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Ramona

While in Ramona on an escape from city life a year ago, I unexpectedly ran into an old friend, Karen Webster, on one of the town's back streets. She was on her horse. At first I hardly recognized her high up in the saddle. She hadn't been around my San Diego neighborhood in probably six years. During those times she was struggling to free herself from a nasty relationship.

One day Karen disappeared from San Diego without telling anybody. On this bright morning in Ramona, she explained how she'd tricked her abusive partner and snuck away from him. To my knowledge, she hasn't seen him since.

Karen, who is 32, went to Ramona because she loves horses. Horse ranches of all sizes are everywhere in and around the community, and Karen found one that had a beat-up cabin being used only for storage. She talked the property's owner into letting her fix it up. Then she moved Pierre, her horse, up from Del Mar, where she had been keeping him in stables. He took over the pasture in back of her new digs.

Karen invited me on a tour of the ranch. When she whistled to Pierre from the pasture's fence, its old white paint peeling, he trotted to us and kicked up lots of dust as he came. His coat a deep brown color with a tinge of red, Pierre began sniffing for the celery he knew Karen had brought with her.

We then fed the chickens and returned to her tiny cabin, where a lame rottweiler dragged himself inside with us. "I'm trying to break him of jumping on the bed with me," said Karen. Though she had a new boyfriend who lived in Rancho Santa Fe, Karen said, "I would like to stay by myself on the ranch until I become an old lady."

That day I helped Karen lug home a hundred pounds of horse pellets off a huge stack of bags in Kahoots Feed & Pet Supply on Main Street. "We have baby chicks," the store advertised near its front door. Afterward we went for an omelet at Kountry Kitchen, also on Main. Two years ago the restaurant's owner, Doreen Harvey, received correspondence from a Country Kitchen chain of restaurants demanding that she change the name of her place. Harvey ignored them.

We made one final stop down the street in the Branding Iron store for Western wear and all things equine. A sign out front read, "Open when I'm here." Judy Eaton, who owns the store, said to me, "There are more horses in San Diego County than in the whole state of Texas." Meanwhile, Karen browsed, examining Stetsons, Western shirts, cowboy boots, horse blankets, bridle bits, reins, stirrups, and saddles. She wanted something to augment the outfitting she had for barrel-racing competitions she planned to enter in Ramona. Eventually she wanted to compete in the town's team roping events too.

But Karen's plans were cut short — at least temporarily. One night she drove herself to an emergency room complaining of terrible headaches. After puzzling a while over her suffering, doctors told her she had a brain inflammation caused by inhaling animal dander. She spent three weeks in the hospital. Then her boyfriend took her into his home for the year-long recovery doctors told her she faced.

I still like to drive into the East County hills to get away from city life. Though I haven't seen Karen again since she moved, I wouldn't be surprised if I spotted her riding her horse in Ramona again.

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