Big Apple

I spent nine years solid living alone on the road chasing motorhomes. Opportunities to create one-of-a-kind murals on motorhomes took me to an endless list of new places. My route went from River Ranch each winter to a multitude of motorhome rallies across the country from Michigan to Virginia, Missouri to Georgia and back again to Florida. At these get-togethers I met people who invited me to travel to their homes and businesses to create murals on their motorhomes. I enjoyed occasional quiet time with my horse up north in South Haven during the summer or down south in Sarasota near my circus friends.

Having the ability to place myself into the next opportunity that came along was a big reason for the success I enjoyed but was not the only one. What must also be apparent by now is that serendipitous events and gracious people influenced the twists and turns of this interesting life I have been blessed with.

One goal that just wouldn’t go away was performing with the circus. I always kept one eye out for quality circus companies. In New York City, a performing troupe started long ago to perform at the Lincoln Center under a big top each winter. The Big Apple Circus produced a unique program with quality acts for an equally impressive urban audience.

The increasing ability with my performing horse attracted the attention of Katja Schumann of the circus horse-training family from England. She presented several horse acts on the Big Apple Circus, including her dancing horse. She visualized producing a pas des deaux – two riders on two horses – as one act for the upcoming season. She wanted to talk with me about doing this.

When the Big Apple Circus was at its closest point to my tour, I was in Georgia. I planned to go and talk with Katja when the annual Blue Bird Wanderlodge Rally in the Valley was complete. This gave me an opportunity to give my latest acquisition a shakedown. I drove my improved Vanagon with the rebuilt engine and new paint job from nearby Columbus, up to Atlanta to meet Katja and to be her guest on the circus. My friends, Buckles and Barbara Woodcock had their elephants on the show. They also had a bunk in the cab of their semi where I could sleep. Alas, I had found another adventure.

I found the big top set up in a park alongside the river that threaded through an area of town. Then, I found a place to park. In the backyard of this big tented show I found the portable stable tent for the half dozen horses used for liberty presentations and Katja’s dancing horses. I fit right in to this familiar situation. As her guest, I enjoyed orientation with the horses. As show time neared, I helped as a groom until time came for me to go into the big top and enjoy the performance.

Her performance entered the realm of art, with elements not necessarily part of traditional circus entertainment or classic horsemanship, similar to how ballet tells a story through dance and music. Part of her act had two gentlemen in formal attire sitting at a table in the ring sipping tea. At a crucial point, she and her horse jumped over their table as the actors looked startled.

Later in the show, her liberty act of six horses worked in the ring that included a theatrical storefront with doors and windows.  During the routine, the horses went behind this prop, found a window to stick their head through and looked at us. After the prop was removed from the ring, the liberty horses demonstrated classic moves from this genre of the circus arts.

Between shows, I enjoyed one–on-one with Katja and her horse. Her style of riding greatly contrasted with what I had learned. Her horse commanded a more freewheeling style of moving around the circus ring since jumping, spinning, and the rear was part of her routine. My foundation with the classic seat gave me an advantage on her horse. She welcomed my demonstration and we shared ideas for our potential duet with horses.

Our conversation continued after the interview. She was hopeful about the upcoming season but had a concern. The Big Apple Circus was becoming sensitive to the emerging animal rights voice. Some activists were promoting an agenda for stopping the traditional part of the circus where animal trainers enrolled admirable behavior from their charges. Their efforts used ugly references for what happened to the animals not based on the truth. Because of that emerging concern, the show was leaning in the direction of having no animals in future performances. We vowed to stay in touch. I was naturally excited. Accomplishing a horse duet with her would be an extraordinary feather for my cap.

At the end of the day, I climbed into the sleeper bunk of Buckles elephant semi. I slept soundly after that intense day. Rain came down in the middle of the night, I was awakened in the morning by a rapid knock on the side of the truck.

“Dave! Get up!” Buckles son yelled, “there’s been a flood!” 

I looked out and saw Shannon standing in two feet of water. After pulling my pants and boots on, I jumped out into the water. I sloshed toward the high ground. I saw the area of the backyard, where the elephants and horses were stabled, had standing water. All the sawdust in the horse tent was soaked.

                The handlers and grooms were busy moving and calming the animals who had their routine disturbed.  Some water even reached the sides of the big top that was on higher ground. The water receded just as fast as it had come. Apparently, a thunderstorm upriver had triggered the sudden rise in the water level.

The grooms got busy and shoveled out the mess. Soon fresh sawdust would be restored and the normal feeding would resume while canvas, trunks and props were dried out. My original plan was to head south this morning. This reminder of the reality of life on the road punctuated what I already knew with a fresh reality.

I thanked my busy host who was now distracted while getting ready for the matinee. I jumped into the Vanagon to return to the Blue Bird company where a multitude of projects awaited. As I drove away from the natural disaster site that would be cleaned up by show time, I had another reminder of the vulnerability of the traveling showman.


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