Blackjack: An Adventure in the Cards
It was a ride full of questions. Most of them sounded pretty much the same: This way, or that way? The good news: We had all day to find out. The bad news: There wasn’t any water.
I booted all four of Consolation’s hooves. Packed some complete feed pellets and trail mix. Tossed an extra water bottle in the truck. We were on our way to Adrian, to climb the big hill and trot across the flat, then turn left instead of right in search of the long trail around Blackjack.
(I didn’t have my camera along, so these photos are from May 2011 rides in the same general area.)
It’s a loop I rode once before, about a year ago, in the opposite direction. I remembered rocks, lots of climbing, and a distance of about 25 miles. The day was sunny, pleasantly warm, but complete with a nice breeze to help keep Consolation cool in her partially-shed winter coat. Tufts of green grass sprouted beneath the tall, dry wisps of last year’s growth. The trail stretched endlessly ahead.
I expected the first 6.5 miles to be slow. The trail in this section undulates over a series of very steep hills — too steep to trot up safely, for fear of stressing a tendon or ligament. I rode up each hill at a walk, then dismounted to lead Consolation down, up and down, over and under… It took forever, but what a workout for the pony!
Finally, we completed the “weightlifting for horses” section and broke out onto a long, gradual uphill slope with decent footing. Consolation seemed quite relieved to be trotting again, and carried me eagerly up and away across the range. Before long, we arrived at a landmark I remembered: a barbed wire gate stretched beside a yellow cattle guard. So far, so good.
A half-mile later, the questions began. We arrived at an intersection of the sort of dirt roads that wind across Oregon’s BLM range, travelled — some much more than others — by an assortment of ranchers, hunters, ATV enthusiasts, and yahoos I’d like to beat soundly with their abandoned beer bottles. The road we were on curved south. The other led north-northwest, roughly the direction we’d eventually need to go in order to circle back toward our rig.
Hmm, I thought. This way, or that way? According to Garmin, we’d only gone 9.something miles. It seemed too soon to start looping back…so we took the southbound track. It meandered uphill and down, through another gate…
Uh-oh. I only remembered one gate from that other time. But then again, I was never sure that I’d actually ridden the whole Blackjack loop before. Consolation felt strong and the day was young, so we proceeded through the gate and into the wild yonder.
We paused occasionally to crop grass — “GU” for horses and the only moisture to be found — and watch herds of mule deer and pronghorn bound away from our approach. Cattle dotted the hills. We trotted and walked and trotted some more. I kept one eye on Garmin’s map feature and the other on landmarks, trying to evaluate our position and hoping for another intersection, at which time it would surely be right to loop north.
The only intersection we found was a battered track that led to the crest of a hill and faded into nothing. From the top, we inspected the vista for signs of a return route. Nothing presented itself, but the land is so crumpled and broken that one wouldn’t necessarily see a path even if it was there.
Back at the bottom of the hill, I wondered again: This way, or that way? Backtrack, or carry on? Oh, what’s life without a bit of adventure? We carried on. And on and on and on. Clear out to the massive, cross-country powerlines that we’d seen from a distance and that I knew were not the same ones that run roughly parallel to the Owyhee River and that, if followed, will guide a lost rider back to Adrian.
Not that we were lost. I had a pretty good idea where we were. The problem was, I had no idea whatsoever whether I would be able to find a passable route to get where I wanted to go. I decided that if we arrived at the big powerlines and didn’t find an intersection, we’d turn around.
Lo and behold, there WAS an intersection under the powerlines! Granted, our new path was a mere pair of tire ruts winding over rocky ground toward the Owyhee canyon, but it led us northwest, than north, than north-northeast. The right direction! The breeze kicked up a notch into full “wind” mode. Consolation sensed the turn toward home and picked up her pace to match. Garmin pegged us at 15 miles.
Trot, trot, trot. Slow to pick through rocky sections. Pause to stare at more deer. Things were looking just about how I wanted them to when our road vanished. It simply petered out into a barren tumble of rocks and sagebrush.
I looked this way, and that. I looked at the rough country ahead and the long road behind. I looked at Garmin and I looked at my horse. We could backtrack and log several more tough miles just to get back to the spot were we were 15 miles from the trailer, or we could pick our way cross-country and meet up with our previous track that lay a couple miles east. This way, or that?
Cross-country it was! Consolation protested my demand that she walk carefully down into a ravine, then up the other side where small, black boulders sprouted like mushrooms. We crested that climb to be greeted with bad news: the next ravine was more of a canyon, with steep rock sides and no guarantee of safe passage.
Back down the rocky hill we trekked, to the bottom where an east-west cow trail meandered. If the cows could do it, we could too. We wound through the windswept ravine. Rounding one turn, we shared a mutual spook with a cow and her brand-new calf. Still wet and flopping around it its first effort to stand, the black baby and its mama needed some space. Consolation and I gave them a wide berth and circled back to the cow trail, which led eventually to our prior path.
Whew. Now there was no question. It was time to backtrack. And so we did, up and down, back through the second gate to that initial intersection. Here, we had another choice: Turn northwest and loop around Blackjack as planned — hoping not to take any more wrong turns — or follow the known path home, over all those slow and brutal hills.
We turned. Why not? We’d been out only 3.5 hours, it was a bright afternoon, and both Consolation and I were still having fun. Besides, who in their right mind would want to backtrack across those nasty hills?
Not that I expected the remainder of the Blackjack loop to be easy. It was, as I expected, long and rocky and home to plenty of long climbs and descents. I dismounted and ran beside Consolation down the long hills, a practice she seems to enjoy and for which I want to personally be in shape when the ride season arrives.
Eventually, we met up with the familiar powerlines and followed them most of the way back, though we retained a sufficient sense of adventure to explore a few more cow trails that crossed the familiar area we normally ride. Might as well! A fresh bit of scenery never hurts, and this is the time to do it, before the weather gets hot and the rattlesnakes come out.
Garmin called it a wrap at 26.24 miles in 5:32. Figuring in the 10% error for hilly terrain, I reckon we actually logged close on 30 miles. A week of work, done in one fell swoop — and good thing, because our first week of daylight savings time is supposed to be washed with wind and rain.
This morning, Consolation is bright-eyed and frisky. Her legs are tight and cool, her appetite strong, and her water tub much emptier than usual. I gave her a bit of alfalfa for breakfast, in addition to her usual mound of grass hay. She earned it.