Sunday, November 28, 2010

Roman Poo & Pee

[WARNING: this blog entry contains excerpts from a talk I gave at the British Museum called "Ancient Romans & their Poo". It will make you go "Ewww!"]

When I first started studying Classics, I thought ancient Rome must have been nice and clean because of their marvelous engineering and the aqueducts that brought tons of water from miles away. I thought ancient Rome had luxurious bath-houses and sparkling white marble columns and steps, like this scene (right) from the 1953 film Julius Caesar. I thought everybody wore nice clean tunics and no rubbish marred the streets. And of course Romans used sponges-on-sticks as toilet paper. The next best thing to puppy-soft Andrex. (read more in my blog So What's with the Sponge-Stick?) What could be more sanitary than a soft sea-sponge on a stick?

toilet in shape of chariot
However, as I researched my books and travelled the world, I realized that Rome was probably more like a hot, crowded third-world city: Calcutta, Marrakesh or Cairo. Roman cities would have been colourful but also dirty, crumbly, smelly and very unsanitary. There would have been human and animal dung in the road, plus pee, dead animals, flies, sick and infected people, tainted water, sour wine, mud, blood, rotting vegetables and rubble. Romans didn't know about bacteria or germs, so in many Roman homes you often find the toilet is right next to the hearth in the kitchen. Very rarely do you find a toilet like this luxurious marble one from the Baths of Caracalla, (shaped like a chariot in case you need to go in a hurry!)

In my first book, The Thieves of Ostia, Vespasian is Emperor.

One ancient Roman described Vespasian's expression as that of a man sitting on the toilet trying to do a poo. Here he is (right) with his son Titus. Both these portraits are upstairs in the British Museum. What do you think? Does Vespasian have a strained expression on his face?

When Vespasian was emperor he did several eccentric things, including putting a tax on urine. The ancient version of dry-cleaners were called fullers and they used urine (pee) for part of their cleaning process. (In fact the Latin word for urine is lotium and is linked to the word for wash.) The fullers often had pots outside their establishments where men could stop to pee. They also bought urine from the public latrines, and this was when the tax was paid.

Soon after this urine tax was imposed, Roman wits started calling piss-pots "vespasians". Embarrassed, Vespasian's son Titus asked his father why he insisted on making money by taxing smelly urine. Vespasian pulled out a sestertius and asked Titus to sniff it. "So?" shrugged Titus. "You see," said Vespasian. "Money doesn’t stink."  Some people in Germany liked this story so much that they made a family board game based on going to the toilet in Roman times! It’s called PECUNIA NON OLET which means "money doesn’t stink." Sadly, it doesn't exist in English.

In my second book, about the eruption of Vesuvius, I investigated the different types of graffiti on Roman walls. As well as the Christian graffiti that appears in this book they wrote things like DON'T POO HERE! We also know from inscriptions and graffiti that there were often queues outside the public loos! That meant the public latrines - the foricae - were heavily used and therefore probably quite filthy.

Romans didn't have soap. Instead, they had olive oil. They would go into the baths, strip off and rub scented olive oil all over their bodies. After some exercise and maybe a session in the steam room, they would then scrape it off with a bronze knife thingy called a strigil. Then they flicked this oily mixture of dead skin, oil, sweat and dirt (called gloios) onto the floor by the drains. They did this in the public baths. Imagine if you used your public swimming pool to get clean… along with all the neighbours on your block, young and old, healthy and sick. I used to belong to a health club until I found out people kept getting sick from going in the jacuzzi, the warm tub. If that can happen in today’s world, think how icky it must have been in Roman times!

a Roman chamberpot
In The Charioteer of Delphi, my characters Jonathan and Lupus go to the new Baths of Titus near the Circus Maximus in Rome. Jonathan finds something floating in the hot plunge. This probably happened a lot, unless pools were cleaned regularly. In addition to floaters, imagine a thin scum of dead skin, hair and scabs floating on top of the pool. As well as a scum on the water, think of what would cover the floor. Slippery gloios, spilled oil, and also crumbs from snacks, which we know people ate in the baths. It’s no wonder Pliny the Elder tells us that cockroaches loved the warm and steamy Roman Baths.

Because the Romans didn’t really understand about hygiene, there were probably flies everywhere. Vespasian’s younger brother Domitian used to amuse himself by trying to spear lazy summer flies with his stylus (the sharp implement used to write on wax tablets). One day a man went to see Domitian and asked his Greek scribe if there was anyone else in the room with the Emperor's younger brother. “Nobody,” replied the secretary dryly. “Not even a fly.”

Zoe from Blue Peter drinks pee?
My seventh Roman Mystery, The Enemies of Jupiter, has lots of gruesome facts about medicine and doctors. Doctors were called "dung-eaters" because some of them sipped your pee and tasted your poo to diagnose what was wrong with you. In that book I also tell how one doctor bleached his teeth by drinking his own urine! When I was on Blue Peter a few years ago I convinced presenter Zoe to try some urine teeth-bleaching mouthwash. She didn't like the taste! (Of course she was just pretending.) You can watch the clip on YouTube; the Roman beauty bit starts 4 minutes in. (That's me standing behind Zoe, in the unbleached stola.)

The Sirens of Surrentum is full of passion and poison. For this book I researched half a dozen deadly plants and their antidotes and learned some more fascinating facts. For example, everybody knows an antidote is something you take to stop poison taking effect. But what most books and TV shows don’t tell you is that an antidote counteracts poison by getting your body to expel it, either by vomiting or pooing! Or both.

In The Fugitive from Corinth, a Roman Mystery set on the Greek mainland, somebody accidentally empties a chamberpot out of a tavern window onto somebody down below! What is a chamberpot? It’s a pot you keep underneath your bed or in a corner of your room as a portable toilet. One Latin word for chamberpot is matella, which usually means a narrow necked flagon. Other words were pelvis, scaphium and situla. A Roman poet called Martial wrote an epigram about a  chamberpot "peeing from a chip in the side". (Epigram XII.32) Some scholars think chamberpots might have been more hygienic than toilets over pits or sewers. This is because animals might crawl out of the pit or sewer and track bacteria from poo onto food and bedding.

title card for my British Museum talk
There have always been urban myths about creatures climbing up out of the sewers or toilet. You can read more about this on my blog called Demon in the Toilet. You might think the Romans were silly and superstitious to believe there were demons in the loos. But in her forthcoming book, Roman Toilets: their Archaeology and Cultural History, Dr Gemma Jansen, a Dutch archaeologist, suggests that demons were the ancient Roman equivalent of bacteria. I think that is a brilliant idea. Like demons, bacteria are virtually invisible, but frightening because of what they can do to you… If a demon possessed you, he could make you sick or even kill you. Just like bad bacteria, germs or viruses.

don't worry; it's fake
There may not be pigs, alligators or demons in the loo, but there are germs. We know what the poor Romans didn't know: to wash our hands after doing a poo or a pee!

P.S. Thanks to everyone at the British Museum, and to all the kids who brought their parents to my talk, and to all of you brave enough to touch my fake dog poo. It was "sticky and stretchy"... Ewww!

P.P.S. If you want to know which of my Roman Mysteries has the highest 'yuk' factor it is probably The Enemies of Jupiter, now available as ebook and audio, as well as in the old fashioned format!

[The 17 books in the Roman Mysteries series are perfect for children 9+ studying Romans as a topic in Key Stage 2. The Roman Mystery Scrolls series is aimed at kids aged 7+ and the Roman Quests series, set in Roman Britain, is a follow on for kids 9+]

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Western Road Trip movies

If I were to compile a mini film festival for our recent Western road trip it would include these films:

for White Stallion Dude Ranch near Tucson, AZ:
City Slickers (1991) about tenderfeet at a Dude Ranch
City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly's Gold (1994) more of Mitch, Norman & sore bottoms
Backlash (1956) to remind us of the landscape we rode through
Tombstone (1993) filmed in and around Old Tucson Studios, which we loved!

for Sedona, AZ
Broken Arrow (1950) scenes filmed at Cathedral Rock in stunning Sedona, AZ

for Oatman, AZ
How the West was Won (1962) the quirky Oatman Museum was in this film

for Kingman, AZ
Two Lane Blacktop (1971) classic road trip movie filmed at Kingman, Arizona

for the Grand Canyon, AZ
Grand Canyon (1991) about what matters in life with a final scene at the Grand Canyon
Edge of Eternity (1958) you can still see wrecked car at Guano Point, West Rim of the canyon
Thelma and Louise (1991) another dramatic final scene at the Grand Canyon

for the Hoover Dam, AZ/NV
Viva Las Vegas (1964) this fun Elvis film has scenes at Hoover Dam as well as Las Vegas

for Las Vegas, NV
Oceans 11 (2001) a little less conversation, a little more action!

for Death Valley, CA
One Eyed Jacks (1961) Marlon Brando in Death Valley
The Law & Jake Wade (1958) so-so western with good scenes in Death Valley
Zabriskie Point (1970) wacky hippie film with scenes in Death Valley (including Zabriskie Point) 

for Yosemite, CA
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) opening scenes: Captain Kirk climbs El Capitan

(Check out my Western detective books for kids at

Sunday, November 21, 2010


"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."

Only a century and a half ago things were very different in America. If you go to a museum or a restored shop like the excellent Village Store in Woodside, California (right) you'll find lots of mysterious objects. Would you recognise a carpet-beater, a butter pat, a washboard or a button-hook? Probably not, but your great great grandmother might have used these objects every day. Would you know what to do with a bullet-mould, a powder horn, hard tack or a dipper? Your great, great grandfather would have!

One of the strangest artifacts you might see is a small copper or earthenware basin on the floor. Some of these are chamber pots (portable toilets) but the brass ones (and the ceramic ones with a funnel-type hole in the tops) are spittoons.

What is a spittoon?

In the 19th century, chewing tobacco was extremely popular in America. Instead of smoking tobacco in a pipe (fiddly), lighting up a cigar (expensive) or rolling a cigarette (effeminate) lots of westerners chewed tobacco.

It was sold in bricks or twists (right) and some stores had a chopper so you could order as much or as little as you wanted.

To get a nicotine buzz you would place a small amount of tobacco in your mouth between gum and cheek and let it stew. Although it's called "chewing tobacco" you don't necessarily have to chew it. The drug in the tobacco leaf gets into your blood system from just having the chaw in your mouth. It made you salivate but you didn't swallow or you would be sick. After you had the piece of tobacco in your mouth for a few minutes, you would spit it out, along with the yellow brown saliva.

In the 1800's, there were spittoons in almost every public place. Men would spit into them - sometimes missing and hitting the floor or wall around them. My mother remembers the smell of Bakersfield City Hall in the 1940's where there were still spittoons. She says the smell was rank and revolting. She also remembers when some private houses had spittoons. One hostess used to put paper on the walls and floor around the spittoon in case the spitters missed!

When a spittoon was full of smelly yellow-brown spit, some unfortunate person would have to take it outside to empty it. Some spittoons had a hole in the side for pouring out the accumulated spit. Others had the simple hole at the top. You poured it out the same way you poured it in.

At the Mark Twain exhibition at the Museum in Angel Camp, Calaveras County, I spotted a famous type of spittoon. This is large and made of glazed brown ceramic. It has a funnel-shaped hole on top. But it also has a triangular hole at the side for pouring out the spit. This is the same type of spittoon archaeologists found in Virginia City underneath Piper's Saloon. I showed it to the woman who was working at the museum that afternoon. She didn't realise it was a spittoon even though her boyfriend has been chewing tobacco since he was fourteen. He doesn't use a spittoon. If he's outside, he just spits on the ground. If he's inside, he uses a coffee cup. Ew.

When I did a bit more research, I found out that over FOUR MILLION American teenagers chew tobacco today. Yes, today. In the 21st century. Many of them think it's less dangerous than smoking but as this excellent article tells, it's not. Chewing tobacco can give you sores, tumors, and even cancer.

I hope P.K. Pinkerton, the hero of my new Western Mysteries series, never starts chewing tobacco.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Kirk & Spock at Yosemite

We are staying at the wonderful Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite, because I hope to set one of my books here.

Built in the late 1920s of stone, wood, steel and glass, it's like a wonderful country club set in the middle of some of the most stunning scenery in the world. I love primitive abstract art and this place is heaven for me. There are Turkish kelims on the walls, baskets in glass cases and Native American inspired designs on the ceilings and mantlepieces.

With its with massive open fires and a lofty dining room a hundred feet high the Ahwahnee feels like the lodge of a millionaire trapper. There are over 100 bedrooms as well as fun communal areas including secret retreats like the Mural Room. This is where I sipped hot chocolate early one frosty morning and watched the deer wander by. There are bears around here, too, and warnings everywhere not to feed them or leave even an empty potato chip packet in the car.

"Do you ever have bears come in here?" I ask a female member of staff who is watering the plants.

"Only in summer when the doors are open and they smell food," she replies.

"What do you do?" I ask.

"We shoo them away!"

The hotel is open to the public so you don't have to stay here to enjoy the benefits. Campers and hikers drop by to thaw out in front of one of the many fireplaces or have a cocktail called "firefall" made with chocolate liqueur and chili powder. Yum. (The "firefall" cocktail is inspired by the now defunct practice of pouring coals over the top of a waterfall at Glacier Point when it was dry in the summertime. This gave an effect of a waterfall of fire, or firefall. Kids: don't try this at home)

The Ahwahnee has hosted many famous people from Queen Elizabeth to JFK. Robert Redford worked here for a while and Judy Garland sojurned here while working on a film. But most exciting to me was finding out that some of the crew of Star Trek stayed here, too!

In 1988 William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and others stayed in the Ahwahnee while filming some scenes for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. In the opening scenes, Captain Kirk is relaxing by free-climbing the appropriately named El Capitan peak in Yosemite.

Suddenly Spock appears in his hover boots.

Spock: "Greetings, Captain. I do not think you realise the gravity of your situation."

Kirk: "Whoaaaaaaaaa!"

This scene was mainly filmed at Tunnel View, with its vista of El Capitan, Half Dome and Bridalveil Falls. (The guide books all say it was for Star Trek IV, but trust me - a die-hard Trekkie - it's Star Trek V.)

Shatner was involved in writing the script and in this charming film clip he wonders what his subconscious was trying to tell him when he wrote the words Kirk is free-climbing El Cap in Yosemite. "This is the mecca for climbers from all over the world," muses Shatner in the film clip. "Spock asks Kirk why he's climbing this mountain. Kirk says: Because it's there... An answer that fends off the true answer... The mountain is climbed because I think the climber wants to hug the mountain... There is a passionate affair going on between the climber and the mountain."

Bill, I love you, but I think you had one too many "firefalls" at the Ahwahnee that afternoon!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Scalped at the Grand Canyon?

On our way from Arizona to Las Vegas, we realize we will be passing close by the western rim of the Grand Canyon, where the new Skywalk has recently opened. Richard and I have never seen the Grand Canyon, so we decide to take advantage of this opportunity. Skywalk is a glass walkway that takes you right over the canyon. Apparently it makes you feel like a bird or a giddy bighorn as you look straight down.

It's on Native American land and lots of people tell us we'll get "scalped".

"They'll charge you $30 each just to park there," says one fellow traveller.

"It'll cost you at least $100 each to visit," says another.

The first traveller is wrong, the second is about right. But it's worth every penny. And hats off to the Hualapai nation for doing something apart from opening another casino on reservation land. The first delight is the drive from Kingman to the Grand Canyon West. The road is deserted two-lane blacktop for most of the way. We glide through arid desert with Joshua trees and dramatic rock formations. For about 5 miles the road is rough but they are working hard to pave it and soon it will be smooth and easy.

It takes us maybe 90 minutes and we arrive at a strange white pod. A guard tells you where to park. You go to the pod and buy your ticket. For $45 you get the Skywalk, a shuttle to Guano Point and an optional free excursion to the Hualapai Ranch with a cowboy lunch included.

The shuttles are big air-conditioned buses spaced about 15 minutes apart, so no site becomes too congested. We are here on a Sunday in November. Sunday is actually a good day to visit. It's one of their quiet times, because most of their visitors are from Las Vegas and tours usually leave on Saturday and arrive on Sunday.

Richard suffers from vertigo and opts not to do the Skywalk, but there's plenty for him to do while Jennifer and I step over a 4000 foot precipice. He visits an Indian craft shop and finds me a medicine bag, one of the things I wanted to find on this trip. There are also replica Indian dwellings that you can go into.

Jennifer and I put our backpacks, purses, cameras and binoculars in the free lockers provided and go up a ramp to the Skywalk. They give you little paper slippers to put over your shoes so you don't scratch the surface. This is the same reason you can't take your camera or binoculars. People might drop them and make the glass less transparent.

For me, the giddiness comes not from looking straight down, but from the view out over the rail at the Colorado river miles below, and a helicopter the size of a gnat flying along it. If you have an extra $70 per person you can take a helicopter ride from here. They take off almost every ten minutes... and this is a quiet day!

We catch the shuttle bus to Guano Point five minutes away, and I find this even more breathtaking than the Skywalk. It's almost deserted and there is no rail at all on the precipice. You could plunge right over if you wanted. A pair of ravens are soaring and diving above the void and brave souls peer over the edge to see the the rusted remains of a car sent over the edge for a movie (not Thelma and Louise).

You can have a coffee here at Guano Point, and there are restroom facilities as there are at the Skywalk.

To get to the Ranch you go right back to the ticket pod and catch a different bus. It takes less than ten minutes and brings you to a fun replica Western town with humorous signs and gravestones in the cemetery. At the Trading Post we have a lunch of chicken, corn on the cob and coleslaw (you can have ribs and baked potatoes if you like) and iced tea or soft drinks. The lunch is mediocre but it's a fun setting.

After lunch, the three of us wander over to a card dealer. I want to ask him about the finer points of Faro, a popular card game in the period my books are set. But it turns out he is more than a dealer. He does card tricks. He gives us the best magic demonstration I have ever seen. Jennifer writes her name on a card and he does all sorts of impossible things with it. I'm trying to look for sleight of hand but this guy is GOOD! His name is Mark Crow and he's Vegas quality. No. Better.

Outside in the beautiful November weather (78 degrees and blue sky) I stike up a conversation with cowboy Steve who tells me about a famous celebrity who lives on the Ranch, Norman, the steer from the movie City Slickers! (Read more on my entry Meeting Norman.)

After looking around the ranch a little more, we get the shuttle back to the ticket pod and pick up our car. Las Vegas is only an hour or two away, with the Hoover Dam and its new bridge on the way for a convenient break.

So would I recommend a visit to the Hualapai site of Grand Canyon West?

Definitely. Getting "scalped" was never so fun.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Meeting Norman

A week before we set out on our Dude Ranch Road Trip, Richard and I watched City Slickers. It's a fun film starring and co-written by Billy Chrystal about three middle-aged men who go on a cattle drive from New Mexico to Colorado and "find themselves". Sadly, it's a bit too crude in places to be a suitable family film, but there are some great lines in it.

For example:

City Slicker One: We're doing great, guys! We're driving them!
City Slicker Two: Ah, that's perfect! We're lost but we're making good time!

Or, after a leather-tough cowboy dies, someone says, "The man ate bacon at every meal... You can't do that!"

Or, my favorite: "Hello boys. I thought I'd mosey on over here. You know, I've never mosied before..."

There is also a great cow in it. Halfway through the drive, Billy Crystal's character, Mitch, has to help a cow give birth. ("This was NOT in the brochure" and later: "Hey! I made a cow!") Although a puppet calf was used for the scene, the scene of a newborn getting to his feet is real. And when the newborn is cleaned up, it's the cutest calf you've ever seen. He has a caramel colored hide and big, liquid, chocolate-brown, long-lashed eyes. Billy Crystal christens him "Norman" and becomes his surrogate parent. At the climax of the film, Mitch risks his life to save Norman. He even takes the cute calf back to New York. Heck, Norman even appears in City Slickers 2!

When we visit the Skywalk at the Grand Canyon, our ticket includes a shuttle to Guano Point, which is also spectacular - and to Hualapi Ranch. You can actually stay in cabins at this ranch and go for horse rides right along the Western rim of the Grand Canyon.

When we get to the ranch on Sunday lunchtime, it is almost deserted. Two "gunslingers" are hanging around, waiting for enough people to justify a little gunplay. I get talking to one called Steve and he tells me there was a famous movie star living here at the ranch. "Only he's retired now," says Steve.  "He's quite old, nearly 18."

"Who is he?" I ask, excited. I love movies.

"Did you ever see the film City Slickers?" asks Steve. "Do you remember Norman the steer, who's born on the cattle drive?"

Norman! Norman the cute calf, now all grown up and still beautiful is here on Indian land!

Steve takes me to see him in his private pen. Norman is napping. He looks contented and just as beautiful in old age as he was as a calf.

If you ever get a chance to visit the Grand Canyon West Rim, be sure to mosey on by Norman's pen and say "Howdy!"

Saving Burros

"Burros are smarter than horses," says Art DiGrazia of the Happy Trails Wild Horse & Burro Refuge in Ridgecrest, California. "They always know where to find water in the desert, if there is water to be found."

Jennifer, Richard and I left Death Valley at 10.30am this morning. We drove south along the foot of the Panamint Mountains and out past Trona where there is a Borax works still in operation today. As we pass the navy airfield of China Lake, Jennifer spots a sign with the word "burros".

We follow the sign and come to one of the biggest burro refuges in the world. In the last century 49ers went to Death Valley hoping to strike it rich. Many brought their burros. But lots of those prospectors left a few years later - deeply dejected - and didn't bother to bring their burros out; they simply abandoned them. Over the past century a huge feral burro population has grown up in Death Valley as well as other parts of the USA. There are also wild mustangs running wild. The horses and burros have no natural predator and for this very reason they can become too numerous and suffer in the wild.

Art DiGrazia has been helping rescue burros and wild mustangs for nearly 38 years. He tells us the sad story of 64 burros who recently died of thirst in the desert because of a drought. The Happy Trails Wild Horse and Burro Refuge tries to prevent such tragedies. They capture burros, treat them, vaccinate them, brand them (in a humane way) and finally find good homes for as many of them as possible.

Art tells about his work as we watch a cowboy on horseback lead some cute burros to the barn to be freeze-branded. The lucky burros will be adopted by a person or persons who must show they can take good care of them. After a year's probation, the Refuge sells the new owner the burro or wild horse and they live happily ever after.

There are two beautiful black burros from Tonopah, Nevada in a pen with a frisky mustang. In my series I intend to give P.K. a mustang to ride. Those burros are cute but they wouldn't go as fast as that frisky mustang. In the Wild West, you want a fast horse to get away from bad guys.

"Are burros really smarter than horses?" I ask Art.

"You bet," he says.

"I was going to give the 12-year-old hero of my new Western series a mustang," I say to Art. "Do you think I should give him a burro instead?"

"No," says Art. "Mustang."

"Good," I say. "That's what I thought."

But it's nice to hear it from an expert.

For more information on the Happy Trails Wild Horse & Burro Refuge, visit their website

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Roadrunner & Coyote

Two years ago in Death Valley I had my first encounter with a coyote in the Furnace Creek Inn parking lot. He was less than a car length away looking furtive and blasé at the same time.

Today I have my first encounter with a roadrunner in the same place: the Furnace Creek Inn parking lot. There it is, spotted by my sister Jennifer, also known as "Hawkeye" because she has an instinct about critters and signs.

(If we were 49ers on a wagon train, she would have been the scout. Without her I would have been a pile of bones bleached white in the desert. I never look at signs. She always does.)

'Look!' said Jennifer, as we are backing out of the Furnace Creek Inn parking lot after a quick look at the pool and gardens. 'There's a roadrunner.'

And sure enough, there it is.

The night before Jennifer spotted two coyotes loping across the desert, lit by our headlights.

Later that day we go for an afternoon horse ride out of Furnace Creek Stables. My ribs have pretty much recovered from my four days of horse riding at White Stallion Ranch in Arizona. It's nice to get on a horse again. Hilda is a lovely mare, responsive and good-natured. (I wish I'd had a horse like her at White Stallion.)

The three of us start happily through the dusty late afternoon Death Valley landscape.

Our wrangler, Luke, points out a coyote. Jennifer is the first to spot it. I hope we might see some more, but for the next hour: nothing. No coyotes. No rodents. No birds. The desert is full of dust and silence and lengthening shadows. I love it.

We are almost back at the stables when suddenly our horses are running off the path. My first thought is: 'Maybe we should have opted for helmets...' My second thought is that Jennifer's big gelding, Atlas, bit my mare Hilda on the rump.

'Pull them up!' cries Luke. 'Pull them up!'

Hilda is running toward a fallen mesquite trunk and she is over it before I can react and pull back on the reins. But I am safely over and we are all three still astride our horses. Hilda and the other two horses come to a stop. Our hearts are pounding.

'What happened?' said Jennifer.

'A coyote came out of the sage and spooked Richard's horse, Chief,' says Luke.

'How do you know it was a coyote?' I ask.

'I saw it over my shoulder,' says Luke.

We are all three flushed with excitement from our unexpected and short-lived fast ride.

'Did you see me jump that log?' I ask, still a bit breathless.

'Actually,' says Luke, 'Hilda just stepped over it.'

'Oh,' I say.

But we are all pleased that we survived our few seconds of excitement.

Later that evening, after the sun goes down, we go to a viewing platform near Furnace Creek Golf Club, which Luke tells us is a favorite haunt of coyotes. Once again, Jennifer is the first to spot one loping across a green to join his two friends.

So the tally for the last twenty four hours is Coyotes 7, Roadrunners 1.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Not a Cowgirl

White Stallion Ranch is gorgeous but it has proved to me once and for all that I am definitely NOT a cowgirl. Or even much of a tomboy. 

I am definitely a City Slicker. A Dudette. A Couch Rider, not a Horse Rider. 

I just got passed for a "fast ride" but my ribs were so sore that I released Bailey into the wild. 

So instead I opted for the three hour hike up Mesa Verde the following morning. Made the mistake of wearing my boots, which were actually fine for the first hour or so. I managed to avoid the twenty or thirty species of cactus all out to get us. But then we started climbing. The mountain got steep and slippery and our guide Karen (above) told me I'd have trouble going down. It's always harder going down a mountain. I began to have qualms. Then when my left boot started rubbing my heel, I had some more qualms. The other five members of our party (all stiff-upper-lip Brits) said they were happy to go on, but when I saw what we were in for I said: "I don't think I can do this." 

Yes, I wussed out. 


(But here is a secret. Almost every member of our party quietly thanked me afterwards.)

Still, I now know I am better off being a writer in London than a tomboy cowgirl. 

Guess that means I'll have to change the name of this blog. 

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Chewin' Tobacco

One of my goals on this Western research trip is to find a spittoon. Why? I think it will be a great way to engage children and get them thinking about how the olden days in Western America were different from modern times. It also has the Ew! factor, which always helps. 

When we go to Old Tucson Movie Studios I keep an eye out for a replica spittoon in the gift shops. One of the shops looks as if it might just stock such an item. 

"Do you sell spittoons?" I ask. 

They don't, but another visitor to the shop - Steve - looks up with interest.  He wants to know why I'm looking for such an object. When I tell him, he admits that he chews tobacco. He pulls out a pack of 

"What's it like?" I ask. 

"Like smoking a cigarette," he replies. 

That doesn't help me. I've never smoked.

"What was your first time like?" I ask. "Do you remember it?"

He nods. "I was sick." He pulls out a packet of Red Man. "Want to try some?"

For research purposes, I really should. Generously he lets me take a pinch. It is soft, dark and moist. 

"Put it between your gum and your cheek and DON'T SWALLOW," he says. "It might burn a little."

I put a raisin-sized chunk in my cheek. "Is that too much?" 

"No, that's fine. That won't kill ya."

It tastes sweet. A bit like what? Licorice? A raisin? A bit of both? 

I don't swallow, but when I begin to feel a tingle I go outside to spit.
No spitting on the boardwalk, so I find a dusty place behind a cactus. 

For the rest of the afternoon I have a tight head and feel a bit burpy. But luckily I'm not sick. 

A few hours later I feel like myself again. 

Why anyone would do this, I'm not sure. But at least I can say I know what it's like...

Oh, and I am still on the hunt for a spittoon.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Do I like Riding?

Over dinner on our first night at White Stallion Ranch, co-owner Russell True comes around and asks who will be going on the slow ride the next morning. They like all new arrivals to go on this first slow ride so they can assess your proficiency level.

We duly sign up for the first slow ride and also for lessons at 1.00. I guess Mark Bedor's promise that White Stallion Ranch will match you with the perfect horse only if you're not an absolute beginner. If you are a greenhorn your horse needs to train you. On our ride the next morning, my horse stops to tear at creosote bushes, Jennifer's nips at the horse in front and Richard's drags his heels.

But it's wonderful to ride through the desert at 9.00am when it's still relatively cool. This first jaunt lasts about 90 minutes. When we get back our rooms are all clean and made up. Lunch is BLTs and lemonade, then off for our lesson with Virginia. The three of us are together and there's a bit of a wait because she takes us one at a time.

I have been assigned Bailey, a 21 year old bay with a white star on his forehead. He's a trooper but often sighs deeply. He knows I am a dudette. Jennifer gets an ornery sorrel called Mesquite. They have a love hate relationship: Mesquite loves to nibble horses who invade his personal space and Jennifer hates it when he does that. But she decides to stick it out and not request a new horse. Richard has a lovely gelding called Greycloud who has an almost Zenlike calm. "He's a sweetie!" I say. "He's a slug," remarks Jennifer dryly. Whichever way you want to interpret it, Richard and Greycloud look great together.

Following our lesson is an optional outdoor seminar with head wrangler Carol and the prettiest Palomino I've ever seen, a two year old gelding. Carol demonstrates Frank Bell's method of gentle training with its seven steps: 1. bonding, 2. take & give, 3. intimacy, 4. the dance begins, 5. desensitizing, 6. ballet on the ground & 7. ballet in the saddle. She demonstrates all except the last one. It is fascinating to see a real expert bond with a horse. She doesn't just blow in the Palomino's nose, she rubs his eyes, ears and even gums! I'm not sure I'm ready to rub Bailey's gums.

At 4.00pm on Mondays is something called "team penning". The three of us sit on bleachers and watch how it's done. The best team of four includes a ten-year-old boy named Tom from England who's been coming here to White Stallion Ranch for four years. He puts us all to shame.

Over the next few days it's a variation on the same format: Russell comes round charmingly while we're at dinner and puts us down for rides and/or lessons. (It's amazing the way he and all the other wranglers know the names of all the guests. When the White Stallion is full this is about 85 people!) There are other excursions that don't involve riding, like nature walks, hikes and hay rides, but the main point of coming here is to ride.

I'm still not sure how much I like riding; especially after a very slow ride up into the desert on Tuesday afternoon, for wine and cheese. After our second lesson, my bottom bones hurt and the balls of my feet are hot from "keeping my heels down". Most of the others love it, but to me it feels very tedious. (I preferred a nature walk Richard and I did that morning.) But I'll wait till lesson 3 and my first "fast ride" before I decide whether horse riding is something I could learn to love...