The Island of Wild Horses

Horses have been a part of me since as long as I have memories. At one point, my entire world was centered around them - I spent every moment I could at the barn and when I wasn't there I was drawing horses, running up and down the halls like I was riding a horse, reading about horses, running my hands across my desk at school like it was a horse, and when I finally slept - well, I don't think I have to tell you what my dreams were saturated with every night. My horse was my life, and he and I were unstoppable in the show ring. When I left him behind to head to college, I joined the equestrian team.

And then, this funny thing happened. What life couldn't accomplish in the previous 20 years of my life, it finally did - it got in the way. All the sudden, I did some growing up and life got really busy. All the sudden, I was no longer on the equestrian team. All the sudden, I wasn't rushing home whenever I could to get some time in with my best four-hooved friend. All the sudden, horses no longer ran with me in my dreams.

Fifteen years later, I still don't know what to think about that loss. I miss the feel of a horse's back more than I miss most things that have eventually left my life. Just typing this brings a painful pang to my heart. I guess those horses are still in me somewhere. But no matter how much they kick and stomp and whinny, I know (and they know) my life still doesn't hold enough free time for them.

But then, there was this past Saturday. I've literally been waiting ten years for this moment, since the first time I drove through Beaufort, NC, on my way to the Outer Banks. Back then, I passed a sign for Shackleford Banks which advertised a ferry ride to an island rich with long beaches, seashells and the descendants of Spanish horses shipwrecked there centuries ago. Even back then, I didn't have the time. But now, I live an hour from Beaufort, and I finally found the time and caught that ferry ride.

My daughter, husband and I all climbed aboard this small "ferry," and we rode out of the sound and toward the nine mile-long strip of sand, sea grass, brush and seashells. I have no doubt in my mind I was the most excited person on this little craft. Georgia loved the boat ride. She giggled as the boat picked up speed and bounced from wave to wave and the sea spray flung up against us. The little boy across from us, who was exactly Georgia's age, cried and cried with every bounce - but not my little one. The boat driver delighted in her glee.

And then, it was over and we were at the island's shore. Sunscreen-covered tourists and locals worshipped the sun and fermented hops on the beach, and we set out picking our way through them. We walked at the water's edge, picking up shiny shells as they caught our eye, and I quickly lost my flip-flops to the bag on my shoulder. Who wears shoes on the beach? My feet were screaming to feel the sand and the waves.

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But all the while, I knew these shells and waves and sand were just window-dressings - my real purpose for being here grazed somewhere in the island's belly.

So we trekked inland, me still barefoot and Georgia perched high upon her daddy's shoulders.

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We found hoof prints, we found dried piles of horse manure, we found lizards, we found thick brush to block our way, we found more sea shells and then, we found THEM.

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Off in the distance, heads down and scattered among the sand dunes were all the colors of my childhood - bays, sorrels, palominos, blacks, grays - all there and all absolutely breath-taking to me.

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We moved in closer, and Georgia could finally see the shapes of these hearty equines. She looked and watched, I pointed and noted, but I'll be honest - at some point - she and my husband blended into the background. At some point, they were no more distinct to me than the sea grass and the sea shells. I was caught up in a dream.

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With my camera in hand, I clicked and I watched and I clicked and I crept closer and I watched some more. I had almost forgotten the hold these simple animals have on my very soul. At one point, three of them took up a game of chase, galloping at full speed with hooves deep in the sand. It wasn't an innocent game, and it wasn't sweet. It was about territory and power and life - but it was beautiful.

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Kneeling there atop a small sand dune about five feet high, watching these wild horses truly live life at its fullest and at its rawest and at its most simplistic element - I cried. I can't tell you exactly what brought the tears. My lost childhood dreams, the life I let get away from me, my best four-hooved friend who died a few years back, the fact that the smell of alfalfa and manure no longer fill my nostrils on warm summer days or perhaps the lack of thundering hooves in my dreams these days.

For a moment, I remembered what it felt like to fly through pastures astride my sorrel steed, bareback with my knees dug deep into his sides, leaning forward into his mane and urging him to go faster and faster. I have NEVER felt freer in my life, and I probably never will again. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed my husband and daughter coming towards me, waving me back to them. Reality snapped me back from my memory. They were ready to go, our ferry would be back soon to pick us up.

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But typing this now, I still feel the swell in my heart and the slight taste of flying free on my lips. My time on the island of wild horses is not yet done...

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