Four travelers from East and West.
Four travelers to California.
Two brought as children, one drawn by gold, one taken in arranged marriage.
Generations pass, and their offspring fall in love.
Four travelers converge in one American family.

This story was first published Nov. 4, 2010.

The mare, outside Yosemite National Park, 1976


I entered a new world when I went to live with my Grandpa after high school. His ranch in the Sierra Nevada foothills sat high above the fog that blanketed Sacramento with a gray chill each winter. The ranch in January enjoyed blue skies and expansive views out to the snow-white peaks of the distant mountains. It was a world where wobbly white-faced calves danced beside their mothers, and mule deer stuck close to the brush thickets on a remote hill in the back field. It also was a place of alfalfa bales and mud chains, of a wooden hay barn and a long-abandoned stone ranch house with its lower floor cut into a hillside.

We fed hay to the cattle in winter, but in spring the grasses returned. My eyes tended toward the massive live oak trees on the ranch, but Grandpa directed my attention to the low-growing filaree, a weed with soft, green needles. Now each spring I notice it growing among the sidewalk cracks of the city. But it was Grandpa who first showed it to me when I was 19, and who told me that on the ranch it was among the richest of cattle feed.

When time allowed, we worked with the small, black mare I had purchased that winter. Grandpa was determined to break her of her habit of rearing up. And “break” was the word. At age 78, he was no horse whisperer, and he had none of my illusions that horses were for pleasure. His horses earned their keep by driving cattle. He left them in peace when the work was done.

First, he put leather hobbles on the mare’s legs, and attached to them a short rope that also was tied to her halter. The idea was that her legs would restrict her head when she tried to rise up. As part of this process, he had me whack her with a whip of baling wire until she would rear. As a boy I’d seen him do this with a small palomino gelding, and it did the trick. But my mare was a stubborn one. She still could rear up. I whacked and whacked but it didn’t seem to affect her. An aunt watched us one day and concluded the whole process had more effect on me than the horse. “Rob’s a little too tenderhearted for this,” she said.

Next, we tried keeping her head down as I rode her. We used a martingale, a strap that ran from the saddle’s cinch up to the halter. Most horses wouldn’t rear because of the restriction on lifting their heads. But the mare found that if she cocked her head to one side, she could get the slack she needed to launch us both.

I had never fallen off a horse, and I had a fear of what might happen. One day I was riding her and she started to rear. “Hit her!” Grandpa yelled. “Hit her again!” I obeyed with the baling wire whip. She just seemed to fight more. Up she went again, but this time it felt different. We seemed to stay aloft longer. For a moment I felt weightless. Then I realized she had past the point of no return. She was going over backwards. Slowly, almost naturally, we began our descent to earth.

I don’t recall how I kept myself from getting crushed beneath her. Perhaps my body was thrust out by the arc of her backward motion. Regardless, I landed intact, even as she crashed onto her right side. I had fallen off a horse and survived. I suppose it made me a better rider, if only to have passed through a sort of baptism.

A few days later Grandpa sat in his kitchen and waited for me. When I entered, he offered to buy the mare from me, so that I could get another horse for my pack trip into the Sierras that summer. “She’s a sound horse,” he said. “She just needs work.”

I was surprised by the offer. Nonetheless, I turned him down. Yes, I knew I should have done a better job buying a horse. That was now all too clear. But this was the horse I had bought. I wasn’t yet ready to give up on her – or on me. Grandpa and the mare were both stubborn. I guess I was, too.


Looking back more than three decades, I still wonder about Grandpa’s offer. He certainly had little use for a horse, especially that one. For a man with such a hard exterior, he was often quite generous to his family, and buying that horse would have been a big gift to me. Perhaps he even was worried that the mare would seriously hurt me. Even so, it perplexes me because it wasn’t his way to “baby” his grandsons. Maybe he just wanted to know how committed I was to training this horse.

I still smile at his offer and the decision I made. It meant we were going to have more adventures with that mare.

John Digitale, my grandfather

This is the ninth vignette in the saga of an American family.

The main characters of “American Risotto” are:
Carol – Robert’s girlfriend
Joseph Pike – Robert’s great-great-grandfather
John Digitale – Robert’s grandfather
Kwong Check Fee/Franklin Fongson – Carol’s father
Ng Sau Ping/Elaine Fongson – Carol’s mother

To learn more, go to the “American Risotto” page.