Yipee-ki-yay

I‘ve just returned from a ranch in Patagonia, a few miles from the Mexican border. While I was there, I didn’t do any drawing. But I did some things that reminded me of drawing and how it makes me feel.

I haven’t ridden on a horse since I was three and the ghora-wallah brought a pony to our house in Lahore and led me around the garden on its back. Last week, I clambered onto the back of Joe, a huge chestnut quarter horse with enormous patience for novice riders. The experience was so new, so strange, that I couldn’t stifle girlish giggles. The strangeness increased when a half-dozen of us, most outfitted in boot, ten gallon hats, gingham shirts and jeans, galumphed out of the corral and rode off in a cloud of dust like every posse I’ve ever seen in a John Ford movie. Only this time, rather than watching from the couch, I was in the middle of the herd. This thing that I have always seen and wanted and now here I was doing it. It was new and a little tricky but nothing like as scary as I’d imagined. My fears of immediately being unseated by a balky stallion and dumped unceremoniously on my head or in the Christopher Reeves Memorial Quadriplegic Ward, were replaced by exhilaration and power. One is never too old to learn something new and to marvel at how much more one’s body can do than one gives it credit for being capable of.

By Day Two, I graduated to loping which is sort of like galloping. Att first I couldn’t get the hang of it for the simple reason that I couldn’t see it in my mind’s eye. Then it came to me: that ‘hee-yah’ moment when a cowboy puts his spurs to his steed and gallops off after the injuns or the stage-coach or the escaping dogie. And now, I, bouncing up and down like a lunatic yoyo, was doing the same. Granted I was snickering like a jackass and clutching my saddle horn but I was doing it nonetheless and remained astride my mount.

Each day, we spend four or five hours thundering around the 6,000 acres of the ranch, up mountains, through ravines, and across gulches. My wrangler counseled me in horse psychology, warning me to never let my horse get the upper hoof, that I had to always remind Joe, with a kick to the ribs and a tug on the reins, that I was the one on top. Joe had spent his whole life running around these peaks and valleys and obviously knew what he was doing, but I tried valiantly to steer him and appear in control. I’d urged him up each hillside, and he’d scramble across loose chunks of rock, harumphing and snorting out great lungfuls of dust.

While Joe was doing most of the work, I’d try to do my share. I’d keep my eyes peeled wide as we slowly inched our way down really steep inclines, pulling on the reins and muttering ‘whoa’. Rock would crumble and shift, Joe’s hooves would clatter and I would hang on for dear life.

As the hours elapsed, my brain began to shift into a new state, one that felt really familiar. I was in charge — but also letting go, alive and awake — but also zenned and blissed out. I felt on edge and alert — yet safe and calm. New York and my office and all my cares felt thousands of miles away (2,454.7 miles, to be precise). The rocking motion, the spectacular countryside, the newness of it all, combined to wring out my head like an old washcloth. When I finally staggered out of the saddle, bowlegged with locked hips and dry as a saltine, I felt empty and peaceful — much like I always have after an hour with my pen in my hand and my sketchbook on my lap.

Patagonia is one of the world’s best bird-watching spots. I haven’t really paid that much attention to my fine feathered friends until this winter when I participated in the annual Central park bird count. I was amazed to discover so many species I’d never noticed, to be heeding bird calls and then tracing them to their sources, lurking in a bush or on a windowsill. Now we sat having breakfast in the garden and saw cardinals, woodpeckers, and five different species of hummingbirds. I felt my predator instincts emerging, noticing each little change in the landscape, the slightest shift in the leaves, a shadow in the grass. It was wild to feel so a part of nature rather than just tramping through it with my iPod on. And again, this started to feel like drawing to me, like the sharpened awareness that comes when you really see something clearly, studying every detail, overcoming preconceptions to be in the moment, fully present.

Drawing is a state of mind more than a way of putting ink on paper or filling a picture frame. My days in Arizona brought that home in a whole new way.

13 Comments

  1. Tina

    I´m so glad to read this post! It was 25 years ago that I was riding a horse- and the way you describe your adventure- brings back great memories- and you´re so right- riding a horse is a great way to see the world too- gives great perspective!

    Thanks for sharing- always a treat to get to follow in your footsteps.

    Love from Tina in Stockholm

  2. Liz Adams

    Yes, to that! that drawing is a state of mind as much as anything. I often think this when students tell me they don’t have time to draw….yet they seem to have time for a lot of other things…ah well. It’s about focus, even more than about time.

  3. Lynn

    Well I am happy for you and your great adventure in the wild west!
    For me I am at least glad I have over come my fear of drawing, drawing in public…and if I never over come my fear of heights and horses that’s okay…I like my zen zone with both feet on the ground! But like I said, I am happy for YOU! You write as well as you draw too!

  4. theartistonetheroad

    Sounds like an awesome trip Danny! I understand what you said about “drawing being a state of mind more than a way of putting ink on paper.” When I traveled to Greece a couple of years ago, it took me week or so for a state of mind similar to yours to set in but when it did, it was euphoric. Robert Henry once Said ” The object isn’t to make art, it’s to be in that wonderful state which makes art inevitable.” I couldn’t agree more. Glad you found your bliss.

  5. ejmordasky

    You write so well, one feels they are there grinning and waving the hat !

  6. Deborah Cole, Powys

    Patagonia wow – my favorite Welsh artist kyffin Williams travelled Patagonia on a Winston Churchill Scholarship documenting Welsh life and the people who emigrated there from Wales. He did some amazing ink sketches of people places. Di awn!!

  7. Sharon

    Wonderful post! Isn’t it amazing when you start really seeing the birds that they aren’t a bunch of nondescript brown birds. They are many different colors, sizes, groups, sounds, and habits. Sounds like a great vacation!

  8. joyce

    Sounds like you had a great time and found that zen state in a new way. I also went riding last month..first time in 15 years, and I’m trying to figure out a way to fit more of that in my life. Cheers to you for stepping out and trying something new!

  9. Nicky Gilkison

    Wow that sounds like a neat time. I had a really similar thought come to me the other night about how drawing is about intense awareness and presence. The thought came as I was reflecting on being at the death of my 89 yo Mum three weeks ago. I drew my Dad during the week he was dieing but I didn’t draw Mum- 12 or so years later- I was so present with her during her last 2 days and last moments and it felt like drawing to me- I can’t remember the thought link that actually got me there- it was actually early morning- but I made that connection and wanted somehow to be able to convey that to the kids that I teach. It’s not so much about good or bad or accurate so much as being present.

  10. ljstetina

    Great post Danny, I never rode a horse and it always looked intimidating to me. How did your butt feel after a few days ? is that myth true?

  11. Juno

    Thanks for sharing this very evocative piece about your adventure. As someone else has said you write as well as you draw (I was with you as you road down the steep inclines and watched the humming birds)! Your blog has opened up my eyes to a whole new way of looking at things and stuff. Thank you!

  12. Seth

    In charge….but also letting go. Sounds like a slice of paradise.

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