Passing Through the Shadow of the Valley of Mean People


By Elizabeth Speth

I love Sundays.  In my mostly beautiful life, they are a high point.

On Sundays I saddle up my horse Cake, and we ride through beautiful places like this:

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And this:

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There is a little scotch in my flask.  I take pictures.  I enjoy the rhythm of Cake’s breathing and Mother Nature’s too.

On a recent Sunday, I hurriedly loaded my horse in the trailer at home, drove for a bit, unloaded him at a trailhead overlooking the American River Canyon and the famous Western States trail network.  I unloaded my saddle and began brushing Cake as he munched grass.  And then I saw blood on his flank.

I looked everywhere to find the source, and finally did.  The underside of his tail, hidden to the casual eye, was a bloody pulp.  It could have starred in its own horror movie. Further frantic examination revealed large swollen spots on his belly, possibly lymph nodes.  Maybe abscesses.  I couldn’t tell, and it was Sunday.  A day my veterinary clinic reserves for emergencies.  I needed help determining whether this was one, so I called the clinic on the spot and got the vet on the phone.

While I was describing Cake’s symptoms,  a man parked his car next to me.  A lean, sinewy, older fellow, dressed for running.  He looked at me and my horse, and asked what was going on, even though I was clearly conversing on the phone.  I held up one finger, and continued to explain my situation to the vet.

Running Man peppered me with a few more questions, which got tangled in my worried mind with the vet’s simultaneous queries.

Running Man:  “Is your horse sick?  Is he lame?  What’s the problem?  It’s a great day for riding.  Are you going to go?  Whatever it is, it can’t be that bad, can it?  Oh, blood on the tail?  That’s not a big deal, can’t your wrap it?  Why don’t you just wrap it?”

I held up my finger again as my vet, a sweet and patient woman on her day off, asked me to snap some photos of the tail and belly, and then text them to her, so she could decide whether he should be seen emergently.  I hung up, trying to figure out how to hold a now-dancing Cake, lift his tail, and snap pictures in enough light so they could be seen.  Also, Running Man was beginning to frustrate me.

He asked again what was wrong, I told him briefly, and added that I was in the process of dealing with it with the vet.

He offered his opinion that we coddle our horses too much, it didn’t sound that bad to him, maybe I should just try this, or that, or maybe this other thing, which in his experience always worked …”

I was flustered.  I said:  “Sir, thank you, but I’m actually a bit distracted right now.  The vet is waiting for pictures so she can help me determine what to do.”

“What to do is obvious,” he replied, even though he hadn’t actually seen the problem for himself.  “You just blah, blah, blah.…”

“Sir,” I said.  I really need to focus on this.  “I’m getting veterinary help.  Thank you very much.  Enjoy your run.  It’s a beautiful day.”

“Oh,” he said.  “I’m going to run a bit in the canyon, maybe eight miles or so, although I’ve got this sore hamstring, but I think I can make it to that spot at the….blah, blah, blah…”  That went on for a bit.

Meanwhile I”d dropped my phone twice, smeared it with blood, and finally managed to get the tail up to snap the picture by holding Cake’s lead rope in my teeth so his rear end was facing the good light.

“That doesn’t look too bad,” said Running Man.  “Probably been rubbing it.”

(Because horses always rub themselves bloody for fun! Everyone knows this!)

He continued:  “What you want to do is…”

I took a deep, deep breath.

“Listen.  I’m in the process of figuring out to do with a veterinarian.  Who is waiting for pictures.  I’m flustered, and worried about my horse.  I’m just having a little trouble giving you my full attention right now.  I want to devote it to this.”

He drew himself up.   “I finished Tevis (hundred mile equine endurance race), you know.  It’s not like I don’t know what I’m talking about.”

What I wanted to say:  “Good for you.  I had no idea they handed out veterinary degrees upon completion.”

What I said:  “Good for you.  I’m going to call my vet now.  Please excuse me.”

Running Man’s face hardened.  His eyes narrowed meanly, right before he slowly and deliberately swept them over my flushed, sweaty,  addled, disheveled self.  I knew what he was going to say before he even said it.  I both saw and felt it coming.

“Maybe,” said Running Man, “now that your horse is laid up, you can take up running.  You look like you could use some exercise.”

My mouth dropped.  The phone rang — my vet had received the pictures.  Running Man said a few more things I did not hear because I turned my back on him.

My vet said:  “That actually looks pretty awful, Elizabeth.  Let’s get him in.”

I don’t remember when Running Man actually disappeared (hopefully forever).  I loaded my horse and headed to the clinic.

I won’t leave you in suspense about poor Cake.  He had an extreme allergic reaction to something he was grazing on in the pasture.  Many daily scrubbings and ointments and medications later, he is on the mend.

My wounds, however, have been slower to heal, and I am stuck in the shadow of the Valley of the Mean People.

Because I don’t meet many of them, to tell you the truth.  Very few people in my life exert themselves to annoy, irritate, aggravate, provoke, inconvenience, or wound me.  The opposite is in fact the case.  Even at work.

If your life is full of annoyers/irritators/aggravators/wounders, I am so very sorry.  What a horrible, toxic thing.  I wish you strength and  courage.  You can stop reading this now, because you are likely thinking I’ve been a naive idiot, living in a fool’s paradise on a fatty diet of illusions.

I started gnawing on this as soon as I knew Cake would live.  Driving home from the vet clinic, a few dollars lighter, there were voices in my head.

My grandmother’s — I could hear her clearly — repeating one of her favorite phrases: “Well.  He doesn’t have the sense God gave a goose, does he.”  This was never a question for her.  It was a statement.  No question mark.

I thought about my grandfather, a big man with a booming voice who would have cold-cocked the goose senseless had he behaved thusly toward my grandmother.

As I turned into my driveway, my memory replayed one of my dear friend Stefan’s oft-repeated and much-beloved character summations:  “What an ass-hat!”

It made me miss my grandmother, my grandfather, and Stefan, but it marginally comforted me.  Stefan is the only one of the three I can still talk to about these things, grandmother and grandfather being long gone, and so I did.  He is an incredibly articulate fellow, with a surgical precision when it comes to defining social boundaries and reasonable human interaction.  I am a proud graduate of the Stefan Murphy Finishing School of Professional and Personal Excellence, and my diploma is treasured.

I know Stefan would have leveled the man with one polite phrase had he been in my scuffed-up riding boots (but his would be polished to a fine sheen, and manufactured for him personally by Ralph Lauren).  Stefan would never have let the dialogue degenerate to the level of personal insults.  He’d have sent Running Man packing definitively after his second ill-timed question.  I know this about Stefan, but I can’t think fast enough on my feet to replicate what he does.


Stefan is the opposite of mean. If he is your friend, he will write impassioned letters on your behalf to people who wronged you in childhood. He jots down limericks on difficult days to cheer you up. He will devastate your enemy with a graceful insult.

So I decided to ask him instead how he copes with the aftermath of a mean person.  Does he dismiss it?  Let it go?  Namaste his way through it and move on to bigger and better things?  Or does he dwell on it, let the experience form an ulcer of angst in his soul?  Because I was working on one of those.

“Oh I’m a dweller,” he assured me after I told him my sad tale, and we agreed Running Man wore an ass for a hat.  “An Olympic caliber dweller.  I could medal in the Dweller Decathlon.”

All right.  I felt better.   But I still had the spiritual hazardous spill to clean up.  The ulcer to heal.

As the song says, there’s so much in this world to make us bleed.  And, I’m sorry, I have to believe most of us in this world don’t really want that.

Sometimes, when I am stumped in the Compassion Generation Department, it helps to look at the world from the other guy’s perspective.  Cover a mile in his proverbial running shoes, as it were.  I thought of Running Man, and figured it was safe to conclude he is oblivious to social cues.  He is self-involved, attention-demanding, and has a bit of a temper.  He lashes out when he doesn’t get his way.

Overlooking the personal insult, he invaded my life at a time when I was terribly worried about my horse.  He hijacked the situation and demanded an ego stroking.  People rarely only do this now and then, to my way of thinking.  It’s got to be a lifestyle, right?

So, when he interacts with people, they must respond to that fairly uniformly.  When he executes his signature Running Man moves, people are likely often outraged and offended.  So what does Running Man see then?

He sees narrowed eyes.  Hard faces.  Jaws set against him.  He sees a hard, angry world, and it is possible he has no idea that he started all of that.

Of course, I don’t know his struggles.  Maybe they are enormous. Maybe I would weep if I knew his hardships.  There’s so much in this world to make us bleed.

These are the closest things I have to answers.  Unlike my grandmother, some of my observations end in question marks.   At least for a while.

I’m not excusing the ass-hat.  He is going to have to get himself figured out, squared away.  Or not.  I’m just trying to get past him.

But first I want to say something to him.

Running Man:  On the off-chance you read this, and it provokes/irritates/aggravates/wounds you, I want to paraphrase one of my favorite authors by way of explanation.  If you want people to write/think fondly of you, you should have behaved better.

Let’s end on a good note, shall we?  This is Cake.  Feeling better.

mean 2        mean 1

mean 3     mean 4

Confessions of a Tevis Volunteer (Or: Why I Keep Coming Back)

By Elizabeth Speth

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Volunteers meet a weary rider at the gate into Francisco’s.

The annual Western States Trail Ride, popularly called the Tevis Cup, is a grueling 24-hour horseback ride over 100 miles of exceptionally beautiful and punishing terrain.  Sanctioned by the American Endurance Ride Conference, it is a horse-centric event, designed around the safety and well-being of the animal.

It’s an amateur race against the clock, no cash prizes, only a coveted buckle.  Started in 1955, it is considered the  founding event in endurance racing, and is still known as the most difficult.  Over the years, it has evolved into something that requires nearly a thousand people to make sure up to 200 riders and their horses make the journey safely.

The psychology of the riders — why would they do such a thing? — is the subject of another blog.  They are a breed apart.  The training of their magnificent steeds for such a trial is also another discussion entirely.

All I’m qualified to address is the volunteerism aspect of this.  For a large handful of years — I’m fuzzy on the exact number out of sheer fatigue — my husband and I have braved miles of rocky, narrow roads to report for duty in the early afternoon at the rugged Francisco’s outpost, at Mile 86.  We remain there until the pre-dawn hours of the morning, sometimes pulling out as the sky begins to lighten.  This is where we put the exhausted horses and riders back together, hydrate, refresh and encourage them, and send them on to the last part of their journey.  This is where we marvel at the freshness of the front-runners, who breeze in and out and look as though they are in the middle of a leisurely ten-mile trail ride. All of them have come from the high peaks near Lake Tahoe, and will end their journey in Auburn, CA, if they make it that far.

A lot has happened in the years I’ve volunteered, and I’ve loved every minute of it.  The following is a list of things I’ve been privileged to do, and so I feel qualified to say I will happily do them again — and again — year after year, until fate and a good horse and the aligned stars finally put me at the starting line.

Here, in no particular order, is my list of proven qualifications and skills:

I will be happy to see you at one a.m. in a remote place, with the moon rising over a tree-fringed canyon, as the air is turning cold.  You have been riding nearly twenty hours, give or take.  In temperatures that exceeded 110 degrees.  You’ve had a long day.  We’ve left the light on for you, because you still have a ways to go.

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I will sponge your horse with cool water as his heart rate slows.  I’ll stake out a little spot for him to eat a nourishing bran mash and clean hay, as peacefully as possible.

I’ll pay attention when you explain her little quirks and preferences, how to best get her to eat and drink and relax.

I will check your gelding’s pulse with my stethoscope, count his respirations, tell you when you are clear to see the vet and get on down the road.

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I will fill your water bottles with cold water, gatorade, lemonade — whichever you like — and I’ll make sure they are safely tucked into your saddlebags.

I will make you sandwiches.

I’ll go find carrots for your horse, a rump rug so he doesn’t cramp, and watermelon because I remember you from last year, and I know your mare loves it.

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I will stay with you while you throw up, wretchedly, exhaustedly, on the ground in front of your chair under the gas lamp.  Riding in the dark for hours gave you motion sickness, and your dehydration didn’t help.  You are too tired to be embarrassed, and I’m glad, because you shouldn’t have to worry about that.

I will hold your horse and look discreetly the other way while you pee on a bush not a foot away from me.

I will share my antacids with you, my Tylenol and my sunscreen.  I’ll rub your bad knee, if you ask me to, or your shoulders or your horse’s muscled rump.

I will run five miles down a trail in my boots, in deep darkness, because your horse stumbled and you both went over a cliff.  My fellow volunteers and I will be overjoyed to find you alive, clinging to a steep hillside, seriously injured but with humor and graciousness intact.  Your horse will have made his way back to camp by then, in better shape than you.  I will sit with you for a few hours while the moon pries the black sky open, and we wait for rescue folks to arrive.

I will follow the rescue crews out as they carry you back over those five miles in a stokes basket, and I will resist the urge to kiss you on the forehead because, for all you have been through, you are still in for the ambulance ride from hell over miles of rough road to get out of this canyon and to help.

I will call your wife as the sun rises, and your helicopter lifts off for the nearest trauma center.  I  will assure her that I’ve seen you with my own eyes, that you were awake and alive.  I will listen to her stoicism and bravery on your behalf, but I will hear her finally break down when I mention that your horse took the best care of you that he could in the accident.  She will say that she loves that darn horse.  What is understood but not said is how much she loves you — enough to let you do this crazy thing.

I will make you brownies.

I will give your horse electrolytes, and trot him/her out for the vet for you because you are tired/throwing up/too lame to do it.  Your horse will, miraculously, be sound at 86 miles because you have spent the day attending to him, monitoring him, reaping the benefits of months or years of careful preparation.

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Both riding and crewing Tevis can be a family affair. My daughter helping out a junior rider.

I will check on you several times while you wait three hours to get your horse trailered out after you are pulled for a lameness because some damn rock in the road had your name on it.  I will marvel that you are sleeping on the ground almost between your horses’ feet, and I will admire both you and the horse for that relationship, and your journey together.

I will envy you as you pile your tired body in the saddle for the last fourteen miles, so delirious you have to ask me which way the trail lies.  I will watch you until darkness swallows you up.  I will think you are very brave.  I will think your horse is a miraculous thing of beauty.

My thoughts will follow you to the finish line.  You started out with a 50-50 chance of making it, and you’ve come so far.  I am willing you to get there.

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My husband Neil and me. Tevis 2014.

Me, I will  be thinking longingly of bed, and also about clearing my schedule for next year.

And likely you are thinking the same thing.

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