Every woman has her preferred holiday. Some like to lounge at a resort, sipping a mojita and watching the poolboy skim leaves from the water. Others like a trip to a glittering city – Manhattan, or Paris – where they buy uncomfortable shoes and teeter around an opera-house lobby. Others like a spiritual retreat, featuring vegan breakfasts, hot yoga, and mud facials. Me, I like something a little different.
How different? I like to fly to Calgary, then drive three hours (alone) into the middle of nowhere, where I meet up with a half-dozen other middle-aged women of similar tastes. There, we toss our gear into the communal rustic cabins, pull on our boots, and head like a gaggle of overgrown teenyboppers over to the corral – and the horses. Because that’s what we’re here for: riding. Not just ordinary riding, but riding in the Rockies.
Okay, so we’re not exactly girls. We’re in our 50s and 60s, experienced riders of various shapes and sizes. We bond like Crazy Glue: horse-mad, post-menopausal women, overjoyed to be playing horsie. There is a great deal of mutual mockery over our graceless attempts to mount up, and over our horses’ looks and personalities, and their inevitable groaning, farting, and mooching of trail mix. When we run out of jokes to make about each other and the horses, we turn our attention to our outfitter and his teenage son, the long-suffering Dave and Cody. We remind Cody periodically that he should never repeat any of the bad words we’re using, or the songs, or the jokes. Particularly not the jokes.
We ride for five, six, even seven hours, single file up the mountainsides, across cold deep rivers, through meadows of wild grass and forests of scorched pine. We see eagles and deer; we catch trout and eat them for dinner, along with steaks and corn-on-the-cob cooked by Jackie and Cheyenne, the wrangler’s wife and daughter. We all fall in love with our horses. Mine is a big bruiser called Lucky Buck, who has a butt like a truck and a head like a dinosaur’s. By the end of four days, I’ve got a teenage-girl horse-crush on the big goof.
There are not a lot of creature comforts, or even much personal hygiene, on a ranch trip in the Rockies. The cabins have bunkbeds, and no lights or heat. The outhouse isn’t that bad, as outhouses go, and there’s a pyjama-party feeling to chatting in the darkness of the cabin. When the dawn comes up, there’s frost on the ground, and snow on the mountain peaks. I walk through the pines down to the river – a cold storm of water, roaring past a cliff three storeys high. I pick up a river stone, one of millions. Its surface feels as smooth as human skin.
Yes, I like resorts and cities and operas. They’re fun distractions. But for healing? For restoration? For that, I need the mountains, the women, the air and the wind. I need the quiet of the forest as the horses pick their way along the track. I need to hear my heart beating in the dark. Then I know I am alive. Then I know: I’m well.