Saturday, August 26, 2017


In this world of rapid change, it's refreshing to find something that stays the same.  Almost.
Once a year, for two weeks, the little Humbolt County Fair in the small town of Ferndale, California kicks off.  I've heard it's the longest continually running county fair, stretching back to the 1870s if I remember correctly.

Let me set the context, because that's part of the appeal.  Ferndale is a tiny dairy community tucked into the mountains of very Northern California, not far from the costal city of Eureka.  This is beautiful country where redwoods meet the pounding sea.  I've been there a handful of times and now I'm thrilled to be able to watch the horse races at the fair from my TV or computer screen given the technology available now.  The fair is like most county fairs with fried everything and lots of animal exhibits and show competitions.  Against this beautiful backdrop sits a little 5/8 mile racetrack, as cute as it is dangerous.  Tight turns, the intimacy of the crowd and animals, and the enthusiasm by all involved make this a special place.  For once, it's not about the competition as much as it's about enjoying yourself.

Rumors and folklore about Ferndale abound.  From the legendary announcer Gunnar Froines, to died a few years back, to the year of the moth invasion, to the many tales of horses that missed the turns, it's all part of the mystique.  The stories would fill volumes and the fact that this little gem of a fair continues to this day virtually the same, is a modern miracle.
I've done a few articles on Ferndale, once even getting the cover story for The Blood-Horse magazine, where I was a correspondent for almost 20 years.  There is just something touching about this place because of it's size and it's unusual appearance.  Being a dairy town, the home to a Knudsen Creamery, the baked potatoes with sour cream are exceptional.  He townsfolk, so I've heard, save up all year for two weeks of betting horses, enjoying the fair daily, and just marveling at what they've got.  Aside from horses best described as underachievers, what's they've got is something historical, consistent, and timeless.  This is horse racing as it was, with all the risk, color, and pageantry on a slightly smaller scale.
Racing at Ferndale is capped off with the running of the Humbolt County Marathon, at a mile and 5/8.  That means three complete circles around the track.  The lore says that in the beginning, each jockey was given 3 pebbles to hold in their mouth as the race was run.  Every time they crossed the finish line they were to spit out one pebble.  When the third pebble was gone, they were to ride to the finish line one more time and the race was over.  Somehow, I believe this story.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Street Dance

He knows there is something there,
Something most of us can't see,
So he darts out in the middle of the street to peck
the unpeckable.
That's what crows do,
I see it and want it, but there are cars
from both directions
cars that can stop his vision in one spasm of the neck.
Still he pecks,
until the last second, then hops or flies or sometimes walks
as if his life were not at stake.

She has a family to feed,
nothing can go to waste,
Risks envelop everything, they hatch
at all hours,
so she darts, she flirts with the steel boxes
that form the carnival ride of chance.
Something I can digest is hiding from those
that do not see.
Still, she pecks until the sound descends,
she flits aside at the last second,
as if her life were not at stake.

Monday, August 7, 2017


Sometimes trying to simplify our lives can get complicated.  Cutting back and letting go of things need not be so difficult.  In fact, the two or three times I've made a concentrated effort to downsize were absolutely exhilarating.  Filling up a dumpster with material things that have stayed too long at the fair is a very visual measurement of how attached we get to the non-essential.
I've begun to think about finding new homes for anything I still cling to that might be of some value.  In full disclosure, nothing I currently possess is of significant value that it couldn't be replaced if necessary.  Although, my little collection of historical books and primary source objects, while not really worth much, would be difficult to reproduce.
Though my wife worries that some of my most interesting items would be difficult to "place" I constantly assure her that a museum or two would take some and a used record store right down the street would be the place to take my record collection.  Anything they don't want could go to Goodwill or even be placed outside on the sidewalk.  It all disappears and rather quickly.
I had something a few years ago that I really wanted to find a good home for...something that I kept to remind me of the time I owned a horse.  It was a hackamore bridle.  This bridle differs from a standard one in that it has no bit that goes into the horse's mouth.  Granted, you have less control, but the big mare we rode with the hackamore was gentle enough that the hackamore was a good choice for all.

I put the hackamore out at a yard sale I had with some friends many years ago, and actually ended up selling it to someone I knew.
Luis Niebla bought the bridle for a measly $10.  I really wanted him to have it because I knew it would get used.  Luis was a jockey I knew who worked for two trainers that had been movie stuntmen in the Hollywood of the 30s and 40s.  They did stunts for John Wayne among other famous screen cowboys.  Luis was the stable rider, in that he rode horses of theirs in minor races.  If ever they had one good enough to compete in stakes races, another more accomplished jock would be engaged.   Luis didn't mind, he had a home, a few mounts a year, and a source of income.  Wayne Burson and Chuck Roberson  (the trainers) would barnstorm some years at the small California and Nevada Fair circuit.   Sometimes their horses were more experienced than people knew because some of the fairs, especially the Nevada ones were so small that statistics weren't recorded.
I once asked Luis how and when he came to California from Mexico.  The answer was astonishing.  Luis was the little Mexican kid in the movie "Stagecoach" that went for a wild ride with John Wane on an out of control coach.  After the filming, he came to California to work at the Bakersfield ranch of his stuntmen friends.
BY the time I met Luis, he was the most unassuming person.  He never won many races.  I even looked up his stats.  He's listed as having 89 wins and 89 second place finishes.  I know there were many more...somewhere.
So that day when Luis appeared at my yard sale, I knew he'd go home with the hackamore.  Hopefully a horse with as kind a disposition as this jockey is enjoying the feel of the fit.