Little word, complex question…
by Andi Mills
Traditional nomads were compelled to travel in a yearly search for fresh pastures. Long Riders are different. They are answering an urgent need which has been awakened in their DNA and compels them to ride towards the unknown. The former represents a tribal migration, while the latter is an act of individual equestrian courage.
All Long Riders have asked ourselves, “Why set off on a difficult, and oft times dangerous, equestrian journey?” Likewise, it is a question that intrigues the pedestrians who meet us. “Why are you doing this,” they’ve asked us in a multitude of tongues in countries scattered around the globe. Though the answer to this ancient question is as complex as the wide variety of equestrian explorers represented by The Guild, North American Long Rider Andi Mills has expressed what may be the perfect answer to “Why?”
Making the decision to do an equestrian journey is the first step down an unmarked path that will change your life forever.
Once you announce your intention of making an equestrian journey of any substantial duration, people will inevitably ask, “Why?” You will have lots of answers to that question. The answers you give before your ride begins will be temporal and very different from the way you will answer that same question after your return.
The person that saddles up and begins the ride is unaware of the fact that they will never return. The person that comes back bears little resemblance to the person that left. He or she is a new creature, with new values, an entirely new perspective on life, and a wealth of knowledge too vast to communicate effectively to anyone who has not undergone the transformation themselves.
I found that I was deeply impacted on an emotional, physical, intellectual and, most dramatically for me, on a spiritual level. I will never be the same.
Whether your journey takes you from New York to California or from Timbuktu to Kalamazoo, you will eventually find yourself on a different plane of existence, as you travel. You find you have become separated from the world around you that is still speeding by, in pursuit of the modern life style. Most people will not comprehend the reality of this phenomenon that I lovingly refer to as, “The Long Rider Syndrome.” I first noticed it when I was riding high in the desert area outside of San Bernardino, California. I could look down and see the silver ribbon of freeway far below us and quite a distance away. We were on the fringes of the world as it was speeding to soccer games, business meetings, work or whatever. We were no longer part of that world… we were in our own realm above the rat race. It gave me a sense of tranquility.
When I was asked why I wanted to walk out of my life for six months to ride my horse, I would have truthfully answered that I wanted to fulfill a childhood dream. I would have told them that I was doing the ride for stroke awareness and to educate on the value of early detection of strokes. It was an attempt to help people and make a difference in the world… a humanitarian effort. I would have told those asking, that I needed to know if this fifty-six year old, diabetic, grandmother of five was still up to meeting an awesome challenge… And yes, if pressed, I might even admit to a few close friends that I wanted to feed that insatiable appetite for one more big adventure in my life. That secret part of me that needs to go around the next bend, peek over the next ridge, or go down the next canyon, on the back of a horse, has driven me since childhood.
From the first step of my journey, a metamorphosis began. Clichés I had heard all my life started to crystallize and become the essence of truth. They plunged deep roots into in my soul.
I realized that I am today, who I am, because of the cumulative experiences of my lifetime. I learned that it’s not about what I can take with me, but about the part of myself I leave behind with every person I meet along the way.
The first one thousand miles drove home the realization that the destination is not nearly as important as the journey to reach it. I learned that where you are at any given moment is more important than any place you have been or will ever go.
I learned the cavernous difference between “needs” and “wants.” I learned, not only to endure and overcome difficulties, but to truly embrace them for the valuable lessons they teach me.
I learned to be content in my circumstances, no matter what they might be at the moment… and most importantly, I learned that true contentment is a choice.
My vision changed dramatically. While crossing the Mojave Desert, I learned to look beyond the endless expanse of sand and to see instead, the individual grains of sand that make up the many faces of the treacherous desert. Instead of seeing mountains, I began to see the rocks, ravines and the walls that make up the mountains. Instead of seeing bugs… I began to see the intricate beauty of their fragile wings. My eyes were starving for all the beauty that surrounded me and they couldn’t get enough of it. I tried to make indelible pictures in my mind, to burn the beauty into my mind so I would never forget it… knowing at the same time, it was a fleeting thing not even a photograph could capture.
At some indefinable point, my trusty gelding, Jericho, and I ceased to be two separate entities. We were each an extension of the other, neither one complete alone. We learned to trust each other for our safety and comfort. It was a seamless melding of the two spirits so complete, you could no longer define us as individuals. We had become a Centaur.
By the time my journey came to an end, I no longer held any illusions about myself. I knew exactly who I was and exactly who I was not. How many people live and die, not knowing that simple truth?
In the United States, millions of people live their lives wrapped in protective equipment, belted into seats, cushioned by air bags and living in climate controlled homes. None of those things are bad. They call it progress.
Few people today encounter circumstances where they must pit themselves against the raw elements for extended periods of time. They experience few dangers in life more threatening than commuter traffic on the way to work.
In the middle of the Mojave Desert we were at the mercy of the earth, the horrific intensity of the sandstorms, the heat and the endless wind. The desolation added a whole new dimension of danger. It was absolute and potentially life threatening. If either of the horses, my riding partner or I, had been seriously injured, there was no cell signal to summon 911. If one of us had been able to ride to the distant highway and had the opportunity to tell a passing motorist of our plight, we would have to wait for that vehicle to travel sixty or more miles to call in our emergency. Then, a helicopter would have to be dispatched to find us, having no land marks, no street signs, no GPS, or helpful local people to help locate us. My orange reflective vest would be the only thing that would mark our location in that vast expanse of desert.
I cannot adequately describe how it feels to be that vulnerable, to reach deep inside yourself to find the courage to do something that you are afraid to do, and come out safely on the other side, exhausted, but otherwise unscathed. It is the ultimate emotional high.
I was scared of the desert before we entered it. It attempted to break our horse’s legs in the gopher holes. It tried to bow their tendons in its deep drifting sand, and to blind us in a raging sandstorm so severe that it closed down I-40 north of us. It tried to swallow Jericho and me in an earthquake crack. It took its best shot and finally, begrudgingly, it released us as we crossed the beautiful Colorado River, into Parker, Arizona. I looked back across the Colorado and realized that I no longer feared the Mojave. In that deep place where the fear had lived, a tremendous respect had taken up residence.
There are few arenas in our civilized world where you can taste the authentic stew of life. Its broth is made of the courage to face the unknown. The meat is the experience, in and of itself. The vegetables are the difficulties you overcome, the insights you gain and the self-confidence you develop. It is seasoned liberally with equal amounts of disappointments and accomplishments. Add a pinch of trepidation, a heaping spoonful of fear, and a cupful of stick-to-it-tive-ness. Stir constantly for six months or several years depending on how long your journey is. Trust me when I tell you it is the best meal of your life!
Most people don’t want to taste the stew for it is too spicy. A few that want to taste it, don’t want to pay the price for the meal, so they sit safely in their comfortable recliners and experience life vicariously as they watch the adventure channel.
There were originally three other people on this ride. We lost one early on. The remaining three that completed the journey filled up on the savory stew.
For each of us, it was simultaneously a team effort and yet, it was four individual journeys. We each gained our own insights, wrestled with our own personal demons and came away with our own private memories.
Did I hear you ask me, “Why the journey?” Well… It’s because I love the stew!!
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