Catching up with an old friend over dinner recently, I told her about my plans to compete in the International Camel Races in Virginia City on Friday.
“You’re fearless,” she said.
I laughed. She was passing through town on her way to Burning Man; more than 60,000 people crammed together in a makeshift city is a much more frightening concept, in my opinion.
The truth is, but please don’t tell anyone, that I do get a little scared every time I get on a camel. My heart beats a little faster, I can’t feel my toes and I wonder why I ever wanted to do it in the first place.
It’s not an unfamiliar feeling. I grew up in the “get back on the horse” culture — literally — but it didn’t come naturally.
I don’t remember my first horseback ride, I don’t even remember the first time I fell off. But I remember well the first time I got bucked off. In fact, it’s one of those stories that lives on through family legend, not so much for the incident itself, but for what happened afterward.
I was 6 and riding my 3-year-old filly, Sugar, for the first time. She was green broke, lithe and fast — all too much for me to handle.
I didn’t get hurt when she bucked me off, but I got scared. I refused to get back on the horse. Any horse.
For what seemed like years to me — but turned out to be about eight months in reality — I refused to get on any horse again. My dad, feeling guilty that he’d pushed too hard, tried several times to coax me back out. He’d promise short rides on the tamest ponies. My older sister, Leanna, joined in the pleading. None of it worked.
Then one day, my dad walked in the house and demanded I go for a ride. Still too terrified to get back on the horse but more scared of my dad, I followed him out.
He had Graydog, an old Arabian, all saddled up.
“Not Graydog,” I whimpered. “He bucks when he goes downhill.” (That’s one of the quotes that lives in infamy.)
He didn’t argue. In silent agreement, he took my saddle from Graydog and put it on Pal, an even older Palomino that couldn’t buck — even downhill.
Relieved, I took Pal by the reins. (It was a good day for my 3-year-old sister, Casandra, too, who got to upgrade from Pal to Graydog. Their feisty personalities formed a bond that lasted over the next several years.)
Now, 30 years later, I still remember that fear of climbing back in the saddle. But what’s more memorable is how quickly the fear faded into the gentle rocking motion of just enjoying the ride.
It wasn’t long before I grew bored of Pal and moved on to Lewey, a kind-hearted and quick-tempered appaloosa, who became my childhood soulmate.
But the lesson I learned from Pal I have taken with me into adulthood. It’s why I’ll go back for my 10th year to compete in the Media Grudge Match of the 54th annual International Camel and Ostrich Races.
Because I know that once that bugle sounds and the chute gate opens, there’s no place for fear. It’s just time to enjoy the ride.