People Ride Horses Again

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Matt Geiger

My seven-year-old daughter came home and told me she had a crush on someone at school. She added that a different classmate had a crush on her. The situation, she explained, was quite complicated.

Three days later, she walked up to me and said, “Dad, I have a question: What’s a crush?”

It was yet another reminder that life is experienced by those who do not understand it in real time. Much of the profundity and meaning in the moments we share only reveals itself later, with the lucidity of hindsight, often on a page or in a song. When things are actually happening, our most common sentiment is: “Huh?”

I like to think I sometimes enjoy little glimpses through the veil, into the true heart of what it means to be human. But these always come after the fact. I never realize how special a small moment is until it is gone, when I can look back on it and see just how immense it really was.

It’s the very opposite of how things worked in my youth. When I was a teenager, every moment was grotesquely inflated with meaning. I remember thinking, without a hint of irony, that every conversation I had with a girl, every taunt from a bully, every decision in class or at a party, was a matter of life and death. Today, I’m amused by how stunningly unimportant it all was. It didn’t matter if I talked to girls, or not. None of them were the one I ended up marrying. Most of the guys who bullied me are dead, the victims of drug abuse and violence. The living ones turned out to be really nice guys. Most of the people I bullied turned out just fine, and they all seem to be much thinner than I am, and they have more hair and money than I do.

But back then, the romance and drama of life were turned up so high that every experience was distorted.

Romance has been a common topic in our household lately. When your first grader comes home and starts talking about love triangles, it carries a whiff of the avant-garde, like if your pet armadillo came home and told you he was forming an exploratory committee to look into running for president.

It’s all like a telenovela to me, in that I can’t quite figure out the plotline, but I can tell it’s quite dramatic. Hadley comes home from school each day with an update about which children have finally learned to tie their shoes or write their Es correctly, and which ones are now betrothed to one another.

While we were recently watching an old Australian movie called “The Man From Snowy River,” the two main characters embraced (it was on the edge of a cliff in a rainstorm, if I recall correctly) and shared a kiss. The movie was rated PG, so it wasn’t exactly lurid, but they really were mashing their faces together for a moment. Hadley rolled her eyes and said to me: “Uuugh. I wish they would just get married so they can stop kissing all the time.”

If you haven’t seen “The Man From Snowy River,” I have a serious question: What on Earth is wrong with you? It’s an entire children’s movie based on a poem by a Bush Poet named Banjo Patterson. If your name is “Banjo,” I am ardently interested in whatever stories you have to tell. If you are a chef, I will eat at your restaurant. If you are a singer, I will download your song. If you are a mechanic, I will replace the oil in my truck with strawberry milk so you can work on the engine for a while.

The plot of the movie, which is two hours long, is this: A man rides his horse down the side of a mountain while a trumpet plays epic music, and a bunch of grizzled mountain men look on and think: “That guy’s awesome!”

That’s it.

That’s the plot.

It’s literally one of the best movies ever made.

Two of the characters are played by Kirk Douglas, who was 98 years old at the time it was filmed and therefore only had 42 more years to live. He plays a down-on-his-luck, one-legged hillbilly in search of gold he will never find. He dines on stolen cows and wanders through the world covered in dust and perpetually laughing and cracking jokes. His name is “Spur.” (Apparently, people in olden times Australia were commonly named after the closest object. Any noun would do.) Douglas also plays Spur’s urbane, wealthy, miserable brother, Harrison, who wears a suit and controls most of the land and animals in the area.

There was a sequel, but Douglas chose not to reprise his roles. So they killed off 

Spur and had Brian Dennehy play Harrison. We watched that, too, and it was the first time my daughter encountered a role being recast, other than all those times Disney replaced its beautiful hand-drawn characters with a bunch of real life terrible actors a couple years ago. (That’s right around the time they replaced all of their actual writers with confused marmosets, too, I believe.) I had a heck of a time explaining to Hadley that one of “The Man From Snowy River’s” main characters had gained 100 pounds, grown a foot taller, and developed a completely different face and voice.

The sequel is essentially a series of stilted conversations that were clearly whipped up only to bring the characters back to the places in which the first movie took place. All the best scenes in the first movie were of people riding horses really fast, so most of the conversations in the sequel go something like this: “We have to go to that other place, the far away one. But we need to be there soon and it’s very far away. We’d better ride really fast!”

I think the working title of the sequel was either “The Man From Exposition Creek” or “People Ride Horses Again!”

The first movie, however, is a freaking masterpiece.

I was three years old when it came out. I remember being obsessed with it at the time. The protagonist, whose name I believe was Saddle or Mug or Spoon, or something like that, watches a wild stallion kill his father by making a tree fall on him (sort of). After his father dies, the guy is told by the other mountain men that he can no longer live in the mountains, because each person must earn the right to live so high, in such a harsh place. It is not something that can be purchased or given through legal documents or blood. He spends the rest of the movie riding a horse over rocks and crags, and down cliffs, all while cracking a bullwhip, the tip of which breaks the speed of sound (this is true) each time and produces a thunderous “CA-RACK” that bounces off the surrounding wilderness.

Later, all the toughest rough riders in the land are called in to catch an expensive colt that has escaped from Harrison and run off with the “brumby mob.” As Banjo wrote:

Then fast the horsemen followed, where the gorges deep and black

Resounded to the thunder of their tread,

And the stockwhips woke the echoes, and they fiercely answered back

From cliffs and crags that beetled overhead.

As the riders, who look like very tough beef jerky if you dressed it up in a tattered hat and a duster and gave it a thick beard, close in on the herd they are chasing, the wild herd lunges off of a cliff and down the side of a mountain, running to safety on the other side of a gorge.

A hundred riders pull up short, lest they plummet to their deaths below. They look down in fear at the terrible descent.

As they sit there, the main guy, Bucket, or whatever his name is, comes rocketing toward them. Rather than slowing down, he and his horse, a mountain steed the color of the parched earth, leap off the side of the mountain and fly down it, the horse’s withers coated in froth.

I know this column is full of silly jokes, but it’s literally the most beautiful scene in any movie, ever. The horse’s eyes and nostrils alone are worth the price of admission. After they descend, they ride back up on the other side, hot on the hooves of the wild mob, which this lone rider and horse, who might as well be a centaur they are so well matched, eventually catch atop a peak on the other side. The wild horses, including the stallion that killed Bucket’s father, are so awed by his riding that they essentially surrender.

The poem puts it much more beautifully than I ever could:

It well might make the boldest hold their breath,

The wild hop scrub grew thickly, and the hidden ground was full

Of wombat holes, and any slip was death.

But the man from Snowy River let the pony have his head,

And he swung his stockwhip round and gave a cheer,

And he raced him down the mountain like a torrent down its bed,

While the others stood and watched in very fear.

He sent the flint stones flying, but the pony kept his feet,

He cleared the fallen timber in his stride,

And the man from Snowy River never shifted in his seat–

It was grand to see that mountain horseman ride.

Through the stringybarks and saplings, on the rough and broken ground,

Down the hillside at a racing pace he went;

And he never drew the bridle till he landed safe and sound,

At the bottom of that terrible descent.

When I was a little kid, I spent countless days riding around on a pony, trotting down the modest slopes I could find, cracking a bullwhip and always, 110 percent of the time, hitting myself in the cheek with it. “Whhapshhh!” it would ring out as its tip broke the speed of sound and then the skin on my face. In my mind I would hear trumpets and the gasps of grizzled mountain men as I flew past them.

Back then, it was merely exciting. It was just a neat thing. Now, I know it was considerably more. Life is full of terrible descents. As we race through it, faster and faster with every passing year, we are often tempted to pull the reins and stop, daunted by the sheerness of the drop before us, afraid of our speed. Proposing to your love in front of the polar bears at the zoo. Looking at your infant’s eyes for the first time. Seeing her grow and inch further and further away from the safeness and solitude of your side. But when we are the heroes, we sometimes give the pony its head, as the poem says, and we fly gladly over the edge. Every single time we do, we become the hero of our own story, daring to go on. No matter who we are, no matter how important or insignificant we might be, we will–in every single case except the final one–emerge at the bottom of our descent, exhilarated, alive, still racing through life. And then, as in the poem, we climb again. The speed of our journey can be terrifying, especially as another birthday comes and goes, but the feeling of the wind on our faces as we ride is enough to make the whole thing worthwhile.

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