Back In The Saddle: Laura Chester Rides Out the Storm of Transition
All photos courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books
By Nichole Dupont
Laura Chester does not like to dwell in the past, especially her own. That’s why the veteran author and horsewoman decided to write a book about it; to get some of that stuff out. But make no mistake, Riding Barranca, Chester’s latest memoir (Trafalgar Square Books, May 2013), is not a melancholy, regrettable foray into a crappy childhood seen through the bitter eyes of a jaded author. It is a journey — both geographical and metaphorical — surveyed through the high-up lens of a wise woman on horseback; one whose greatest solace and joy stem from her daily jaunts through known and unknown territory. Whether it is negotiating the rugged terrain of the Canelo Hills or repairing a broken relationship with her dying mother, Chester chronicles the hurt and healing balm of a whirlwind year all with the help of her larger-than-life equines.
“It’s important not to live your life as a mistreated child,” Chester says in a phone interview from her Patagonia, Arizona, ranch where she rides out the winter months until returning to the family home in Alford, Massachusetts. “You need to retrain yourself from childhood to a certain degree. You work it out. Just like you work out the kinks with a horse. You move on bit by bit.”
Chester will be sharing some of her story on Saturday, June 1, at the Geoffrey Young Gallery at 40 Railroad Street in Great Barrington in conjunction with an exhibit aptly entitled The Goddess. Of course, this story wasn’t the easiest to write.
“I had a totally different manuscript that I gave to my brothers to look at,” she says. “They were pretty angry about it and had a strong, negative reaction. After my dad died he left 83 scrapbooks behind and they were pretty revealing. I decided not to use that information in the final manuscript. It’s not a tell all. That’s not what I wanted to do.”
What Chester did do was intertwine her various riding expeditions, particularly on the back of her favorite Missouri Fox Trotter horse, Barranca, with snippets of memory from her childhood growing up in Wisconsin and her dealings with her late mother’s Alzheimer’s disease. The result is a memoir that spans years and continents, all revealed with a calm rhythm, just as if you were on a trail ride, lost in thought.
“I felt that combining the two was a natural way to integrate the whole story,” she says. “There is this underlying anger that I had to work through. And usually, I work through a lot when I’m riding and away from everything else. I figured it was about time that I came to some peace with my mom.”
That tenuous peace is outlined in the italicized sections of the book, in which Chester dips into past recollections about her father’s careless behavior and her mother’s snake-strike anger. But the author doesn’t reside in these moments for too long. Everything comes back to center when she is with Barranca, whether tackling the Guajolote Flats (in Arizona) where drug smugglers (and rattlesnakes) are known to hide or enjoying the silence of a snow-covered Berkshire forest. There is also a delightful bit of unpretentious name-dropping: Vogue it-girl Arizona Muse; Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Phil Caputo; Legends of the Fall author Jim Harrison — all neighbors and longtime riding companions. And travel, too, as she globe trots (literally) to visit her son and grandchildren in Australia, take a family vacation to India, and a ladies’ sojourn to Mexico. At each place, Chester jumps on an equine, testing out cultures by the view from the saddle.
“I’m not pretending to be this magnificent horsewoman,” she says, laughing a little at herself. “There’s always so much to learn. All of my horses have gotten better in time – more settled. Not that different from us. If we’re treated right.”