Friday, May 3, 2013

Tour of the Battenkill (Farm Girl Style): Part 1

Every spring there’s a big event here in Washington County, The Tour of the Battenkill Bike race. Bicyclists from all over the country convene here with their army of fans and followers to participate in a 120-mile course through our farmland. It’s both an amateur and professional endeavor, with weekend warriors and famous cyclists alike. For a few days the sleepy town of Cambridge becomes a festival, and thousands of people in very tight clothing driving extremely clean hatchbacks take over. I’m not a cyclist, motor or otherwise, and so I generally cut the town a wide berth that weekend. I can avoid the hubbub, but not the race. Three thousand people weaving through a hundred back roads in every direction is hard to avoid unless you want to spend the entire weekend in your living room. Even then there’s a good chance you’ll see a pack (or seven) speed by your property. They are unavoidable.

Not that cyclists should be avoided, mind you. I may not be a fan but I do respect their verve. It’s not every human being who wakes up and says, “Hey, Today I am going to travel over a hundred miles across the landscape without an engine of any sort!” As someone who is beside herself with satisfaction if she manages a three-mile jog, the amount of physical dedication that must take floors me. Just because their spandex freaks me out doesn’t mean they aren’t the next step in human evolution. Any fool can see that. I mean, have you ever met a 60-120 mile a day cyclist?! They are in wicked good shape, tawny and lithe as Amish pre-teens, calm as monks, pleasant to chat with, smart as whips, and can drink like fish. Laugh at their tiny shorts all you want, they are winning the gene pool game hands down.

It was on this celebrated weekend that my friend Patty had an idea. She thought it would be fun to take our horses and carts out among the race on an 8-mile round trip for ice cream. We could watch the cyclists go by, waving from the buckboards as they peddled madly toward the finish line. It would be exciting, and fun to show off our fancy horses in harness, too. And what city slicker wouldn’t love the country charm of watching their spouse pump past a horse and cart on their weekend rural race? So it was settled, we were going to harness up and step out for the big race. We rallied some friends, polished the tack, groomed the horses and prepared to hit the road grinning.

Patty and her Percheron Steele were in their new harness, hooked up to a beautiful green and yellow wagon that comfortably fit four people. At nearly a ton, Steele was large enough to pull them without hindrance. Merlin, my draft pony was half Steele’s weight but built just as sturdy. He was pulling a metal forecart, a lighter vehicle for two, and I was in the drivers seat. Beside me was my friend Tom, a farmer in his own right from Massachusetts. He was visiting for the weekend and had never been out on public roads in a horse drawn vehicle before. If he was nervous he didn’t show it, and I took that as a silent nod of confidence for both my horse and me. When all the harnesses had their last minute adjustments and everyone aboard had their last minute bathroom breaks we flicked the lines and asked our beasts to take us away.

We saw no cyclists for the first two miles, which were spent along the paved and dirt roads that connect Lake McDougal to Black Creek Road. Steele and his wagon lead the small parade and Merlin was eagerly trotting behind him. I ride Merlin all the time and bought him so I would have those adventures in the saddle, but on days like this I realize I have a driving horse that tolerates me on horseback. And that isn’t to say Merlin isn’t a fine trail mount, but Brigit’s Fire does he move in harness. Without complaint or hindrance he kept close behind the wagon full of our friends. Tom was having a good time, taking in the view from the seat of the cart and helping by flagging past nervous automotives. People in cars and trucks do one of two things when they see a horse-drawn vehicle on the road they are using. They either are overly cautious or wicked. Some slowly rumble behind us, thinking it is dangerous for all concerned to pass on the left. And the other kind of driver just roars past without any consideration at all. They must assume if a horse is on a road it must be treated like they would treat any other car. This isn’t necessarily untrue, but if you are ever in our neck of the woods and see a horse cart in your path, treat it like a car, but treat it like a car driven by a little old lady. You could pass her but do so politely. Get the job done kindly and efficiently by cutting her a wide berth. Don’t speed past with inches of space between you, slam on your horn, or drive alongside her to take her picture.

The sun was hiding behind clouds, but we weren’t cold. A mild wind kept the horses noses to the air, probably smelling the new foals with their mother’s and red-tailed hawk nests high in the trees. The people on this trip were all chatting away. I sang occasionally, because that’s what I am used to doing when out with Merlin. I only know the first two verses of Loch Lomond, but I sang them with a horrible Scottish accent and Tom and I laughed between the clip clops of the two draft horses. The trees around us were still barren and only the eager poplars and some sun-luck maples were sporting buds that would promise leaves. The stubborn locusts and oaks remained as bare branched as if it was the dead of winter and if it wasn’t for the puddles and mud under the horses occasional stride I may have believed it was an oddly warm day in January.

However all comparisons to winter faded at the first pack of cyclists. They were pumping up a hill from behind as me turned onto Black Creek Road. We weren’t sure how the horses would take this? I wasn’t concerned but I also wasn’t an herbivore strapped with strips of a dead animal to a metal contraption pulling weight on paved roads. In a flash of neon spandex and the metallic fizzing of tiny angry wheels the mob whizzed past us in a flash of frenzy. Merlin didn’t even lift up his head. I don’t know if Steele was as calm, but the wagon ahead didn’t stop or bolt so I assume he was equally unimpressed. This was good because in the next mile or so it took to get to the Creamery we would be passed by hundreds of competitors in the race.

We didn’t know that the Creamery would be a checkpoint for the race, but as we trotted the horses up the small hillside to the entrance the crowds thickened and more and more flocks of spandexed minions started gaining on us. We asked the horses to move faster, and moved out of the way of the race by turning into the Creamery’s parking lot. Once the horses were set into two parking spots Patty offered to hold their heads while the rest of us when indoors for coffee, ice cream, and a bathroom break. While waiting in line for a scoop of coffee in a cone (my happy compromise) I could look out the windows of the creamery at the strangers coming up to patty to ask about the horses. Patty glowed like a proud mother at a talent show. She let kids pet the horses and fielded questions. By the time I walked out to stand by my own black steed I could hear the current race of conversation. Folks wanted to know if we were with the race or just locals out on a jaunt? When we explained we do this all the time their expressions went into this plateau of contentment, like they had somehow wandered into Narnia and had any doubts of their whereabouts confirmed.

Part Two: Coming Soon

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