Eight Miles By Horse Cart
I got a call this morning from Karen, president of the Washington County Draft Animal Association (WCDAA). She wanted to tell me some bittersweet news, the Club's September event— a long, dirt-road drive along the Battenkill River in Vermont—was cancelled. The rain in the forecast was serious, 100% chance of downpour and it would not be fun being a gypsy caravan train of soggy horses in a storm tomorrow. I conceded that point with some sort of affirmative sound and told her it was no matter, my horse was harnessed outside and ready for a drive on this sunny morning. It may rain on our parade tomorrow, but today was still unaccounted for.
Merlin was outside on his hitching post, tail swishing at imaginary flies while he waited for me to walk outside with bridle and lines. He was already wearing his collar and leather harness, looking beautiful in the saturated sunlight. The weather was perfect. There was a warm wind but blue skies. The air was perfect for a light sweater or long-sleeved shirt but no need for a jacket or rain coat. You could tell weather was on the way, but hours off. It was perfect atmosphere for an outing. So I finished the now habitual tasks of bridle, bit, harness and hames and jumped into the little porch-swing seat of my cart. That is literal, by the way. My little red cart is old, made from bike spokes form the 1940's and a porch swing seat welded together with a handmade buckboard seat. Like everything else on this farm it is scrappy but functional. I love it. I flicked the lines and sent us off at a trot. We were heading out on an adventure and the sun was shining.
We trotted along my winding road, maple leaves in all colors at Merlin's feathered feet. I was execotionally happy because I had coffe at my side. I had bought one of those car-window cup holders for the horse cart, and adjusted it into sturdy resignation with a bit of baling twine. In it was the perfect coffee cup for the horse driver. It was made to be totally spill proof and insulated, and it had one button your thumb could press as it hit your lips to let the coffee escape. Brilliant. It was splash proof and I could open and close it with one hand while the other held the lines that communicated with the horse. This may seem like a moot point, but it's not. This adventure was 4 miles one way, probably a few hours until we returned. Rain gear and emergency lead ropes were important, sure, but caffeine was essential. Four travel mugs later I had found my secret weapon. Bring on the wild world, I had my weapon of choice at hand.
We slowed to a walk as the road evened out. I was in no rush today. I had just repaired the bent wheel and had a loaner wrench in the box behind the cart's only seat. The box was just a veggie crate from Common Sense Farm tied up with some twine. It wasn't strong enough for a second passenger but it could hold some groceries. I had a plan to drive on backroads to Stannard's Farm Stand, buy some goods, and come home. I had been telling the folks at Stannard's for months I wanted to cart down but the busy highway made me nervous. I wasn't worried about Merlin being spooked as much as I was worried about people on their cell phones not expecting horse carts in the road while texting, thereby killing us. So we take the long way, making what would be by car a mile and a half in under ten minutes into an eight-mile roundtrip taking over two hours. It was a glorious inconvenience.
We passed cornfields and old farms. We passed dogs barking wildly, neighbors waving from porch swings, and old red barns ready for someone with watercolors and an easel. We passed other horses, and Merlin would raise his head and holler to them in his low voice. Cars passed us. Trucks passed us. People on bikes and motorcycles and ATVs passed us. Merlin just walked or trotted, a perfect gentlemen. When the road was empty I'd let down my guard and sip my coffee, stick one earbud in to hear a bit of the audiobook I am listening to. One ear open to the sound of wind and horse tail, the other lost in a bit of fiction.
Eventually we made it to a busy highway intersection. Route 22 was in front of us and just across the road was our big destination: Stannard Farm Stand. This little farm stand has been my source of just about everything these past few months. If I need cream, butter, flour, meat, honey or vegetables it is right there. My frequent visits make me a pretty familiar face and so when I pulled in with my cart it was welcomed. A worker watched Merlin and stood with him while I went inside to shop. I bought pumpkin pancake mix, a Kutztown Bottleworks Red Cream Soda, a pie pumpkin, a mum, and some corn. The soda really was special as I went to Kutztown University and it is a total coincidence that ten years later I am sipping soda in a pony cart from the place I once lived to study graphic design. I stayed and chatted with the farm stand workers for a while, giving Merlin a good rest. He chewed up the grass and was offered an apple from the stand, as well as one slipped into my kilt pocket for later. With a full cart, a rested horse, and a promise to return again we trotted off for home. The wind was picking up but the sky remained blue. I could feel the rain a few hours away though, it was alive in every leave that turned its belly up to the wind.
While heading back along Fish Hatchery Road at a fast trot I knew we were going to pass the Cambridge Saddle Club's event grounds. I do not know much about this group, but I do know once a month they meet a few miles from my home to compete in a gymkhana for adults and kids alike. I decided to be brave and drive Merlin right into the parking lot and ask if we could watch. I wasn't sure what folks would think of a Fell Pony in a red cart at a quarter horse event. Most of the riders were in cowboy hats and t-shirts, in beautiful western tack, ready to complete in barrel racing timed rounds. I was in a plaid shirt, straw hat, kilt, and driving a pony ready for Middle Earth. All my fears were silly though, as everyone greeted us strangers with smiles. When you love horses you're in the tribe. Two women told me I was welcome to trot my cart right up along the fence with the folding chars and watch from my "stadium seating." I did and two women about to compete with their stunning, sleek, geldings told me all Saddle Club events were casual and friendly. They asked if I was going to enter the trail ride next week and I wasn't sure. "You better go sign up in the club house," one woman said, pointing to a wooden announcers stand, "Entries close after today." Another women offered to watch Merlin while I ran into the stands to sign up. What the hell, I thought. When the world throws an experience in your face the best thing to do is jump in.
So I walked into the announcers stand and just as I was about to say hello a giant Irish Wolfhound greeted me with a sloppy kiss. "That's Connor!" said a women in her sixties, with enough piss and vinegar in her voice to fuel my V-8 truck to Memphis. "He's friendly, come in!" and so I scratched the wolfhound and walked inside. Gloria (the woman who owned Connor) took down my name and eleven dollar fee and signed me up for the ride next Saturday. Looks like I'll be making some new friends. I signed up patty and Steele as well, thinking she'd want the option if nothing else. Before scratching Connor's head goodbye I asked if draft horses were okay? Gloria scoffed out a laugh, "If it has four legs, it's okay!" And I noticed a spotted draft about to take his second barrel outside. This club was something else.
I headed home then, the last three miles taken mostly at a walk. I was in no rush and Merlin didn't need to be dripping with sweat and blowing on a country afternoon. I let myself get lost in thought, and what I thought about was clothing. That may seem weird, but I kept looking at my cotton shirt sleeves. Only in this time in history would a person in a horse cart leave home without a proper cloak. A wool blanket you could wear that stood against the wind, rain, and snow. Something that doubled as a sleeping bag at night or kept you safe from cold sunlight or harsh hail. If I drove around in a cloak today I would look like a nut job.
I'm not saying we should all go out and buy wool cloaks, but I am saying that we are so far removed from the elements in our cars. When you are in a car you are in a fast, little house. It probably has eat and air conditioning, just like home. It has comfy chairs like home. It is instantly convenient. This is not a bad thing, but it isn't a horse cart. In a cart it is just you and the weather, and it seemed foolish as all get out to be an hour from home with the chance of a storm without a rain jacket and sweater. These are things I never leave for a trail ride without, so why didn't I have them along today? I guess the cart felt like my truck in a way, less exposed. But as the wind tore my straw hat off my head I knew that was wrong thinking. Next time I'd be cloaked, and by cloak I mean a poncho and a hoodie. Even I know when my fashion sense can go from whimsical to creepy.
The last few miles we stopped often, mostly to chat with neighbors. People who avoid eye contact with joggers and cyclists go out of their way to walk up to a cart and horse on their road. I obliged every friendly face and we stopped to talk and shake hands. I met three new neighbors this way. It may have been my favorite part of the whole trip, just saying hello on a sunny afternoon. We have lost so much of our ability to look a person in the eye and state a welcome. It matters.
I thought about Patty, too. It was meeting her just two winters ago that made all this possible. She is the one who handed me my first set of driving lines and taught me in her cart with her beautiful horse, Steele. She is the one who helped me evaluate and work with Merlin. She watched me go from terrified and crying to brave and fast. And her encouragement along the way, her positive attitude, and her friendship made today possible. If it wasn't for her I'd still be hoping for my "someday" cart horse. Friend, Someday isn't real. It's the worst sort of lie we tell ourselves. Patty is. If you want a cart horse go find yourself a Patty. They are a magical sort, but they are out there.
When Merlin and I finally did get home I treated him to a rub down, bucket of cold well water, and a little sweet grain. I returned him to Jasper, who had been crying for him since we came into hearing distance and let Gibson out of the house to help me with afternoon chores. The cart ride took most of mid-morning, hours really. But I gained names and faces, plans for next weekend, and got to meet an Irish Wolfhound named Connor. It was all beautiful. And I couldn't help but feel a little sly as the clouds rolled in. I had seen the world from the back of a horse cart today and beat the rain. I didn't have a cloak, and I didn't need it. I was safe and at home, a place where meals and drinks and friends gathered. I have felt blessed many times on this farm before but not so much as this day, which I always longed for in my heart.
A farm, a horse, a cart ride, a community. Blessing abound, and fall is just getting started!