How my dreams and journey through a life dancing with cancer led me there.
By Elisa Keena
This past weekend, I saw my lifelong childhood dream become a reality. I was on the range surrounded by wild horses. It was a MAGICAL, healing experience so filled with feeling and emotions, words have a hard time capturing it … and not just for me. Everyone I share the pictures and story with is deeply moved by the beauty and majesty of these icons of our American heritage. It speaks to a part of the soul, conjuring up a time from our romantic past when we were all free in some way and had the space to run wild.
I want to thank Deb Walker and Mary Cioffi and everyone at Pine Nut Wild Horse Advocates for being perfect tour guides; they are angels living here on earth. They introduced all the members of the wild horse bands and explained their family genealogies and described their personality traits. They told stories of who was related to whom, as brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, or cousins, and their very human-like social interactions. I come from a large extended family, so I get it! Also great thanks to my friend Rosanna who trusted my vision and accompanied me on this trip, and on many other adventures, to help me follow my dreams.
As they drove us around the range in “Fancy” (the name fondly given to their truck), they educated us about range protection, why it is so important, and how to work with other advocates and groups that utilize the range for recreation, enjoyment of their hobbies, or just to get away from it all. They explained why it is so vital to keep the range healthy enough to support life and to show the BLM that the horses are NOT damaging the range. They took great care of us, just as they do for all our wild horses and the range they call home in the Pine Nut Mountains.
They even arranged an amazing lunch for us sitting in the hills surrounded by wild horses! I told them that this adventure had been on my bucket list for quite a while, for as long as I could remember, maybe even for as long as I breathed.
From what my doctors tell me, the time I have left to check off the items on my bucket list is dwindling and will run out in the near, not far, future.
So, when I saw the Lake Tahoe Wild Horse Adventure available last October 19th on the Bently Foundation-sponsored Wild Night Gala online auction to benefit the American Wild Horse Campaign (AWHC), I smiled and started to giggle a bit to myself!
There it was – right in front of me. My dream sent to me by my angels through modern technology! Who would believe me? I so hoped I was going to win it. It was serendipity; it was fate! Especially since the 19th was my niece’s birthday and also marked the one-year anniversary of my emergency brain surgery for a metastatic tumor. It was in the stars.
When I received notification that I had won I was filled with gratitude and excitement! I got the email from Grace Kuhn at AWHC and it was 1, 2, 3 – completed and reserved! Everyone was so amazing! I started talking about it to anyone who would listen and became even more active in my emails, calls and petitions. I was wound up and rearing to go where my dreams have always taken me in good times and bad… Into the Wild.
From my earliest memories, I have been enthralled with horses. I had a rocking horse that I rode all day, and I collected horse and unicorn statues. I drew horses constantly, always wishing to be the Native American riding bareback over the open plains with the wind blowing through her hair. I spoke of horses so much my parents considered getting me one of my very own, but when I turned 13 my life forever changed. My innocence was swept away with a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s disease and a barrage of doctors’ appointments, surgeries, and radiation treatments.
Despite what my doctors said, I overcame my cancer and my next major life change didn’t come until I was 18.
I had continued to pursue my love of horses by taking riding lessons in college. One day I went out with my sister and a friend to ride at a new barn. The day was going along beautifully, when out of nowhere dirt bikes came screeching around the trail and my horse “Mickey,” having an independent nature, took off. In that moment I realized that I had forgotten to re-check the girth of my saddle before I mounted, and I began to fly around that saddle like the Paul Revere cartoon.
I almost had him reigned in, almost gained my composure, when off I went! I had broken my femur. For the next 3-5 years I dealt with surgeries, metal rods, pain, and physical therapy. But I would not let that deter me. Just two years after that, I got back in the saddle while in Sedona, Arizona.
Fast-forward a few years. At age 32, I was now a nutritionist treating many types of diseases, using both holistic and traditional principles for mind, body, and spirit healing. I had been cancer free for 10 years when I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
I chose to have a lumpectomy and holistic tratments – and nothing else. The doctors told me, “If you don’t listen to us, you’ll be gone in 5 years!” I just smiled and thought to myself, “No one is going to tell me when to die” – and kept dancing and dreaming.
I honestly can’t remember how many lumpectomies I wound up having over the years. It had to be around 10 – every year small amounts of the cancer would come back; but I was surviving.
In 2001, my mom was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer that had spread to her brain. I remember walking on the beach and having a long discusion with my maker. I could not afford to be sick now; I had to take care of my mother.
My mom always encouraged me to follow up on the things I loved, not to let them sit too long, because “you never know.” After she passed, I decided to really live, not just survive – it would be what she wanted for me.
So that’s what I did. I learned how to play the harp, took French and Italian lessons, visited National Parks, the Pyramids, the temple of Philae. I saw Le Printemps by Botticelli in the Uffizi in Florence, went to a carnival in Venice, rode horses and camels in Petra. I drove through the highlands of Scotland and drank Talisker Scotch wiskey on the island of Skye. I went on safari in Kenya to the Masi Mara and walked with the Masi. I saw the Tower of London and went to Amersterdam for the Van Gogh 20-year anniversary. I took eco-voluntourism trips to Costa Rica to teach yoga at a school we were fundraising for, and jumped in the ocean with the polar bears to raise funds for Make-A-Wish.
I hiked the red rocks of Sedona, with the memories of the times I’d been there with my mom. I fell in love with Lake McDonald in Montana and purchased a rental condo, rescued a 3-legged abused pit bull named Hope (I gave her a middle name of Pandora – she was always into something!), who saved me more than I saved her. And, I even climbed the Cliffs of Moher so my mom could finally get to go there through me. I completed all of these bucket list items, but I still hadn’t seen the wild horses running free.
During these years of great adventure, the cancer became metastatic – first to the bones, then to the liver. I tried many different biological or hormonal treatments. Each time I would hear the same thing from my doctors, “If you don’t listen to us you will be gone in 3 to 5 years.” I would just smile and keep on dancing, swirling, twriling and dreaming.
About 3 years ago, I had to stop working and slow down.
With my new free time, I read up on the wild horse issue. I started to follow, visit and support sanctuaries. I put my legislators, the BLM, the Department of the Interior and the White House on speed-dial. I called, I wrote, I annoyed, and I participated in fundraisers. It helped to make me feel useful. You have no idea unless you have been there, what you are capable of accomplishing at 2 AM, on massive doses of steroids for a brain tumor!
I think people signed my petitions just to keep me quiet, which was almost impossible. What was hard for me to believe was that I had done this when I was a child and here I was, years later, still fighting for what almost every American wants – to keep wild horses wild. To permanently stop the roundups and empty BLM holding pens by humanely controlling heathy populations while maintaining genetic diversity. And stop the transport of our horses to other countries for slaughter!
It was around this time that I began following AWHC and Pine Nut Wild Horses Advocates. I was captivated by Blue, Socks, Little Socks, Samson, and their families. So when I saw the trip to tour the Pine Nut wild horse herds offered on the online auction, I knew that was where I finally was going to see the wild horses run on the hills. I actually was going to stand on the range surrounded by wild horses.
The day we traveled from New York to Nevada I was ill from the medications. I couldn’t make the walk to the airport gate. I had to ask for a wheelchair, as the distance was simply too far. That was crushing for me – the harsh reality that the dance seemed to be slowing to a waltz. The one thing that kept me going was the fact that I was on the plane; I was finally going see the wild ones. I was going to see them in person, hear them, and feel the wind streaming in my hair.
That day on the range, as I said at the beginning of this story, was magical! Everything was perfect! All the bands were out.
We got to see almost everyone. My friend Rosanna and I had brought all this photography equipment with us, but it was a comedy of errors. She forgot the battery, I didn’t know how to use some of the settings, or format the card, or use the monopod, or even how to turn the flash off! But everything came together and we had a lovely day with Deb and Mary. We met some of their friends out there – Pam, and Nancy, and a woman who had cancer 3 years ago, who comes every year to be healed by the horses. And despite our photographic short-comings, we got some great shots. They said the horses seemed to like our energy and allowed us to get closer than usual. The evening ended when we went to dinner at a place on the Lake where they had live music, great wine, and amazing food. The first song we heard was Sweet Caroline (which was my grandmother’s favorite song), then we heard Three Times a Lady (one of mom’s favorites), followed by Mr. Bojangles (I used to stay up every night to hear that song!). My ancestors had come to walk on the range with me!
My mom knew I had made my dream become a reality and she approved. I told the singer about my experience and he sang a special song for me – Wildfire:
She comes down from Yellow Mountain
On a dark, flat land she rides
On a pony she named Wildfire
With a whirlwind by her side
On a cold Nebraska night
Oh, they say she died one winter
When there came a killing frost
And the pony she named Wildfire
Busted down its stall
In a blizzard he was lost
She ran calling Wildfire
By the dark of the moon I planted
But there came an early snow
There's been a hoot-owl howling by my window now
For six nights in a row
She's coming for me, I know
And on Wildfire we're both gonna go
We'll be riding Wildfire [x3]
On Wildfire we're gonna ride
Gonna leave sodbustin' behind
Get these hard times right on out of our minds
As I listened, I remembered being sick at 13 and singing Wildfire and crying … knowing that one day, just like in the song, that hoot owl was going to come for me too. I remember belting out the song in defiance. I’ll be riding wildfire someday too.
Now as I sit at home looking at pictures of the amazing experience I had filled with so much joy and emotion it reminds me of my motto:
“Everyone Dies but Not Everybody Really Lives”
I certainly have chosen to live. As the pictures from that day roll across my screen, I can take a deep breath and feel the soil under my feet, smell the sage brush, see the mountains and hills filled with flowers and horses. The hoot owl may come back for me soon, as well as for any of us, so live your dreams. Don’t procrastinate!
I have been so blessed. My life has been so magical and as I begin to fade or need more rest, I will close my eyes and send my spirit to run free in the Pine Nut Mountains.
I will hear Harley calling to play with a friend, see Jack skipping around, sweet Charlotte napping. See Blondie, majestic and powerful, with Samson and Blue. See the Bachelors showing off and playing just like typical teenagers. And Luna scratching her back.
But mostly, I envision Shorty. Majestic, fierce, beautiful cheekbones, wild and free. And I know Shorty saw me that day. He calls to me to join him in the canyons and I will send my spirit to join him. I just hope he likes the spirit of Hope, my dog, too!
I am reminded of a Viking prayer from the 13th warrior, about the Saga of Beowulf:
Lo, there do I see my father
Lo, there do I see my mother and my sisters
and my brothers
Lo, there do I see the line of my people back
to the beginning
Lo, they do call to me
They bid me take my place among them in the hills of the Pine Nut Mountains where the brave may run free forever.
We can check another one off the bucket list.
AWHC Note: Special thanks to Pine Nut Wild Horse Advocates, The Bently Foundation, and Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort for their generosity in making this trip possible, and much love and peace to Elisa - her courageous journey through life is an inspiration to us all.