All of the shepherds knew who Gibson's father was, and respected his breeder. When Steve Whetmore (the shepherd I read about in books and the first NEBCA member I ever emailed) said to people under the tent "Hey, this is a Riggs puppy!" my chest swelled. I am still a fly on the wall to many of them. I've never proven myself with a dog (failed one actually, as most know and I am still ashamed of) and never stepped on a trial field. But I haven't disappeared either. I have been around for three years come bad and good, and now I had a prospect. A dog that might very well make it to these fields as a competitor someday. And while rarely did a club member talk to me, they seemed to nod a little more, say good morning. And I took every bone that was thrown to me. I respect them and envy them more than they'll ever know.
I woke up to a thunderstorm yesterday. It made me so happy. I was 28, and comfortable in the lull of the box fan in my farmhouse. I was half-awake and listened to the rumbles, smiling like an idiot. I adore thunderstorms so much, you just can't know. It was the best gift a farm girl could have, and even though the day was to be overcast I didn't care: it was a day for a sheepdog trial. The heat wave had been sliced open by the storm. It was milder, and the rain a blessing.
I drove early that morning to the trial with Gibson shotgun beside me. I had been told pets could not come, but Gibson was not just a pet. He was my business partner, a regally-bred registered dog, and a someday herder. He would get in. I'd see to it. (He did. We walked right in like he was High in Trial. Take that, stupid website rules!)
I spent the first day of the two-day contest just watching and walking around with Gibson. It was my birthday, and I wanted to celebrate. There was no greater feeling than to be amongst these shepherds at the site of my first-ever-visited sheepdog trial with my own pup. I watched under the white tents while the rain came and went. The fog played with the tops of the trees and the competitors all hoped it wouldn't hit the fields and block their view of their dogs. I spent most of the day silent, sitting amongst the trialers listening. I watched dogs around me and how they never left their master's side. I looked down at Gibson between my feet, sleeping quietly and understood. I listened to the hot shots talk about their land and trucks. I talked to some folks who just came to watch. I wanted to help them get excited and understand. To them I might look like the real deal, but I identified much more to the fanny-pack-toting spectators from New Jersey than I did with the contestants. I was still green and clueless, I just happened to have come this far. I told them about sheepdog trials as if the World Cup never existed. This was the epitome of competition and sportsmanship: I bet I seemed crazy.
Eventually I worked up the nerve to talk ask Don McCaig if he would sign my copies of his books I stashed in my backpack. (Nops Trials, A Useful Dog, and Eminent Dogs Dangerous Men) Last year I kept his score on the trial field star-struck and nervous. McCaig is a NY Times bestselling novelist who writes about shepherding and lives on a giant farm in the southeast. He's the only person to ever write an approved sequel to Gone With the Wind. He keeps sheep, writes for a living, loves the history of the south and Civil War.... he's one of my heros.
He signed two of his books to me, and my copy of A Useful Dog to Gibson. What a guy.
Before I left for the day I stopped at the visitors' center and bought some lamb—which I took home and pan fried in cast iron with spices. I ate it over whole wheat pasta with marinara and garden basil. It tasted amazing: the rare lamb so moist and flavorful...the spices so rich. I had a Guinness and some chocolate cake to top it off and was grateful for the year. It was a great birthday.
But today I left the house at 7, and was at the post to work by 8. I had permission from the club to drive my truck right up to the main tents, so Gibson could be with me again while I worked and not far away in the parking lots. I parked right by the other NEBCA folks and felt a little more included in the scene. While I watched the trial he lay at my feet, but when I was down on the field keeping score he slept under the tailgate in the shade with a bowl of water. I remember looking at him, snoozing in the sun under the truck as I walked to the fields to keep score by the judge. Three years ago I had no truck, no sheep, no dog. Now I was (in a way) one of them. Most of the shepherds here had 50+ acres, 25+ sheep, and several collies. I had one pup, 6.5 acres (lawn-size to most of them), three sheep and a used truck. I still felt part of. What I had obtained may be meager to those with 25-ft-tall tractor, but it's mine.
The second day of the trial was hosted under sunny skies and I was there to help. I kept score all morning, writing down the points removed from the 100-pt perfect score all dogs and handlers start with. I kept time, chatted with the judge, and watched the pros at their paces. I braked for lunch, walked around with Gibson (sweaty and hot) and ran into some blog readers from New Hampshire. Bill and Nancy were gracious, and were kind to Gibson and said wonderful things about the blog. I was glad to meet him. I only wished he commented more so I knew who he was. I love it when folks chime back on here. It reminds me that I am writing to people and not my computer.
My afternoon was spent high above the trial field at the chutes. That photo at the top of this post shows you how high above the action I was. The white tent is where the spectators were. The smaller white tent is the judge's station I had been keeping score at earlier. And all that distance between them and the photographer was the trial field. A very large, hilly, and rough place to run a dog.
The chutes are the pens that hold the 60+ sheep (this trial ran Katahdins) which are released three at a time for the trial dogs. It was hot as hell. I spent a few hours wrestling ewes into pens and then letting them out onto the field. (Lanolin mixed with sun block to make a smell few can relate to, but I kinda enjoyed.) Then something kinda great happened amongst the sweat and angry sheep. A really attractive guy (a Merck staffer, 28, and tanned and built as a 1960's surf movie extra) was driving a red truck filled with water for the sheep. At first he mostly ignored me through polite conversation. But as the trial went on we got to talking about my farm, Gibson, sheep, border collies, and his role as the main farm worker at Merck. He seemed to think Cold Antler was cool and was impressed I was doing it alone. He too was managing Merck alone, so could relate (even if the scale was far greater). He said he wanted to rescue a border collie from a local organization and have it work the farm with him. He seemed interested in what I was saying, even though I looked like a horror. (I was covered in sweat, flushed, in a ripped shirt and blotchy from the sun). It was far from movie fireworks, and I have no idea if this guy is A) single, B) even remembers my name, or C) I'd even like him once I got to know him more. But I realized just a few days after asking for a man to come into my life I was leaning against the tailgate of my pickup watching a pastoral scene of heartbreaking beauty with a local man who was my age, loved sheep, and was dedicated to agriculture. I might never see him again, but the fact I was enjoying the trial around such amicable company did not go unnoticed. I smiled. And my blood is as red as any woman's.... (something about really tan farm guys with sandy blond hair and a love of sheepdogs kinda gets me.) I told him to google Cold Antler if he was ever online. He said it was a name he could remember.
By the by: I have gotten a few emails referring to my dating post, for those slightly interested. My scheme worked in getting a response, and who knows, maybe there will be a date or two?
On the way home from the trial I turned the wrong way and headed into Sandgate. It was the instinctual way to go since those backroads were the same ones I drove for two years buying hay for my sheep in Hebron while I lived in the cabin. It had been a few months since I really drove through Sandgate, and little things called out to me. I noticed farms with new animals I didn't recognize> I saw what had once been the raw frame of a barn's cupola was now being sided with red boards. Little changes, but enough to remind me it was no longer mine. I drove through the notch and it felt different than before, harder. It hurt a little.
But I do not miss Sandgate (or living Vermont) like I thought I would. Jackson and Cambridge are starting to feel like my own. People know my names in the bookstore and the in some town shops like Common Ground Cafe. I was asked to do a talk at Hubbard Hall in the fall, a place where authors like Jon Katz talk. And the farmers at Common Sense Farm wave to me when I drive by. It's still new, and I'm still a stranger with Vermont plates to most, but it is starting to feel like home.
And with all that, I'm saying goodnight. I'm sore and sunburned and tired. It's back to the office tomorrow, with its own stresses and such, and while I don't look forward to it I am glad for it. I must remember I am not a McCaig. I'm a girl with a day job, a used truck, a puppy, one mildly-sucessful book, and a very small farm. But I am happy. I like where I am. It's enough.