"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

Into a troubled life came riding saviors — and music

By on June 25, 2019 in Arts with 0 Comments
Eli merrily played her fiddle on a cold afternoon last December at one of her favorite busking spots on North Wenatchee Avenue. Bad weather can’t keep her from her rounds; she’ll always raise a smile and start some toes a-tapping. Photo by Mike Irwin

By Susan Lagsdin

Horses and music, music and horses — how better to sooth the troubled soul of a girl who might have headed nowhere, or worse? 

And, with those loves grown into twin proficiencies, what better way to live your life? 

EliAnn Oakes, who’s been deeply immersed in both worlds for about 25 years, acknowledges they were at first therapy and release for her but evolved into a platform for her unique brand of success. She said, “Whatever I can do to help people I want to do. You can empower a lot of people with horses, and you can make a lot of people happy with music. 

“This is a rags to riches story… riches of the soul,” Eli, 33, declared before she started recounting her painful and necessary steps from severe abuse as a toddler, into a blooming high school career, through illnesses and incapacity, and on to hopeful adulthood. 

She credits her life and her talents to her adoptive parents, with whom she lives again in East Wenatchee, four especially loving adult mentors and — she is steadfast in her praise — the love of God.

The horse life happened first. Unable to function well in her elementary school classroom, Eli seemed calm around animals, so her parents turned to Cathy Juchmes at Turning Point Equine Therapy at Appleatchee for help. There she thrived, learned and matured, every blessed Tuesday, over four years of assisted lessons. 

As a teenager, after meeting horse owner Kathy Lambert (serendipitously, but with help from her assertive mother) Eli found a loving friend and mentor who gave her the freedom of a good horse to ride any time. 

By 20, she was back as a volunteer trainer with Juchmes, matching needful kids with helpful mounts and improving her own skills with dressage lessons, showing a bit, eventually training horses. 

New complications from old pre-adoption injuries kept her out of the saddle until she was 25. But then, Eli purchased her first horse. It seems fitting that her choice was an abused mare, one who’d suffered at the hands of humans but showed potential. 

“She was a bay quarter horse, and she was my dream. And move? Oh, she floated!” Her eyes sparkle at the memory. 

Her riding’s on hold for a while, but Eli’s love for her first very own horse, “Irish,” a trustworthy quarter horse mare, is undiminished. Her work with horses has extended from training to equine massage and chiropractic.

“Irish” is waiting safely at her sister’s place in Chelan for a few years while Eli restructures her life and lays the foundation for the melding of her two great passions.

Back to the beginning, where her love of music grew simultaneously with her love of horses. 

On a third-grade field trip to another school, she was captivated by the fiddling of music teacher Betty Ritter’s strings students. (“A fiddle is a violin with attitude,” explained Eli). 

She signed up for violin lessons, and Betty realized Eli was almost a savant: the rest of the class was to pluck Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star with their fingers, and instead little Eli nuanced it with her bow, like a pro. She soon easily replicated Boil Them Cabbage Down, the first fiddle song she ever heard. 

When Betty brought her star fourth grader to a bluegrass concert at the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center, the room was filled with horse art, saddles and other frontier icons, and Eli said, “I felt like my soul was home. I think I was born 100 years too late.” 

That exact combination of joyful, sassy old-time fiddle music and the heady representation of early ranch life helped shape Eli’s future.

Even more compelling was her relationship with bluegrass fiddler Carol Boyle, who she met there and who remained a strong support of Eli’s prodigy until her death. 

“She’d give me CDs of famous bluegrass tunes, and I’d just listen and learn four or five at a time,” said Eli. Carol’s 2012 Christmas gift to her was a battered but restored violin (Giovani Maggini 1681) that Eli treasures, along with her mentor’s faith in her. 

As a young teen, playing at the Farmer’s Market and the Cashmere Bluegrass Festival and jamming with other local bluegrass musicians, Eli’s repertoire and skill grew. She’s parlayed that ease and lifelong love of performance into a very public art.

If you’ve seen the local movie ads for our city bus (“I’m Eli, and Link Transit is how I move….” is the tag line), you’ve seen how she helps support herself these days. 

Though she’s invited to play music for special occasions like birthdays and weddings, and she visits classrooms and nursing homes, her daily pleasure comes from fiddling for strangers on a few choice Wenatchee sidewalks, touching their lives for a few minutes with tunes from another time that could make a strong man weep and make anybody want to dance.

“You wouldn’t believe the special moments that have happened out on the streets — some related to the music, some because… well, because I was there, and someone needed me.” 

She once coaxed a little girl, a beginning violinist, to learn a new way of fingering the strings, and saw her eyes light up. (The grateful mother left a tip in Eli’s violin case, a $100 bill.) 

A man leaving a nearby store, whose fiddle-playing daughter would have been just Eli’s age, had she lived, called his wife to drive from home and listen with him to the music and cry for their loss. 

She learned how to evoke other instruments’ sounds on her single fiddle. (Jerusalem Ridge has a definite klezmer sound.) 

When one man praised her Irish and English folk songs, “from home,” he said, she recognized the brogue and delighted him by going one better, playing Scotland the Brave complete with the evocative drone of bagpipes. 

So, how is this going to turn out? What’s the rest of the story? 

Eli looks fearlessly at her future. Influenced by community-serving parents, she’s formalized her need to “serve and protect.” She’s taken first responder and CPR courses, will soon start search and rescue training and has talked with local law enforcement about developing equine rescue teams. 

That folds into a plan that Eli has imagined, sketched and described for years, one that’s created ripples of interest from others: it’s a small ranch, somewhere up north in the Okanogan, where she trains horses and the people who love them in an environment filled with bluegrass music. 

It’s a complicated, very simple dream, it’s a too-high goal and a real possibility, somewhat like Eli’s life, and she’s already named it: Hope Family Ranch.

To find out more about Eli’s horses, music and other surprising arts, start with that1fiddleplayer on Facebook.

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