True Daughter Of The Golden West
Learning the ropes from Joleen Skinner, a deaf horse whisperer and personification of Cachagua Valley's legendary equine culture.
Thursday, April 12, 2001
I got carried away one Sunday morning taking an extended walk in the foothills above Jamesburg in upper Carmel Valley. By the time I arrived at the driveway of Joleen Skinner, née Lambert, Cormac McCarthy had needled his way so deep into my conscious, I figured myself two, maybe three horseback lessons away from being a cowgirl. And when I peered past the madrone trees and saw the real McCoy perched casually on the ranch fence bantering with a frisky pony, I knew destiny had handed me the perfect mentor.
By "the perfect mentor," I mean the exemplary ideal of cowboy culture--the poster child of the frontier. More vital to the realization of my fantasy than anything else was the cowgirl mystique. I wanted to learn the look, the gestures, the ease, the confidence and the ability to carry myself with regal femininity while casually performing feats of Herculean strength and coordination.
Having lived all my youth in the same rural valley as Joleen Lambert and her family, I had come to see them as the genuine article, characters about whom books are written. That Joleen is deaf made the possibilities of my quest all the more intriguing.
I waved from the roadside and caught her eye. She beckoned me to climb over the ranch fence and join her at the ring. I was a little shy about approaching an impressive and established horsewoman for riding lessons--but at that point, my fantasy drive was fast eclipsing any whimpering protests. It turns out she was happy to give lessons and we arranged a time for the following Sunday afternoon.
Sunday came and my dreams vanished.
Jolene can''t hear and I can''t sign, so we communicated with lip reading and gestures. I slowly began to understand how horsemanship is a philosophy, a way of life, a creative art. It is learning to speak the horse''s language, flexing and stretching a part of your mind to operate in an entirely different mode.
Joleen''s magic was in conveying that language by forcing me to participate in the dialogue.
This charade of movements and exaggerated facial expressions we threw back and forth couldn''t make up for the fact she can''t hear and I don''t sign, but it was the pinnacle of what communication should be. As I became more fluent in the new language, I began to pick up on the subtleties. Joleen explained the pressure points on the horse by pressing two fingers into my shoulder blade, reeling me back on my heels.
By pulling my arm forward with one strong fluid movement, I started to understand how a horse, like a human, responded to firm and sustained, gentle pressure. And if a rider were sensitive to the horse''s responding movements, a give and take of pressure between horse and rider developed into pas de deux of movement.
Real Horse Power
It took an interminable time for me to saddle the horse and negotiate the belts and buckles. While I was simply trying to achieve a series of personal triumphs, Joleen was constantly reminding me of the horse''s comfort.
The understanding that this was a live animal that winces at a strap pulled too tight and gets tired from running in circles, not to mention has emotions and a personality, eluded me. It always has. I have never been able to make that connection with animals, and this singular but oh-so-fatal flaw bucks me right off my fantastic equine throne into the manure and dirt paste of yesterday''s rain.
Once I was on the horse (a 15-minute process, where I practice again and again to not stick my butt out in the air as I stepped skyward on the stirrup), I tried to steer the horse left and right, forward and in reverse.
In a horrific out-of-body experience, I imagined my lanky limbs flopping over the horse''s side, my shoulders slumped and a very unattractive scowl of concentration on my face. I patted its neck and cooed in its ear but I confess it was more for show than genuine concern.
To me Freckles the horse was a car with no power steering, no brake fluid and a gas leak.
As the sun set on my cowgirl dreams, Joleen was glowing all the more golden and magnificent. With every misstep of my own, she made strong, confident strides.
Around 5'' 8", Joleen''s sturdy but feminine figure was clad in worn Wranglers and a loose-fitting wool sweater. She pendulumed into the riding ring, ducking her head a hair''s-width beneath the metal bar of the fence and swinging her left leg through in one fluid motion. I turned my head to watch a car speed by and, in that half second, she already was settling in the saddle.
She held the reins with her left hand and, with her right hand, pulled stray ropes of hair back behind her shoulders, adding to a thick mane that shifted from brown to gold with the changing light of day. She lifted her chin and raised the black cowboy hat off of her forehead, showcasing a pretty face freckled by the sun and radiating the vitality of her 33 years. She smiled and her blue eyes sparked mischievously, flashing a glimpse of a 16-year-old-girl''s carefree haughtiness.
The Lady Wears Boots
The best entry point into the legend of Joleen Skinner is a cowboy poem titled "The Lady Wears Boots," written by her uncle, Milton Branny Bransletter.
Her golden hair was glowing gently in the breeze
The horse she was riding let out a little sneeze
Who is that cowgirl?
Turning her mount gently as a whip cream swirl
Her beauty and grace shown through on the horse she was riding
Galloping smooth as a paperplane gliding
Someone said "Her name is Joleen"
"Her wits are sharp and her eyes are keen"
The boys line up, from North to South
Only one will hear "I do" from her pretty mouth
She is tough as cowboy, and she don''t give two hoots
Yes, she is my niece, I''m proud to say, and this lady wears boots.
Her grace, her poise, her skill had made her an emblematic cowgirl, and a certain je ne sais quoi made her a cowboy''s catch. A starry-eyed romantic, Joleen was appropriately coy in response to the courtly gestures of cowboy chivalry. But she waited patiently until her soulmate, Tom Skinner, ambled into her life and she settled down.
Appropriately, they were married on Chews'' Ridge and their honeymoon was a horse-pack trip in the Ventana Wilderness. Of the last evening of their honeymoon, Joleen writes, "We arrived at Clovis Basin at dusk, let the horses graze while we ate dinner, drank hot cocoa with whiskey in it, and pulled ticks off each other while the stars appeared and shone down on us."
Married and the mother of two boys, Reilly and Wesley, Joleen settled into a lifestyle of mothering, horse-raising and fence-mending. There was a comforting and rhythmic predictability to her day: Getting the boys off to school, chores, riding, working as a consultant in horse-training, and rolling down the mountain at 3 o''clock to meet the big yellow school bus.
But her demeanor during our time together reflected nothing akin to being settled or predictable. Joleen was, on the contrary, a firecracker of facial expressions and movements.
Her spirited nature has been a part of Cachagua folklore since she was a girl. Her inner fire burned in the form of stubbornness. Being born deaf and not yet proficient in sign language, she was sometimes in tears, overwhelmed with the frustration of not being understood. Her mother''s soothing patience alleviated her anxiety, but to interact with society to the extent she desired, Joleen relied on a superhuman reservoir of energy and determination.
Likewise in horsemanship, the enigmatic sixth sense of a horse-whisperer can not stand alone. Ever grateful to her father, whose kind and persistent nudges urged persistence and self-acceptance in spite of occasional failure, Joleen recounted on paper an early memory of riding her first horse, Firecracker, to indicate the role her dad played in her development as both a siren of the saddle and as a human being. "The first time Firecracker got excited and did a bucking fit with me, I was four years old and just about ready to end my riding days right there and then! But my father wiped my tears and said, ''It''s OK!'' Then he put me back in the saddle."
Forging a Cultural Identity
Born Joleen Lambert, she is part of one of the oldest ranching families in East Carmel Valley. As in any charismatic dynasty, being born a Lambert has a certain built-in prestige about it, not because they have airs or pretensions but because they are respectable folk who have made a name for themselves in horsemanship and hospitality and have that familial strain of uniqueness that draws people to them.
The Lambert ranchhouse on Tassajara was her childhood home. I only know it as it is now--quaint, but forlorn and lonely. In its heyday, it teemed with friends and family. Set in an oak- and madrone-lined valley beside a creek, it''s a white and green farmhouse that faces the road and the pastures beyond it. It''s an unpretentious and charming set-up that out-of-town vehicles take notice of as they pass on through to hunt or hike in the Ventana Wilderness or soak in the Tassajara hot springs.
Owned by the Lamberts for a good part of the 20th century, the ranchhouse was the social center for Jamesburg. A wooden table 15 feet long welcomed neighbors and travelers for meals and conversations with Joleen''s Grandpa Bill. The archetypal ranch patriarch, he always sat at the head of the table with a deck of cards and a spittoon cup for his chew. Spinning tales and telling jokes, Grandpa Bill provoked guffaws and knee-slaps that echoed down the canyon walls into the valley. For the moment, it was wholesome frontier fun, but in the bigger picture, the Lamberts were forging Cachagua''s cultural identity.
During Joleen''s childhood in the 1970s and early ''80s, this culture was still alive and well. But the changing face of the nation was frowning on the old ways and something had to give. The Lambert ranch was subdivided, the ranchhouse sold, and the family splintered into myriad nucleic domains.
I asked Joleen about cowboy culture today and about its future. She took my notebook and wrote: "I do see the embers still burning for cowboys of the Valley. There are those who just have the land, the sky and the livestock in their blood, their system and their dreams. Maybe with cell phones and quad runners, it makes everything easier and more accessible, but the basics--a good horse, rope and a cow dog--are still essential. Yes, I can see cowboy culture struggling, yet prevailing through modern times for as long as some still got the fire in them!"
Joleen is a testament to this brand of folk inextricably tied to the land and a rough-and-tumble lifestyle. In a land of narrow roads and April snow, she and her fellow cowboys and cowgirls are abiding of no time constraints apart from the rising and the setting of the sun, encountering traffic only when a herd of cattle mosey across the road.
Dusk settled as I tied up Freckles and prepared to walk up the hill to my own home. I stopped at the ring to wave good-bye. The cowgirl turned her mount as gently as a whip cream swirl, dismounted and hugged me warmly. I faded into the madrone forest and glanced one last time over my shoulder to see her mounted again, her horse carrying into the sunset as smooth as a gliding paperplane courses the wind.