Finding Nemo

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Alone on the Steppe: Part II

You can read Part I here.

Part II: The Tale of the Horse Whisperer

What is Mastery?

Definitely unrideable
Katarina had the good fortune of growing up around horses. She learned their behavior and moods in the stables, and when she was old enough she became a trainer. Soon she was training thoroughbred race horses. She quickly developed a reputation as being able to handle difficult cases. One day a distraught owner approached her with an expensive race-horse that was "unrideable." It had thrown every person who had ever tried to mount it.

Katarina worked with the horse and when enough time had passed invited the owner to watch her ride. Now, apparently this horse had developed quite the reputation, and word quickly spread that this little blond girl was going to make a new attempt. To Katarina's surprise a large crowd turned out, presumably expecting something akin to bull-riding.

Mongol Horse Mastery
She walked up to the horse and mounted. The horse remained calm. Then, with only a few spoken commands, the horse began to walk, trot, and run around the pre-arranged course. After it finished, Katarina got off and walked up to the owner. He was in tears. "You have taught my horse how to understand Finnish! This is a miracle!"

Now of course, the horse did NOT know how to read minds or speak fluent Finnish. Training horses to use telepathy would be a pretty neat thing to have on your resume. But alas no, it turns out Katarina had only been using an advanced version of horsemanship known as Dressage. In this very European form of riding, only a small amount of input is done through verbal sounds and the use of the reins. Instead, most of the commands are done by subtle shifts in the rider's body position and weight. Horses are very attuned to the rider's position. They can tell almost immediately if a rider is a beginner or advanced, and usually adjust their disposition accordingly. (For instance, when I get on a horse it snorts and cranes its neck to see if I am facing backwards or not.) Katarina had become so proficient at this form of riding that she could control the horse completely without using the reins at all!

Does 'kook' apply to horse-riding?
I thought back at how confident I had become at my horsemanship the past couple weeks riding with Toroo around Khatgal. I was now able to get my horse to stop, trot, turn, and sometimes, if I cracked its ass enough with a switch, I could get it to actually run. And I hadn't fallen off once yet! I was fairly proud of this last accomplishment. But, as Katarina explained, to be a good rider one had to always move correctly. If a rider is not consistent in their movements, the horse gets confused as to what the rider wants. With a poor rider, the horse quickly gives up and stops paying attention to the rider’s position. At this point, it can only be controlled through kicks, verbal commands, and the reins. Which, to my dismay, described exactly how I rode. After all this time, I was still a noob.

And I couldn’t help but think about the 10,000 hour rule popularized by Malcom Gladwell. In his bestseller Outliers, he uses examples of Bill Gates programming from age 13 and the 1200 performances by the Beatles in Hamburg before their success. In Tae Kwon Do, outsiders often assume that attaining the rank of Dan (black belt) is to have attained complete mastery of the sport. But in fact, there are 9 ranks of Black Belt! If one assumes 40 hours of training a month, 10,000 hours is not achieved until after 20 years of continuous training. (Interestingly, 20 years of training corresponds to the rank of 6th degree black belt, which one can safely assume is true mastery.)

In other words, it takes a lifetime of work to become a master of any skill. A depressing conclusion for someone just starting out.

I would never be a true horseman. After a quick mental tally I realized my total hours of riding stood at around 40. Hmmm, let’s see, 40/10,000 = oh dear lord, I really really suck at this. Damn you Malcom Gladwell and your stupid rule! Now not only do I not have any experience, you drained me of all my confidence as well! Then again, I suppose that’s what I deserve for "reading books," when anyone who is cool knows the best way to learn something is by watching Fox News and studying YouTube.

But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the 10,000 hour rule is actually ridiculous. Is it only true mastery that counts for anything? Is there no value in attaining the rank of a 1st level Dan? Is there no value in becoming good enough at guitar to jam with some friends, even if you can’t wail like Hendrix? Is there no value in trying some new, getting out of your comfort zone, finding that thrill of progressing along a new path? Of course not! The 10,000 hour rule, then, is a classic case of the black and white fallacy. In truth, there is increasing value in a skill as one approaches mastery. It is a continuum.

No soup for you!
I have a strange sense of conflicting emotion when I see someone who is a true maestro. The Chinese gymnast who has trained her whole life for one moment, for instance. It is a beautiful thing to see a human being reach the full potential of our species in a single skill. But it requires an enormous sacrifice. This athlete may not have backpacked through her own country, or dabbled in music, or tried her hand at painting, or even had time to wonder if they had other dreams at all!

When I see a modern day Jimi Hendrix on stage, I sit mesmerized in awe. And cannot help but wonder at what personal cost it took to get there.

Surrounded by Bears

Katarina told me her horse-trekking story. The first and most important item was the mystery of how one bought a horse. Apparently, she had simply inquired around town for ranchers, found one, and then negotiated a price. But that simply raised a million more questions. How did one speak to the rancher? Did she hire a translator? How did she know a fair price? How did she know which horses were good to buy? 

What had she looked for in the horse?

But as I began asking these questions, I knew it was futile. Her answer said it all.

“I just kind of know what I want in a horse.”

Great. In other words, unless I hired her to go with me, I was out of luck. There was simply no way an experienced horsewoman could easily explain to a novice all the little things one looks for in a good horse. Another surprise was this bomb: she had purchased two horses. One was for riding of course, but the other was a pack horse. I thought back to that vision which had sustained me in my cubicle of despair for the past few years: me, atop magnificent Hasufel (what, you didn’t know the name of Aragon’s horse from Lord of the Rings?!), hair whipping in the wind, beard a-flying, the green plain blurring underfoot.

Nay, the vision was shattered. It was not to be after all. Instead, I was now slowly bouncing atop Giddy-Up Glue, towing my faithful pack horse, Grumpy Dumpy, behind. A cloud of dust engulfed me as a free-spirited Mongolian sprinted by atop his horse, looking back at me with disdain. Where was the magic in this? Solo horse trekking wasn’t so wonderful after all. It would require a slow pack horse just like the past two weeks around Khatgal.

The iconic photo of Lord Nemo astride Hasufel
But Katarina confided a little secret. “Of course you can run with a pack horse.” What?!! I thought back to my guide Toroo and the eternal slow walk he preferred. At the time I thought it was necessary because of the pack horse. But here Katarina was telling me that, in fact, you can indeed run with them.

All was not lost.

How on earth had she managed to buy a proper Western saddle up here in the middle of nowhere? I have written at length about the torture device known as a Mongolian saddle. Her answer was pretty shocking. Somehow, she had managed to drag a full set of riding tack in the 20-hour dirt-bus from Ulaanbaatar. Now, I compare my experience with that particular bus ride to visiting the Dark Lord himself in hell. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like with a horse saddle, reins, and rope in your lap. Horse saddles, for the record, are not small. Or light, for that matter. And the smell usually is about as pleasant as recently worn pair of gym socks. That is, if those gym socks were worn by a sweaty horse.

Where had she gone? “To the northeast of here,” she replied with a vague wave of her hand. She set off into the wooded foothills, with no particular destination in mind, simply to wander around for a couple weeks alone. I loved it. Instead of taking the river valleys, she had kept up high in the hills. And for good reason. Horse thievery, especially with tourists, was all too common in Mongolia. Tourists were seen as easy prey. The idea of waking up far away from civilization, without your horses, was a nightmare.

No, not those kind... 
So, camping at night, she literally slept between the horses to keep an eye on them. She managed to elude thieves, but it turns out there are worse things in the wild. About a week in, she heard a far-away roar. Then, soon afterwards, another much louder roar close by. Bears! Mongolian brown bears are the same species as the North American grizzly, so they would certainly be terrifying to meet in the wild. I imagined this blond Finnish girl, alone with her horses, suddenly realizing she is surrounded by such behemoths  She slept with her knife in her hand. Bears roared in the night, but miraculously, none came to her camp despite her supplies of food.

In the morning she decided to head back to safety. Suddenly, as she was riding, the horse spooked. Who knows what it was, perhaps a bear, perhaps a strange odor or noise. Horses see and hear and smell things we cannot. Katarina was thrown from the saddle, and landed with her foot still caught in the stirrup. As she explained to me, this was one of the most dangerous situations that can ever happen to a rider. When a rider falls from the saddle, horses almost always spook and take off running. And if the rider’s foot is caught in the stirrup as a horse runs through a tree- and rock-filled forest, good luck. That will not end well, as it didn't for this experienced rider.

But, amazingly, the horse didn’t run. Instead it turned and looked at Katarina, and in that instant, she managed to free herself. The moment she was free, the horse ran. Katarina spoke in wonder as she described it. In her eyes, the horse somehow knew that it had to fight its instinct to run until she was free. In that moment, she realized that these horses had bonded with her. And it saved her life.

For someone thinking of doing the same thing, it was a thrilling tale. The several near-death experiences that this veteran horsewoman had encountered only made my desired to go it alone even stronger. In the words of annoying teenage girls everywhere: Yolo! I had to do this.

The movie Into the Wild captured a feeling like no other movie has before or since. It’s a feeling I’ve had my entire adult life: the desire to truly test myself. For no other reason, really, than to truly feel alive.

Christopher McCandless: I'm going to Alaska. 

Wayne Westerberg: Alaska, Alaska? Or city Alaska? Because they do have markets in Alaska. The city of Alaska. Not in Alaska. In the city of Alaska, they have markets. 

Christopher McCandless: No, man. Alaska, Alaska. I'm gonna be all the way out there, all the way fucking out there. Just on my own. You know, no fucking watch, no map, no axe, no nothing. No nothing. Just be out there. Just be out there in it. You know, big mountains, rivers, sky, game. Just be out there in it, you know? In the wild. 

Wayne Westerberg: In the wild. 

Christopher McCandless: Just wild! 

Wayne Westerberg: Yeah. What are you doing when we're there? Now you're in the wild, what are we doing? 

Christopher McCandless: You're just living, man. You're just there, in that moment, in that special place and time. Maybe when I get back, I can write a book about my travels.

And later the most memorable quote in the movie …

Christopher McCandless: The sea's only gifts are harsh blows, and occasionally the chance to feel strong. Now I don't know much about the sea, but I do know that that's the way it is here. And I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong. To measure yourself at least once. To find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions. Facing the blind death stone alone, with nothing to help you but your hands and your own head.

Many, perhaps threatened by this existential challenge, scoff at Chris. He is an idiot, of course, without the right training or tools to "go it alone" up in Alaska. And, surprise, guess, what? He didn't make it. Then, pleased with their analysis, they sit back on the couch and order another pizza.

But for, me the words burned of truth. Nietzsche speaks of the Last Man. This man who has surrounded himself with so many modern comforts that he no longer experiences anything real, no longer questions anything about his existence. Instead, he lounges away his meaningless life, mind blank, eyes glazed. He blinks.

When Death comes for most, He is a terrifying specter that serves to jolt a person awake from their slumbers. And at that very moment of waking, the terrible irony is of realization: that just as they suddenly remember their hopes, their dreams they had as children and young adults, these are simultaneously forever taken from them.

So, prepared or not, I wanted… no, needed, to taste that feeling of “measuring” myself at least once in my life. Because, when that time comes, I want to meet Death as a friend.

No comments:

Post a Comment