Thru-riding the Colorado Trail: Week One

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I spent the summer of 2017 riding 500 miles through the Rocky Mountains with my partner Rich and three horses called Pinto, Pepper and Numero. I’ve posted logistical information about the trip online for anyone with an interest in the journey or backcountry horsemanship more generally. All previous entries on this subject can be found here.

Just before my partner Rich and I set off on our 500-mile adventure, a problem with transport left us scrabbling to find a new arrangement at short notice. We were overwhelmed by how the trail community rallied round to find us a friendly local with a horsebox (especially Bill Manning, chief executive of the Colorado Trail Foundation, who made a lot of calls on our behalf). In the end, we received two offers of help – from Richard Johnson, an excellent horseman who came to pick all five of us (two nervous people, three unknown horses) up the following morning and dropped us at the trailhead, and from Pam Doverspike, a true trail angel who we would finally meet a month later at Spring Creek Pass. (Hikers call this ‘trail magic’. this generosity from strangers one meets along the way.)

Both were proven CT experts, Richard having thru-ridden the trail twice and Pam, a trail sponsor, having also completed the trail (on horseback) in sections multiple times. They passed on a huge amount of hard-won advice, which was much appreciated – setting off for a six-week expedition, unsupported, was a daunting prospect for both myself and Rich. I’d love to pay that favour forward, so have typed up extracts from the diary I kept throughout our journey in case it might assist anyone planning the same or a similar long-distance journey by horse. Entries from our first week on the trail can be found below. It was our wettest and perhaps our most challenging week, as we grappled with the basics of backcountry horsemanship and life in the outdoors.
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Non-fiction masterclass at Gladstone’s Library

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I’m really looking forward to my month-long residency at Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden, Flintshire: the UK’s only prime ministerial library. It describes itself as

…a residential library and meeting place which is dedicated to dialogue, debate and learning for open-minded individuals and groups, who are looking to explore pressing questions and to pursue study and research in an age of distraction and easy solutions… It was founded by the great Victorian statesman himself and, following his death in 1898, became the national memorial to his life and work.

I’ll be there throughout the month of May, drifting in and out of the library and grounds, with my nose in a book. Come and join me!

I’m running two public events during my time there: an evening session on the 8 May during which I’ll discuss ‘making the personal political’ (£15, which also includes a copy of Thicker Than Water), and a day-long masterclass in the techniques of creative non-fiction on 26 May (£35, including lunch). There are rooms available on a B&B basis and a bistro on site.

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What makes good nature writing?

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I continue to edit and conduct interviews for the literary website Five Books. I was particularly pleased with this recent interview with polymath barrister, vet, academic and author Charles Foster, about the best nature writing of 2017, and what it means to be a good nature writer. I was delighted too to see it picked up by The Browser, which called it “a rather wonderful conversation”.

As you may or may not know, I write quite a lot about the landscape and natural world (for example: this Granta essay on plantation forestry and the Flow Country, an upcoming piece I have written for the same publication about red deer in the Highlands, and a series of entries for the Guardian’s Country Diary slot) so it’s a subject close to my heart, and it was a pleasure to speak to Charles, whose writing (and clarity of thought and purpose) I admire greatly.

Full text can be found on the Five Books website here, or after the fold.

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Pack horses and box hitches: a how to

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I spent the summer of 2017 riding 500 miles through the Rocky Mountains with my partner Rich and three horses called Pinto, Pepper and Numero. I’ve been posting information about the trip online, as well as my trail diary, for anyone with an interest in the journey or backcountry horsemanship more generally. All previous entries on this subject can be found here.

I was warned before we set off that the majority of long distance journeys by horse fail due to problems with the pack horse. Certainly it’s true that this is an aspect of horsemanship that is rarely explored and mastered, at least in the UK, and I found  relatively little information about it readily accessible. So here is a brief explainer for anyone who might be interested.

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Thru-riding the Colorado Trail: Preparation and kit

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I spent the summer of 2017 riding 500 miles through the Rocky Mountains with my partner Rich and three horses called Pinto, Pepper and Numero. I’ve been posting information about the trip online, as well as my trail diary, for anyone with an interest in the journey or backcountry horsemanship more generally. Other entries on this subject can be found here.

Our journey along the Colorado required a lot of preparation, not least in ensuring we had all the kit we needed to travel through the backcountry safely. I’ve ridden since I was a little girl, and spent all my weekends competing as a teenager. But travelling long distance, and using packhorses, was a whole new arena for me and required a lot of advance study. For a brief how-to on the subject, see this post.

An Australian friend of mine, Tim Cope – who rode 6000 miles across the Eurasian steppes for his bestselling book On The Trail of Genghis Khan – was kind enough to spend a few days with me, running through the equipment and knots he found necessary during his three years on the road. He also introduced me to some of his friends in the area – the Baird family, of Bogong Horseback Adventures, and the mountain man and stunt rider Ken Connley – who taught me to tie box- and diamond hitches for the pack saddle.

CuChullaine O’Reilly of the Long Riders’ Guild and Megan Lewis, who recently completed a round-the-world ride, were also extremely helpful, answering questions by email and over the phone. We gratefully received a financial award from the John Muir Trust’s Des Rubens and Bill Wallace Grant towards the costs of the trip.

Getting the right kit together was important: weight was a huge consideration. Over such rugged terrain it was important to keep as much weight off the horses’ backs as possible –  and carrying ‘dead weight’ in the form of bags/boxes is much more difficult to manage compared to the ‘live weight’ of humans, which will balance itself (and can easily jump off in a crisis!).

After the fold, find a full kit list of what we packed – plus a few notes about what worked and what we had trouble with. Price too was a big factor – I made a lot of judgement calls about what was safe to scrimp on, and what would be worth investing in.

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Horseback along the Colorado Trail

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This summer, my partner Richard and I spent six weeks riding 500 miles through the Rocky Mountains along the Colorado Trail.

It’s a fabulous route through a very dramatic backcountry landscape, taking in eight mountain ranges, four designated ‘wilderness’ areas, and gaining (and losing) around 89,354 feet over its length.

Our journey was an amazing adventure – a wild, lifechanging summer in the forest, during which we crossed mountain passes and high mesas, camped in wildflower meadows and bathed in freshwater lakes – and we had a lot of interest from other horsey people that we met along the way. For those interested in organising a similar expedition, I’ll post to this site in the coming days some information about how we planned it, the equipment we used and a few lessons about ultra-long-distance riding that we learnt the hard way.

We travelled unsupported, with three amazing quarter horses I hired from an enormous equestrian venture called Sombrero Ranches. To do so was remarkably simple – I just had to arrange to visit their ranch near Boulder, CO, a few days in advance to pick them out, and to find suitable road transport for them to the trailhead near Littleton, south Denver. After that, we were on our own – carrying all necessary equipment with us in our saddlebags and on the pack horse.

The horses – two paint geldings and an Appaloosa mare – came branded with ID numbers, but with no names, so our first challenge was to select them some suitable ‘trail names’: after some back-and-forth we settled on Pepper (for the little salt-and-pepper Appaloosa), Pinto and Numero (for the two paints). They made a beautiful little herd, and did us proud, taking the most hairy situations in their stride.

As they were unknown quantities at the start, we decided to travel at a fairly leisurely pace until we got acquainted with each other (and our new equipment). Potentially – if one was using one’s own (fit, trail-savvy) horses, and had road support supplying equipment and feed – the distance might be achieved in as little as 4 weeks, but for us the journey is far more important than the destination.

I received some financial assistance towards the costs of this trip from the John Muir Trust’s Des Rubens and Bill Wallace Grant. I strongly recommend any others interested in “life-changing experiences in wild places of the world” to consider applying for this wonderful fund, and help keep the memory of these two remarkable outdoorsmen alive.

Before departure we made an interactive map of the full route, from Denver to Durango (near the border with New Mexico), on CalTopo, which can be viewed here. A flat image of a map created by the amazing Colorado Trail Foundation can be found after the fold. Continue reading

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Society of Authors and PPA Scotland

diyncegwsaajvkkI’ve had a couple of pieces of lovely news recently.

In late September, I returned from a long trip to the US, which I’ll post about at length when I have a moment. But one happy surprise was a letter on the doormat telling me that I’d been given the John Heygate Award for travel writing from the Society of Authors. A real confidence boost. I’d recommend any published authors to a) join the society, which is effectively a union for authors, and provides lots of support and advice when required, and b) enter the awards they administrate, of which there are several.

I have also recently heard that I have been shortlisted for feature writer of the year for the second year running by PPA Scotland. Winners are announced at the prize ceremony on 23 November – I’ll keep my fingers crossed, but either way it’s a pleasure just to be in the running.

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The abstract beauty of maths

 

I was delighted to contribute an essay to the New Humanist, which discusses the concept of ‘abstract beauty’ and the way mathematicians can perceive certain formulae to be aesthetically pleasing. I’m not a mathematician myself, so I was delighted to see it praised by the University of Oxford’s maths department on Twitter.

“Euler’s identity, for example—e + 1 = 0, an equation that combines five of the most important numbers in mathematics—is often cited, both by individual academics and in wider polls, as the most beautiful equation of all time. Stanford mathematician Keith Devlin, for example, has likened it to “a Shakespearean sonnet that captures the very essence of love, or a painting that brings out the beauty of the human form that is far more than just skin deep.”

There’s a technical barrier to appreciating the beauty of maths, that does not exist to the same extent in art, or music. “I doubt you can appreciate it the way mathematicians do,” Ian Stewart, professor of mathematics at Warwick University, told me. “But by reading the right books and articles, a layperson might get a sense of what’s involved. It’s a bit like reading poetry in a language you don’t speak: someone has to translate it for you.”

Find the full text here, or after the fold:

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Across Scotland on horseback

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My friend Iona Scobie, who runs East Rhidorroch Estate near Ullapool, rides her four Highland ponies cross-country twice a year, east coast to west coast and vice versa, between their summer and winter grazing. It’s a journey of about 70 miles, and usually takes around three days—via road, forestry track, sheep path and peat bog, roughly in that order.

This year, me and my partner Rich joined her for the journey, riding three horses and having the fourth—a youngster called Boo—follow on behind. We slept in a hayloft and an abandoned cottage, and stopped off at the Glenbeg bothy too on the very, very wet last day on the hill.

Usually we’d keep at least one of the horses contained, but on the last night, we let them loose on the hill to let them relax and crossed our fingers they’d stick close by. Luckily they did. Or, not lucky exactly: after several days on the move together, the horses come to perceive our group as their ‘herd’ and like to stay in eyeshot of all its members.

I’ll write about the trip in more depth for the next issue of EQY, but in the meantime, here’s a brief postcard from the peatbogs written for the Guardian’s Country Diary section. Full text after the fold.  Continue reading

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Third issue of Equestrian Year out now

The third issue of Equestrian Year (EQy) is out now. Horses have always been a passion of mine, so I love contributing to this annual glossy magazine—through which I have met many of my sporting heroes (such as Ian Stark and Zara Philips).

This issue I spoke to two rising stars in the showjumping and eventing worlds: Douglas Duffin and Wills Oakden, both of whom recently made their debuts on the national squads at the very highest levels.

I also interviewed Jo Barry: one of Britain’s best dressage riders who, in 2014, suffered a life-changing brain injury in a freak accident while schooling a trusted veteran horse at home. Having seriously damaged the pons (the nerve-dense junction box between brain and spine), she had to learn to walk, talk and ride again—but through an incredible work ethic and the support from family, friends and sponsors has returned to the very top of her game. I was very moved by her remarkable story and strength of character.

The magazine is still out on newstands, but I’ll post the full text of my features online in a few months.

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