Reading Joy S. MillerUpton’s book “Journeys: Finding Joy on Horseback,” was a pleasant surprise. Admittedly the book’s premise – the author looks back on memorable horseback trail rides she has taken in her lifetime – didn’t seem at first blush to have the makings of a really ripping yarn. As it turns out, however, “Journeys” is a thoroughly engaging read from start to finish, by turns informative, touching and funny.
It helps that the writer, a long-time Hocking County resident, uses the six horseback journeys, taken over the space of three decades, as a frame on which to stretch a larger story of her life and times. It also helps that, as befits a former journalist (she has worked for The Athens Messenger and Newark Advocate, edited a trail riding magazine, and freelanced stories to national publications), she writes an uncluttered prose, direct and to the point, but rising to a simple eloquence when it’s called for.
Her recollections of adventures she’s had while chasing stories in the scribbler’s trade are by themselves almost worth the price of the book; they include making a failed attempt to interview one-time Ohio University student Paul Newman, and getting herself arrested and jailed so she could write about the experience.
She also skillfully weaves some bright and dark strands of local history into her tale, as when, traveling through Noble County, she vividly re-imagines a 1925 tragedy in which a huge U.S. Navy dirigible flying over the county was torn in pieces by a storm.
It becomes clear early on in the book that for MillerUpton the freedom, self-reliance and sense of exploration she feels while traveling with her horses on a long trail ride is one of the book’s, and her life’s, defining themes. Married just out of high school and the mother of two children not long after, she found herself looking for more, and at age 26, enrolled at Ohio University, graduating with a journalism degree in 1973.
Divorced by that time from her first husband, she took the first horseback journey chronicled in her book that same year, with her 13-year-old son and her loyal dog, Perky, along for the ride.
As the book progresses the reader can watch the author growing more ambitious and capable. She runs into some dicey situations on the trail, like a middle-of-nowhere encounter with a creepy old man who propositions her in lewd and graphic terms; and some bona fide disasters, including – not making this up – getting run over by a dune buggy. She even goes out looking for our friend Bigfoot at one point.
Where it fits into the narrative, she shares insights she’s gained into herself, other people, family, forgiveness and more, which have the feel of honestly learned lessons.
Even readers who, like this reviewer, find horses more enjoyable to look at than to sit on, may enjoy and even learn something from MillerUpton’s practical accounts of the logistics of traveling long distance via quadruped. A frank discourse on the best squatting technique for a human to employ while doing what bears do in the woods, for example, seems as though it might come in quite handy under the right circumstances.
As the author pieces together the memories of her long-ago rides, she reaches out to other people who were involved with them at the time, and their voices and versions of shared events add extra dimensions to the story. She wraps up the book with a personal message of thanks to the humans and animals that she’s shared her time with; it’s sweet without being sticky.
There’s more, much more, to this book; some of its best material, for example, is in MillerUpton’s accounts of the Appalachian people she meets in her travels, many of whom extend her a generous helping hand as the most natural act in the world. It leaves the reader with a good feeling. “Journeys” is published by the Buchtel-based Monday Creek Publishing, and is also available from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
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