Happy (Bridle) Trails With My Sister

Yeah, you read that title right. I’m talking “bridle trails,” as in horseback riding, as opposed to “bridal trails,” as in weddings. While my sister and I could write a few columns, if not a book, about the latter topic, today I am thinking about some serious sister bonding we have had while tackling trails atop a trusty steed. A rental horse. I’m talking trail rides for tourists, and those we have enjoyed together over the past couple of decades.

Stehekin, Washington, 1996
One of the most remote places in Washington State, the tiny town of Stehekin is accessible only by water, air, or multi-day backpack trek. No roads lead to Stehekin. It nestles at the head of Lake Chelan, 55 miles long and 1,486 feet deep, extending from the town of Chelan into the Cascade Mountain foothills.

Peggy O’Neal (left) and author Sally O’Neal, Stehekin, Washington, 1996.
Peggy O’Neal (left) and author Sally O’Neal, Stehekin, Washington, 1996.

While I was researching my second book for Wilderness Press, Hot Showers, Soft Beds, and Dayhikes in the North Cascades, I invited my sister, Peggy, to accompany me to the village Native Americans named Stehekin, “the way through.”

Since ancient times, Lake Chelan, the Stehekin Valley, and Cascade Pass provided a way through the Cascade Mountains for trading and, later, tourism. Today, the village is home to about 75 hardy souls who do without malls, fast food, and many of the other conveniences of city life. The National Park Service has an outpost there, and several private homes are available for rent. There is a campground, a bakery, and an all-inclusive rustic lodge called Stehekin Valley Ranch. As a reward and a thank-you to my sister, who is a more experienced and avid horsewoman than I, I arranged for us to take part in a memorable trail ride with the crew at the Ranch. A blurry photo from that day shows us with our horses, in hiking boots and filthy jeans, my sister sporting a then-stylish fanny pack, me with a bandana I later tied over my nose and mouth for relief from the dusty trail conditions, and both of us with short hair and big grins.

Waipi’o Canyon, Hawaii, 2011
After our Stehekin riding experience, my sister and I sought other opportunities to ride together. We live 1,100 miles apart, so riding together requires a bit of planning.

 Author Sally O’Neal (left) and Peggy O’Neal, Waipi’o Canyon, Hawaii, 2011.
Author Sally O’Neal (left) and Peggy O’Neal, Waipi’o Canyon, Hawaii, 2011.

In 2011, I had the opportunity to give a talk on the Big Island of Hawaii. Peggy was able to trade into a timeshare and join me there. So once again we found ourselves headed for a place of great natural beauty. We contacted Waipi’o Ridge Stables and selected their 1.5-hour Canyon Rim Ride. Upon arrival, we were immediately impressed by their beautiful horses, in amazing condition. We began by following a trail through a “forest” (actually a tree farm), soon arriving at the stunning (if slightly vertigo-inducing) canyon rim.

Waipi’o Valley spreads out some 2,000 feet below us, with its tidy taro patches and sugar cane fields creating a patchwork on the canyon floor. To our right, the froth of Waipi’o Beach could be seen. To our left, the upper plunge of Hi’ilawe, one of Hawaii’s highest and most beautiful waterfalls. The ride along the rim was breathtaking. Our guides, Duane and Roy, were top-notch, entertaining and informative. The photos from that day show the quality of our fine rental horses and both of us sporting the essential bandanas we learned about on the previous ride, plus hats to shade our eyes. The big grins remain the same.

Peggy O’Neal (left) and author Sally O’Neal, Irvine, California, 2015.
Peggy O’Neal (left) and author Sally O’Neal, Irvine, California, 2015.

Irvine Hills, California, 2015
It took another four years, but a recent trip from my home in Washington State to a conference near my sister’s home in Southern California afforded another opportunity to ride. Leaving the damp and cold of a Pacific Northwest January, I was excited to find Country Trails and Riding Academy in Orange, Calif. The stables are located in Irvine Regional Park, a 477-acre parcel replete with live oak and sycamore maples. A 2-hour ride in nearly perfect conditions (70°F and sunny) was a sure cure for any winter blues, and gave us a chance to see Peggy’s neck of the woods in a whole new light. The photos from that day show the usual changes in hairstyles and headgear, but those ever-present smiles tell the real story. Truth be told, I am happy for any amount of time I get to spend with my big sister, but doing so on horseback is a nice bonus.


Top Photo: Peggy O’Neal (left to right), Holly Ferguson, and Sally O’Neal at Waipi’o Canyon and Hi’ilawe Falls.


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