04 Nov The Eleventh Hour
George Washington had wooden teeth (ivory dentures set in silver plate), but that’s not why I liked him. I firmly believed the first president of the United States made a wish of mine come true in the summer of 1973. I was eleven and horse crazy, which is not the same as being boy crazy—that would happen later, but I never lost my love of horses.
It was our family’s first camping trip across the country and I was crammed between my two brothers in the back seat of our Chevy Suburban. My dad threw the car into low gear as the engine choked and whined, climbing up the steep road in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Our destination was the Mount Rushmore Memorial, and it was to be the last national park that we would visit before heading back home to New Jersey. It was also the last opportunity that I had to convince my parents in letting me go horseback riding.
We’d been camping for about six weeks and although I longed to sit in front of a television and watch cartoons again, I was going to miss this grand adventure we had been on. I had been totally unprepared for the magnificent vistas of the different states and the national parks that made up our great nation. They weren’t anything like my hometown of Laurel Springs with its grandfather trees, quiet streets and Victorian Houses.
I was spellbound by the Grand Canyon in Arizona. The canyon itself had a sound, like a silent echo that seemed to emanate from the plateaus of rust colored granite. And Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming with its geysers and hot springs was unique, but I had to clamp my nose shut after going through the Sulphur Caldron. It had stunk so bad my eyes watered. One of my favorite places was Sequoia National Park in California. The giant Redwood trees in were so big I swore they touched the clouds.
But by far, the hottest place we had camped in was Death Valley, California. It was early August and for some reason my dad decided that it would be a really neat idea to camp there. For fun, my brothers and I fried an egg on the pavement but no one dared eat it. Sleeping turned out to be next to impossible. At 3 a.m., the temperature was hovering around 108 degrees. And with no fan or A.C., the tent felt like an Easy-Bake Oven. But that wasn’t all. There was the machinery from the salt mines drilling away in the distance and howling coyotes to add to our misery. By 4 a.m. the car was packed and we were on the road again.
We arrived at Mount Rushmore Memorial in the late afternoon. I stumbled out of the car, stiff from the long ride, and glad to be in the fresh air and sunshine. Seeing the four presidents carved in the bluff took my breath away. George Washington’s nose was so big I could stand inside one his nostrils. I remembered reading once how he had toughed it out at Valley Forge during a harsh winter with his troops dying or deserting him, then later he won the war for Independence.
If Mr. Washington could accomplish such an impossible task, then why couldn’t I surmount my own parent’s blockade?
I silently asked George to help me get a horseback ride before I made it home.
Leaving, I found Quarter on the ground and slipped it in my pocket alongside of my lucky rabbits foot. I smiled. It had to be a good omen.
The sign said, HORSEBACK RIDING on Thistle Trail. See the Office Manager inside for details. We had just pulled into the campground.
Here was my chance.
“Mom, please, please can I go?”
“Go where?” Mom removed her sunglasses. Her faded blue eyes showed signs of too much traveling.
I pointed to the sign next to the office.
“I don’t have many Traveller’s checks left,” she said. “And we need most of them for gas to get home.” We were on a really tight budget, so to save money we ate Dinty Moore stew, PB & J sandwiches and Hamburger Helper, pretty much in that order.
“But you promised that I could go horseback riding,” I persisted.
“I’ll have to ask your father.” It was the typical mom block. If she wasn’t keen on the idea, then he wouldn’t go for it either.
I sighed, remembering the time I had asked the mayor of my hometown if I could have a horse. It was a few months before we left for our camping trip. I had rode up on my bike and knocked on his front door.
He said the ordinance in town forbade horse ownership.
“Couldn’t you change the laws?” I had asked. He was the mayor after all. He could do anything that he wanted.
He just smiled at me and said, “I’ll look into it.” Nothing happened of course. That was my first taste of politics.
Our campsite was on top of a hill overlooking a lush valley. Bluffs were on either side of us. We pulled the camping gear out of the car and carefully staked down the tent. There was a giant patch on the floor now. It had rained so hard at our last campsite, my dad had to cut a hole in the bottom of our nice new tent to drain out all of the water that had come in.
I sat down at the picnic table and took out my pastels, pencils and sketchbook intending to draw another horse, when something caught my eye. A young woman sitting atop a Palomino horse had emerged from a hidden trail in the bluff directly across from us and descended into the valley.
She pranced right into our campsite wearing a cowboy hat, cowboy boots and a big smile. “I saw on the camper list that you had three children, and we need three riders for our trail ride tomorrow,” she said to my parents. “Would they like to participate?”
WOULD WE LIKE TO PARTICIPATE? I was dreaming and any second I would wake up.
Even my brothers joined me in the chorus, “Mom, Dad, can we go—can we? Please?”
Kids one. Parents zero.
In the eleventh hour George Washington had come through for me. It turned out to be the best horse ride ever.