She always looked to the south.
To the southwest rose the Santa Lucia Mountains and to the Southeast the Salinas Valley disappeared in the bright haze of a Central California afternoon.
She knew that beyond that valley, farther to the south, lay Los Angeles, where life was happening. She listened to that life on the radio every night, cuddled up in bed with her transistor radio next to her ear, listening to KRLA, the rock station that only came in at night. She listened to Dave Hull, the “scuzzy old Hullabalooer,” and she had made “scuzzy” a part of her daily lexicon in imitation of this rock God, this man who had spoken – in person – to the Beatles. She could only imagine what life was like down where it was all happening. She listened to the ads: Be there or be square. She despaired of ever being there, or of ever being anything but square.
Those were the nights.
The weekdays began by her being roused early by her mother, who was always ill-tempered. Cereal and steady nagging were followed by a long stuffy ride on the school bus, breathing toxic fumes and dreaming of being somewhere else.
One morning, while passing through a tree-covered section of road that ran alongside a creek, the bus slowed to a stop. All the riders looked out to see why they were stopping. There was a coyote in the road. It moved aside as they began to move again, apparently not that happy to see the bus, but not that frightened.
It was something to talk about when she got to school. A coyote! In our civilized modern world!
She longed to live in a more modern, more civilized world. Instead she walked from class to class in the same high school buildings where her father and her grandfather had walked before her.
On the weekends she watched the Saturday morning cartoons, and then went out to ride her horse.
The horse, Jingles, was her ride to freedom. She lured the little grey gelding with oats, brushed him and curried him, and cleaned his hooves to make sure there were no stones to hurt him. Often she sang to him, or she wound up the old Victrola that was in the barn, and played the old records stored on its shelves. Her favorites were the song “Oh by jingo!” and a humor record by “Two Black Crows,” who were supposed to be two black men telling pretty dumb jokes: “My doctor says my veins are too close together.” “What?” “Yeah, he says I have very close veins.” It was a vestige of the racism whose time was beginning to run out even as she brushed Jingles' coat smooth and glossy.
She threw the saddle blanket on Jingles, smoothed it out, and then hefted the saddle up onto his back. She looped the latigo leather strap through the cinch ring, tightening the cinch while Jingles puffed up with air and held his breath, trying to keep the cinch from being more tight than he liked. Sometimes she would knee him in the side to get him to exhale. Her father had taught her that trick.
Finally, she loosened Jingles’ halter and slipped it off his nose, leaving it looped around his neck, and held the bridle up to his head, pressing the bit against his teeth, until he opened them and the bit slipped into his mouth, into the space between his front teeth and his back teeth, and she slipped the straps of the bridle over his ears. One more buckle on the throat strap of the bridle, and they were ready to go.
Sometimes she rode him in the pasture, which was about ten acres of hill with grass and brush, and trails that led up and down. At the top of the hill was a stand of pines, and she loved to ride up there and stare out to the head of the valley to the north. Then she would turn her gaze to the south, off where the valley widened and opened up and stretched away, mile after mile of prime agricultural land with lettuce and strawberries and sugar beets and other field crops, off to Fremont Peak and the Santa Lucias and that huge gap where the Salinas Valley led away without an end, to the south, to Los Angeles, to life. She knew her life would be there. She couldn’t wait.