This was the big year. The 50th anniversary of the Tevis Cup Ride up in Auburn. It took all my doing to convince my Mom that she needed to come with me. She had rode back in 68 and 69, back when everyone still rode in Levis and used western saddles. But the thing that made her especially unique was that my Mother Lona Sweet (Webb) rode on a little POA pony stallion in 69. His name was SS War Bonnet and he was the first registered pony to complete the Tevis. I had been so impressed by their accomplishment and awed by their achievement that I guess it planted a little seed that almost twenty years later would come back to bite me. In 1992 I rode another little pony, his daughter Meghan O’Bonnet. We finished the ride successfully though frightfully close to the cut-off time. I have proudly worn my buckle ever since.
So this year I was really looking forward to going to watch all the excitement. Two people I knew were riding and we wanted to visit at the vet checks to cheer them on. Robinson Flats was busy as usual but I was glad to see that the shuttle bus system was working quite well. We had no problem getting in and Mom found an old friend waiting at the top, Bud Dardi. They had both ridden Tevis at the same time and were old competitors. Mom had always spoken highly of him, along with all of the other name people that she had shared trail with. In fact she and Smokey Killen both rode their first Tevis’s together and had danced the night away partying the evening before. (tsk, tsk Mom).
It was fun watching the vetting lines. Boy, were there a lot of horses! Yikes. I sat there on a big flat rock with my friend Jill keeping an eye out for the jr riders. We caught up on what each other had been doing and occasionally someone else from our home area would also come by to talk. My Mom was running around like a kid in a candy store, enjoying the excitement and the beautiful mountain scenery. One year, when I was a kid, we came up to Robinson Flats to camp out while Mom did some preriding of the trail. All of us have some favorite stories from that time. I loved the one where us kids went to hike up to a fire look out tower. On the way back we decided to take a short cut and almost got our selves lost in the forest. I still get the willies.
Our riders finally showed up and vetted through. One unfortunately didn’t pass due to some rock injury to a leg. The other passed just fine and their little area was a blur of activity taking care of the horse and little kids. One of the little children is a horse nut and it was fun seeing the happiness on her face. I felt for the rider because I know how tough it is to be a rider and a mother at the same time. So many areas of concern. I was especially interested in this particular rider because I met her before she had horses and to see her now competing in the Tevis was a thrill.
The next stop was at Forest hill, which is a very nice big area to have a vet check in. Unfortunately not a lot of shade but I “borrowed” someone’s shade tent to stand under. One of my good friends was manning the in-timer job. So I stood there and talked with her. Several of my acquaintances came by and I heard an interesting tidbit of gossip about there being a sponsor for the ride this year. I thought it was rather odd because I had never heard of there being a sponsor for the Tevis. I noticed some of the volunteers T-shirts had a logo on the back but didn’t think about it too much. Foresthill has always been a fun place to go. On one of the trips back when I was a kid we camped in the park for a few days with Moms ponies. Back then there wasn’t any public pool or even any swings, so we had to make our own fun. I loved going into to town to walk on the old fashion wooden sidewalks and hanging around the old time buildings. The park had that old stage and us kids would put on shows for the grown-ups. All this was Tevis to me. The camping, the ponies, Foresthill and the history of the area, the running around and playing. Tevis was just plain fun and then Mom would ride the heck out of the pony.
This year, after awhile the heat took a toll on me and my little family group. We went back to the hotel to cool off and to wait for the fun at the fair grounds that night.
At the fairgrounds there was a band playing and lots of people milling around the score board down on the field. Some little kids were riding their bikes around the arena. The vendor was selling hot dogs, hamburgers and gallons of coffee. Occasionally the announcer would say something to encourage the spectators to hang on. It was getting late and the crowds were a little restless. Where were those horses? Finally around 11:30 or so the first riders came in and crossed the finish line holding hands. We all whooped and hollered, clapping till our hands went numb. Then for each horse and rider, we clapped, yelled and welcomed them to Auburn. I remembered how my crew stayed up all night waiting for me to come in and how I had finally crossed the finish line with a scant half hour left til the cut-off time. But they were all there. Each and every one of them and lots of other people too. One local Auburn man from the concession stand had come up, with tears in his eyes and (beer on his breath) and congratulated me on completing the Tevis on my tiny little pony. It was a big big moment for me. One that I hadn’t thought would happen when I was alone out in the canyons that night in pitch-blackness, riddled with fear and despair. So to enter the arena and to have the pony run away with me at the finish was wonderful. Something that I will always treasure as one of the supreme moments of my life.
I have felt ever since an obligation to wait up for the last rider to come in. They deserve a reception committee to clap for them, to cheer and to yell for them. The front runners always have the most cheering and the most balloons and pictures, but the last horse and rider has also completed the Tevis motto, “To Finish is To Win”. I believe this to be an important truth in Endurance riding.
We had set up a sleeping mat with pillows and blankets for my 9 year old daughter up at the top of the grandstands, in case she wasn’t able to hold on until the very end. We, (myself, my Mom, my sister and daughter) parked ourselves on the top steps with the best view of the whole arena and the road leading down to it. We ate food, visited with friends, sang songs, made up wacko songs to keep our spirits up as we got tired, watched a possum clambering around the chainlink fence and the old tires near the grandstands walkway. My daughter kept going on errands to write stuff down in her notebook. I am now very well informed as to what each of the posters on the walls say.
When I was a young girl I remember the first time we waited for Mom to come riding in. She was riding an Arab stallion for a gentleman who didn’t feel he himself could handle the ride. He had confidence in my little Mom to bring his stallion into the finish line. And she did. Her very first time completing the Tevis, she came in 4th. Wow, Mom, what a fantastic thing! I will never forget the hours of watching through binoculars as you trained and practiced on Shafar. And then the excitement of watching you come into the arena back in 68.
This night of 2004, turned out to be a chilly one. Quite cold for those of us perched up on the highest points of the grandstands. It didn’t stop us from yelling our lungs out for the horses and riders though. On the contrary, we were even more determined to show them how much we cared about their endeavors. At one point around 4 am, a lady came walking by and laughed up at us, “I was over in the stables and thought there must have been 30 people out here hollering and clapping.” Nope, just us three chickens, the child finally having succumbed to sleep. My sister for some reason couldn’t quite finish yelling out the words Welcome to Auburn. She would always get to the Welcome to…..and then she would start choking up laughing. So I would end up yelling out the Auburn part for her. We had our routines. It was fun. It was hard. Not as hard as riding the ride though, so we kept going, determined to be an encouraging voice in the early morning darkness.
Finally when the night sky started to turn a lovely shade of blue and the blackness of night was fading away, the announcer said that there would be no more riders making it into the fairgrounds. We said our goodbyes and our “we’re sorry”s to the ladies who were still waiting for their rider. Our rider had made it in close to the 100th person mark, but we stayed for all of the rest of the teams. But now there would be no more riders this night. We gathered up our belongings, picked up the blankets, said goodnight to the possum under the stands and sleep-walked my child to the car. I wondered as we drove to the hotel if we would wake in time for the awards ceremony but just decided to leave it to fate. If we were supposed to be there, we would be.
The next day waking was difficult at best. We fixed our faces and rumpled clothes, then went to Dennys for breakfast. Mom and I both proudly sporting our Tevis buckles and telling anyone in earshot what they were all about. To win a Tevis buckle to be joining an exclusive club almost. A club of those who know what it is like. Every person who has ridden the Tevis has a story that is unique and special. No two stories are alike and no two rides are alike. Each time someone rides they create a new story, with it’s own adventures and perils. And yet, we can each understand what the other went through. We are different and we are the same.
Then we piled the folding chairs into the car and went to the fairgrounds to find a shady spot to watch the awards ceremony. I spotted my local riding friends sitting in a group and said howdy to them. I bought the new Tevis Cup book at the vendors booth. I like it when there is new stuff written about this sport that I love. I noticed a booth giving out baseball caps and little boxes of dried dates. Even though there were still people lined up to get their meal, the ceremony began. The speaker started with the pledge of allegiance. I thought it was extremely funny how exuberant he was speaking the words of the pledge. I thought it must be because of the war and the patriotic fervor that has taken over the country. And then the gentleman asked us all to bow our heads in prayer and I listened as he spoke a very passionate and occasionally stumbling prayer when he searched for the words he wanted to say. I really thought it was unusual to have a prayer, especially a prayer so fervent. He forgot to give thanks for the horses or to even mention them in his passion of the moment, so when he was finished praying, some of the riders in the audience yelled out for God to remember the horses also.
Then the ceremony got underway. The gentleman on stage talked about the sponsor of the ride this year. He asked this gentleman from the United Arabs Emirates to join him on stage. The Western States man went on and on about how this was the royal crown year or some such thing and then said that they had a special presentation for the UAE gentleman. He held up a small box, (I couldn’t really see it well because I was sitting on the low folding chair.) His little speech described the award as having the words “sponsor of the 50th Tevis” or some such thing. And then he said that he was getting a special Tevis Buckle. A Tevis Buckle. He was getting a Tevis Buckle! I could hear a roar inside my head as my heart began to burn. They were awarding a Tevis Buckle to someone who hadn’t ridden the ride. Someone who gave a bushel of money was getting a buckle as a thank you award. “But”…, My heart cried out inside….”he didn’t earn it.”
I sat stunned. In shock. For several moments I couldn’t move and then I got up and went back to my friends from my home area. I asked one of them, “Does that mean what I think it does? Are they really giving that man a buckle and he didn’t ride?” The woman I was talking to, looked me straight in the eyes and nodded her head.
I knew at that moment that every thing that the Tevis had meant to me had been sullied. Someone had bought a buckle and besmirched what each of us had worked so hard to attain. Those who sold him the buckle for “Thirty pieces of silver” had belittled what all the riders over the last fifty years had accomplished. Every hard, hot, sweaty moment I had spent training my pony; every tv dinner my family had to eat; every weekend I spent out alone in the hills with Meggie; every tear; every painful muscle cramp, every time I couldn’t hold down food on the trail, every drop of spilt blood….it meant nothing. Because now someone could buy for money what others had always sacrificed for.
I went back to my folding chair, next to my mother wearing her buckle from so long ago, to watch my friend get her piece of paper. Because this year they are only passing certificates until the “special” Tevis buckles are ready. I believe that the Top Tenners were receiving their actual buckles, which seemed right and fitting that they should. Then down the line, a Japanese gentleman accepted his certificate with a great deal of grace and even a bow to the presenter. I love the blend of cultures that come together here. I was watching as the UAE gentleman came up for his piece of paper and lo and behold to my surprise, the presenter handed him a buckle and said these actual words “You get a buckle because you came so far.” I wrote the words down because I couldn’t believe it! Didn’t the Japanese gentleman come rather far also? What the heck was that all about? This particular gentleman was not a top tenner but apparently was a little more special than the rest of the riders, because he got his buckle immediately. Hmm.
Needless to say I was very disappointed by the ride ceremony this year. There was some really strange unfair things done in my eyes. It smacks very much of someone who is too bedazzled by the riches and allure of foreign countries to be able to keep their eyes on what I’m sure Wendell Robie would have considered proper and right for an American and a true endurance rider.
Well does this make me want to quit and say “Sayonara” to all of what Tevis has meant to me? NO, IT DOES NOT!!! Because I made a pact with some of my friends that who ever does not ride next year will have to crew. (And I’ve crewed this ride. I would rather ride. Thank you very much.) It was one of the best things I have ever done in my life. We have such a beautiful country and when riding the Tevis we get to see it from a different viewpoint. We get to see it as those people from the past perhaps saw it. It makes a love of our history well up within me. There is a core of strength and courage, adventure and excitement for life that was born from the efforts of those who came before us. I know what made our country great and I found it out while looking over my ponies ears as she looked down at Lake Tahoe from Watsons Monument, into Granite Chief Wilderness, crossing an Elephants Trunk, up at Cougar Rock, down, down deep into those incredible canyons, swimming across a river in the black of night and over an old historical bridge that still stands despite everything that God has thrown at it. I found out what makes us who we are as my pony took me around the circle in front of the grandstands, in front of my friends and family. Nobody can take that away from me. Nobody. And I dare them to try!
All that being said, It’s time to saddle up my pony again and break out the Tequila! Look out Tevis, here we come!