Monday, June 22, 2015

It's a boy! A new addition in Guatemala

We received wonderful news today. Our compadres in Guatemala welcomed baby #7 (and boy #2) to the family at 3:20 a.m.! We are so happy, and we can't wait to meet the precious new addition. Congratulations to Paulina and Humberto, and to siblings Vanesa, Paola, Yasmin, Yoselin, Aracely, and Eddy! 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

China 2015 Installment #7: Sister's Meal Festival, Guizhou (Final Installment)

When we traveled to China 6 months prior, we had planned to attend the Lusheng Festival, a festival of the Miao ethnic minority group. But it turns out that the festival was not held on the originally scheduled date. They had postponed it to coincide with their town's anniversary celebration. Because we had been unable to attend that festival, Wang Jun had suggested that we come back at this time of year, so that we could attend the Sister's Meal Festival, a much larger Miao festival that centers around courtship.

The festival is held several hours away, near the city of Kaili. We had visited Kaili on our last visit as well, so we were familiar with the area.

We hit the road at 10 a.m. on the day before the festival. It was the first non-sunny day of the trip, but that meant the long car ride was cool and comfortable.  We arrived on the outskirts of Kaili and had lunch at a restaurant run by Miao and Dong ethnicities. It was only around 2 years old, but it is large in scale and built in the traditional style. The Chinese majority population (Han Chinese) have historically not been very interested in the culture of the various ethnic minorities. But Wang Jun explained that is now changing. Han Chinese are starting to travel to minority areas for tourism, and they want to learn about the cultures of the various ethnic groups. But they don't always have enough time to visit multiple villages which are a distance apart.

Restaurant in a Miao / Dong "village" built solely for tourism
So two of the minority groups banded together to create this more "Disneyfied" version of a minority village, built for the sake of tourism. Some buildings are built in the Miao architectural style, while others were clearly Dong (drum tower and wind and rain bridge). The employees are young Miao and Dong men and women dressed in traditional costume. Two young men played lusheng flutes to welcome us, and a young woman held a cup to our lips and poured in a mouthful of rice wine. It was strong, and we felt a small kick from that one serving. The restaurant was decorated with all kinds of traditional craftsmanship from both ethnic groups. For lunch we had local spicy specialties, and boiled tang yuan, my favorite!

After a nice lunch with Wang Jun and Mr. Zhou, we wandered the grounds admiring the drum tower, noticing that the streetlights were shaped like lusheng flutes, trash barrels were shaped like granaries, etc.  There were shops, hotels, and restaurants which served local specialties, including water buffalo, dog, and deer.
Craig is welcomed to the restaurant with a shot of strong rice wine
After that we drove downtown and checked into the Zong Heng Hotel for the second time in 6 months. At 3 o'clock, we met Wang Jun and walked a block to the Kaili Minority Museum, a grandiose structure behind the square which we had seen from the outside on our last visit to Kaili.  Wang Jun guided us through the second floor. He focused his attention on the Sister's Meal Festival exhibit, explaining to us what we would be witnessing tomorrow. Miao girls between the ages of 14-16 are dressed in traditional finery, including elaborate silver jewelry and crowns which may have been in their family for generations.
Long Horn Miao traditional dress, Kaili Minority Museum
They dance in front of the village boys to try to gain admirers. When a boy fancies one of the girls, he begs her for some rice. The rice is colorful, dyed with flower petals and leaves.   No girl can refuse to give rice to a potential suitor, but she will add a token of her feelings toward him in the rice, wrap it up in a large leaf, and give it to him. When he opens it, he will know how she feels as follows (the progression is from worst outcome to best):
  • chilies: no way!
  • a single miniature chopstick: Thank you very much for your interest, but I'm not really interested.
  • pine needles: I'm not sure. Buy me some thread for embroidery, and maybe I will see you again
  • leaves: I'm not quite sure. buy me some cloth and maybe I will see you again
  • a pair of miniature chopticks: Yes, I am interested in you.

We couldn't wait to see this in action! The museum had various minority costumes on display, including the silver adornments that would be worn at the festival. Wang Jun gave us some free time, and we wandered the rest of the museum until it closed. Then we walked around the square and watched all of the kids having fun  participating in various activities. They jumped on trampolines, played in bouncy houses and sandboxes, went fishing in small kiddie pools, painted plaster figurines, and drove vehicles. from whimsical inflatable cartoon-inspired cars to pink Corvettes to army tanks flying the Chinese flag.

One tween-aged girl seemed particularly interested in us, and we noticed her watching us. She gestured whether she could take a photo with us. When we said yes, she ran excitedly to her mother. Her mother took out her smartphone to take the photo, but the little girl stopped her. She wanted it on her own smartphone. She dug out her phone, handed it to her mom, and posed with us. We took a photo of her in her pink dress and rose crown. As she and her mom went on their way, she had a skip in her step and kept looking back at us with a big smile.

Two kids go for a ride in a whimsical Year of the Sheep vehicle in Kali square
Our new friend who wanted a photo with us in Kaili Square
At 7 o'clock, we met up with Wang Jun and Mr. Zhou and drove to a restaurant which specialized in sour fish hot pots.  Wang Jun ordered one like they would cook for locals, and the waitresses warned him that  that tourists never eat things as spicy as he was ordering. He  inisted they didn't know who they were dealing with here. And at that moment, he and Mr. Zhou dubbed Craig the American Chili King.
Wang Jun presents us with rice wine
We had rice wine which came in a lovely fancy clay jar tied with a red ribbon. Craig correctly guessed from the taste that it contained honey. To me, it tasted like rocket fuel.  It was probably good that Wang Jun had only bought a small bottle for the two of us to share, as we had a big day tomorrow and this stuff had a kick.  The hot pot which simmered away on a burner on our table contained trout in a hot and sour broth. We also had "crispy bones," stinky tofu, addictive pineapple naan, and sweet potato balls. Everything was delicious.

Sour fish hot pot
When we got out of dinner, it was raining, so there was no evening activity in the square. Wang Jun was worried about tomorrow's forecast. Rain would ruin the young women's costumes and jewelry, so the festival is not held when it is raining. Craig and I didn't want to get worried as it was nothing we could control. We would accept it either way, because it is what it is. We thought that Wang Jun would actually be more disappointed than we would if it didn't happen, since he felt some degree of irrational guilt that we would have come to China twice with festivals on the itinerary, and not have been able to attend either. And it was the timing of the festival that made our visit to the waterfall land on the second busiest time of the year. We had no regrets and reassured him that it would work out as it was supposed to. If he believed that destiny caused us to meet, then we needed to trust destiny for what would happen next as well.

The weather was not looking promising the next morning when we woke up. We prepared for a potentially wet day, and went down to the Chinese buffet breakfast. Craig got his favorite spicy noodle bowl.
Flying Tiger P-40 across from the water buffalo fights in Tai Jiang
At 9 o'clock, we embarked on a drive to Tai Jiang to see some traditional water buffalo fights that were a part of the festival. It should normally take about 45 minutes to get there, but it was doubled due to a traffic accident and subsequent backup. When we arrived, we saw 3 Flying Tiger airplanes on the side of the road. They were just sitting there, like an abandoned car would be. I took a few pictures and then crossed the street where a  hillside outdoor arena prepared for the fights. They charged 50 yuan to enter, and Wang Jun was shocked, as it is usually free. And they weren't just charging us because we were tourists; they were charging the locals too!

Previous bull fight champion is paraded around the ring
The open-air arena had cement bleachers. It was lightly raining, and entrepreneurial types were selling umbrellas and interlocking foam floor puzzle pieces to use as cushions to keep your butt dry. Wang Jun bought us umbrellas and we sat on our raincoats. Bulls, including last year's winners, were paraded around the ring.  Today's contenders were spray painted with ID numbers on one side (e.g. A-1) and Chinese characters on the other,  sometimes stenciled, sometimes freehand.  A TV crew was down in the ring, filming the bulls and interviewing the handlers.

Reporter and cameraman from CCTV-7 national news
Us, as we were interviewed for CCTV-7 News
Wouldn't you know, a few minutes later, they were standing right next to Wang Jun, asking him if they could interview us for national news CCTV-7. Wang Jun translated for us, and they asked us why we were here so early  (it was only 40 minutes before the scheduled start time), as well as whether we were here for the festival (yes), would we change the rest of our itinerary for the day if it continued to rain (the rain might change it for us), and whether we had seen bullfighting before elsewhere in the world (no). Then they asked what our expectations were for the upcoming buffalo fights. We said that we liked the idea that the bulls fight one another rather than fighting a human, and we liked the idea that a bull could step aside at any time; it is not a fight to the death. When one gives up, the fight is stopped.

First round of the water buffalo fights
As the start time approached,the arena filled in with spectators, No wonder the TV station asked why we were here so early. Nobody shows up until start time. Some people congregated to watch the fights from a steep hillside overlooking the arena. We guessed that this might have something to do with wanting to avoid the newly-instituted admission fee.

We wondered if we would be able to see over the umbrellas in the rows in front of us. But we needn't have worried: the rain stopped. Not only would that make watching the fights more comfortable, it also meant that the rest of the festival would go on as planned this afternoon! We were so happy.

The judges convened, and a man pulled numbers to determine the match-ups. A Red Bull van (seriously.) pulled up and delivered cans of Red Bull to the judges and owners. Then it was time to begin.

The first fight was the most dramatic.  When the 2nd bull entered the ring, he was all fired up and immediately confronted the first.  They locked horns, pushed one another around in the slippery mud,  and head-butted one another resulting in a broken horn that started bleeding. Eventually he retreated, causing the alpha bull to be declared the winner and move on to a future round. Cheers erupted as the crowd rewarded what they saw as a job well done.  Because the loser had broken a horn, Wang Jun explained that he would ultimately be killed. Despite the fact that we feel that this kind of bullfighting is less exploitative and inhumane than a human stabbing a bull until it dies, it was still uncomfortable and disturbing to see the bulls injure one another, and to know that it can ultimately still be a life-and-death battle.

The second match only lasted 19 seconds with very little contact and the loser giving up very early. The next couple of rounds were draws as the bulls refused to fight. You could tell the crowd wanted action. These peacenik hippie water buffalo were not satisfying the coliseum mentality, though we preferred to see bulls that just wanted to socialize rather than fight.

Water buffalo fights

In a later round, the action took place against the boards on our side of the ring. People in the front couldn't see, so they stood up to get a view down at the action. There was immediate backlash as those behind them started yelling at them and throwing chopsticks at them.After being pelted with projectiles, the people sat down. This was interesting to us, culturally. In a country where personal space is at a premium and people seem to forgive a lot of transgressions, this clearly was non-negotiable.

The arena is packed with people to watch the water buffalo fights
Wang Jun said that we would stay for one final match before heading to lunch.  Bulls A-8 and A-18 seemed pretty well-matched from the numerological perspective as well as physically. They locked horns, pushed,  pulled, and wouldn't let go. They slid one another through the wet mud, and bled from being scraped by one another's horns. At the 6 minute time limit, it was deemed a draw, and they put a rope around each bull's hind legs to separate them.  Both of these bulls would move on to the next round for having fought valiantly until the time limit. A draw with no serious injuries, but two bulls exhibiting their strength and determination was the most positive end to the bullfighting experience that we could hope for. We now knew definitively what we had expected before, that we would not enjoy  watching traditional man vs. bull to the death bullfighting.

It was time for lunch, but many restaurants were closed so that their owners and staff could participate in the festival celebrations. We stopped in at a local hole-in-the-wall restaurant called Happy Staying,  where an older woman, a younger woman, and a young man prepared, cooked, and served the food.

Our food being prepared at the Happy Staying restaurant
Wang Jun ordered food for us and they didn't believe that foreigners could eat food that spicy. He insisted - prepare it the way you normally would, not the way you prepare it for foreigners  (though we wondered how many foreigners had ever been in was not a typical tourist restaurant).
They skeptically did as they were asked, and they were very eager to see us eat it.

As always, Wang Jun watched the food preparation. When we walked in, there was no food to be seen. But the family prepared the food in the dark back kitchen while one person cooked it in a wok out front. All of a sudden there were five delicious fresh dishes on our table. Only a few minutes had elapsed. These people were good - and fast!

Restaurant proprietors want photos of them with these American chili eaters
When they saw us eating and enjoying the dishes with the hot chili peppers, they were so excited that they took photos of us on their phones. That had broken the ice between us, and they immediately began chatting, asking where we were from, what brought us here, etc.

Wang Jun explained that we were going to the festival.  They showed us a video of festival preparations on their cell phone, and then the older woman brought over a little video player that looked like a vintage radio to show us clips of other Miao festivals in other seasons. They were so sweet! We are very glad that we patronized their establishment.

We drove an additional 40 minutes on winding mountain roads through beautiful scenery (rice paddies full of water at this time of year) to Shidong for the Miao Sister's Meal Festival.  Mr. Zhou parked the car and we walked to the village on footpaths past fir houses as females, regardless of age, from infants and toddlers to the elderly, were getting dressed up in their traditional finery for the courtship festival. There were a number of tourists here, but it wasn't overrun as we had feared.

Festival grounds, Shidong
We walked to the village festival grounds where vendors were selling balloons and toys. Girls aged 14-16 were being dressed and bedecked in intricate silver jewelry and headdresses by their female relatives. The girls themselves looked completely shell-shocked. I thought back to how much pressure there is around the prom in American society, and then realized how much more pressure this must be. Girls needed to impress the boys, to encourage suitors. The girl could then choose between any invitation she gets. Hopefully this would lead to marriage. The stakes are unbelievably high. And now this all plays out publicly not only before the entire village, but also foreign tourists. The pressure must be unbearable.

Young women adjust one another's clothing and jewelry
14-16 year old women dance in their finery to attract suitors
All generations of women dress up for the occasion
Upon realizing this, we at first felt a little bit uncomfortable gawking at and photographing these girls as they went through a rite of passage. It felt a little bit invasive to us. We observed the other tourists swarming like paparazzi, taking photos, getting right in their personal space and photographing with no interactions. I had a different approach.

I started off slowly, making sure to make eye contact and greet people with a smile. This instantly softened them and they would often pose for photos, or ask for photos of us. It instantly made all the difference to make that human connection. After photographing a small child, I would show them the photo, and they would often giggle and point at their image, which in turn made their families smile.

We also acknowledged that some of the locals were curious about us. As they took photos of friends and family members during the festival, they would sometimes try to take a surreptitious photo of us. When we noticed this, we would smile and pose for a proper photo, and they would giggle and say thank you.

It comes from an attitude of reciprocity and respect. We know that we are probably as interesting to them as they are to us. Here we are, invading their villages and cultural events...the least that we can offer is a cultural exchange for those wishing to partake.

A couple of parents wanted to photograph us with their children. One woman (not dressed traditionally, so she may have been a Chinese tourist) gestured that she'd like a  picture of us with her daughter. When we said yes, she plopped her bare-bottomed toddler into our outstretched arms. We wondered what the girl would think when left in two white strangers' arms, but she was completely unfazed.
An eligible bachelorette poses with youngsters
Young girl dressed up for the festival
Toddler dressed up for the festival
We walked down a foot path to the river, passing food stalls cooking up delicious smelling festival food. There were photo stalls with live peacocks and people could buy prints on the spot. The women formed concentric circles (older on the inside, younger on the outside so that they could be seen by potential suitors) and danced clockwise, while two women beat a large drum. You could hear all of their silver ornamentation jingling, making a pleasant sound like a wind chime or rainstick.

It was interesting that only females were dressed traditionally. The Miao have tradition men's outfits as well, but none were being worn here, except for a few very young boys. It was difficult for us to tell which young Chinese men might be tourists,  or which might be involved in choosing a girl to approach and ask for rice.

The young women dance in a large group to impress the boys
Wang Jun convinced me to go into the center of the dancing circles. My first instinct was to stay outside, so as not to intrude. But Wang Jun said that it was perfectly ok; he had just been in there himself.  I am so glad that he convinced me to go in. From this angle, I was able to get many portraits of the young ladies' gorgeous faces, accessorized with flowers and silver. The girls face inwards into the circle as they dance, and boys on the outside can only steal glimpses of their faces. Maybe it adds to the mystique.
The young women dance in a large group to impress the boys
The young women look gorgeous and elegant
As the afternoon progressed, girls would leave the dancing circle and others, who had taken longer to get dressed, would enter. But at around 5 o'clock, most of the eligible bachelorettes had left the riverside. Now the older women (mothers and grandmothers) danced and beat the drum.

We were the last tourists, and among the last people period, to leave the festival grounds when everything wound down at 5:45. Away from prying eyes, boys would now ask girls for rice, and the girls would accept or reject their advances.

Traditional meets modern:
Friends and family photograph and text one another
One of the young ladies poses with Craig
Married women get the dance floor  to themselves at the end of the party
We walked back through the village to where the van was parked, and met Wang Jun and Mr. Zhou at 5:55. We headed back to Kaili for dinner.  The roads were very mountainous and curvy.  As we took a left hand turn, my left arm rest popped off and I kind of fell into Craig's lap. I held it up and said "Sorry!" and Mr. Zhou  started laughing hysterically.

Craig, Wang Jun, and Mr. Zhou at our farewell dinner

It took about an hour and a half to get back to Kaili.  Wang Jun chose a nice restaurant for the 4 of us to celebrate our final night together after an amazing trip. Wang Jun bought me a bottle of Great Wall wine, and he and Craig drank beer (Mr. Zhou needed to drive, so he didn't partake). We needed to move to a bigger table in order to fit all of the dishes that would be coming.  Every time Craig took a sip of beer, Wang Jun immediately replenished his glass.  Mr. Zhou filled my wine, and I ended up drinking the entire bottle myself!

Mr. Zhou started  giggling hysterically, recalling me holding up the broken van armrest "like a chicken leg." He recreated the scene, and then Wang Jun did the same, holding up an empty beer bottle.  We were having a wonderful last evening together, sharing so many laughs that  the restaurant owner even came over to share a toast. When the last of my wine had been poured, I held up my empty wine bottle like a chicken leg and Mr. Zhou once again started to laugh and snapped a photo with his phone.
Mr. Zhou kept my wine flowing!
The broken armrest, and subsequent retellings of the tale
We would need to leave for Guiyang early in the morning, so we decided to call it a night. There was an inch of beer left in the bottle. Before Wang Jun could think to give it to Craig, I got up and poured it into Wang Jun's glass. He said he was laughing so hard that he his stomach hurt.  When we got to the car, Mr. Zhou hopped into my seat and held up the armrest. It was so funny! Did we really have to leave tomorrow?

The next morning, we skipped breakfast because we needed to leave at 7:40 for the drive back to the Guiyang Airport. We arrived at the airport at 10:20. We had to say bittersweet goodbyes to Wang Jun and Mr. Zhou. But it's not really's until next time. Hopefully we would see Wang Jun in a couple of months when he guides a group of Chinese students in the US, and will be stopping in Boston. And we will see Mr. Zhou the next time we come to China for the spring festival.
Saying farewell to Mr. Zhou at the Guiyang Airport
Until next time, dear Wang Jun!
We flew on Air China to Beijing, arriving at 2:30 p.m. Our itinerary had called for lunch and dinner. Since we were fed on the plane, we were thinking of skipping lunch. We picked up our bags and were met by Simon, an eager to please but nervous young man who said that his agency said that he should get us some fast food at the airport. We told him that we had thought of skipping lunch. He did not seem comfortable deviating from the itinerary. "Are you sure you don't want something? Burger King is right here..."

I said "If we're having dinner, we don't need lunch..." He didn't seem to know anything about dinner. And he really wanted to get us some fast food. After telling him that we didn't want American fast food, we agreed to a bowl of noodles at MyMill. We each got a "spicy sirloin noodle bowl." Simon warned us that it would be spicy. Ummm...Simon...this is the American Chili King you are talking to.

So Craig and I each got a huge bowl of local noodles with sirloin beef. It wasn't Guizhou spicy, but it was certainly spicier than most Beijing food. We enjoyed it, and when we were done, we went out to the car.

Simon pointed across the street at one of two hotels which looked like bookends on either side of Terminal 2. We drove the short distance to the Langham Place, and were confused because our itinerary had said the Airport Hilton (the other hotel we had just seen). We didn't really care one way or another, but we thought he had brought us to the wrong place. But after calling his agency and then talking to the desk staff, Simon confirmed that our reservation was indeed here. It was a nice hotel - very modern decor and pretty fancy. We spent the rest of the day relaxing, watching TV, and packing for the long flight home tomorrow. Our room had a view of Terminal 2 with "Welcome to Beijing" written in flowers and 3 flags waving in the wind.

View of Terminal 2 from our hotel room
The next morning we enjoyed a leisurely delicious buffet breakfast at the hotel. It was a great buffet featuring bacon quiche, homemade donuts, muffins, pastries, bacon, Beijing pancake (folded omelet with eggs, veggies, and a tomato-ish sauce), fresh pineapple juice, French toast with strawberry jam, "India curry puff" (a.k.a samosa), hash browns, chicken sausage, pork sausage, cheese, and good coffee. This would be our last real meal in China, so we enjoyed it to the fullest.

As we left the restaurant, we passed some small statues of a man doing tai chi by artist Xie Aige. I was missing my 4-5 times a week yoga practice, so I decided to pose for a photo doing a little tai chi with "Frank".

After we checked out, Simon picked us up and drove us to Terminal 3. We got out of the car, unloaded the luggage onto a cart, rode in a crowded elevator, and a people mover to get to check in only to find that it was the wrong terminal (as Craig had suspected) was domestic.  We needed to be in Terminal 2. So we backtracked, reloaded the car, drove 10 minutes, and did it all over again.

Practicing some tai chi with Xie Aige's "Frank and Tai Chi III"
We checked in, did some shopping at our favorite gift shop, and then went to our boarding gate. We got on a bus that seemed almost full to capacity when we boarded, but the amount of passengers doubled before it took the long journey to where our Hainan Airlines Dreamliner was waiting.

We boarded and got settled in our seats. A toddler in the front row of economy seating projectile vomited into first class after crying for 15 minutes at the top of her lungs. It was going to be a long flight. We took off at 2:32 p.m. We listened to Led Zeppelin and I typed up my notes from the trip. The lady next to Craig seemed to spend the entire 13 hours removing then applying beauty product. At one point, Craig came back from the bathroom to find her wearing a facial mask, and it startled the crap out of him. Vomit baby walked by and stopped in the aisle next to me, then  hit my delete key while I was typing. Her overly indulgent grandparents just laughed. Ok, I'm ready to be home.

We landed at 3:10 p.m., technically not even an hour after we had left Beijing. Time zones can really mess with you! After an overly long unpleasant but uneventful immigration experience, we picked up our luggage. Craig's brother Steve picked us up at the airport, and another trip is in the books!

Hainan Airlines 787 Dreamliner from Beijing direct to Boston

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Barefoot Yoga Shala's Retreat at Stowe Mountain Ranch

Steph, Chef Tess, Kendra, Craig, Ellen, Matt, Sam, Joyce, Gerry
Steve, Jenny, Molly, Lydia, Meghan, Shannon, Lisa, Chanelle
When our yoga instructor Jenny Ravikumar announced that she was going to lead a 4-day yoga retreat at Stowe Mountain Ranch in Vermont, we initially thought that it sounded fun, but we didn't know if it was for us.

Craig and I have been practicing yoga since November. I used to take dance in high school and a little yoga in college, but that was 20 years ago, and I came back to yoga very out of shape. Craig had never done yoga before, but decided to try it as a way of helping his balance, strength, and fatigue issues brought about by MS.

We started taking beginner classes at Barefoot Yoga Shala, with a goal of attending 2 classes per week. We soon fell in love with the studio, the teachers, and our fellow students. We now regularly attend 4 classes per week - sometimes even 5! We take beginner classes as well as kundalini and prana flow. Craig has difficulty with balance poses, but he uses the wall for support when necessary. Craig's balance has improved, and my strength and flexibility are better than they have been in 20 years!

Still, we wondered if the yoga would be too intense for our ability levels. We wondered how physical the other activities would be. We wondered if it was more a girls' weekend retreat, and if Craig and Steve would feel awkward. Jenny allayed all of our fears: she and Chanelle would be teaching the yoga and would gear it toward all ability levels. Outdoor activities are varied and optional. The owner of the ranch is a man who also practices yoga. It's all good. And the food is to die for. And look at these pictures of Jenny doing yoga on horseback.

Sign us up!

Craig, Steve, and I decided to go, hoping for a relaxing weekend away, spending time with our friends from the studio in a beautiful setting, and doing some yoga postures on horses, which seemed like a bit of a cool novelty. What we got out of the retreat was so much more than that.

It was a weekend of bonding with humans, animals, and nature, using teamwork to help one another to conquer our fears and obstacles. We would go again in a heartbeat. It was a profound experience and although words and photos alone can’t even begin to do it justice, here’s my modest attempt.
Stowe Mountain Ranch
The BYS gang all arrived at Stowe Mountain Ranch on Thursday afternoon: Craig, Steve, myself, Jenny, Chanelle, Joyce, Ellen and her daughter Lydia, Matt, Shannon, Lisa, Samantha, and Meghan. We were welcomed by the proprietor Gerry Scott, a.k.a. The Stowe Cowboy. Gerry is a complex and multi-faceted guy, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, who created a cavalry unit for the Massachusetts National Guard. He is the only American ever to ride with the Queen's Guard in England (there is a photo of him doing so, dressed as George Washington, in the kitchen). He studied natural horsemanship, which stresses treating horses with respect rather than dominating them. In addition to his military service and interest in equestrianism, Gerry was a financial advisor on Wall Street and is also a business professor.

He combined his love of horses and yoga by opening the Stowe Mountain Ranch, where he provides a luxury environment where yoga studios can come for a few days of R&R, including his amazing Yoga with Horses program. When Jenny decided to lead a retreat for the studio, she immediately hired Gerry’s on-staff chef Tess to prepare all of the meals. (This is an optional add-on to the retreat - if the retreat leader wants, they can bring their own food and use the kitchen to prepare it. But I don't know why anyone would do that. The cost including Tess's services is still quite reasonable, and all the work is done for you - deliciously!)

Chef Tess was already hard at work when we arrived. We also met retreat assistant Kendra, who joined in all of the retreat activities but also helped with food prep, cleanup, and many other jobs. (Gerry hires retreat assistants to help when a retreat books Tess's services).

Jenny gave us a tour of the house, which contains a large yoga studio with cathedral ceilings and large windows overlooking the barn. There is a nice kitchen, and guest rooms on four levels. There are around 30 beds, but they are spread out in various guest rooms and lofts over four levels, so the place in no way feels like a bunkhouse. There are plenty of shared bathrooms scattered throughout the building. The decor gave the place a charming lodgy B&B feel.

Craig, Steve, and I decided to share the Bingham Falls Suite on the lowest level. Although it was partially underground, so it did not have some of the gorgeous views that the upper bedrooms had, the temperature was cooler down here. Heat can exacerbate Craig's MS, so having a room that was not apt to get as warm is beneficial for him. It was a comfortable room, and we only intended to spend time in there when we were asleep. There was a small window that we could open for fresh air while we slept. There was actually a sauna across from our room. That might be nice in the wintertime, but we would pass on using it on this trip.

Steve gazes at Black Jack & Pegasus
Savasana on the deck
After enjoying some organic snacks (nachos, heavenly cheese with crackers, fruit) and meeting and greeting (including meeting all of the animals: Gerry’s four horses Black Jack, Cherie, Annie Oakley, and Pegasus, two labs : 14-year-old Chrissie and 11-month-old Molly, and black bunny Thumper), Jenny led us in a sunset yoga practice outside on the beautiful wooden deck. Craig and I had never practiced outdoors before, and feeling the late afternoon sun on our shoulders in the cool mountain air was wonderful. The horses grazed nearby, and at one point when Jenny told us to let out a deep breath through our mouths, we could hear one of the horses exhale loudly. It was quite surreal.

Gerry Scott, The Stowe Cowboy
Then Gerry explained a bit of the philosophy behind the Yoga with Horses program, and about how it is so much more than just yoga postures on top of horses, though that aspect gets the most press (because it is so photogenic). It is about gaining the horses’ trust and sharing an experience with them – bonding with them on and off the mat, so to speak. He is one of only a handful of instructors who provide this type of program, and he has had many high profile clients. But he also gives back. Several times a year he hosts inner city kids from Boston at the ranch, and teaches them how to care for the animals, appreciate nature, etc.

Dinner (photo courtesy of Matt)
Tess and Kendra had finished preparing dinner, and a lovely spread was served to us at the picnic tables on the deck. Tess cooks with locally sourced ingredients, and he is a true master. He cooked three homemade soups this evening: hearty chicken vegetable, lentil and garlic, and tomato artichoke with green olives. And there was an enormous loaf of warm homemade whole grain bread served with brie in birch bark, plus a nice salad. For dessert there were warm fresh baked peanut butter chocolate chip cookies. Everything was delicious. We all brought our own wine and enjoyed our first meal together, full of anticipation for what tomorrow would bring. As it grew dark, we headed inside. We relaxed at the dining tables, chatting while petting the dogs, watching folks play Bananagrams.

The next morning we woke up for a delightfully chilly yoga practice on the deck with Jenny. Gerry fed the horses as we practiced, and delicious smells emanated from the kitchen as Tess and Kendra prepared breakfast. We enjoyed delicious scrambled eggs topped with copious amounts of melted cheddar cheese, a pomegranate kale blueberry banana smoothie, raisin French toast, yogurt, fruit, and oatmeal.

Tree pose on the deck (photo courtesy of Jenny)
Then we got into our trail gear (jeans and hiking boots) and headed out to the horse corral. We brushed the horses: 18 year old black Hanoverian stallion Black Jack, whom Gerry refers to as the “perfect gentleman” and who was trained by US Olympic equestrian Michael Plumb, Black Jack’s girlfriend Cherie, a lovely brown half-Clydesdale half-thoroughbred with a white line down her forehead, Annie Oakley, who has similar lineage to Cherie and looks very similar except for the large white blaze on her forehead, and relative newcomer Pegasus, a white Hanoverian male.

Craig meets Pegasus
Gerry taught us the international standard of approaching and mounting horses from their left side, and taught us to brush them starting at the front and working our way back. He gets very emotional about his horses, and told a story of how he used to always daydream of riding the mythical Pegasus when he was a grown man. He would ride Black Jack around Stowe with no reins, and once a passing motorist who was keeping up with him shouted out that they were going 32 miles per hour. Gerry said that he realized that he was living his dream of riding Pegasus, and never daydreamed about it again. He teared up when relaying this tale, which was quite moving for all of us. Six months ago when he acquired his second Hanoverian stallion, he named him Pegasus.

Gerry shows his appreciation to Cherie
As a precursor to tomorrow’s yoga postures on horses, Gerry asked Craig to get up onto Cherie. Craig was a bit nervous...depending what he was going to be asked to do, he felt like he might not be the best demonstration subject due to his MS. But he stepped up and climbed up onto Cherie's bare back. Gerry coached him to lay back while grabbing his ankles into a nice modification of supported bridge poses. Gerry then had Craig lay on his stomach in with his hands under his chin in what Gerry called the Cosmo pose (as that pose had been photographed for the magazine). “Don’t you feel more feminine than you ever have in your life?” Gerry quipped. He thanked Craig for being a good sport, as Brokeback Mountain jokes were cracked. Gerry has a great sense of humor and kept us all in stitches.

Gerry is amused by Craig's Cosmo pose on Cherie
Gerry put halters and leads on all four horses, and put a saddle onto Black Jack. He taught us how to lead the horses, getting them to walk by calling “Walk on!” and to stop by saying “Whoa!” One person led each horse as we left his property, crossed the street, and entered the Von Trapp Family trails (Gerry broke out into a Sound of Music singalong when we passed the sign). Molly, the 11 month old lab, also joined us. Lisa was riding Black Jack, and when we got across the street, Gerry asked me to ride Cherie bareback. I had never ridden bareback before but was eager to try this exciting new experience.

Kendra leads Cherie while Steph rides bareback
We wore helmets while on the moving horses, as safety is always Gerry's top priority. Gerry gave me a leg up and Kendra led Cherie while I rode. Cherie was very distracted by all of the available grass and foliage after a long winter of eating dry hay, and she gave Kendra a run for her money, even accidentally stepping on her foot. But Kendra did a great job and I felt very safe. I hadn’t ridden a horse in a while, and I had no saddle, so I kept my hands on Cherie’s neck to stabilize my balance.

Jenny communes with the trees
We all took turns hiking, riding (on Black Jack and Cherie), and leading the horses. The trails were beautiful. As people switched on and off horses, Gerry would guide them into a yoga pose or two. Kendra had a bad experience with a horse as a teenager and hasn’t ridden since. But she cowgirled up and faced her fears head-on, so that was a huge success! I took two turns leading Pegasus. He was very well behaved and I really enjoyed our time together. He walked at a fast pace and I felt like I was getting a good workout.

Steph leads Pegasus
Craig rides Black Jack
Craig and Steve each got a turn to ride Black Jack. After turning around to head back to the ranch, Gerry decided to let people ride Pegasus bareback for the first time in a trail ride situation, since we were now more comfortable and he was behaving so well. Shannon was the first one on, and she rocked it. I was thinking that I would ride Black Jack as we drew closer to the ranch, but Gerry said that since I was comfortable without a saddle, would I mind riding Pegasus. Not at all – he was my buddy! So I climbed up onto his back and Gerry coached me into 5-pointed-star pose. Sam led Pegasus down the trails, and she did a great job. My confidence was much higher now, so I didn’t need to hold on, and for a while I put my hands in reverse prayer pose behind my back while I rode. It turned out to be the final ride as we emerged from the forest back at the ranch.

Steph does 5-pointed star on Pegasus
It had been an amazing morning. Gerry said that he could see that all of our confidence levels had soared in just a couple of hours. We were all much more comfortable around the horses and we were looking forward to our yoga postures on horseback the next morning.

Tess prepared a lovely lunch. He repurposed the tomato artichoke soup from dinner last night as a pasta sauce. He added pecans and served it with lentil gluten free penne pasta. It was delicious.

Gerry driving the tractor
After lunch, Gerry took us on a hay ride down the street to the trailhead for Bingham Falls. We piled into his John Deere trailer along with Molly. Gerry distributed cowbells and cowboy hats, and pulled us using his red vintage 1948 Farmall H tractor. It was the archetypal American family farm tractor.

We hiked to a scenic vista overlooking a gorge carved out by the water at the conclusion of the ice age. The footing was uneven and there were roots sticking up. Joyce lost her footing and ended up falling and twisting her ankle. Luckily, we had some nursing students among our ranks, and a whole group of compassionate people. She couldn’t put weight on it, so she decided to wait here while we continued the short distance to the waterfall. We all felt horrible that this had happened to Joyce.

Chanelle offered to stay with Joyce while the rest of the group hiked down some steep and slippery stone “steps” to the waterfall. Craig was having a difficult time. This type of hiking used to be second nature to him, and he did it all the time in his younger days. But since the onset of his MS, he finds uneven footing much more challenging. We arrived at the stunning waterfall and all prepared for a swim. Molly jumped in right away. Gerry crossed the river at a narrow point, climbed up on a rock ledge, and dove in, showing all of us where the deep water was and exactly where to jump.

Craig and Steve really wanted to jump in. They grew up doing this stuff. Craig was a bit scared about crossing the river and climbing up the slippery rocks to the jump off point, but he was very careful and he and Steve made their way up to the ledge. They jumped off the ledge into the icy mountain water. It was obvious that this was very energizing for Craig and brought him back to his youth.

Craig jumps into Bingham Falls
I have always been afraid to do things like this. I am an adequate swimmer, but am not fond of jumping into water. Part of me wanted to do it after seeing Craig's triumph, but I was scared. I resigned myself to simply swimming. Jenny couldn’t jump because she was pregnant, and Sam said she didn’t plan on jumping either. Others in the group took the plunge and I photographed them. Molly kept jumping into the water, trying to make sure that everyone was safe. She’s such a sweet dog.

Then Sam told me that she would jump if I would. That extra motivation gave me the courage to try it, and the two of us crossed the river and climbed the rocks to the platform. I definitely noticed a difference with my balance and confidence in my footing since starting my yoga practice 7 months ago. I am more fit and in control of my body.

Sam jumped in without hesitation, and then I got into position. I hesitated, and needed to build up the nerve. But everyone was cheering me on and it gave me the confidence to take the plunge! I knew that the water would be frigid, and that I had to avoid gasping from the cold and getting a mouthful of water. In theory. But when I hit the water, the cold shot through me and I involuntarily opened my mouth and inhaled some water. I had to fight the cold and the current while coughing to get back to the other side. But I did it! I have so much appreciation for Sam – without her motivation, I never would have done this. It was a great bonding experience.

Steph jumps into Bingham Falls (photo courtesy of Kendra)
We did it! Steph & Sam
Joyce insisted that Chanelle join us at the waterfall, so toward the end of our swim she appeared. She has a fear of heights which she desperately wanted to conquer, so she climbed up to the ledge. She was very hesitant, and wanted to try to jump from a lower point. But the water wasn't deep enough there - in order to do it, you needed to go from the high ledge. We all shouted words of encouragement and love to her, and after a few moments, she did it. And, being Chanelle, she jumped in the most graceful way possible.

Many others overcame fears at this waterfall as well…Kendra had a lingering fear of heights from the horse fall during her adolescence, but she was one of the first to jump in today. Those who didn’t jump swam…and Gerry said that it didn’t "count" unless they submerged their heads. Gerry was proud that every one of us who went to the waterfall got fully submerged in the cold water. We all felt like we could do anything!

Gerry and his guests are so lucky to have such a beautiful natural feature so close to the ranch.

Chanelle jumps into Bingham Falls
Drying off after our swims at Bingham Falls (photo courtesy of Shannon)
We got back to Joyce and found that she still couldn’t put weight on her ankle, and we had a short but rather steep hike to get back to the road. The team really came together and Kendra, Matt, Steve, and Sam acted as a human stretcher and physically carried her out of the woods while Meghan supported her head. Now this is real-world team building!

The team comes together to carry an injured Joyce out of the forest
When we got back to the hay ride, the tractor wouldn’t start. It is such an antique that Gerry wasn’t sure what was wrong, and after several failed attempts to get it going, Kendra, Lydia, Matt, Sam, and Chanelle literally ran back to the ranch (a 7 minute run) to get cars to shuttle us back.

Cherie and Black Jack stick out their tongues
Kendra and Chef Tess prepare dinner
Chrissie watches yoga practice (photo courtesy of Kendra)
When we got back to the ranch, Jenny led us in a low-key yoga practice on the deck after a very busy and physically active day.

While we practiced, Tess grilled swordfish kabobs (featuring peppers, onions, and plantains) on the grill next to us. He had asked us to leave a little path between our mats so that he could tend to dinner without disturbing us. Are you kidding? It just added to the relaxation to hear the gentle hissing of the kabobs on the grill and smell the onions and peppers cooking...

We enjoyed a delicious dinner out at the picnic tables. The kebabs were amazing (there was a vegetarian version as well) , and were served with coconut mashed potatoes, bok choi, an amazingly beautiful fruit salad, more fresh warm homemade bread, and mussels. I have never eaten a mussel before, as I am iffy about most shellfish, but once again my girl Samantha motivated me to try. It was very tasty, and reminded me of scallops, which I love. It was a weekend of firsts!

Chanelle with Chrissie and Molly
At the tail end of dinner, it started to rain, and we moved inside. This was the only rain we would get over the whole weekend, and it was after all of our activities, so that was great. We enjoyed fresh apple crisp with Ben & Jerry’s ice cream for dessert.

Jenny does Tarot card readings
We spent the evening sitting in a big circle on bolsters and backjacks, chatting while Jenny practiced reading Tarot cards for anyone who was interested. She had received a deck for Christmas, and was eager to read for people. We went around the circle, and when it was your turn, you picked 3 cards from the deck: one for past, one for present, and one for future. Jenny then read the interpretation of each card.

I’m not usually a Tarot card type of person, except for entertainment. I feel that, like horoscopes, they are generic enough to really apply to any situation, and are more a tool of self-reflection than anything else. That being said, my reading seemed spot-on. My first card was the World, which I guess is a rare and good card.

After my reading, Jenny shuffled the cards and fanned them out in front of Craig. I thought to myself “The World card applies to both of us. It would be really impressive if Craig drew the same card.” And wouldn’t you know, he did? Out of 78 cards, Craig picked the same very relevant one as me...coincidence…fate…who knows? But it sure was damn entertaining!

It was really nice to just hang out with everyone. We don't often take group trips any more. With Craig's MS, we like to have flexibility, and not negatively impact other people's plans if he happens to get sick or need extra rest. So being able to just hang out with a group of people with whom we are completely comfortable, in a beautiful relaxing setting was therapy for the soul!

Morning yoga practice with Jenny

The next morning, we did our yoga practice inside, as things were still a bit damp and chilly after the overnight rain. Breakfast was buckwheat blueberry pancakes with local maple syrup, kale cucumber avocado banana smoothie, oatmeal, scrambled eggs with cheese, a delicious vegetarian Mexican casserole, apple cider, and coffee. Yum!! Tess outdid himself yet again!

Molly plays with Gerry
Unfortunately, Joyce was still unable to bear weight on her ankle, so neither she nor the pregnant Jenny could participate in the yoga postures on horses. The air was chilly but the sun was out, so they got comfortable under yoga blankets on the deck to watch us from a distance.

The rest of us entered the horse paddock and headed over to the tipi. Molly joined us, and Gerry put a halter and lead onto Cherie. We brushed the horses and said good morning to them. Gerry explained a little more about the philosophy behind Yoga with Horses. Horses feel more, and think less. When working with them, we humans need to try to do the same. He said that once we are on horseback, we should try to feel…to move from one pose to the next, do what feels natural and don’t overthink. He evoked how Native American girls were taught by their fathers how to become comfortable riding bareback on their horses, and said that we should keep that in mind while we practiced, as if we are the learners and Gerry is our “father". He also mentioned that most of us probably have a family history of owning horses if we go back to our great-grandparents' generation, so this was a way to reconnect with our own history.

Gerry held on to Cherie’s lead, and there was a spotter on either side of her in case of trouble. Once again, safety is Gerry’s main concern. We didn't wear helmets because Cherie is very well trained to stand still.

Yoga postures on Cherie:
Kendra, Shannon, Meghan, Sam, Ellen, Chanelle, Lydia, Lisa, Matt, Steve
Chanelle was the first to do postures on top of Cherie. As a yoga instructor herself, she was a natural. Gerry coached her into certain poses which work well on horses, and she took it from there. Gerry remarked that although she is of Korean heritage, she looked Native American when perched on horseback with her long straight dark hair blowing in the wind. “50,000 Montana cowboys are on their way here to find you right now!”

Kendra asked if she could go next before she lost her nerve. As I mentioned before, she fell from a horse when she was a teenager and yesterday’s trail ride was her first time back on a horse in over 25 years. She is also a yoga instructor, and her form was incredible. Toward the end of her practice, she slowly and gently stood up on Cherie’s back in tadasana (mountain pose). It was amazing! When she had safely made it back down onto Cherie’s back, she laid down, buried her head in Cherie’s mane, and sobbed. It was so moving. She had clearly made a major life breakthrough here, and we were all so honored to witness it! This is what the weekend was all about. There wasn’t a dry eye in the group. We all gave her a group hug. She apologized for breaking down, but we would have none of it. It was beautiful, and this is what the Yoga with Horses experience is all about! Clearly so much more than just photogenic poses!
Craig practicing yoga postures on Cherie
Craig went next. Getting a boost onto Cherie’s back has the hardest part. She is a tall animal! Gerry and Kendra coached him into various positions, and he looked great! Craig kept his center of gravity low since his MS affects his balance, and he didn't want to do anything dangerous for him. His arrow pose was especially well aligned, straight as an arrow, just like the cliché. He felt very comfortable on Cherie’s back, and he didn’t feel like he was losing his balance or that he was in danger of falling until he tried to do bow pose perpendicular to Cherie’s back. He felt that he was either too far forward or too far backwards, and that he might topple off. The spotters did their job well and helped him back to a more comfortable and secure position. Gerry asked Craig to reprise the Cosmo pose from yesterday. He put his cowboy hat on Craig’s head, and Craig laid on his belly with his hands under his chin. To play it up, Craig said “I’ve never felt so feminine in my whole life” and Gerry started cracking up, wisecracking “50,000 Montana cowboys are on their way here to kick your ass!” We all had a good laugh. As with all of our travels, we fully immerse ourselves in the experience.

Craig practices arrow pose on Cherie
Gerry’s friends came over and borrowed Pegasus and Annie to go on a ride. Shannon, Lydia, and Steve all took their turns doing postures on top of Cherie, and I acted as the unofficial group photographer. Gerry explained that we needed to limit the number of people who did standing poses, out of respect for Cherie. This made a lot of sense, and we of course understood and respected his wishes.
Gerry with Black Jack and Cherie
Cherie was getting restless by the time it was Matt’s turn. Or, more precisely, her boyfriend Black Jack was getting restless. He kept sniffing Cherie’s hind quarters, nudging her with his nose, and causing her to move, which made it difficult for Matt to hold a pose for very long. But Matt was a trooper! He is a trained yoga instructor as well, so he took it all in stride.

We still had several more people to go, and Cherie was no longer standing as still. So we took a 45 minute break to allow the horses to rest. Black Jack was obviously troubled that some of his herd was missing, and as the alpha male, he whinnied for them.

Steph practices half pigeon on Cherie
Steph practicing yoga postures on Cherie
We went back out to the tipi, and I was the next one up. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and Cherie’s back was expansive. Her shiny brown fur was warm in the sunlight, and she felt very sturdy. Gerry coached me, and was always saying encouraging and amusing things, which meant that I was always smiling. I wanted to try plow pose, but didn’t feel comfortable tipping that far back, so I settled for just extending my legs up into the air. I got into half pigeon, one of my favorite poses. I felt like a rock star! I did reverse prayer pose, and Gerry put his cowboy hat onto my head. I got into bow pose, and Black Jack photobombed the picture. It was an amazingly humbling experience. Cherie is a very trusting horse, and we were very grateful to her for allowing us to bond with her like this.
Giving Black Jack a smooch
Lisa, Ellen, Meghan, and Sam took their turns. As Sam was the last to go, Gerry gave her special permission to stand up, and she performed a textbook utkatasana (chair pose) and then tadasana (mountain pose). You go, girl!

We were all flying high after this experience. Tess and Kendra served lunch: homemade pesto focaccia along with the leftover soups from the first night and fruit salad.
Selfie with Cherie
Jenny had left this afternoon open, so that we could all do whatever we wanted before reconvening for evening yoga practice. Most folks explored Stowe – driving downtown or to the Von Trapp Family Lodge. Though this sounded fun, Craig, Steve, and I decided to stay close to the ranch. We haven't had the opportunity to spend much time in New England nature in the past few years. Busy schedules and international travel have meant that we don't really get to go camping any more, something we always enjoyed in the past. So we decided to take this opportunity to enjoy the natural surroundings rather than spend time in civilization.

We decided to return to the trails where we had hiked and ridden the horses on Friday morning. Molly followed us, which was very sweet, but we were a little bit nervous about her following us off property. We needed to cross the busy street to get to the trails. I tried to lead her back to the house, but she would have none of it. She wanted to hang out with us and making sure we were safe and didn't get lost. So we accepted her offering and Steve held her collar as we crossed the road to get to and from the trails, just in case. Couldn’t have anything happen to her on our watch! (Probably the same thing she was thinking about us!)
Riverside yoga
Dunking my feet with Molly
We walked to a gorgeous spot next to the river, where the rocks and water were sun dappled as the light filtered through the trees. The area reminded us of Lothlorien in the Lord of the Rings movies. We did some yoga poses there and just enjoyed the serenity. Molly brought us sticks (really big ones!), but didn’t really seem interested in chasing them.

I dunked my toes in the cold water (had we really jumped in yesterday?!) and then dried my feet on a patch of luxurious moss. I walked around the forest barefoot, thinking of the survivalists we watch on TV who do this regularly. I felt particularly grounded through my root chakra. Molly stayed with us the whole time, and if she started to wander a little far, a quick call brought her right back. At one point, I needed to heed nature’s call, and found a secluded spot to do so. Molly crouched down about 20 feet from me and did the same thing. I guess girls do always visit the restroom in groups!
In the hot tub!
Then we returned to the ranch. Nobody else was back yet, and we took quick rinsing showers, changed into our bathing suits, and got into the hot tub. We had a gorgeous view of the horses, the tipi, and the surrounding mountains as the sun sank low in the sky. Craig needs to be careful not to overheat due to his MS, and just as he was thinking it was probably time for him to get out, the jets stopped, completing a full cycle. I guess it was the universe agreeing that it was time to get out!

Folks trickled in from their afternoon adventures, and we all congregated inside for Chanelle’s deep stretch yin yoga class at 6 o’clock. After all of the physical activity over the last couple of days, it felt really good to do such a gentle practice. In fact, everyone was so into it, that Chanelle taught for 90 minutes. She applied essential oils to our skin. When we were in savasana, she did some really great assists to help us get deeper into relaxation, and she even placed my hand on top of Craig’s, which was very sweet.
Chanelle preparing to teach a deep stretch yin class
Our farewell dinner was eaten indoors. Tess had prepared salad, and while we enjoyed that, he prepared fajitas. We went up to the island where he was cooking, and he warmed up a tortilla of our choice (flour or corn). We could choose between chicken or vegetarian filling, and then top it off with shredded cheese, salsa, and hot sauce. This was supplemented by rice and black beans. It was delicious and abundant, and we enjoyed several helpings. We drank wine and chatted, drinking toasts to Gerry, the ranch, and especially the horses.

Gerry presenting Jenny with some beautiful thank you gifts
At the end of the meal Gerry presented Jenny with two gifts. The first was an actual horseshoe worn by Black Jack. Jenny said that she would hang it in the baby's room, and Lydia said that would ensure that the baby would be a perfect gentleman, just like Black Jack.

The second was a gift for the studio: a heart made from horseshoes which Gerry produces with assistance from a local blacksmith. Seeing it hanging in the studio will always remind us of this fabulous weekend.

After dinner was our surprise (Lydia does not like surprises, so Jenny playfully tormented her with it for the whole retreat)– a cowboy campfire out by the tipi. Lydia was happy to finally know what it was, and volunteered to help Gerry start the fire.

Gerry asked the guys to bring hay bales from the barn for seating. Several people, myself included, asked Craig if he was comfortable carrying the heavy bales with his MS. But Gerry had asked him specifically, and he wanted to try to help. If he couldn't do it, he would stop. He really appreciated everyone looking out for him. And he was able to do it.

Joyce was unable to walk from the house out to the tipi on her own. Craig and Steve supported her, one on each side, but as the terrain got more uneven, it was obvious that this wouldn't work. Joyce said she should turn around and go back to the house. Steve offered her a piggy-back ride. At first she politely declined. She didn't want to inconvenience anyone. But what was the alternative? To stay in the house alone while the rest of us were having fun sharing our final night together just a hundred yards away? There were already a few activities that Joyce had been unable to enjoy due to her injury. This was something she could do, and Steve was determined to get her there. So he carried her on his back while Craig spotted.

Toasting s'mores at the campfire
We sat on the hay bales and toasted s’mores. Gerry led us in some songs as Molly sat on his lap. All four horses joined us of their own accord. This was very humbling. All weekend we had been doing our best to bond with the horses, and it was obvious that it was not a one-way street. The way the horses behaved around us showed that they were very comfortable, and that they enjoyed our company as well. We had built true relationships with these animals, and it was heartwarming.

While we ate our s'mores, the horses munched on the hay bales beneath us. Joyce and Lisa actually took a tumble off of their bales when the horses snatched them out from under them. This led to much laughter.

At the end of the evening, the guys brought all but one of the hay bales (one had been totally sacrificed for the horses) back to the barn, and Steve piggy-backed Joyce back to the house.

Ellen, Lydia, Sam, and Kendra got up early the next morning to run with Gerry and the horses. This is another facet of the Yoga with Horses program. They were paired up with the horses, held onto the lead, and ran with them along the trails. They had an amazing time. We are not runners at all, let alone being able to keep up with a galloping horse. Craig found it challenging just to keep up with the horses when they are walking. But we found ourselves wishing that we could, because it sounded like such a phenomenal experience.

Gerry has always wanted to try offering yoga alongside the horses, and he was able to beta test the concept with these four ladies at the end of their run. Kendra led them in a short practice, and it was very successful.
Jenny greets the horses
When they returned to the ranch, we were ready for our final yoga practice. Jenny was dunking her feet in the hot tub, and at Steve’s suggestion, was thinking of teaching the class from there. (The hot tub is situated right "at the head of the class" on the deck where we practice). But Gerry threw her a bit of a curve ball. He wanted to take us all across the street to a nice field to practice with the horses. This was the first Jenny had heard of it, so she had to spontaneously adapt to this new plan, but we were all very enthusiastic about having one more interaction with the horses.

Morning yoga with horses
Airplane poses with Annie Oakley
(second photo courtesy of Kendra)
Gerry’s friend Heather joined us for practice. We left our mats at the ranch and each took a yoga blanket. Gerry put halters and leads on the horses and we walked across the street (accompanied by Molly) to a gorgeous green field with stunning views of the surrounding mountains. The grass was damp and we ended up not really needing the blankets because we concentrated on standing poses. We got into small groups centered around a horse (Craig, Steve, and I were with Annie Oakley). I held Annie’s lead while we practiced, which meant that my form wasn’t always conventional, but that wasn’t the point. Annie ate grass while we practiced, holding on to her to help with our balance. It was so much fun! At the end of class, instead of a traditional savasana, we stood with our foreheads (third eye) touching Annie’s flanks, feeling her warm fur on our skin, feeling her body rise and fall with each breath, feeling every stretch of her toned muscles. It was so humbling!

Side body stretch and savasana with Annie
(photos courtesy of Kendra)
After practice, we posed for some pictures with the horses, doing various poses standing next to them. I put my foot in the air and at one point Annie nuzzled me with her head, her strength almost knocking me down. It was so cute! Once again, she was seeking out interaction, and wanted to cuddle!
Craig practicing with Annie
Annie snuggles with Steph
Jenny practices with Cherie
I walked Annie back to the ranch, and Craig walked Black Jack. For our final meal, Tess outdid himself yet again with an amazing brunch. We had egg and veggie frittata, an amazing curry dish which contained apples (who would have thought? It was unbelievable!), homefries, watermelon, and another delicious purple pomegranate and kale-based smoothie.

Annie Oakley

As with all the meals, there was an abundance of food. As soon as we polished off a blender full of smoothie, another one was immediately made. If we finished off the food in a serving dish, it was replenished. We really don't see why any group wouldn't take advantage of Gerry's culinary option. The food is delicious and nutritious, and you don't have to do any work! We were grateful to Jenny for selecting this option. We often felt a bit guilty as Kendra cleared our plates and did the dishes, because she was such a part of the group. But she reminded us that this was her job, and that we were the guests. We are so lucky that she ended up being the retreat assistant for our retreat, as she is a fabulous person and a great new friend.

Delicious food prepared by Chef Tess with assistance from Kendra

We chatted with Gerry while we ate. After breakfast, we packed up and took some group photos. Kendra suggested using the timer on my camera. We did a group hug and put the camera on the ground in the center of the circle. Molly wanted in on the action and jumped in just before the photo was snapped (unfortunately blocking Lydia).

Group hug
(thanks to Matt for lightening the color in this photo!)

We all said our goodbyes to humans and animals, and left at noon. On the way home, we stopped at Cold Hollow Cider Mill in Waterbury. We bought fresh, hot apple cider donuts, hot mulled apple cider, fresh fudge, and hot pepper jelly. I also bought a tie-dyed Peace Love Cider T-shirt which will be perfect for yoga.

It felt wrong to drive by Ben & Jerry's without stopping in, but at least we had enjoyed some vanilla and Cherry Garcia with our fresh homemade apple crisp on Friday night!

It was a phenomenal weekend that surpassed our expectations in every possible way. We bonded with a great group of people and animals, and we all felt like family by the time we returned home. We look forward to next year’s retreat. Gerry can bet his last silver dollar on THAT!