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35 Miles and Counting


November 3rd, Cowboy and I completed our first 35-mile endurance ride! The excitement and joy were quickly followed by fear as my boy became ill then tragic as we were running for our lives along with an entire community in the Northern California town of Paradise as a result of the Camp Fire. 

This is my story, there are so many more people who have suffered far greater than me. But writing is my therapy and this is my journey-we completed 35 miles and we're still going.

The journey begins
On November 3rd Cowboy and I were on our second attempt to complete a limited distance ride. It was a day of many firsts for us. We had been conditioning with my friend N, who this go around was going to crew for me (Thank God-this was a huge blessing), but that meant Cowboy and I were going out alone. We hadn't done that before for any amount of distance and we were going further than we ever have at one time-conditioning rides were max 12 miles. The night before the ride, which had been postponed from the month before due to fire danger, was changed from 30 miles to 35 miles!

We were all smiles on our way out, riding both alone and with riders along the trail. We were met by endurance riders throughout with words of encouragement, support and friendly faces. A wonderful group of people that I will always appreciate and hold wonderful memories close to my heart.

I came off of Cowboy with a surprise deer and injured my knee about 6 weeks earlier. Before the first vet check my knee pretty much gave out and although I didn't realize it until pictures much later-I was leaning heavily to the right offsetting the pressure to my left knee. Cowboy's heart of gold carried me through the entire distance, he ate, he drank, walked with me when I couldn't ride, held steady when we left groups of riders behind or when they left us behind. We had 8 ½ hours to complete our ride. The end was in sight with only minutes to spare and about a mile to go. We had to give it one more push. I crawled back on and asked my boy to run-off we went. I hoped off about 600 feet from the finish and began to walk, those waiting at the finish line-said run!! We made it over the line at 4:28 pm, Cowboy pulsed down at 4:29. Tears sprung to my eyes as I was told we made it-one minute to spare. My goal this year was to finish-we had done it!

Cowboy's vet check was good-we had our first completion! The euphoria of that day crumbled when on Monday morning I noticed he had left his dinner from the night before and would not touch his breakfast. At first, I had thought the beginning of a colic. He never laid down but was hanging his head down about an inch from the ground. He stopped drinking, stopped eating, gut sounds weren't great-but he was pooping and peeing. By Tuesday he had a fever, on Wednesday my most wonderful vet in the world, Dr. Jessie, came to check my baby out.

My baby is sick!
That morning the fever was low grade at 101, when she arrived it was 103.7! He was given more Banamine, I hosed him down with cold water and the plan was to tube him just in case colic, to replenish fluids and load him with some electrolytes. I also made the decision to get a blood panel done on him which would be ready the next day. At this point, I was completely beside myself. I thought for sure I had killed my horse doing the ride-except, he isn't "just a horse" to me-he is my hero, my best friend, my partner. I went home to gather a sleeping bag and decided I was going to stay with him-surely a decision that saved both of our lives.

When I returned, my baby's temperature was not lower-it was blazing to 104.5! I hosed him off, gave his next dose of banamine and fruitlessly attempted to get him to drink. In a bunkhouse 10 feet from his stall, I cracked the window open, so I could hear his every movement and painstakingly made it through the night. Never, ever ask if things can get worse-they most certainly can.

Thursday, November 8th-the morning that would ultimately change everyone's life started out for me at 6:30am. I awoke to find a bit of a low-grade fever-nothing close to the night before. My boy was refusing food and still had not taken in a drop of water. There's a small pond about a half mile from the ranch-I decided I was going to give him his medicine and walk him down to see if I could find a patch of green grass to tempt him into eating. The sun was just coming up, he walked easily next to me as we made our way-a flock of geese-noticed us as we were working our way down to the pond and soared into the brilliant blue sky. Success! A 10x10 foot patch of green grass-Cowboy began munching happily away as I found a comfortable place to sit with my back to the east.

7:16am November 8th-The nightmare has just kicked up a notch
7:25am November 8th-Clearly evident the situation has gone from bad to worse in less than 10 minutes
I had barely sat down when I received a text from my friend N stating, "I hope that's a cloud in the sky and not smoke". I turned to the east and saw a massive plume of smoke-close. At 7:16 I snapped the first picture. No, I responded, it's smoke and it's close, better come down. 9 minutes later it appeared to quadruple in size the blue sky both dwarfed and engulfed by the darkness of smoke. Cowboy turned and began walking away, back to the ranch, I followed, he got a head of me; I finally caught up to find him laying down next to another horse's stall.

I coaxed him back up and led him to his stall as the controlled chaos began at the ranch. The next two hours was a flurry of those that had trailers for their horses arrived, water buckets being filled, halters being put on and prayers being said as ash and embers began raining down. The fire had exploded so quickly that local animal emergency evacuation teams could not be activated to assist with horse evacuation. The situation by 8:30 was too dangerous to send teams in. We were alone with close to 30 horses to evacuate. It was clear that was not going to happen. A true group effort with an amazing group of friends that are now an extended family, not related by blood but by the bonding of survival. 

My husband sent me a text at 7:36 asking how's Cowboy? My response-Fire! A brief phone call between us where we exchanged get what you can and get out and come down to the ranch. Our next communication was while I was filling the last water container at 9:29 he sent me a text, "the fire has crossed Skyway I can't get out of Magalia" I told him to go up-the only other option of getting out. He told me was going to try. That was the last time I heard from him until several hours later. 

By about 10 am I knew that Cowboy had a virus-with the amount of days that had elapsed from when he first showed symptoms-he had caught it at the ride I had just gone on. Coronavirus and contagious. I have a Ford Ranger pickup truck, my only option to hook my trailer to. I decided it was better to have the transmission fall out and die trying to get out then to not try at all. I was bringing halters to the lowest barn with a clear view down Round Valley Ranch Road, the dark smoke and fire was now very close. I didn't have the ball to hook the trailer to-I asked the owner of the ranch John (an absolute hero if ever there was one) if he had an extra. He thought there was a stack of them on the side-choose one. Well, as luck or miracles would have it-I found only one, and that one fit my truck!

With the help of another hero, T, a neighbor, assisted with getting the truck hitched up. His wife, yet another hero worked with me and N to try and get Beau loaded. He would not do it! After several attempts I had to say enough, we have to go. I got Cowboy loaded and our caravan of trailers began our journey through even more hell. I stopped on the way out and met John who was in his tractor. My comments were along the lines of-you have to get out! He said he was staying, he said he would take care of the horses and to go. Not knowing if I would ever see my friend again or the 20 babies left behind, we moved down the road which was already on fire.

During the drive to Clark Road I received another phone call, my daughter was fleeing the fire near where it had started, she was trying to get to my granddaughter who was in school in the path of the fire, my son and his family were trying to get out on another road. It's surreal, the range of emotions one goes through. Mini breakdowns which you only allow yourself seconds to feel-to numb blind actions of survival-pushing away feeling anything and only acting-moving forward; giving up-not an option.

Our patch of green grass prior to all hell breaking loose.
7:25am November 8th-Clearly evident the situation has gone from bad to worse in less than 10 minutes
There already was fire on Round Valley when driving to Clark Road, that stretch from the ranch to Clark is one mile. One long mile. Excuse the language in the video, but next test was getting up a bit of a hill pulling a trailer in a truck that had no business doing such things. Betsy made it! At the end of the road, my heart was broken when meeting a fellow boarder, one whose babies we couldn't get out and at that point no one could get back in. Into the darkness at a snail's pace in a single lane of traffic we were all stopped almost immediately. With fire on both sides of Clark Road, not moving, feeling the heat of the fire, thinking to myself, after all of this and now I die here, waiting, trapped? I made rapid succession of calls trying to reach my family to no avail, a text to my husband letting him know I am stuck going unanswered, then reaching my mom. Telling her I didn't think I would make it and to let everyone know I love them. Listening to my frustration of being stuck, out of control. Slowly, inching forward, she spoke with me until there was no more cell signal and the call dropped, I imagine that was the worst phone call she has received. 

I was in such a hurry to get to Cowboy the night before-I did one of my dumbass moves of "I'll get gas in the morning". Not a mile down the road my gas light came on. The rest of the trip down the hill was a combination of turning off the engine, coasting downhill, turning on the truck to be able to stop, repeatedly. This fire has forever changed me-I now consider 3/4 of a tank of gas empty-1/2 a tank left and I hurridly rush to a gas station to fill it up. Because of Cowboy being contagious I found a place at the bottom of the hill to take him-a friend's ranch. Just a mile east. With the gas situation I was holding up to reach a gas station at the bottom of Clark. We made it to the gas station, the power was shut off, no gas-I was refused entry through the roadblock to my friend's house and was told, keep going; where I had just left had 200-foot flames and was coming in our direction. A vision looking back to the way I had just come was nothing short of Armageddon in real life.

We had to limp our way to Oroville to get gas. One of the many God moments for me was realizing the pin for my trailer was not in place and yet we safely arrived. Another followed with a phone call from my husband at about 1 that he made it to Butte Meadows; he escaped by going up further into the mountains, about 6 hours after I left the ranch-news from John that he was alive and although his house burned down he had saved all of the barns and horses and last but not least-my granddaughter was found by 7pm that night!

Cowboy had to be moved one more time-he's behind the roadblocks-but his health is improving; Beau and the other horses are alive and well-as are a few other neighborhood animals that made it. I am in awe of John, the owner of the stables, who stayed behind and saved my Beau and his horse friends at the ranch. Many of my friends, family and colleagues have lost their homes, many lives have been lost and the ridge has been decimated by this disaster. What I thought was going to be "just" a limited distance 35-mile endurance ride has turned into so much more. I have more drama to add with Cowboy in the last few days, but just received word my area is now open through the escape route my husband took. 35 miles and counting-ride on!

Redwood Ride, August 16 2018 Orick, CA

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