I might sound trivial, but the resemblance between life challenges and forest trails is striking. Unexpected downs, alarmingly steep ups, slippery slopes and branches, dry branches—danger for careless eyes, one cannot rest for a single moment. One had to manage balancing listening to birdsongs and staying on a narrow path, watching sunbeams through the dense canopy of pine and birch trees and considering the stability of rocks under a horse’s feet. Oh, pardon me a fellow reader! I must have mentioned that the acute thoughts I am about to share today were born while my body was carried by a horse, and my mind meditated on events that preceded a much pleasurable trail ride in the Canadian Rockies.
Sundre is a small town. What you need to know, however, is what lies west past it. A little longer drive, a few turns onto the gravel road and scenery unfolds. I mean it: a chain of hills, covered in the same dense forest starts rolling out in front of one’s eyes. The fact that we ended up there on a rainy, dismal day, that peysage was concealed in fog, did not disappoint. Approaching closer granted a privilege of seeing overlapping hills, rushing rivers between them, and a few nameless lakes that only bears know how to get to. Highlands, I called them. The closer we got to the guiding station (which name I will keep vague), the more obvious became realization that this place was not only floating in foggy mid-night summer dream, but was absolute reality, accessible to an explorer. More excitingly, it could be done on a horseback for an affordable price. I won’t keep you staring at the scenery any longer (there will be a much better view than from a window of a car), because by the time we arrived at the guiding place, our booking was cancelled. Weather, previously inexplicably captivating turned into miserable obstacle. Raindrops, previously ignored, became irritating. Finally, the mind fidgeted for a moment between denial and acceptance of one unsuccessful plan.
Human beings are strange creatures. Even on unfortunate occasions, we continue to believe in a better outcome. Some of us pray. Some take the slightest chance trying to convince a guide that “oh dear I know horses, oh no trails are not so slippery.” Some, rage with righteous anger disbelieving the fact of the incompetence of the guide who lacked the brains to cancel the booking day before her clients drove three hundred kilometres. The point is, for that one brief moment our whole existence rushes to seek solutions only to realize that the following moment we ought to leave with eyes to the ground, bewildered, confused and even somehow feeling liable for earlier excitement, for daring to plan, for hoping for a scheme without a hitch.
We left, feeling both submissive and exasperated. The former feeling could only make the day worse, the latter one had no power to change anything. Although, there was a third feeling. You might call it a few different names, providence, intuition, or inability to accept reality, yet it drove us to a stranger on a campground. Here is where the story's climax is expected. Here is where I am going to confess my absolute admiration of the friendliness and openness and craftsmanship of a small talk Canadians perform masterly. You tell a stranger on a squad how unfairly some company treated your weekend plan, and they offer you something much better. No, they would not do that themselves, but that knowledge they possess takes you to a place much more reliable, convenient and even more aesthetically pleasing. If there is one thing I learned after living in Canada for almost ten years, is that asking for help, and guidance is anything but shameful.
Hence, we asked a stranger whether he knew of any other activities in a such remote place. He knew. His suggestion we drive further, past the hapless first attempt, and check out P. Guidings and Outfittings. Ah, competitors, we thought. Ah, do we dare to experience another refusal?
The stranger’s advice awoke another emotion—reluctance. On one hand, if such sudden alteration of plans would finally put us into saddles, what does it matter which guide would take us up a mountain top? On the other hand, we were warned about the rain situation, slippery trails and hopelessness of any attempt to take a ride. If the first guide denied, the odds of the second one taking a group were discouragingly small. We still went. The smallest chance taken deprives one of further scrutiny of tormenting ‘what ifs’.
Hence we asked the stranger. And we spent the short drive thinking whether the extra mile was worth taking and a suggestion of a man on an ATV would bring satisfaction to our plans rather than another disappointment. Have you noticed that a human’s heart cannot establish a complete immune against disappointments? You can train that inside yourself after a chain of discouraging events, but the heart keeps on hoping and keeps on believing that brighter days are ahead. Just like that, with mixed emotions, we drove an extra mile to discover that sometimes ‘brighter days’ are not something you have to wait for any longer.
We left the stables and through the forest headed to the mountains. Okay, right there, no matter the wonder of the most enchanted forest, it became a patience test of grounding and noticing, of refuting every thought of speeding the trail ride just to get to the top of a mountain. And yes, forests in Alberta are truly enchanted. They lack the extravagancies of fir and redwood trees of British Columbia woods, yet their robust, wild, and pristine ambiances struck a traveller with their demenoir. It is genuine. It offers no charades. The air is pure and thin. Raindrops barely make it through the thick trees’ crowns. To speak of the worries of our first guide, trails were rather dry, with only a few slippery spots. To say we were at bliss is to say nothing at all.
Further was a teaser. We exited forest and ended up on an open road where across the field from mountains were seen. They were not as closed as expected, yet the view had proved that we are indeed heading to the top. Soon, it was over as the forest absorbed us once again to take on slippery slopes, and steep paths with roots and stones under horses’ feet.
Horses, to say, were quite content. Untroubled and even curious about riders and whether their equestrian expertise would make it easy for them to chew leaves along the way.
Finally, an hour later another steep slope indicated that the peak was closer than expected. In fact, it was, and how surreal it appeared in reality. It was far from a trivial movie-like scene where one plays astonishment knowing what to expect, scripted how to react. It was far from it. The real view on highlands draped with fog, a lake in embraces of the mountains and narrow paths and countless peaks—all tied up with luscious green, which under a dismal sky acquired some sort of an emerald stone.
I remember back in childhood, after watching The Chronicles of Narnia on a movie theatre screen, I developed some sort of connection to enchanted lands. Forests that cover hills, unreachable peaks, crystal ringing of brooks, and finally adventurous side of myself that can only reveal in surrounding where imagination blenches and reality astonishes. This never-ending connection, back in childhood took me to a house roof at sunset hour, an hour that turned clouds into mountain peaks, (considering we lived in a fairly flat landscape). The same correlation with that imaginary world back then, puts me in a saddle now, takes me up the mountains, it drives my whole existence to the places I once imagined.
What stroke me the most up there, was the accuracy of the repetition of my dreams. I did not realize it at the beginning, yet it occupied my mind much later, when we were back in the forest: I have, indeed, seen those places before. I expected unknown, yet perceived familiar.
Before we go down the slippery paths down the hill, one observation to make is about astonishing normality of our dreams and desires not happening when we anticipate it the most. They, on the contrary, get spooked like horses when they see a mouse or hear a loud sound. I have been proved many times: you are the one who must be ready to experience in reality those images which up until now dwelled in your mind. Then, the appearance of them, once so desired, can be both, disappointing and pleasing. That is already up to us.
The way back to the ranch was, to put aside all descriptions of another side of the trail, a workout for both mind and body. Steep slopes that on the way to the top were taken with ease, now required well-balanced posture in a saddle and precise focus of a mind. Paths that previously were taken with laughter turned into narrow lanes with a ramp on one side and forest on the other. My curious stallion, who did not seek easy ways out, refused, time after time, to walk step in step with his predecessor. He turned his head right and left, placed his hoofs in mud and unless he would not be squeezed by two other horses, he was full of fired energy to take off, to carry me into cross-country challenge. But that ordeal had its advantages. In the end, mentally and physically exhausted from controlling the curiosity of my fellow colt, I was left with feelings of staggering satisfaction, and sentimental blubber awaked by the fulfilment of another fantasy.