by R.T. Fitch
I am without words, I just do not know what to say. I had seen the headlines, I had read the words, but nothing registered. Someone’s beloved dog and horse had died from eating poisoned laced cookies…but I moved on, elected not to share that news as it was sad and perhaps too painful to read. Instead I moved on searching for stories about entire wild herds, corrupt government and changes in the law. For several days those headlines haunted be but I did not relent, I did not read a one of them:
…until Debbie Coffey sent me an email and said “I think this is Leslie Anne Webb“. My heart stopped.
Leslie Anne Webb, an old friend of ours whose paintings of our horses adorn the walls of our home was in pain and I ignored it for days, I am forever sorry, Leslie Anne, I did not know
But this day, instead of repeating and reprinting the words of sadness and human depravity I would rather celebrate the kind and tender spirit of the woman in mourning and highlight the joy that she brings to the animals and people she shares her life with. There is great goodness in the heart of this artist and an insight into the soul of those who are voiceless like no other other.
Today I share with you a story of a magical weekend Terry and I spent at Leslie’s ranch with her and her critter family; a time that touched me so very deeply and now lives on in our book Straight from the Horse’s Heart.
I give you The Valley of Laughter
It’s rare to find one’s self in another land, a different world, without even remembering how, when, or where you passed a boundary. Granted the journey is a long one: up and down California mountain roads past many gorgeous vistas. First, the roads are paved and spread out in multiple lanes. Then, they twist and wind about until they are only two lanes; then one; next gravel; then dirt; and, as you pull up to the mystical entrance gate, only one vehicle could make it’s way through at a time.
Perhaps it is when you step out of your earthbound vehicle, at the gate, that you know you are getting close to a place that is truly different, unique, and very special. Maybe it is the wooden fence rails that run beside you bound together, by hand, with rope. Perhaps it is the vibrant hand-painted welcome sign that reads, in a brilliant blue, “Circle 7”; or, perchance, it is the whispering in the leaves of the trees. Yes, perhaps that is it. From over head and far away the leaves in the trees whisper a distant laugh, a barely audible giggle, a sigh of happiness. Yes, that is when you first are aware that you have arrived.
As you drive through the narrow gate and up the path, you pass a series of barns on your right. There, several free roaming horses, many very large, look your way, smile, and nod. The whisper of laughter is heavy in the air. As you make a sharp turn to the left and descend into the valley you may pick up several companions: dogs, running beside you with mouths in an open smile while tongues bounce to and fro as they keep pace with your motorized decent. More sounds of happiness seep in through your vehicle’s ventilation system. A smile breaks across your face.
As you slowly and carefully make your way down to the valley floor, you feel that perhaps you have truly passed into another time or dimension as, off to the right in the distance, two Native American Teepee’s stand majestically in a clearing under ancient oak trees. Then, after you pass through another gate into the main yard, there is a quaint turn-of-the-century bath house to your right. Nestled into the mountain side, on your left, is a clean-cut two story building that reminds you of a school house from years gone by, right down to the cupola atop the shinning metal roof. From its ample porch, your hostess, the sole human inhabitant of this valley, waves and smiles a big welcome.
You have arrived at a very special place and, within seconds, you are blessed with the sound of laughter ringing from the sides of the mountain and across the valley floor. This is an incredibly extraordinary residence that has been carved out of the wilderness by one of America’s last, true, pioneer woman. Over the years, living first in a tent, then in the Teepees and finally in the gallery/home, this woman has made this unique plot of land a place for her to work; a place for her to live; and, a place for her to love and be loved by the animal companions that fill her life with joy. This is the home of equine artist, Leslie Anne Webb.
One feels privileged to walk upon this sacred ground. Many years of toil and tears went into making it the place of sharing that it is today. The original intent was to create an environment conducive for working with oils and telling the individual stories of horses by immortalizing their likenesses in paintings. The painting turned out to be the easy portion of this long and incredible journey. Along the way, horses were rescued; wells were dug; dogs were saved; and buildings were built. All accomplished through the hands of this artist and the spirit that makes this country great.
One can easily get lost in hearing the stories of challenge, triumph, and ultimate victory. In fact, before you realize it, an entire day can slip through your fingers as quickly as if you had fallen over a waterfall. Listening to Leslie, while rubbing down the horses and petting the dogs, causes a shift in the normal time continuum and you soon find yourself longing to go back to the beginning and start all over again. Sadly, much to your chagrin, even in this magical valley the earth will not spin in reverse. Therefore, you must relent; say your good-night’s; and, if you are lucky enough, you head off to the Teepees to refresh and recharge both body and soul.
During the night, you can still hear the gentle giggling amongst the leaves in the trees. In fact, you can see the limbs shiver and quake above your head through the opening in the Teepee’s peak. The trees dance with the wind to some ancient melody as your energy circulates around the teepee; around and upward, until in your dreams you too are dancing to a very far away but persistent tribal song. You sleep very, very well.
Upon awakening, you question your dreams of dancing with nature only to discover that you have been blessed and covered with a delicate blanket of oak leaves that was added to your man-made blanket during the night. Perhaps it was not a dream, after all.
Over a mug of coffee, more stories are shared; laughter rings anew; paintings are admired; and, plans to save even more horses are made. You nurse the coffee for, when it is gone, you must leave; so, the sharing of life’s tall tales continues. But, time moves quickly in the valley; soon the bottom of your coffee mug comes into view and you must journey back into the world from whence you came.
You say your good-byes to the rescued horses; you pet the dogs that have been saved; you stroke the cat whose life has been salvaged; and embrace the pioneer woman, one last time, before departing. In that last fleeting moment, you steal a departing glance at the art that she has created and gaze, again, at the land that she has transformed into art. From one heart, so much living beauty has been fashioned that you find a tear slowly creeping down your cheek as you reluctantly turn the key in the ignition.
A wave of the hand, the bark of a dog, and the crunch of tires on gravel signal that you are on a journey forward into time; back to the contemporary world where technology is king and where man has forgotten his roots. As you ascend out of the valley, an emptiness begins to grow inside your heart; or, perhaps it is only returning. Nevertheless, you desperately fight the urge to turn around.
Once through the gate, up high on the mountain, you exit your vehicle to close and latch it ensuring the safety of the horses. Above you, the leaves whisper a farewell. You linger for a moment and hold onto one of the hand-lashed fence rails while you take in the music of the trees. There, in the nearest rope lashing, you see something: a delicate object twisting in the gentle breeze. Carefully, you pluck it from between the lashings of the binding rope and, to your delight, you realize it is the ornate and delicate tail feather of a native hawk. And, as you twirl it before your eyes and absorb its beauty, you hear from very far away, echoing softly from the valley below, the cry of its owner wishing you well as you reluctantly depart the Valley of Laughter.