conversation, the tide turned- suddenly, finally.
Here is the path I followed, a route that landed me in a place unimaginably old. Watch for updates as I set out on the road for my first destination: Blue River, British Columbia.
(A) Snohomish, Washington
(B) Blue River, British Columbia
(C) Saskatoon Island Provincial Park, Grande Prairie, Alberta
(D) Sixtieth Parallel Territorial Park, Northwest Territories
(E) Hay River, Northwest Territories
(F) Peace Point, Wood Buffalo National Park, Alberta
I thought I would return from back-to-back trips to Nebraska and France brimming with stories. Instead, I came home to bathe the dead.
I was going to sit down after two disparate but rich trips, one to Nebraska and one to France, and write blog articles about amazing sights, perspective shifts and unexpected connections between the two places. I have thousands of photographs to sort, dozens of stories to tell.
I did not expect to find myself washing the dead a week after getting off a plane from Paris.
The namesake of this blog, my last horse, succumbed to apparent catastrophic colic on a sunny May day. I returned home from work on a warm spring evening, walked to the barn with a cool drink, planned to give him a good bath to scrub off shedding hair and layers of dust that brushes don’t lift. Instead I found him near death, staggering and foaming at the mouth, his eyes swollen shut. I struggled to get him to the barn, then watched him drop onto the ground as I frantically called the vet. My neighbors came to help, but it was too late. I held fingers to his neck as his pulse vanished.
Shock launched my brain into that vague survival space that protects us after trauma. The next day, I numbly wandered with my neighbor around my little town trying to find a heavy equipment operator to move Larkey so his body could be collected.
Livestock disposal is increasingly tough in an area with explosive development. Fewer facilities accept the remains. Fewer haulers service barns and veterinary clinics. They don’t like to pick up on Fridays and get stuck with carcasses in our legendary traffic. Burial is not an option where I live, right by a river in an estuary and floodplain.
So this is the second time I have lived with a deceased horse over a weekend. People like me still want to touch farm life and buffer ourselves against endless sprawl, condo buildings blocking out the sky, and metastatic subdivisions. People raise everything from urban chickens to llamas, goats, cattle, sheep, and horses. But end of animal life poses a challenge.
To pass time while waiting for help, I anxiously collected Larkey’s supplies- blankets and brushes and first aid and washing supplies. I loaded the truck and drove to the transfer station. My phone rang as I left the dump: someone in the rental equipment business had called someone else, and he called to tell me he could help me move the horse the next morning.
Back home, I started to focus. Larkey would go away soon, and I would never see him again. When I lost his brother, the veterinarian had clipped a portion of tail. A couple weeks later, a braided segment with charms arrived in the mail.
This time, there was no veterinarian with skilled hands to help. It was only me, and I have never been “girly”. I’m a hard-wired tomboy, with wash and wear hair and casual dress. I can do it up if needed, and I own business and formal wear, but my dress up doesn’t extend to hair.
The only time Larkey ever bit me was over my ineptness with hair dressing. It was the first Quarterhorse show we attended together, far from home. As a late foal, he spent his first winter in Idaho fighting with mares for food, and was always defensive about food afterward. At the show, while Larkey watched other horses eat their dinners, I struggled for over an hour to part his mane into segments and braid them. Finally done, I raised my hand to remove his halter and he unleashed his pent-up anger on my wrist. I made enough of a point that it never reoccurred, but I also never again toiled over his hair during dinnertime.
So now, 15 years after we left the show ring for a peaceful life at home, I needed to braid again. This time, there would be no biting, no matter how long it took. But first, I needed to wash the mud and blackberry canes from his tail, one terrible reminder of the struggle he went through alone. As I looked at him, I decided I would wash whatever I could reach, especially his bruised face.
Before institutionalized handling of the deceased, families and friends prepared the dead for final rest. Some cultures and religions still call for bathing protocols, perhaps with purified water infused with plum or herbs. For the rest of us, our loved ones are carted away, handled in an approved facility by licensed and trained individuals wearing appropriate protective gear. Our deceased reappear as ashes or as a neatly dressed body carefully made to look natural by a stranger’s hands.
For time immemorial, horses have held powerful symbolic meaning for peoples across the world. The Uffington White Horse was created by Bronze Age peoples who dug trenches up to 3 meters deep and filled them with white chalk.
Horse burial was practiced by peoples across the world, sometimes in sacrificial ritual, other times to provide the deceased person with a ride to the next world or life.
A Scythian burial mound in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains in Russia dates from the 7th century BC. The mound includes 22 horses carefully arranged. Chariot burials occurred in Rome and China, and the Nez Perce and Blackfeet peoples had specifihorse death rituals.
(Sketch of the Kostromskaya kurgan, or burial mound; public domain.)
Surely some people living on the margin of survival simply ate them; they may still have blessed the animal or performed a death ritual.
I would not be following ancient peoples by skinning Larkey and stuffing the hide or creating a frame with his bones. We have regulations about those things.
But I could wash him, and now I understand the power of the bathing ritual. Running my fingers through Larkey’s tangled tail, now clean and fresh with the scent of lavender conditioner, gently scrubbing the star on his forehead white again- it is what I would have done the night before had he lived. He would have been tied out after a snack, arching his lip when I scrubbed itchy spots, shifting his feet to pinch off the hose, squirming if the water got cold.
Washing the scuffed body clean felt like goodbye to my old, reliable friend. It felt like respect for my grumpy old gentleman, who endured my life’s twists and turns and the loss of his brother. Scrubbing his dead body would never cleanse the agony he went through, but it was the least I could do to apologize for not being home to help.
The braiding part came no easier for my clumsy fingers, but I had time to do it carefully. Plaits of black, brown, blonde, and auburn wound together slowly. For once, I was focused and calm as I twisted his thick tail into a tight braid. Sharp scissors sliced the braid clean below the tailbone. I hung the section in the house and unbraided the tail to dry.
Back in the paddock I placed Larkey’s bobbed tail on a clean white sack. I washed and dried his head one more time and laid it on a dry towel. I draped another white towel over his face and eyes. It felt like he went to sleep forever.
Rest in peace, grumpy, loyal Larkey Skip. I hope to forget your final hour, but I will never forget you. I will need to take a road trip, go to the prairie in a few weeks, to watch the sky and reimagine my life after 30 years with horses. And this blog remains a dedication to your companionship for the last 20.