My friends from Brooklyn assumed we rode horses in Sag Harbor, where I spent summers. That’s because we called it the “country.” But I never recall seeing a single horse in Sag Harbor, though there was a riding stable at Prospect Park in Brooklyn and lots of horses in Manhattan.
I know a hell of a lot about horses — my old man used to take me to the track — but I’ve only ridden one horse in my life.
It happened during my hippie years, probably around 1972 or so. A bunch of us traveled up from New Orleans to Mississippi, where we saw an advertisement: $20 to ride all day on a 40,000-acre piece of wilderness; bring your own lunch.
I should point out, I think it was Mississippi. My buddy swears to this day we were in Georgia. Another one swears it was Arkansas. When you consider we weren’t sure if we lived on Earth or Pluto, any one of us could be right. Or maybe none of us are.
I had an Afro that soared to the sky à la Jimi Hendrix. Two of my friends had ponytails. One guy had purple shoes. You get the picture. Them ol’ boys saw us coming. “Give Killer to that one with the Afro,” I heard one of them say, spitting out tobacco juice with every other word. Later I found out he was “Tex.”
There were six of us. We mounted up and the guide gave us a map. That’s the last we saw of him. Killer took off like a bat out of hell and within minutes, I was completely lost. Then my saddle started slipping off and so did I. “Slim” must have forgotten to fasten it properly.
Luckily, I remember him saying that even if you fell off your horse, never let go of the reins, and I didn’t. As we walked along the trail, Killer could have broken free anytime he wanted. I realized he’d played this game many times before. He knew a tenderfoot when he met one. No, he wasn’t going to run away — but he wasn’t letting me on his back, either.
We walked and we talked. Well, I talked, anyway. He snorted. I kept looking for the “Watering Hole” which appeared on the map but the truth is, I was lost. (Maybe I was a little stoned. After all, I don’t even remember 1972.)
I would say clever things like, “Please let me back up,” and “Where the hell are we, anyway?” Killer ignored me.
“Are you mad at me? Did I do something wrong?” Killer just glared.
Finally, I couldn’t hold out any longer and I took out my lunch, a cream cheese and jelly sandwich, my only sustenance for the long day ahead. I figured it had to be mid-afternoon. I took a bite, and he snorted. “Want a bite?” I asked. He gulped down the whole freaking thing.
Now it was just Killer, the blazing sun, and me. We walked for hours. I realized it was much earlier than I thought when I ate my lunch, probably around 10 AM. We came to a wooded area. I found a stream. Killer drank. I drank. Killer peed. I peed.
I tried to sing to him, but that didn’t go over well. (It never does.)
Finally, I tried talking to him like a cowboy. “I reckon the sun be setting soon,” I said. “Best we head back to camp down yonder.” This went on for a while. “Cookie probably got a pot of rabbit stew up for us.”
Finally, around 5 PM, Killer inexplicably allowed me to get on board, and he took off. At first, I was scared, but soon the sheer elation of whipping through the wind on this magnificent beast overtook my senses. That is, until I saw all the barbed wire.
We rounded a bend and there it was — a string of barbed fence that stretched several hundred yards. Killer decided to race parallel to it, inches from the fence — where my leg was. My frantic shouts of “Whoa” did nothing to slow him down. My jeans started getting snagged. I almost fell off, but mercifully, the horse came to a dead stop by his barn. I dismounted hastily, still wobbly.
Tex and the boys ambled over with stupid grins on their faces. “How’d it go?” one asked, giggling.
“Great,” I said. “Once he learned who the boss man was. I put him through his paces. Had him cantering. Jumped a few fences. Killer? Huh! Y’all shoulda called him Shirley, boys. Now if you’ll excuse me, I reckon I gotta bang some shoes for this big fella before dinner. What’s it gonna be Cookie, beans or beans?” With that, I sauntered to the parking lot and our Volkswagen van.
We spent the ride home bragging about our horseback riding expertise until, one by one, the truth came out. OK, several of us were crying out there when it finally dawned on us that we might die in the wilderness. I still see the headline in my dreams: “Body Of Lost Hippie Found In Mississippi Gorge.” (Or was it Georgia?)
I never went horseback riding again, but I still have bowed legs.
Rick Murphy is a six-time winner of the New York Press Association Best Column award as well as the winner of first place awards from the National Newspaper Association and the Suburban Newspaper Association of America and a two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.