By the time the horse-pulling contest had started, it was close to midday, and clusters of onlookers were tucking themselves under the few patches of shade to avoid the sun.
On the far end of the field, the city had parked a backhoe with its long mouth stretched out toward the end of one of the horse trailers and had dispatched a man to make sure no one got too close to the teams. Often weighing in at 2 tons apiece, a simple misstep by one of these otherwise gentle giants could kill a child in a second.There were teams in the competition from all over the state and a few from Idaho. Their rigs were parked at crooked angles, with workhorses tied to the sides while their owners went through the meticulous ritual of putting on the harnesses.
The harnesses alone were heavy for one man to handle, with thick black leather, stippled with polished brass and riveted trim. Massive leather blinders on bridles had the same effect that sunglasses do on people. Being unable to look into the eyes of the horses lent an added mystique to their personality and power.
Long reins trailed back through the harnesses to the driver, assisted by two or three others, who handled the doubletrees and kept them from dragging.
This whole menagerie of man and beast would arch around the stone boat like an ocean liner going in a sharp turn; the men on the lines would swing into the head of the skid and hook up the team while the driver coaxed the horses to be patient.
You could tell the horses knew what was expected of them. Their legs danced like pistons as they held back nervously in their traces.
In the field to the south, droning helicopters were constantly landing and taking off, taking people for rides out over the low hills. Their clattering blades added to the tension, probably making the horses more nervous than usual.
Suddenly there would be a loud pop as the team hit the lines, and the stone boat would slowly lurch forward on its skids, loaded down with steel weights that could reach as much as 8,000 pounds.
The drivers would coax the huge animals on with their own private language of commands, drawn up from their throats as from a deep well - a heavy guttural heaving of sound, a pleading, almost mournful wailing - a farmer's wailing - and the horses would sink down in their haunches, like engines bursting, pumping, thrusting and pumping again, so it felt like they would strain themselves into explosion, or that a line would snap, sending them suddenly lurching forward, knocking over trucks, bleachers, people and mountains in their wake.
From the edges of this spectacle, we knew we were witnessing the ecstatic yet dwindling relics of an era that over the past generation has faded from the landscape. Yet, a few connoisseurs of the ancient traditions - the proud owners of these magnificent beasts - have made it possible to witness their power and beauty.
This is what horsepower was.
Churning the timidly mowed grass, horsepower, for a few brief hours, reeked in the air. With such unassumingly poetic names as Bob and Dick and Nip and Tuck, the beautiful bay-colored, brown and gray-peppered teams tossed their heads to the heavens before our eyes, stirring images of antique powers.
Somewhere, deep in our collective consciousness, a familiar chord was struck and a long-forgotten pride rekindled in the fusion of spirit between animal and man, a relationship that dominated the civilized world for thousands of years before anyone ever heard the sound of a piston engine.