"Never again will I tease MB about her sense of direction", I repeated that over and over to myself as we backtracked 15 miles of rugged Eastern Ky mountain trails, returning to our trailer parked at Red Hill Horse Camp, near Livingston, KY. It was pitch black the last 45 minutes, our horses were exhausted, and we had aching knees and dozens of itchy bug bites.My daughter and I had gone to beautiful Red Hill to trail ride on our Mountain Horses for the day, hoping to finish by dinner time and be home by dark. We'd been there several times before, and had found the trails and Forest Service logging roads that were part of Daniel Boone National Forest to be interesting, varied, and somewhat challenging. The challenging part was welcomed, as we'd been riding regularly and our horses were getting fairly fit. Even Mirian's horse, Gringo, who had foundered this spring, was going well.We trekked on familiar trails until lunchtime- some gravel logging roads with abandoned houses and several steep, rocky, narrow paths that a hiker would find tough, especially with deep puddles all along the way from the recent thunderstorms. Trail intersections are cleverly marked with numbers that correspond to a map (we smartly had two copies), but we didn't pay much attention since we "knew" this particular area. We passed only one other group of riders, though the camp was full of trailers. We ate our packed lunches along beautiful Horse Lick Creek, shaded by paw paws, pines and beeches. I've been told that this is one of the cleanest streams in Kentucky, and the horses welcomed the break.
That is when the bad decisions started.... Mirian didn't want to go up the steep hill that loomed over our lunch spot marked with a number on a tree, so we continued along the creek which beckoned with it's coolness and charm. Soon we were going along a path that seemed fit only for 4-wheelers- it was pocked with huge ruts that had become cesspools of water from 6-18 inches deep and that seemed to be nurseries for mosquitoes and horseflies. I should have noticed with greater awareness that there were no hoofprints along this stretch. Not to worry, we kept coming to areas that looked familiar, though we weren't noticing any numbers marking intersections.
Eventually we went by an abandoned house that I didn't recall from previous rides, but then there was a hill that seemed to be going in the right direction and that I thought we'd climbed before. It was tough-going with muddy spots, ruts, and sandstone boulders, and about halfway up my intrepid horse Sunday did a complete about-face and took the rein in his mouth. Hmmm, maybe I should have listened to him?
At the top, we passed a new hunter's cabin that could have been accessible only by horseback or ATV, and I knew we'd never seen it before. Okay, perhaps we weren't in familiar territory but we're not going back down that hill or along the horsefly stretch, certainly we'll run into a familiar road or trail with a marker? After what seemed like miles of gravel logging road, I had to take a switch to my normally willing horse and we covered a lot of ground at a good clip. Then, just as we saw some signs of civilization, Sunday lost a front shoe. Great, I thought, this is one of the rockiest places we've ever been, not a good time to have a barefoot horse. I dismounted and we walked to a Forest Service Sign with maps posted.
Uh-oh, Turkey Foot and S-Tree? These were places that my husband had talked about riding motorcycles years ago, and I knew from previously looking at a map that this was nowhere close to Red Hill! I decided it was time to call the camp owner for assistance, and was relieved to discover that I had a cell signal. "You are 45 miles from the camp by road, in another county now", said Gene at the camp. "The quickest way for you to get back is the same way you came!" I explained the lost shoe and expressed concern that we wouldn't make it by dark. Gene suggested that I wrap the foot with whatever we had, and that he thought we could make it back by dark.Although we should have been carrying duct tape and vet wrap or an emergency hoof boot(like my nearly-always prepared friend, MB does on the trail), we did have plastic rain ponchos. I wrapped Sunday's foot with one and tied it with rawhide. He was too tired to object, and it held up for quite a while before tearing to shreds. Fortunately there were ample places for the horses to drink and we had brought along more water than I really thought we'd need. I used the fly-spray roll-on on myself and Mirian, and we plunged back through the bug zone, grateful to have fly whisks to keep the horses from being eaten alive.
I tried to keep from thinking too much about what it would be like to spend the night on the trail with no flashlight or tent, but Mirian and I did discuss what we might have to do. We had a few small bags of chips left, and two chocolate bars (like Nancy Drew always seemed to have in emergencies!), plus enough water to make it through the night. We would sleep on our saddle pads, cuddle, and cover ourselves with the other poncho if necessary. That girl can be extremely brave at times, she never complained a bit! I occasionally sang and told stories (including the one about the time my friends and I got lost on an uninhabited island in the Bahamas- also my fault!) to keep us and the horses amused, and many more hours passed.We finally got back to marked territory, and when we returned to more gravel Mirian suggested that we use her small saddle pouch for a foot pad for Sunday. It worked marvelously, with a drawstring and all, and I appreciated her sacrifice since she loved that bag! I told Mirian that we were fortunate to be lost on one of the longest days of the year, with a full moon to boot. We arose from a darkening hollow to see the moon and bright, clear skies, though it was after 9 PM. I knew, though, that the last treacherous stretch near camp would be in darkness and Mirian was worried about the steep hills. Fortunately, it was the section that we and the horses know best. I had called Gene again when we were on a ridge to tell him where we were and that I thought we'd probably make it.
The final stretch was in near-total darkness, and we had the rare need to completely trust our horses. An occasional moonbeam shown through the tall trees, but didn't shed much light on the deep hollow's narrow, rocky trail. I assured Mirian that horses have better night-vision than we do, and she said that was good because all she could make out was Sunday's white tail. We began to smell campfire smoke, and knew we were very close, as did the horses who picked their way with what seemed like telepathy. We made the final climb, and came out at the campground which was filled with happy voices, boombox music and campfires alongside trailers. "You just now coming in?", a few people inquired as we dragged back to our trailer. "Yep, it's been quite a day," I replied, with a feeling of irony and understatement.
Gene met us at our trailer and made sure that we and our horses were okay. He then invited us over to the restaurant to have something to eat, and we gratefully accepted after we had the horses settled, watered, and checked over. He wouldn't take a penny for our dinner or our day-ride, and I know he was relieved we were okay. I asked how far he thought we'd gone, and he estimated about 30 miles in all! It was after 10 when we ate, and around 12:30 when we finally made it home (we stopped once for ibuprofen for our aching joints!).
Mirian and I are making up a new kit to keep permanently in our saddle bags- duct tape, vet wrap, bug spray, a flashlight, battery back up for the cell phone, matches, granola bars, ponchoes, leatherman and a few other things. After taking a few days off, bute for Gringo, and a new shoe for Sunday, we can't wait to get back to the trail! I'm sure that the tale of this particular trail ride will be rehashed for years to come.
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