What's in The Grand Trek?
The Dream that Really Came True...
...AND:The Coal Miner
The Blind Card Player
The Bison and the Yak
The Cowboy Hat Test
The Night Kathleen was Murdered
What happened next…
…and much, much more!
Narration by Voice of Barbara
HOW IT ALL STARTED
Excerpts from The Best That Can Happen: The Grand Trek
Horst and Harriet Haenert’s back porch was larger than many homes’ entire first floor. It opened from the kitchen and the living room, stretching over a multi-car garage and workshop. The porch’s floor-to-ceiling screened windows framed the northern Midwest’s gloriously sedate sunrises and sunsets that open and close each summer day.
Breakfasts and dinners were served at the long, cluttered table for however many friends and farmers and family may have shown up on any day. Table conversation often centered on the weather and stock prices (livestock prices, that is), items of dead seriousness to those whose patrimony depends on these elements so completely beyond their control.
Such people understand early in life that we all live under the mercy of larger powers, so they tend to take things in stride. They know that Man has tried just about everything to outsmart Mother Nature since a hand was first put to a plow, and never gained more than a temporary advantage. They are quick to see an opportunity, and slow to expect too much. The long arm of Nature may reap slowly, but reap it will. So it was that Harriet mentioned rather casually over breakfast on the porch one summer day that she didn’t think Alibhai would make it through the next winter.
On this summer morning, Alibhai was dozing in the breeze under the rows of billowing trees which gave Pine Grove Farm its name long ago. I studied him over my breakfast cereal and realized Harriet was probably right. Never a horse to carry much extra weight, Alibhai was just a little thinner than his herdmates. He was just a little slower at stomping flies, his stance just a hair less than content. Generous as he was with the strength he had, Alibhai didn’t have much in reserve. Any typically vicious Northern Illinois winter could indeed make his life miserable. He might well decide it was time to move on.
“Send him to Kiki’s,” I suggested, referring to Harriet’s sister who was breeding Arabians in Arizona at the time. “He’d do fine down there, wouldn’t he?”
Harriet thought it over. “We can’t afford to send him down there.”
“Well, ride him down there,” I suggested, merely to deflect a host of unpleasant facts with mild humor.
“I can’t. I have to be back teaching school this fall, and he’ll have to take it kind of slowly,” she said. “But you could,” she continued and went to get the atlas.
Any visit to the Haenerts likely involved some saddle time. So it was that, during a Christmastime visit, I found myself riding with Harriet through a pasture at their hog and cattle farm called the Frost place.
She stopped and shifted in her saddle to point across a small ravine to an unprepossessing chestnut gelding pawing through the snow to reach grazable plants.
“You remember Murphy,” she presumed incorrectly. “Red’s foal by Mister.”
I vaguely recalled Red, a touchy, nothing special Appaloosa mare. I had enjoyed riding her a few times about six years previously while residing with the Haenerts during my last year of high school.
“That’s the horse that will take you to California,” she predicted, referring to the not-yet-dead plan to ride a horse from coast to coast.
My first thought about the horse was: “Yuk.” I may even have said it. I like to think I said something like, “Mister did improve on the mare, as I recall her.”
“You haven’t seen him move.”
I got to see Murphy move about two years later when again restoring my soul with a visit to this small farm. The Haenerts were holding a competitive trail ride and endurance race within a few weeks, a sport they got involved in just as I was heading to Britain after high school. Harriet’s daughters, Sue and Sarah, had earned top awards at this tough game for which Mister and his offspring had a special talent.
Preparations for the event included marking a fifty-mile trail and clearing the livestock out of the fields the competition trails were to wind through. We left for last the cattle pasture where Murphy was living with the cows and two Hackney ponies.
We moved the cows. We moved the two Hackney ponies. Unexpectedly, we couldn’t find Murphy. Sue, Sarah and I slowly combed the pasture, checking thickets and ravines and high corners and low. No Murphy. We separated, each riding as parallel a track down the pasture as one can in rather rough terrain. We gathered again at the other end of the field, each reporting no results.
Eighty acres is a fair chunk of land, but it isn’t big enough to entirely miss a horse after four passes over the land even if the horse was lying dead. Especially if the horse was lying dead.
We made it about a third of the way back up the field when Murphy neighed a challenge from behind us, where we had just been. We turned in time to see him burst out of a thicket we had just carefully searched.
Two hours later, our usual human feeling of Ultimate Assured Triumph over mere livestock was slipping. Each of us experienced some humiliating form of being led by Murphy into blind alleys and to the edge of ravines clearly impossible for horses to cross--except he was already waiting on the other side.
Our most promising entrapment plans left us empty handed, only to see Murphy somewhere he could not have gotten to, tapping his toes with impatience for us to get on with this glorious game.
I didn’t just get to see Murphy move. I got to see Murphy do things, go places, and lead us each into traps no horse should be able to do, get to, or understand.
Meet Country Boy
As plans for the Grand Trek solidified, Harriet suggested I get a dog for protection, and she further suggested the specific breed: Boxers. I hadn’t considered such an element in the plan at all but it had immediate appeal. I had rather assumed something like a Shepherd would be appropriate for protection, but no, a Boxer it would be, if Harriet thought that best. So she suggested to me that a specific dog, a year old male which had won a good deal in the show ring as a puppy, would be just the dog for me. So we went to Pat Schultz' Duchwar Kennels.
Pat sent a child down to the kennels to bring up the dog Harriet had prepared me to buy. Pat no doubt explained his breeding to me, and that his body type was excellent, although his head was turning out not to be what would win in the show ring--hence his retirement at the age of mere months. All of this was way over my head. I stared at the dog while he patiently stared out over the fields, indifferent rather than unfriendly toward any of us.
Although it was clear to me this was a done deal before we ever got to the farm, perhaps Pat felt I would want to get to know this dog. She suggested we walk around the yard a bit. It really didn’t matter. I had absolutely no way of evaluating any dog. All I wanted was to know how one goes about buying a dog. It seemed rude, asking their price in their presence.
Pat and Harriet and I sat on the porch with the dog standing with an air of detachment while I discovered such a dog was not inexpensive. I wrote the check, received congratulations, and we headed for the car. The dog looked patiently into the open back seat door. I lifted him awkwardly into the car after I figured out he did not know how to climb in a car on his own, and I didn’t know how to explain it to him.
“What’s his name?” I thought to ask, at last.
“Oh!” Pat smiled. “That’s Country Boy.”