Meeting Epona at the Pile of Rocks Ranch

by Elizabeth C. Creely

I grew up in the suburban, modern West, a hard place to locate divinity. The only wide open spaces left seem to be located on the sites of former military bases, or in rugged, inaccessible areas. My paternal predecessors traveled, lived and died in a California that was characterized by open space interrupted by small towns and settlements that were even then sites of land speculation, and subsequent development. But when my paternal grandparents Mr. and Mrs. Bunster Creely arrived in Newport Beach, Southern California was still relatively untouched.

Mr. and Mrs. Bunster Creely standing in the Upper Newport Bay, Newport Beach, Ca, circa 1948.

Our grandparents left Northern California for the southern part in the state in 1928 motivated by cheap land and a desire to escape my grandmother’s over-bearing mother. They started a new life in arid Southern California. What they brought with them aside from the desire to start their married life in a different place, was a love of Equus ferus caballus, otherwise known as the horse. Horses weren’t merely animals, and they were not status symbols. They weren’t used for their muscles as a tool of work. They were something a bit more meaningful.

My parents weren’t churchgoers and my siblings and I were not baptized. We did not have King James Bible in our home. What we had was a book entitled “The Horse in the West.” That 1960s-era, brown leather book was my sacred text. I suppose if I had to describe my belief system as a child, it was this: the horse was a god and god was a horse. The relationship with a horse was as close as I could come to achieving grace.

Our aunt, Cerini Creely, her friend Jane Elliot and their horses after a ride in the Upper Newport Bay, Newport Beach, CA

Less than 80 years ago, coastal Orange County was a small collection of towns fringed by orange groves, and further out, sagebrush, oak woodlands and vernal pools. What is now home to million-dollar houses was once a sandy delta near the Pacific Ocean. It’s here that my father and grandfather hunted rabbit and my Aunt Cerini rode horses. As a teenager growing up in Newport Beach, Cerini would walk across the street in the morning, slip a halter around her horse’s neck, and ride bareback through a field that led to Newport Harbor High School, a mile away.

Cerini at play, near Irvine Avenue and 22nd Street, Newport Beach (ca 1948)

To me, this seemed incredible, something reserved for immortals or for the very wealthy. Cerini was an Eponist, an adept in the equine arts, a latter-day priestess of Epona the Celtic-Romano goddess. I wanted what my aunt had: the availability of land and a relationship with a horse, any horse. I wanted to aspect Epona. I hadn’t heard of Epona- this came later-yet I understood that what I wanted was this: to be among horses.

The Gaulish-Romano goddess, Epona. Figure found in Champoulet, France

In 1984, I got my chance. I was told by my step-aunt that she had a friend who needed help with her seventeen horses. The details trickled in over the next two months, changing each time. At first, the friend, whose name was Christine, claimed she needed an “intern”. It became clear after many vague messages that the position more closely resembled indentured servitude. My mother’s bullshit meter hit red and she started to get angry when the subject was raised. Mom wanted to tell the woman to look for another servant, and that “not no, but hell no!” was she sending her 14- year old daughter to a ranch that was 2 hours away and had no phone and no running water, “God knows what else is going on,” my Mother said. But it was decided that I could stay with the mysterious woman and her horses.

Years later, I learned that my father gently, but firmly told my mother that I was going.

The day they drove me out to Christine’s ranch, my mother was quiet and on edge. She had no idea where we were going. None of us had any sense of the area we were driving into. The geography of California south-east of Los Angeles is high desert, and home to about ten minor mountain ranges that descend into rocky and barren lowlands. The ranch was located in the Gavilan Hills, in Riverside County, an under-populated county east of the coast of Southern California. Riverside County was unlovely and thus largely unknown. My parents who had lived and explored Southern California for years could not picture where the ranch was located. “Gavilan Hills? Where the hell is that?” my mother asked. No one knew.

The Gavilan Hills, Riverside County, California

We exited Interstate 15, just north of Lake Elsinore, a lake town characterized by bikers, retirees and hippies, and turned east toward the beige hills opposite the lake. Within a mile or two, the paved road turned to hard-packed dirt as it climbed up and around small hollers of mobile homes. We sat quietly in the car except for my mother. “Jesus Christ,” she muttered under her breath. “Jesus Christ.” She glared at my father, who stayed silent. I tensed up, expecting this trip to be vetoed at the last minute. I was not turned off by the area. I was itching to get out and explore.

From USGS quad map ‘Gavilan Hills” Lat 33.76425° (N) Long 117.33659° (W)

We made a sharp turn and drove into a flat opening that was surrounded on all sides by the detritus of the mountain: rocks, more rocks and rocky outcroppings. My father took a tight turn and there it was: the ranch. On the left was two trailers. One was a luxury horse trailer configured so that the living space was half of the unit and the other half storage space. The other trailer was a pop-up camper that had seen better days.

“This should be called Pile of Rocks Ranch,” said my Dad. I didn’t say anything. All I could see was the glorious flesh of seventeen beautiful horses. Within minutes, I was able to answer a question that had been my only concern: the horses looked well cared for. I exhaled. My mother looked appalled. My father turned off the engine and looked at me. He had a look on his face that took me a moment to identify. It was envy. He put his arm around my mom’s shoulder and gave it a small squeeze.

We were greeted by the owner of the newly-dubbed Pile of Rocks Ranch, Christine. She was striking woman with long thick brown hair. Behind her stood a large, quiet man with slicked back black hair, her husband. He had the energy of a wary animal.

Christine was fit, tan and had a gypsy air about her. She took the three of us on a tour of the ranch and introduced each horse to my father and I, which we thoroughly enjoyed. My mother, who was untouched by the wild Eponist spirit of the Creelys’, trailed behind us. She didn’t like Christine. “I didn’t feel welcome by her,” she said later. “She didn’t like people.” My parents finally left: one envious and one grudging. I was left alone with Christine and her 17 horses.

My living quarters were Spartan: The trailer smelled of pine sol, semi-dry horse manure, and dust. My toilet was a bucket with a lid covering the opening. I emptied it before I went to sleep. I had a small cooler with a chunk of ice wedged in it. This was enough to keep my food from spoiling. My shower was a hose with a shower-head attached. It hung on a hook on the side of a shed next to my trailer. In the hottest part of the day, I would shower with water heated in the coils of the hose.

I had only camped once before in my life, as an 8-year old with my friend’s family in San Felipe Mexico, but never anything like this. And never for that long. It was possible that I could have been miserable, but I took that chance and found out that I loved being dirty, and working all day. I didn’t need the comforts of suburban existence.

The days began early, pre-dawn. We started by breaking flakes of alfalfa from huge bales and fed the horses, chatting with them. I learned to speak to horses with Christine. Then we cleaned the corrals. They were spotless. Then I’d push a wheelbarrow up a steeply sloping ramp that was nearly 20 feet tall. I’d dump fresh horse shit over a small hill of old manure. This manure composted and became bedding for the horses.

And then my lesson with the horses would begin. Picture a dirty woman wearing jeans with a tan so deep, her skin was like leather. Christine had the best tack for her horses: dressage saddles that cost thousands of dollars. The gear we put on the horse cost as much as a week’s worth of food. She taught me what double reins were for, and how to work them. I used my pinkies to communicate minute directions to the horse, via the bottom rein. Then we would let go of my training for a time and go for a trail ride. We enjoyed mutual silence and the lulling sound of eight hooves plowing through sand and over rock. This was what I was here for-for my moment on top of a horse, sharing its beauty, strength and grace.

We ate at sundown, when the flies had calmed, and the heat had settled. And then we slept. This was the rhythm of the time on the Pile of Rocks Ranch.

There were other people living on the rocky ranch among the seventeen horses: A elderly man whose name I never knew. He was a real cowboy with a sweet temper who had spent his life working cows, rodeos and the range. He had been injured in an unnamed accident which left an open sore on his hip. That had happened 30 years before. The wound never healed. The stench would hit you at 5 feet. He did odd jobs for Christine and she fed him three meals a day.

Christine’s daughter Dezi and Dezi’s son, C.J. also lived at the ranch. Dezi was full-figured, and filled up the room with her personality. She was tough and no-nonsense. I liked Dezi and her tow-haired 2-year old. Dezi enjoyed horses nearly as much as her mother, and was proud to share with me that she had ridden her horse up to the day before giving birth. (Her horse at that time was also pregnant.) She saw nothing wrong with her son being dirty.

But the horses…the horses. They were my focus and my passion, my idols and mentors. I loved a horse named Shiloh, a 15-hand grey gelding. The canvas above the shelf where I slept was torn wide open and opened over the corral fence. At night, as I lay looking at stars I normally couldn’t see, Shiloh would stick his head through the slash. The stars would wink out as the head of Shiloh silently nosed about until I reached out to touch his muzzle. Shiloh had been trained so well that I rode him with just the slightest pressure in my calves and thighs and slight cues with my hands on the reins. He smelled good, especially when I gave him a sponge bath. I loved the way his dirty white hide turned grey blue with water and smelled of musky horse muscles. Each evening, at sunset, I rode Shiloh a quarter mile to start the water pump and then back again at a full gallop along the twisty road that led to the ranch. I was till a novice rider. Even though I loved Shiloh’s power, I was still in awe of it. I fought to relax, to keep my eyes down the road where we were headed, and to enjoy the ride. Time slows down on the back of a horse.

Shiloh at dusk, Pile of Rocks ranch, Gavilan Hills, California.

Zalex was an Arabian Stallion that almost ripped my hand off. Christine taught me that I must never have my hand on the lead rope in any configuration other than a loop. “You can never let your guard down with a stallion,” she told me as she demonstrated the way to hold the stallion on a lead rope. To hold a lead rope in a circle, where a tight pull could cut your hand in half, was a no-no.

One day I took Zalex past a mare he’d seen a thousand times. But this time, he noticed her. Zalex lunged towards the mare which nearly lifted me off my feet. If I had been holding the rope differently, I would have lost my hand.

I let go of Zalex and watched in horrified fascination as he ran full tilt at the mare behind the pipes of the corral. He hit the metal bars full tilt, and banged again and again against the bars which clanged loudly. The mare whinnied wildly. Was she egging him on? Or was she as frightened as me? Christine ran out, grabbed the hose, cranked it at full blast and hit him in the face with the water. It worked. He came out from under the potent of the spell of the mare and his hormones and ran off. Christine looked at me.

“Are you okay?” she asked. She watched the sex-crazed horse, still running. “That was smart, girl. He could have killed you.”
“Are you scared he’s loose?” I asked shakily
“No. He’ll come back. When he does, he and I will talk. I’ll get him back where he belongs.”
Twenty minutes later, Zalex came ambling back. She walked up to him, stroked him soothingly, and reattached the lead. She led the horse away, speaking words of love, of acceptance for his wild equine nature.

The name of the mare that drove Zalex mad was Mary Gail. She was a purebred, high-strung Arabian who was gorgeous. She tossed her head like a diva. Not even Christine could break her of this annoying habit. I rode the mare with a special bridle called a running martingale. This kept her head in one place and her speed checked. I couldn’t relax on Mary Gail, but the power I felt under my butt and between my legs was astounding. I felt as if I were riding a locomotive. I loved riding her.

My dad, who had been trained in horsemanship by a World War I cavalry officer, visited me about two weeks later. We went for a ride. I put Dad on Shiloh and I rode Mary Gail. Father and daughter loped for a bit in the dusty hills. My father studied my hands, and the way I held the reins.
“I think you’re holding her head in way too much,” he said. “Let up a bit.”
I explained that if I did that, she’d start racing. “She’s like a car with the gas pedal stuck,” I said. He was not convinced.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll let the reins be looser. Try to keep up so you can see what’s going on with her.”

We started off. I took the brakes off Mary Gail and let her have her head. The column of her neck pulsed, and her head dropped. She hit three speeds in quick succession: a fast lope, a gallop and then a fast gallop. The hot wind hit my face and the ground became a blur under her churning hooves. I remember hoping she hadn’t totally outrun my Dad and placid Shiloh: he needed to see what Mary Gail was capable of. After a hundred yards, I collected her into a trot and then down to a walk. I turned around. He and Shiloh were galloping up. They drew abreast of me and the sweating horse. My Dad had a look of surprise on his face.

“Well kid, you were right,” my dad said. He was impressed. “I think you know more than your old man now.” We rode on. I glowed with happiness. His praise felt good. It wasn’t that I was right; it was that he respected my newly-acquired expertise. At the age of fifteen, I was his peer on horseback.

Christine and I took a final six-hour ride. We rode south from the property to a trail that traversed an area of the hills I hadn’t been to. We both led other horses. We were going to be picked up at the end of the trail, near the bottom of the hill by Dezi. Christine lent me chaps to wear and instructed me on how to properly lead another horse. No human settlement could be seen from the vantage point of the trail, which began at about 3,500 feet. We packed food and a lot of water. We passed through shade once or twice, under the enormous boughs of ancient oak trees somehow still miraculously left standing, survivors of the rampant tree-cutting of real estate developers and California’s annual fire season. It was dusty and hot, reaching 90 degrees outside.

There is a particular shade of beige unique to the dried grass found in California’s hill country: bleached-out and yellow. The color of the grass is matched by the yellow-tinged dirt of the trail. The profusion of tawny yellow is why I couldn’t see the mountain lion. We were alerted to its presence by the sudden change in the attitude of the horse I was leading, a young, green mare that suddenly started to panic.

Christine turned her head and looked at me. “Turn her loose,” she said. If I hadn’t just spent three weeks with this woman, I would never have done what I did so calmly. I reached over, grabbed the lead rope and pulled the mare’s head to me. I undid the latch on the halter. The mare turned tail and ran back to the ranch at a gallop.

“The mare will be fine,” said Christine. “Dezi’ll get her.” She was surveying our surroundings. We hadn’t actually seen the lion yet. We looked and finally saw it only when it moved. It was as dusty yellow as the grass and the dirt and was perched upon a large boulder. It looked our way. Everything seemed to stand still. The lion stretched like a massive house cat after its nap, and turned around, climbed down the boulder and walked away from us toward the nearest rise. Christine looked at me. She was smiling. “I was hoping that would happen,” she sighed. On her advice we waited five minutes and resumed our ride. We rode that day mostly in silence. I thought of my dad, my aunt and my grandpa. I was proud of being so comfortable in such a rough situation. I wished they could see me, so they could formally welcome me into their club, those people who knew California so intimately.

After three weeks, too soon for me, it was time to pack up my things and go. Christine was going to drop me at an ice cream shop in the town down the hill where I would wait for my folks. I have no memory of saying good-bye to anyone: Dezi, her son, the old man or the horses. I don’t recall much about leaving, except that we got to the ice cream store early. Christine didn’t wait with me for my parents to show up. I didn’t mind. My mother had a different reaction. When my parents drove up, and my mother realized they left me alone, I thought she would explode. “They left her on the side of the road! All by herself!” she told my sister indignantly. “I have never HEARD of such a thing!”

I got into the backseat and chattered the whole way home about my last three weeks. I was dirty and happy. With only a 5-minute shower every two days for three weeks, I had yellow dirt caked in every crease of my skin and I longed for a bath. And there was another thing I was looking forward to: I had something to brag about to my friends and sisters. I was in a state of grace with the dirt of California and horsehair pasted to my clothes to show for it. I had been initiated as a high priestess of horses. The Pile of Rocks Ranch was my bible camp and my faith was strong. As the youngest of five children, this mattered: I was something else now, resourceful, learned, and practiced. I was skilled. I knew things my siblings didn’t. The three weeks on the ranch had created a new level of intimacy between me and the horses and the California landscape. No Creely had ever done what I did. I had a piece of our family history that was all mine. I couldn’t be bossed around anymore.

I wish that I could go back in time and inscribe a laudatory dedication on one of the rocks to Christine, the Equine queen of the Gavilan Hills.

It would read: all hail to Epona, she who rides the divine mare, the goddess of the horse.  Hail Christine of the Pile of Rocks Ranch!

Emily Creely, October 8, 2012

Emily Creely on “Tarife” in Sutton, AK, 1999