I am mounted on my gelding and bundled up in a wool cloak that soaks up the rain but still holds heat against my body. we walk up the narrow trails pass naked trees and smell the woodsmoke from the fire I lit an hour earlier. I am close to home again. The cloak hugs my skin the way only wet wool can. If I move it off my bare arm I see steam rise. This makes me shiver with quiet thrills. Just like those first cold walks to school did when I realized I could see my breath and the world was changing. When I was a child weather happened to me. I am a woman now. I happen to it.
I find it hard to ride in pants now. It feels like I'm wearing hobbles. I ride in a kilt, boots, and halfchaps. This way I can swing on and off as free as if I am doing karate kicks. But this kilt is old and falling apart. Most of my clothes are shabby these days. The boots were bought (used) four years ago. The halfchaps are dusty enough to look grey instead of their original black. I remember when I was showing Merlin in dressage (can you call it "showing" if you only entered once?) and wore the new half chaps over my black paddock boots (also used) because actual riding boots cost around $200. At least if you buy them for women with calf muscles. Yet I never felt quite so proper and fancy as I did in that horse show. There I was: the dumpy slovak girl feeling like a low-rent Dutchess in a pair of breeches, black shoes, and the clean chaps. It gave the illusion of a social class higher than my own and I won't lie, I liked it then. A coworker leant me her shirt and show jacket and we won third place out of seven entries. I was as proud as a gander.
But on my mountain we look nothing like that. I am in those same chaps and smile, remembering that feeling. But I feel even more pride in my newest achievement: inner thigh callousing. From the inside of my knees up to halfway up my soft thigh I have a new layer of tougher skin. My body is creating those same patches you see in the same places on riding breeches. They aren't ugly, not in the slightest. I admire them like early-June fireflies. I wonder how many generations it has been since this once Scottish-dominated part of New York had people riding horses in kilts on the mountains. People who had the same types of happy scars inside their legs? I have never been tattooed or pierced in anyway but it feels like I am marked. This is my tribe, and those callouses are our secret handshake across lifetimes. They rode in cold rain, too.
Merlin and I don't ride far. The point isn't sadism, it's that blessed discomfort returning home. Runners know this. Backpackers know this. Cyclists know this, too. Those of us who put ourselves outdoors to cross the landscape without a roof above us or a combustion engine under us: we all know it. We ride, or hike, or pedal or paddle and do it until muscles ache and minds reel. We push ourselves in cold or rain, some of us anyway, because we know that we are safe animals. We aren't on the run from anything but our inner demons and when we get back to our homes hot showers, favorite-oversized sweaters, and warm drinks wait us. I feel extra lucky to have all these things as well as a woodstove. And that is what I am thinking of as Merlin's wet tail swishes behind him as he slides down a muddy bank a few inches. My body corrects itself above him, used to unsteady ground on an unusually steady horse. I try to remember a time when my body didn't know this animal. I can't. All I know is that she was a scared girl. She let weather happen to her all the time, her.
The rain comes and goes, sliding in and out of little bursts. We reach the top of our mountain overlook and the white birch is there. A single tree, still naked, the Guardian of the Mountain. In Druid lore the Birch (Beith) was the first tree. It was the beginning tree. You planted it where stories started, forests were to grow, new farms broke ground. It was a tree of purification, you see. And I love that this tree stands alone in this field where the weather must deal with me. Must look a woman and her horse in the eye and see decision. We stand and I take in deep lungfulls of air. I long lost the prefernce to be comfortable. If I am cold I don't allow myself to care. We stand there a while with Beith. Just a little while. And then more rain and wind comes and I turn my horse's head south and we head home. We do not rush. The rain and sweat make my legs hurt, there is a rough chafing now, not the pleasant roughness I am used to. I like it. It's a pain I expected and it only means my mark with my tribe goes deeper. I realize this means some part of me is broken.
Of all the things that have changed in me over the years it is my lack of patience for comfort. It's too high a price to pay. I'm not talking about regret and dreams, I mean this literally, i.e. heating and air conditioning. I do not like the feeling of a body trying to escape weather. I heat my home with wood, but it never reaches more than 63 degrees and I don't want it to. When I walk into places heated any higher I start to squirm and feel like one of those rotisserie chickens under a heat lamp at the grocery store. I can seek warmth if I want it. I can get naked under heavy wool blankets and know what a jungle chrysalis feels like. But I want my home to match more of what the outdoors feel like. That is where I spend most of my time. My body is used to what the outdoor temperatures are and that is where it wants to be, so the same goes for my truck. I am a natural thermostat happy to shiver or sweat depending on the season. I do not air condition either. I can find cold when I want it, too. When you work outside all day in 90% humidity that cold river feels exactly like tonight's warm fire. So this comfort with being uncomfortable all the time has become the single biggest change. I find myself listening to people complain about the heat or cold with a cocked head. I don't understand why they just can't stop preferring to be comfortable? It's so much easier.
I suppose because they are sensible. I am not good at sense. I'm a fucking romantic.
Oh, this wet horse! If I had ten miles to travel I would be concerned. I'd use my kilt to cover my inner thigh and find shelter and warmth quickly for me and my mount. Wet tack can cause serious sores on any horse, as it was on my own body after just a few miles of slow travel. In another time I would need to find shelter and make a fire and let the tack dry, the horse dry, and my red knee meat dry too. But I'm not going ten miles. I am but a half mile from home and my heart beats fast as a new lover's at the idea of arriving at my farmhouse door at a good trot, taking off his take and grooming him,tTurning him into his paddock with Jasper to eat good hay, and bringing saddle and self indoors to warm up by the fire. See, it is not the ride in the rain that you savor - but the aftermath. Fires are nice but you can only enjoy them so much as at a resting heart rate. Those who seek them as sanctuary are able to savor.
I'm warm now. Soon I will find wool blankets, clean sheets, and a dog I love more than anything else in the entire world. And I will curl up with him and fall asleep hard. The kind of sleep you can not gain from drugs or drink. I'll drift off hugging that black fur, my nose in his ruff. The last things I will hear before morning will be the crackle of fire and the sound of that wonderful cold rain next to an open window. I don't care about money. I don't care about men. After a long ride in a cold rain all I can feel is hard-won comfort which I revel in with shameless abandon. This is all I need from the world. There are plenty of things I want, sure, but this is all I need. My house is 58 degrees. My dog smells wet because he is. I smell like horse, sweat, and feral petrichor.
Some times I think I was born to do three things:
Ride a horse in a cold rain, come home to a warm fire, and write about it.