Moonlight in Vermont has been one of my favorite rides for a very long time.

It was my first 100 mile ride with Ned in 2005. We finished near maximum time, and wiser, we came back to finish it hours earlier the following year.

It was Ace’s second 100, ridden by Rachel, but a shorter ride for Sarge that day, who took a couple of wonky steps on trail at around Mile 40, prompting me to Rider Option, worrywart that I am.

Iggy has done the 50 there, and he was on his way to handily finishing the 75 when motion sickness from a headlamp caused me to drop out at O&H, just 12 miles from the finish. It was my first Rider Option that was not horse-related, and more than a little humbling to be on my hands and knees vomiting at the vet check.

It is a stunningly beautiful ride past breathtaking homes, with amazing views, magical with all of the runners, and tough. Definitely tough.

It’s not just the elevation change in Vermont, although that is significant. It is the concussive nature of the ride, much of it on gravel or hard-packed roads. If you opt to only walk the downhills, you’re likely to have trouble completing by the maximum time. (This is especially true for Dunkin, who does not have a naturally fast walk.)

I’ve turtled, I’ve top tenned. For years I planned my entire ride season around what I was intending to do at Vermont. If you planned your wedding for that date, you were going to get a “I’m sorry, no” on the RSVP and a generous gift in an attempt to make up for my absence. (With apologies to Cousin Jimmy.)

With all of the change and challenge the last few years, I’ve been unable to get there. This year I put it on the calendar and started planning.

Biltmore LD, 30 miles of Dunkin reminding me that he’s fitter than me. As is his tendency, he was Captain Obnoxious at the vet checks, but all business on trail.

I’ve been heading to the Woods, going up and down every hill, cantering the Ridge Mile Track. Beth has been doing bodywork on Dunk, pleased with his progress, me making changes after each treatment to avoid undoing all of her hard work.

Dunk has finished the 75 at Vermont in third place with his former owner, Ande, so I know he’s perfectly capable of doing the ride, and at a healthy clip.

But the missing puzzle piece has been long, hard climbs and joggable downhill trail to train on with Dunk. Dunk lives in the south now, land of sand footing and mildly hilly trail, if we seek it out.

Enter South Mountain. I was supposed to go condition with Angie McGhee on her local trails, but the hot/humid forecast and the notion of driving through Atlanta in that extreme weather prompted me to look at a Plan B. Laurie Underwood recommended South Mountain, and I reached out to Lara Worden immediately for the inside scoop.

I’d be traveling solo, riding solo and camping solo, but it was a good challenge for what I have planned for the rest of this year, a couple of long road trips out west, so I saw it as a good stepping stone. All a part of my “Ride More, Work Less” mission.

[At some point, Tom asked me if my PCS team would be okay if I were gone for a week or two and out of touch. I laughed and laughed and said they’d be so much better without me around, superheroes at keeping the wheels on the business, such as they are. Isn’t that the whole point of building a great team?]

I opted for the two-lane GPS route for the drive to South Mountain, roughly 3.5 hours door to door, arriving at about 10:30 am. The new trailer has a camera so I can keep an eye on Dunk while we travel, and I must say I like watching him munch on his mash or pull alfalfa from his hay bag.

We had the campground nearly to ourselves, and I’m proud to say I backed the trailer into the camping spot, sort of a parallel parking deal, like a boss. (This is not a brag I can make often, so please let me have my moment.)

My sweet little rig. Note those handy new toolboxes!

We were able to get in 11 miles the first afternoon, selecting one of the loops Lara recommended. Challenging, up and down, and in some cases, rocky trail. It was just perfect for preparing for Vermont. It was hot and humid, but it was surprisingly windy, not just breezy at the top of the climb, which was lovely.

What a view!

I rode Dunk in my Albion dressage saddle, carefully assessing how he moved, especially downhill. I love that saddle. I mean, I swing a leg over and it feels like going home. It fits him really well, thanks to Emma’s tweaks, and it was a good workout. He didn’t drink at the only creek crossing. (Note to self: electrolyte a little harder.) I also didn’t drink or electrolyte enough myself. It was warm when we finished up and I enjoyed soaking my own head after cooling Dunk down. I felt okay but I knew if it had been a longer loop, I was skirting the edge. (Note to self: electrolyte a little harder.)

Day One, check.

Dunk got some hand grazing, and didn’t seem the least bit concerned that it was just him and me. He had me, he had food and water, life was good. He’s such a great camper and a natural traveler.

Why yes, Mom, I like you better when you are taking me grazing! Nomnomnom

Day Two, I swapped out saddles to the Barefoot London. Like the Albion, it fits Dunk well, but since it’s treeless, I have to be super-conscientious about riding even and level. I adjusted everything, attached my sponge (which I haven’t used in a long time with Dunkin), and thought I’d test if the London would stay in place with just my oh-shit-strap, since using that as well as the breastcollar would be a whole lotta tack up front.

I opted for an out-and-back, wanting to ensure I got packed up and on the road before it got too blistering hot. We opted for Raven Rock trail, which was technical, with steps at the top. When we turned onto the trail, Dunk hesitated, questioning me, “You sure?” “Yep.” He handled the stairs with grace. Both up and down.

The saddle stayed in place beautifully and I noticed that Dunk’s movement was freer downhill in the London. A much bigger walk, and generous offers of “Hey, can we trot this, Mom?” from Dunk. Signs that this is the saddle I should start in at Vermont, with the Albion lovingly packed in the truck as a just-in-case option.

We did a lot of what I call “jiggy jogging” downhill. This can be a challenge. You’re doing everything you can to minimize concussion, so the idea is to get the horse balanced back enough that they’re coiling their hind legs to step down, sort of floating their front end ahead of them, as opposed to traveling on their forehand, pounding those already vulnerable front limbs.

The way I school it is this: Dunk is responsible for his front half, and my job is to stay upright and soft and out of his way, to make it as easy as possible for him to step through behind and his back raised and soft. I can only describe it as a Dressage Queen channeling Gumby. Or maybe Gumby channeling a DQ? I can say without question that I will know I have calves and hamstrings and ab muscles the day after Vermont.

Any workout types out there have suggested workouts/moves for the Gumby DQ Downhill Challenge between now and the ride?

Dunk drank at every creek crossing and at each one I sponged him, testing his patience and the ants-in-his-pants that is his very nature. Riding solo, without another soul around, I was especially careful about my sponge leash and my safety. This involved reins in one hand, sponge in the other (doing the yo-yo thing one-handed, with the sponge entirely detached from my saddle) and my fly whisk held between my teeth. Getting things tangled up is one over-reaction away from a disaster, and a wet one at that. Dunk is just reactive enough that I’m not inclined to be careless about such things.

I also drank more water, and I can tell you that jiggy-jogging downhill with a full bladder is not my idea of a good time, but I took one for the team.

The trails themselves were absolutely gorgeous, and I exhaled several times and enjoyed all of the beautiful flowers and the greener-than-green forest, and a couple of does we startled out of the woods.

Dunk often has no “go home” walk. When we hack around at home, he’ll select a turn away from the barn almost always, given the choice. (The only other horse I had like that was Sarge, and those are some pretty big EasyCare shoes to fill.)

Last week I proved this to Kathy when we rode a couple of hours at the Woods together. When we hit the gate to the parking area, Dunk turned left to head back out. I do love a quirky horse, and this one is all of that and more.

The new trailer is perfect for me and I’m getting the hang of what I want to keep where, how to stash everything for travel, still figuring out the doors and latches, which everyone with a LQ trailer knows is always a bit of a struggle initially. The best of #firstworldproblems.

Tom installed two tool boxes on the flatbed for me, which is fabulous, and the water tanks get installed before I head to Vermont. I swear Tom gets more excited about these improvements than me, as I tend to be a “good enough” girl in matters of vehicle upgrades and such. However, I have to admit that this rig has become a sweet little ride. (Have Buffalo Bills license plate, will travel.)

Upon arriving home, the last jigsaw puzzle piece fell in place.

Dom and Mike Turner have agreed to crew for me, and I could not be more excited. Dom is a horse trainer, so I know she’ll be right on top of Dunk’s conduct at the holds. She and Mike are fixtures at many of the Northeast rides, with her competing and the pair often acting as official Ride Photographers. Dom messaged me to say she “thrives on chaos.” I mean, what else does a rider need to hear? I’ve asked for a list of their favorite snacks and beverages so we can be all stocked up — one must take excellent care of one’s crew.

And yes, I’m working on my Taking Care of Team Carey document, as well as figuring out my labeling system for containers! (This is where I put the hyphen in anal-retentive.)

Beth is set to come out for one more body work session, Elise is set to keep Dunk loose while I’m out of town next week, and Keith is locked and loaded to put EasyCare Versas on Dunk the week prior to the ride. Layovers set with the Hilliards, which will be perfect, and we’ll arrive in town a day early to give Dunk time to settle in, rehydrate and relax, camping at the Blittersdorfs.

As usual, such adventures are best accomplished by involving the entire tribe, and this one is no different. I cannot wait to have time with my endurance people at this ride; Pam and Rachel and Lisanne and too many people I haven’t seen in far too long.

Certainly, something could go wrong between now and then. Such is life.

But what, ohmygoodness, what if they go right!?