Horseman, pass by

William Butler Yeats is buried in the Protestant churchyard at Drumcliff, Co. Sligo, Ireland.

He directed the following epitaph be inscribed on his gravestone.

Cast a cold eye   

On life, on death.   

Horseman, pass by!

These are the final lines in his poem, Under Ben Bulben.  Nearby are Benbulben mountain and the ancient cross by the road that were mentioned by Yeats in the poem.
Under Ben Bulben
By William Butler Yeats
I
Swear by what the Sages spoke
Round the Mareotic Lake
That the Witch of Atlas knew,
Spoke and set the cocks a-crow.
Swear by those horsemen, by those women,
Complexion and form prove superhuman,
That pale, long visaged company
That airs an immortality
Completeness of their passions won;
Now they ride the wintry dawn
Where Ben Bulben sets the scene.
Here’s the gist of what they mean.
II
Many times man lives and dies
Between his two eternities,
That of race and that of soul,
And ancient Ireland knew it all.
Whether man dies in his bed
Or the rifle knocks him dead,
A brief parting from those dear
Is the worst man has to fear.
Though grave-diggers’ toil is long,
Sharp their spades, their muscle strong,
They but thrust their buried men
Back in the human mind again.
III
You that Mitchel’s prayer have heard
`Send war in our time, O Lord!’
Know that when all words are said
And a man is fighting mad,
Something drops from eyes long blind
He completes his partial mind,
For an instant stands at ease,
Laughs aloud, his heart at peace,
Even the wisest man grows tense
With some sort of violence
Before he can accomplish fate
Know his work or choose his mate.
IV
Poet and sculptor do the work
Nor let the modish painter shirk
What his great forefathers did,
Bring the soul of man to God,
Make him fill the cradles right.
Measurement began our might:
Forms a stark Egyptian thought,
Forms that gentler Phidias wrought.
Michael Angelo left a proof
On the Sistine Chapel roof,
Where but half-awakened Adam
Can disturb globe-trotting Madam
Till her bowels are in heat,
Proof that there’s a purpose set
Before the secret working mind:
Profane perfection of mankind.
Quattrocento put in paint,
On backgrounds for a God or Saint,
Gardens where a soul’s at ease;
Where everything that meets the eye
Flowers and grass and cloudless sky
Resemble forms that are, or seem
When sleepers wake and yet still dream,
And when it’s vanished still declare,
With only bed and bedstead there,
That Heavens had opened.
Gyres run on;
When that greater dream had gone
Calvert and Wilson, Blake and Claude
Prepared a rest for the people of God,
Palmer’s phrase, but after that
Confusion fell upon our thought.
V
Irish poets learn your trade
Sing whatever is well made,
Scorn the sort now growing up
All out of shape from toe to top,
Their unremembering hearts and heads
Base-born products of base beds.
Sing the peasantry, and then
Hard-riding country gentlemen,
The holiness of monks, and after
Porter-drinkers’ randy laughter;
Sing the lords and ladies gay
That were beaten into the clay
Through seven heroic centuries;
Cast your mind on other days
That we in coming days may be
Still the indomitable Irishry.
VI
Under bare Ben Bulben’s head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid,
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago; a church stands near,
By the road an ancient Cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase,
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:
               Cast a cold eye
               On life, on death.

               Horseman, pass by!

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Ben Bulben, Ireland

How we came to live in North Africa at Mehdia Plage القنيطرة المهدية

 

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There was a clacking noise coming from the front end of our 1957 Citroën 2CV.  At first, I only heard it when turning left, but then, as the kilometers rolled by, it changed from clacking to non-stop grinding.  Wheel bearing, maybe.  Or a CV (constant velocity) joint, perhaps.  Time to find a garage and see what was going on.

This was to be my first repair on this ancient and primitive vehicle, which could best be described as a tin can powered by a lawn mower engine with seats made of rubber bands.  We’d purchased it for $200 in Brittany, not long after arriving in France, to transport us on our adventures in Europe and Africa.

We began our travels in Rennes, drove down the Atlantic coast of France, cutting inland at Bordeaux, then south at Toulouse into the Catalan Pyrenees.  Our last port of call in France was the sun-drenched Mediterranean city of Perpignon.  From there, we set a new direction south again into Spain, through Barcelona and Valencia, crossing the Alboran Sea by ferry from Almeria to the Spanish enclave in North Africa of Mellila – see THE MIDNIGHT FERRY FROM ALMERIA TO MELILLA 

Destination: Africa.  From Mellila, we crossed into Morocco and scaled the Rif Mountains to Tangier, laboring up the inclines in second gear, then plunging down in rapid descent while standing on the totally inadequate and barely functioning brakes.  From Tangier, it was south again to Casablanca and the imperial city of Marrakech, set against the towering Atlas Mountains.

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Marrakech with the Atlas Mountains

The Atlantic Ocean beckoned, and we crossed the parched uplands, dropping down into the coastal city of Agadir.  Here we camped on the beach alongside an Austrian trader with his girlfriend (“she is so lazy,” he complained) in their Land Rover 109.  We pulled the front seat out of the 2CV and stretched out inside.  We’d left the back seat in France.  The Austrian advised us to chain our front seat to the car, however, as during the night it would be stolen if unsecured.

I’d hoped to drive to Sidi Ifni and then on to Tantan, where the Western Sahara Desert begins, but my well-traveled Austrian friend advised against it.  He said that from Sidi Ifni on, the roads disappeared and reappeared as winds off the ocean whipped the sand into ever shifting dunes.  There was nothing – no water, no fuel, no food, often for a hundred kilometers.  This news exceeded my sense of adventure, so we turned north again.

It was while travelling north that the 2CV started clicking, then clacking, then grinding.  We’d passed Rabat and were nearing Kenitra when I had the distinct premonition that my luck was about to run out.  We drove into Kenitra, found a garage that serviced Citroëns, and left the car off while we got a hotel.  When we returned, the mechanic said the wheel bearing was completely gone.  Never seen anything like it – the bearing had vaporized.  But the good news was that this was Morocco, where 100 times zero is still zero, and the repair would be cheap.  Stop back tomorrow.

Kenitra, Morocco
Kenitra, Morocco

Next morning when we returned to the garage, as we were settling up – with me trying to get a “student discount,” which often worked – two Americans came up to us.  In this part of Morocco, it was unusual to see fellow Yanks, so we took our conversation to a nearby café for breakfast, Moroccan style – fried flatbreads, semolina Beghrir pancakes with butter and honey, mint tea and fresh squeezed oranges.

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Breakfast in Morocco

Bob and Robin lived just out of the city of Kenitra.  They rented a villa on the ocean in the tiny beach enclave of Mehdia Plage.  Bob was stationed in Kenitra with the US Navy, and he’d met Robin through friends in the Peace Corps.

Wait – the US Navy?  In Morocco?  I had no idea there was a US base there.  Naval Air Station Kenitra was a former Vichy France airfield that had been captured by the United States during World War II when the destroyer USS Dallas came up the Sebou River and landed a Raider team, taking the airfield.  Just up the road at Sidi Yahia was a Navy communication station for the Sixth Fleet.  And right across the street was a local pulp paper factory that was a front for a Russian surveillance operation that kept an eye on the nearby American presence.  This was a very interesting breakfast.

Bob and Robin would not let us leave without spending some time at their villa, which they rented from a colonel in the Moroccan army and his wife, who was a niece of the King of Morocco, Hassan II.  They shared the villa, which was right on the ocean beach, with a couple other Navy guys.  Several other villas in Mehdia Plage were rented by Peace Corps volunteers, so it turned out this little village had a very high American population.  There were parties and barbeques on someone’s veranda every night with fresh caught fish, booze from the Navy liquor store, Spanish beer and Moroccan wine.  As we had no real plans, Bob and Robin asked us to stay for as long as we wanted.  We rented a portion of the villa for a very small sum and used Mehdia Plage as our base of operations for a couple months.

Next: Mehdia Plage, the colonel, the king’s niece, and Omar, who lived in a German pillbox on the jetty.

Mehdia Plage

Mehdia Plage, Morocco

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“Someone”- Dennis O’Driscoll

This poem reminds me that seeing the end of the day is not a given, that tomorrow remains a gift I haven’t yet received, and that the fragile nuance of daily routines defines our moments.

Dennis O’Driscoll  (1954-2012) is an Irish poet, essayist, editor and critic.

Someone

by Dennis O’Driscoll

someone is dressing up for death today, a change of skirt or tie
eating a final feast of buttered sliced pan, tea
scarcely having noticed the erection that was his last
shaving his face to marble for the icy laying out
spraying with deodorant her coarse armpit grass
someone today is leaving home on business
saluting, terminally, the neighbours who will join in the cortege
someone is paring his nails for the last time, a precious moment
someone’s waist will not be marked with elastic in the future
someone is putting out milkbottles for a day that will not come
someone’s fresh breath is about to be taken clean away
someone is writing a cheque that will be rejected as ‘drawer deceased’
someone is circling posthumous dates on a calendar
someone is listening to an irrelevant weather forecast
someone is making rash promises to friends
someone’s coffin is being sanded, laminated, shined
who feels this morning quite as well as ever
someone if asked would find nothing remarkable in today’s date
perfume and goodbyes her final will and testament
someone today is seeing the world for the last time
as innocently as he had seen it first

 

My First Brit: 1957 MGA Roadster

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A 1957 MGA Roadster almost exactly like mine.

There it was, parked alongside the barn, almost totally obscured with weeds.  A bird’s egg blue MGA roadster.  Find!

In the 1960s in rural Minnesota, British sports cars were scarce.  You rarely saw one.  I’d already had several cars by my late teens, all American iron.  But after reading an absorbing teen fiction book about a boy who discovered an MG TD parked in a barn, brought it to life, and won a sports car race – a cascade of highly unlikely scenarios – I had to have a British sports car.  While cruising the country roads in my ’55 Chevy Bel Air two-door hardtop, I came across this gem: a 1957 MGA roadster, covered with dust and what looked like just a little rust, last licensed several years earlier.  Sitting.  Neglected.  Calling my name.  “Steve – look, look, rescue me!”

In farm country, you don’t go walking up to a stranger’s barn unannounced, unless you wanted a seat full of lead, so I knocked on the farmhouse door.  Through the screen, I could see a bearded man in his middle years looking out.

“Excuse me, sir, but I noticed that old MG sitting alongside your barn and I was wondering if you might be interested in selling it.”

He opened the door and stepped outside.

“What would you want with an old piece of junk like that?” he asked.

“I like fixing cars,” I said, “and I’ve never had an MG.  I’ve heard they’re fun to drive.”

He laughed.

“It’s been a long time since that car has been run,” he said.  “I bought it brand new in 1958 when I graduated from the University of Minnesota.  I drove it to New York to grad school. I was headed back to Minnesota after that and decided to take a little detour.  I ended up driving through just about every state on this continent.  When I got back here, I started work as a potter, and I’ve been doing it ever since.  My pottery studio is in the barn.  There’s a Vincent Black Shadow in the milk house.  And my MG has been resting alongside the barn.  Maybe you’ll be the next owner.  Let’s go take a look at it and see if you’re still interested.  It’s pretty rough.  My name’s Dick.”

It was rough.  But to me, that meant cheap.  I was 18 years old and had no money.  My Dad was a mechanic – he’d taught me to turn wrenches, so I was undaunted by the fact that the engine hadn’t turned over in several years, the two 6-volt batteries behind the seats were dead and covered by corrosion, and you could see the ground through the floorboards.  It had well over 100,000 miles.  Still, it was an MGA.  The only MGA that I had ever seen up close.  I loved sitting in it.  It was complete and had been driven to this spot.  The keys were still in the ignition.  I had high hopes and very little cash, but nothing to lose by asking.

“If I can get it running, I’d like to buy it.  How much do you want?”

Dick looked at me and smiled. “Well, if you’re crazy enough, you can have it for $100.  Let me know when you get it running.  Stop out any time and work on it.   Would you like to see the Vincent?”

We walked to the milk house, and there it was – a complete, original Vincent Black Shadow, now one of the rarest of the rare and one of the most desirable classic motorcycles in the world.  In the milk house, covered with dust.

“Forget about buying it,” Dick said. “My brother owns half interest and he’s not selling.”

Then we went into his barn, which was a state of the art pottery studio.  It turns out that Richard Abnet was a very well-known potter and ceramist.  He did mainly religious commissions, like chalices, candleholders, and large baptismal bowls.  Readers who’ve lived around Stillwater, Minnesota, will know who he is.

It took a week to get the MGA running.  I jerry-rigged a single 12-volt battery in the trunk, and with a push of the starter button, the engine turned.  But it would not start.  Spark was good, but when I disconnected the gas line, a nasty substance dribbled out.  I’d added new gas, but I’d added it to the gas tank on top of a foul concoction of rust, dirt, debris and something that looked like a former petroleum product.  I flushed out the tank, finding a collection of rocks and even a wrench inside.  With actual gas now flowing to the carburetors, the engine coughed, coughed again, and started up.  Within a few minutes the blue gray cloud that was coming out of the exhaust pipe cleared and the engine settled down to what resembled an idle.

I gathered my life savings, paid Dick, got the title and started home with the MGA.  I almost made it.  A few miles away, the clutch went to the floor and stayed there.  I managed to limp home in second gear, running a few stop signs on the way.  Thus began my education on keeping a British sports car alive long enough to enjoy driving it.  The slave cylinder on the hydraulic clutch had failed.  I got a repair kit at an import garage that served as the only MG dealer in the area, but when I tore down the slave cylinder, it was corroded beyond repair.  After a long search, I located a used one at a wrecking yard about 50 miles away, rebuilt it, and I was on my way.

Not for long.  The car had been sitting so long that one by one, everything made of rubber failed.  Brake cylinders, brake lines, gas lines, master cylinder, hoses – replaced them all.  My friends thought I was totally crazy.  But they didn’t have an MGA and I did!

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In between repairs, the MGA was an absolute joy to drive.  The 1.5 liter engine pushed out about 70 horsepower, good for a top speed of about 95 miles per hour, downhill with the wind at your back.

But that wasn’t the entire story.  The real pleasure of this mighty little two seater was unadorned driving pleasure.  I’d drop the top on a warm summer’s evening, head for the back roads with the wind buffeting my hair, watch the tachometer rise and fall while moving the gear stick around to find the best gear for the job at hand – whether double-clutching down for a sharp curve or cranking it out on the straights – and listen to the glorious sound of that spunky little engine breathing through the special sport exhaust that I’d made with a flow-through small tractor muffler.  The MGA shocks had almost no travel, so the car cornered flat and true.  I loved going out on the back roads with friends in their heavy Fords and Chevys and losing them when we hit the curves.  Of course, they’d catch me and pass me on the straights, but I’d catch then again in the curves.

A year or so later, I sold my little bird’s egg blue MGA to another masochist, making a tidy profit.  I tired of cars quickly, and I was always moving on to something else.  Later, I was to have several British sports cars, and they were all a blast to drive: another MGA roadster, a rare MGA fixed coupe, an Austin Healy 100-6, an Austin Healy 3000, a Triumph GT 6, a Triumph Spitfire, a Jaguar XK150 convertible, and others that I can’t think of at the moment.

The original owner of my first MGA, Richard Abnet, worked in his barn studio in between Stillwater and Marine, Minnesota, just off the St. Croix River for decades.  I stopped back to see him from time to time, hoping to buy that Vincent Black Shadow.  He passed away at 77 years, working as a potter until the end of his life.  I’m forever grateful that he sold me his bird’s egg blue MGA, my first British sports car.

These are photos of an MGA roadster I found for sale on an Internet site, along with other images.  This beauty is almost exactly like mine, though in far better condition.

Here are some period sales materials for the MGA

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Kalaloch in Winter

I now live in the Pacific Northwest on Puget Sound.  One of my favorite places is the Kalaloch Lodge in the Olympic National Forest, at the western edge of the continent, directly on the Pacific Ocean.  Kalaloch has a rustic luxury lodge and several cabins directly on the ocean shore where you go to sleep at night and wake up in the morning to the pounding surf.  I prefer to visit in winter, when there are fewer people and the storms come rolling in, blackening the sky and sending mountains of water crashing to the beach.

Kalaloch Lodge

Here are some photos from my last trip.

Riding Irish Horses in Ireland

Portos Steve # 4

 

For many generations, Ireland has been renowned for its wonderful horses – the Connemara pony, the racing thoroughbred, and the Irish Hunter.  As far back as the Crusades, armies from all over Europe came to Ireland for horses for their armies: sturdy horses of strength, speed and character.

What makes Ireland horse country?  Perhaps it’s lush green fields and temperate climate of the country; perhaps it’s the almost mystical rapport the Irish have with their horses, as celebrated in art and song since early Celtic times.  Some years ago, my horse-crazy nine-year-old daughter, Shannon, and I went to see for ourselves.  We went to ride Irish horses in Ireland – an equestrian dream come true.

We were living in Germany at the time.  Our trip got off to an auspicious start when Aer Lingus upgraded us to first class on the flight from Frankfurt to Dublin.  Then three hours by rental car – driving on the left side of the road – brought us to the Flowerhill Equestrian Centre in the rolling hills and glens of east Galway.  Owned by Oliver Walsh, Flowerhill specializes in cross-country riding, with over 100 obstacles set on the 200-acre estate.  Jumps range from novice to Irish Championship standard – it’s an All-Ireland Championship venue.  Flowerhill has over 60 ponies and horses, including two Irish Hunter stallions at stud.  As you walk about the stables, horses poke their heads out from every nook and cranny to greet you.  In the pastures surrounding the house, horses graze and roll in the grass.  Flowerhill is for horse lovers.

Máire, Flowerhill’s excellent cook, had a fine, hearty meal waiting for us, along with the other guests, when we arrived on Saturday night.  We stayed in Flowerhill House on a B&B basis, with Mary providing a sumptuous breakfast every morning that sustained us through most of the day – sausages, bacon, ham, eggs, beans and potatoes heaped on a large plate.  The former home of Lord Nugent, Flowerhill House is hundreds of years old, with a hilltop view over the estate.  Bedrooms are spacious, and guests are free to wander around the house and property.  One of the permanent guests is rumored to be a ghost.  Could that explain why the fireplace tongs suddenly fell to the floor by our feet as we sat by the fire drinking our tea one morning?

Sunday was the last East Galway “Meadows” foxhunt of the season.  What better way to start out our week of riding than with an Irish hunt?  I should explain that this was a “drag” hunt, where the fox scent is dragged through the countryside for the hounds to follow.  Politically correct, and just as much riding action – maybe more.  The lads dragging the scent that morning had a diabolical interest in having the dogs lead us through thickets and thorn bushes, as well as over almost every jump and obstacle.  That included a fast run across a field and jumping over a bank directly into a river that was belly deep for the horses.  Yes, we got wet!  I’m sure the foxes were watching us from their dens with great amusement.

Before the hunt started, we first had a riding assessment.  This consisted of a quick warm-up on the cross-country course to make sure that our horses matched our riding abilities.  Shannon rode a spirited Connemara pony named Moonlight.  This pony would fly – literally – over any jump he was pointed towards.  He and Shannon were a perfect match, and Shannon rode him for the entire week we were there.

My first steed, and the one I rode for the hunt, was a big black Irish Hunter named Sherbo.  By the end of the hunt, I’d nicknamed him Turbo Sherbo for his incredible power and speed.  Within a few jumps, I began to understand where the Irish Hunter’s jumping reputation comes from.  Later that week, I was to ride other Hunters who matched – and even exceeded – his capabilities.

Ready for the hunt, call to the hounds, and down the road we go.  Because this was our first hunt, Shannon and I stayed toward the back, though time-wise, that was only nanoseconds from the front.  There were about 30 hounds and about 40 riders.  The East Galway hunters are friends and neighbors, spanning several generations, who ride together during the regular hunt season. The youngest was about 8 years old and the oldest was in his 80’s.  Almost every single one went out of their way to say hello and welcome to the American newcomers.  It was an honor to ride with them.

It wasn’t long before the hounds picked up the scent and started the cry.  The Master of the Hounds sounded his horn, the horses put their heads up and ears forward, and off we went.  Tallyho!  We galloped down hedgerow roads, over Ireland’s famous stone fences, around the four-mile cross-country course, up and through combination ditches, and through the river.  Sherbo was an experienced hunter and wanted to get up front, but he listened very closely to me and we stayed towards the back where I could keep an eye on Shannon.  This really wasn’t necessary because Shannon was doing just fine, thank you.  Every time I looked back, Moonlight was flying through the air and Shannon was grinning from ear to ear.

The hunt lasted about four hours.  I jumped more fences in that time than I usually jumped in a month.  The East Galway hunters told me later that if you can hunt the “Meadows” at Flowerhill, you can hunt anywhere.  When the hunt ended back at Flowerhill in late afternoon, I eased myself very slowly off Sherbo, my back and leg muscles the consistency of jelly.  After washing him down – he had mud up to his ears – I slithered back to the bedroom to see if a warm shower would ease my aches.

Then it was off to the pub.  This is a required element of the Irish hunting tradition, and even if it wasn’t, you wouldn’t want to miss it.  The entire East Galway hunting club was down at Clarence’s for liquid refreshment and sandwiches.  When we walked in, the bar maid said, “Done a bit of riding today?”  On my affirmative, she brought over a basket full of sandwiches.  I was afraid to sit for fear that I wouldn’t be able to get back up, so I stood at the bar and had a couple pints of the black stuff.  I’ve always liked Guinness, but I’d never tasted it so rich and smooth as from the tap at Clarence’s, particularly that day.  I heard the next day that the hunters kept the bar open until 2 am.  Shannon and I left much earlier.

I slept more soundly than I had in months.  But when the sun came up, Shannon jumped down off her top bunk and announced that it was time to ride.  After a hearty breakfast, we went out into the yard to saddle up and begin a day of cross-country riding.  Now we could concentrate on the jumps and obstacles without the company of three dozen other horses and a pack of hounds.  When I’d asked Orla, Flowerhill’s manager, if I could sample the various Hunters, she said, “You’ll be spoiled for choice.”  And I was.  Monday’s horse was a dapple-gray named Tommy.  Tommy was as tall as Sherbo – over 17 hands – but more stout, with his Irish draught breeding showing in his huge head and muscular neck, legs and hindquarters.  Tommy never saw a jump he didn’t like.  The next week, he was going to Germany for show jumping competition, to give you an idea of his talent.  We were to spend the next two days together, until he threw a shoe.  He seemed more disappointed than I was that he had to go back to the paddock.

Then I rode Portos, similar in build, temperament, and appearance to Sherbo – tall, sleek and black, a very handsome horse.  He was also a flawless and untiring jumper.  On the last day, I had another big dapple gray named Melvyn.  Melvyn was even bigger than Tommy.  Oliver described him as a “hunting machine.”  He could hunt and hunt and hunt.  On the previous Sunday, he’d been the Huntmaster’s horse, and he was used to running up front.  At the end of the day our little group had an informal race through a large field at Oliver’s suggestion, and I can assure you that this is about as fast as I have ever ridden a horse.  When he realized a race was on and he could go full out, he sank down, stretched out, dug in and sailed past the pack like they were going the other direction.  Imagine the Starship Enterprise going into warp drive – that was Melvyn.  At the end of the field, he happily came back to a canter, then a trot, shook his head and snorted like, “Now, what did you think of that?”

Meanwhile, Shannon was enjoying having Moonlight as “her pony” for the entire week.  Shannon usually rides the school ponies at the stables where we kept our German Warmblood just outside of Wiesbaden, Germany, so she gets a different pony almost every time.  The little German princesses at the stable often get first pick.  So having a great Irish pony like Moonlight for the week made her very happy.  She and Moonlight just clicked.  By the end of the week, she was going over big fences with great confidence.  Her riding capabilities and confidence increased immeasurably during her week in Ireland.

For that matter, so did mine.  By the end of the week, I was jumping fences and going through ditches that I would never have considered before.  That included the famous “Irish ditch” –  gallop up a mound, drop off four feet into water, one bounce stride to a three-foot fence at the bottom, two full strides through water, then up and over a three-foot fence on the other side at the top.  Very exhilarating!

We took a day off in the middle of the week to do some sightseeing.  Flowerhill is less than an hour from Galway City, so we drove there, then up through Connemara to Clifden on the west coast and back down through the various bays and islands.  Just a couple hours away, the mountains and coast of Connemara are very different from the farming country of east Galway.  Waves crash onto endless miles of beaches and rocky inlets.  Big banks of clouds roll through off the Atlantic, bringing a shower an hour in April.  There are plenty of riding centers there, also.  An idea for our next riding vacation in Ireland?

So what were our final thoughts after a week of riding Irish horses in Ireland?  Well, having Irish blood in our veins may have predisposed us, but both Shannon and I had a hard time saying goodbye to our Irish friends, both human and equine.  In fact, we didn’t.  It was “Until the next time.”  Shannon said she had never had a better vacation or a better time riding in her entire nine years.  She was sure she’d never ridden a more well-mannered, willing, spirited pony.  Moonlight set a new standard for her.

My impressions are about the same.  Though each of the “Irish gentlemen” that I rode was very different, one from the other, they all inspired confidence and trust.  They had spirit, strength and character.  They were equally happy at speed or at a leisurely walk.  They jumped with vigor and energy.  None of them were horses I rode were for the amateur rider, though Flowerhill can provide these as well.  If you have invested sufficient time and energy into the art of riding, you will likely find fulfillment with an Irish Hunter.

Our last night at Flowerhill was not a night for parting tears – though it was a night for a parting glass.  One of the student interns at Flowerhill was going back to her university equine program in Sweden, so there was a party at Clarence’s.  I believe there is a party most nights at Clarence’s.  After our last ride, we put our horses away and went into the town of Portumna to eat at the Shannon Oaks Hotel, on the Shannon River, then headed for Clarence’s pub.  While you wouldn’t probably think of bringing your nine-year-old daughter to most bars in America, the Irish pub is a place for the whole family, from baby to grandma.  About 10:30, “the twins” (Oliver’s nephews) started a round of traditional Irish music that continued non-stop until early the next morning.  I had to literally pull Shannon out of there at 12:30.  The next morning, Shannon said, “That was really great “craic” – an Irish word which is roughly equivalent to “fun.”  You hear it often around Flowerhill.

I’m very much looking forward to my next trip to Ireland and more great “craic.”

Flowerhill Equestrian Centre – Killimor, Ballinasloe, Co. Galway, Ireland

Flowerhill on Facebook

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whoever you are…

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)

Whoever you are: some evening take a step
out of your house, which you know so well.
Enormous space is near, your house lies where it begins,
whoever you are.
Your eyes find it hard to tear themselves
from the sloping threshold, but with your eyes
slowly, slowly, lift one black tree
up, so it stands against the sky: skinny, alone.
With that you have made the world. The world is immense
and like a word that is still growing in the silence.
In the same moment that your will grasps it,
your eyes, feeling its subtlety, will leave it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Midnight Ferry from Almeria to Melilla

ferries-map

It was a dark and stormy night.  Really.

Theresa, me, and my trusty Irish Setter, Erin, were booked on the midnight ferry crossing from Almeria, Spain, to the port of Melilla, a Spanish enclave in North Africa. It would be an overnight crossing through the turbulent Alboran Sea, which is the westernmost portion of the Mediterranean Sea, lying between the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa. The Strait of Gibraltar is at the west end of the Alboran Sea, connecting the Mediterranean with the Atlantic Ocean, near where Columbus left from Palos de la Frontera.

Our journey that night was in a tempest, with the roiling seas tossing the ferry up and down like a toy. Most everyone aboard was sick. Those who could went to the toilets to vomit or went outside and heaved over the side of the ferry. The rest sat in their seats in the passenger area as the vomitus rolled back and forth in the isles as the ferry went up and over the waves.

It was pitch black and the rain was driving sideways. I knew that if I was going to get through this, I needed some booze and some food. Theresa was making her way back and forth from the passenger room to the toilets. Erin was in the car on the deck below, hunkered down. I went up to the bar and spent the early hours drinking Brandy de Jerez with a bunch of Spanish soldiers and eating sausage and ham sandwiches. My stomach and its contents remained in equilibrium. Most people stop eating when they start to get seasick – big mistake. Keep eating and drink alcohol, a tip from the bartender on the Italian ocean liner SS Michelangelo that we’d taken from New York City to Cannes, France, just a couple months before. It works. Listen to your bartender.

With the break of day, I was on the deck with a cup of black coffee watching the port of Melilla, in Mother Africa, emerge from the marine fog. The sea had calmed. We went down to the car to prepare to debark. That’s when I discovered I’d forgotten to pull the parking brake, so my 1957 Citroen 2CV had been bouncing all night between the ferry wall and a new Peugeot 504 in back of me, smashing my tail lights and the grill of the new car. The owner of the Peugeot was already there inspecting the damage. He was irritated, but pleasant. He was an economics professor at the University of Algiers in Algeria, and he said that something like this happened almost every time he took that ferry. We ended up on friendly terms, and he gave me his address in Algiers along with an invitation to visit and stay with his family. That’s North African hospitality, which I found everywhere we were to travel.

The damage was covered by insurance, so when we drove off the ferry, we picked up a representative of the ferry who had waved us down at the off ramp, and he directed us to a garage. Theresa’s face was white as a sheet. Erin was fine – but he really had to pee. I was still a bit numbed from the alcohol, but started to come around with a cup of North African coffee – the consistency of suggery mud – and a very sweet pastry. We got the cars fixed quickly – a little more than an hour. Turns out the ferry “representative” was not really a ferry employee but a free-lancer who now wanted money for “assisting” us. I told him I was a student and broke – the truth. He started to make a scene, but I was already in the car so I sped off, with him chasing me, cursing, I’d imagine, if I could have understood what he was saying.

Trouble was, we couldn’t figure out how to get out of town and on the road to Tangier, our initial destination. There was basically only one road to Tangier, so if we could find that we’d be fine. But Melilla was a labyrinth of ancient streets and alleys. Unlike most of Europe, there were no signs pointing the way in or out. In short, we didn’t know where we were or how to get where we wanted to go. We hadn’t bought a map in Spain because we thought we’d get one when we arrived on the African continent. But there were none to be found. Apparently, everyone knew where they were going. So we asked a policeman who was directing traffic in one of the squares for directions out of town. He had no idea, but he suggested going to the bus station. A very friendly fellow, he happily left his traffic post and walked us to the bus station nearby. Busses leave for Tangier every day, so his thinking went, so they must know how to get out of town.  OK.

That worked. A bus was leaving soon and we followed it to the border checkpoint leading out of the Spanish autonomous city of Melilla into Morocco. Now we were truly in Africa. The Rif Mountains lay ahead, the adventure had just begun, and it wasn’t yet noon. We hadn’t even had lunch.  Theresa said she wasn’t really very hungry.

Next stop: Al Hoceima, a Moroccan coastal town on the edge of the Rif Mountains. Whitewashed walls, intricate mosaics, and haunting music surrounded me that first evening in Morocco as I walked the streets with Erin. The next morning, a stranger bought us coffee and handed me a “gift” that I found later was a small brick of zero zero hashish. On the way out of town, Moroccan state police – called The Black Angels – dressed in black leather with black BMW motorcycles and machine guns, had set up an impromptu checkpoint with tire piercing spikes across the roadway. There’d been an attempt on the king’s life earlier, and they were checking every single vehicle. With a French registered car and United States passports, we seemed to perplex them a bit. But they were satisfied that we weren’t assassins and waved us through.

We were looking for a new, completely different experience, and we’d found it!  Had we ever.  The next stop before Tangier: Tétouan.  But that’s another story.

Travel note: I was somewhat surprised that Melilla was an autonomous Spanish city on Spanish territory, as is Ceuta, another Spanish enclave in Africa. Their history, like so many other North African coastal cities, dates back thousands of years.  The port we arrived at on the African continent, Melilla, has been part of the history of the Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Visigoths, Kingdom of Fez, and now the Spanish. Both Ceuta and Melilla have been under Spanish control since the 15th century.

My Cars: 1941 Chevrolet Business Coupe

“My Cars” features some of the approximately 300 cars I’ve owned since I was 12 years old. Today’s car is a ’41 Chevy business coupe.  Mine was just like the one pictured, except in slate gray.

I bought my Chevy business coupe for $100 from a college student when I was attending the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, in the early 1970’s.  His dad was a mechanic and had completely rebuilt the stock 216 cubic inch inline six cylinder motor.  The seller had re-done the interior upholstery in classy chocolate brown Naugahyde, an industrial quality fake leather popular at the time.  The car was mechanically excellent and the body was solid, though the interior was a bit dark.  A business coupe had no rear seat, just a long bench that extended from behind the front seat into the trunk.  Business coupes were a popular low-priced model offered by most car manufacturers of that era.  They were designed for traveling business or sales people to keep their samples and wares.  This served my purposes well because I had big Irish Setter named Erin who liked to stretch out.

One salient and funky feature of that Chevy was the paint.  The owner had painted the entire car bright red.  With a broom.  Using house paint.  I bought it in the middle of winter, took it to a coin operated car wash, and started spraying.  Large slabs of thick red paint went flying off the car in all directions.  So I cashed in about $10 in quarters and used the high pressure wash wand to blast off every bit of red paint.  Underneath was very solid, completely unrusted original gray paint in great condition.

Just as I was leaving the car wash that night, the wash owner came out and said: “You ain’t leaving until you clean up that mess of dried paint, buddy.”  So after spending a small fortune in quarters stripping the paint off the car, I had a nice clean-up job sweeping up buckets of dried red paint fragments under the watchful eye of a cross old geezer.  I was at that car wash for a long time that evening.  But I’m pretty sure the owner had a shotgun, so it wasn’t like I had a choice.

I decided to take a break from the university about that time, and I accepted an interesting offer to be a glass blower in Milwaukee at a small shop that made head shop paraphernalia, hanging glass mobiles, vases and chess sets.  Remember – this was the early 1970’s.  Glassblowing had always fascinated me, and opportunity was knocking.

One evening in deep winter I left Eau Claire in that ’41 Chevy and headed down I-94 to Milwaukee, about a six-hour drive.  It was bitter cold, the temperature hovering well below zero, a crystalline sky above opening to an unlimited star-lit vista.  With the heater on full blast and the AM radio playing clear channel WLS out of Chicago at 890 kHz with 50,000 watts of power, it was a cozy drive through the Wisconsin farmlands.

When I stopped for gas around Wisconsin Dells, I calculated that I was getting about 25 mpg.  That fine old Chevy was rock solid, never missing a beat.  My hundred bucks had been well spent.

 

 

The Old Mare and Colic

On a cold winter’s night in the Pacific Northwest, with rain banging on the roof and wind whistling through the stalls, I came into the barn to give the horses their evening feed.  I found Gem laying in her stall, breathing in short, shallow breaths, with her eyes half closed, trying to kick at her stomach with her back feet.

Gem was my carriage horse, a Morgan mare, 29 years old at the time, pictured above.  She had over two decades of experience competing in Combined Driving Events at the Advanced level.  She was my driving teacher.  She was fast, fancy and smart.  She also did not suffer fools gladly.  I learned most of what I know about driving a carriage from Gem.

She was colicing.   For a horse, colic is life threatening.  Their digestive system basically ties up, resulting in intense abdominal pain.  Untreated, colic will kill a horse.  Even treated, colic can kill a horse.  Horses are big creatures, weighing half a ton, but they are actually quite fragile in so many ways.

I tugged, pulled and cajoled, and Gem finally stumbled to her feet, her head hanging to the floor.  And that’s where we began.  I spent the night in and out of the barn, into the early morning hours, alternatively trying to keep the old girl upright, syringing a quart of Milk of Magnesia down her throat with a turkey baster, mixing up some phenylbute medication, and walking her up and down the driveway 15 minutes of each hour to try to loosen up her guts so they’d start to work.  Here in the Pacific Northwest, winter nights are pitch black, cold, and wet.  Pure misery.

Once a horse goes down, chances of it getting up are decreased by frequency and duration.  Three times while we were walking Gem simply lunged forward in the driveway onto her chest and sprawled over.  It was very difficult to get her up.  Each time she fell could have been the last.  But I persisted, and she got up for me.  She didn’t want to – she did it for me because she knew I was trying to help her.

Long story short, my old mare got through it.  My grandfather’s farm remedy, Milk of Magnesia, around for over 100 years, worked through her guts and she started to relax and stand without trying to drop to her knees.  I’d taken up all the hay from the stall, but now she was starting to sniff the chaff on the floor as if she was a bit hungry.  I gave her a bucket of warm water – but no hay – closed the stall doors, knocked on wood and went in to sleep.

I didn’t know what I’d find the next morning, and I expected the worst.  But when I opened the barn door, there she was, alert and looking for breakfast.  We started off slow with a little beet pulp mash and by noon some hay.  By mid-afternoon, she was fine, like the night before never happened.  But it left me to wonder how many of these episodes she could get through at her age.  This was the second time.  It turned out there would be two more, and then her time came.  She passed at 31 years after a long and eventful life.  She was one of a kind.  I still miss her.

Footnote (pun intended): While I was walking her up and down the driveway that night, she tripped and stepped on my little toe, breaking it.  That toe is still crooked.  Note to self – put on the steel-toed boots before going out to the barn.