When Lou Dean and her friend, Jeanne Smith, begin their donkey-and-horseback ride across northern Colorado on a cloudy April morning, they expect things to be much different than what they encounter. Instead of mild temperatures and clear skies, they encounter day after day of pouring rain. Before they get completely dried out, it snows. And that's just in the first week.
After writing a young adult novel (about a high school girl who runs away on horseback after her close friend becomes a school shooter, then takes his own life), Dean decides to travel the breadth of the state from her home in northwestern Colorado, visiting schools along the way to promote non-violence.
Dean's memories of growing up in a dysfunctional family with an alcoholic mother and virtually no parental guidance haunted her for decades and initially formed the inspiration for her book, Reaching for the Reins. But it was the school shooting in Columbine in 1999 that crystallized the story she would tell.
When Dean and Smith plan their journey, they are on a slim budget, a vague itinerary, and have no backup plan. Dean's saddle donkey, Jesse James, and Smith's Arabian horse, Tut, are the only completely reliable factors in the whole endeavor. And Jesse can be relied on to put his own interpretation on events, with sometimes comical, and other times maddening results.
As their journey progresses, adversities are balanced by the kindnesses of people Dean and Smith encounter along the way. When they think they can't take any more of what the weather is doing to them and "the boys," they meet someone who offers them space in their barn and guest rooms for the night, along with a hot meal. As word spreads about their trip and its purpose, state troopers and local law enforcement officers also begin to come along just when they need a weather forecast or to find a way around a treacherous stretch of road.
Dean spends much of the quiet time in the saddle searching her soul and trying to come to terms with the spiritual pain she has been holding at bay for years. Near the end of the journey, stupefied with exhaustion, Dean reaches the breaking point and has a dramatic meltdown when Jesse James decides he needs to stop and rest in the middle of a school yard in the rain. He refuses to go any farther, even though the school is only yards away.
I won't spoil the conclusion, but will recommend the book to anyone who enjoys reading about a grand quest, and about the relationships we have with the animals we bring into our lives and our hearts.
Lou Dean is the author of countless articles in major magazines, three books of memoir, and two young adult novels. She has received a Colorado Blue Spruce nomination, a Top Hand Award from the Colorado Author's League, and a prestigious Wrangler Award from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. Visit her website.
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