Monday, August 6, 2018

36

We pulled into the driveway of Livingston Brook Farm around 9AM, Veronica riding shotgun. The forecast suggested a muggy afternoon and possible thunderstorms but this particular morning was bright as a set of new guitar strings. The sky was all blue and barn swallows. I had just turned 36.

We stepped out of the creaking beloved that is my truck and walked towards the 1700’s farmhouse before us.  I heard a voice from a second-story window holler "HAPPY BIRTHDAY!" as we drew near. I looked up to my dear friend Patty and mumbled a thank you as Veronica hit me with some ancillary piece of clothing for not telling her. I'll never be comfortable announcing a birthday for the same reason I'll never care about astrology; it's a holiday I didn't get to choose.

My gift from Patty was my annual dinner and carrot cake that evening but she also agreed to taking my guest out for a horse cart ride to the Battenkill Creamery for ice cream. This would be a morning of harness and horse and quaint travel over country roads and farms. Watch out for the Bucolic Plague, everyone.

Veronica was visiting from San Francisco, her first visit to the farm. We met online and became fast friends. I can’t explain or understand the social media alchemy that lead to her pulling up to my front door in a rental car, but she was visiting Washington County for a few days. I wanted her to experience traveling across a landscape via horse cart and take home a story worth remembering.

We joined Patty in the farmhouse for coffee and breakfast before heading to the barn to halter and harness the horses. Patty has been driving her Percheron Steele for years, but always wanted a proper team. This winter she found a black mare named Ruby on Facebook to pair up with him. Ruby was Amish broke and trained but out of practice and needed someone to put in the time to get her back to regular work. Three solid of months of training had the two horses trotting like a pair of metronomes. Patty is a force of nature.

The adventure started off splendidly. A beautiful day back lit by the percussion of trotting hooves. We traveled the two and a half miles to the Battenkill Creamery, rolling past farms and homes on low-traffic dirt roads. Besides an incident with a barking dog running out to growl at the team (they were not phased) the ride was idyllic. Dappled light and conversation, the pace of the animals' becoming our own.

Soon the road turned towards the pastures around the Creamery. In the heat the young heifers were under the shade of the trees, barely paying attention to the draft horses and the vehicle. I was excited to show Veronica the baby calves kept alongside the creamery while enjoying mint chocolate chunk (which is, hands down, my favorite). And this thought was interrupted by the awkward side-stepping of Ruby, who had somehow managed to snap the pole between her and Steele. My stomach turned and Patty said in a calm voice,

“Jenna get out there and grab their heads.”

I jumped out of the back of the cart and moved to the bridles, holding the horses by their lead ropes and halters. For those of you unfamiliar with horse-drawn vehicles the pole is exactly that, a long shaft of wood (or metal) that connects the wagon to the yoke in front of the horses. It’s the key piece of equipment that pulls a team's vehicle and now it was snapped at a 70° angle shooting up between the horses. The cart was broken down, right in the middle of a road and a delivery truck was heading right for us...

Patty stopped the coming truck and handed Veronica the lines, leaving her alone in the wagon with 4,000lbs of horsepower in her grasp. I don’t know if she understood what she was accepting when she took those lines but she took them and somehow remained calm.

If the horses felt threatened they could have darted forward, dragging her with them after I had been run over flat. I felt my lungs empty and said about sixty silent prayers for safety fueled by the whites of my eyes. Patty wasn't worried, she knew her animals and efficiently and calmly removed the horses from the broken vehicle, by yoke and tug chains, and lead them off the bank of the road.

Veronica got off the cart safety. I stepped aside sweating an inordinate amount for a lady. I can not express the relief I felt at this moment, but it was thicker than any water in the air or fear in my chest. We were okay.

Since that moment in the wagon Veronica has started a new job. I've wondered a dozen times if people asking her questions in conference rooms realized they were dealing with a woman that took the reins of a team of draft horses the way average people accept a passed shaker of salt?

V and I moved the wagon off the road to the side of a barn, each of us grabbing the sides by the metal bars and assigning it safety off-pavement. We chocked the wheels with field stones. Not knowing what else to do I ran to Patty and her team seeking orders.

 Patty's phone was dead. There wasn't another person with a fitting pole close by or available on a Tuesday afternoon. Looked like we would be walking home. I nodded. Patty told us to buy ice cream and bring her a chocolate cone. I ran back to Veronica to report our duties and she swiftly obliged.

We ate ice cream next. This seems inconsequential but it was amazing. On a hot summer day miles from certainty and safety three women ate ice cream in daylight beside each other. We just started walking home, licking cones and enjoying summer in childlike acceptance. Patty with the lines of her team over one shoulder started them towards home. Trailing behind her Veronica and I hiked onward, chatting and enjoying our ice cream. The humidity and temperatures rose. So did my spirits.

I was so proud of Patty. At nearly 60 she was in control of her draft horses like a conductor. She ground drove them, walking behind at a brisk pace my hobbit body struggled to match. I want to be like her when I grow up.

This was a hell of a birthday.

This is the point I should mention that V didn't bring her own boots. She was loaned a pair of second-hand Ariats that fit her well enough (and she had ridden Mabel in the night before) but they weren't meant for hot distance. A few miles into our hike back to Patty's farm, blisters started to haunt her and after many offers to get off her feet and ride one of the horses home, she accepted. Then she was on a Percheron in full harness. And that was that.

I want you to picture this. I want you to picture three women and a team of draft horses walking home on a series of country roads without a cart. I want you to hear the clink of tug chains and feel the sweat falling off your shoulder and onto harness leather. I want you to experience the bite of deer flies and the way living in a deciduous rain forest alters your heart rate. And that music; of hoof and breath and story, making our way safely home on a Tuesday morning.

I will never receive a better birthday gift than this memory. It's inside my bones. Bound to calcium and the force that helps me run up hills tired. It's mine.

After we made it back, fortified by ice cream,  the horses were returned to their paddocks, comfortable and hosed down. Veronica and I headed back to my farm and changed for the river to swim.

By the time I was floating down the Battenkill under the wing beats of cedar waxwings and the flutter of sycamore leaves I was entirely exhausted. I’d been up since 6AM. I’d gone through the morning chores of feeding the stock, hay bale tossing, water hauling and coffee preparation. The dogs had ran and stretched out their limbs and tongues. I had done all that beside them. Afterwards I’d help harness horses. I’d traveled across the landscape in cart and home again on foot. It was time to soak and float and think of nothing but simple comforts like the slight buzz of a can of beer and baby trout avoiding my sandals in clear river water.

That night we returned to Patty’s farm for my birthday dinner, which was pesto pasta and lamb chops. The pesto from Mark's garden of basil and sorrel and garlic. The lamb from Patty's sheep she raised on this same hill horses swish their tails. Old English Sheepdog puppies scuttled about our feet, gifts were exchanged, the stars stretched across half the sky while the other half teased a storm that never came. Patty made me a carrot cake in the time we were absent at the river. She even whipped up a cream cheese icing! I am so spoiled by the luck of this place. You just can't know.

By the time dessert was wrapping up, conversation came back to the wagon parked beside a dairy barn at the Creamery. Veronica and I agreed to follow Patty's truck and trailer and help her load the wagon that night so it would be home safe. It seemed like the least we could do. Once again the three of us were off. It was around 9PM at this point.

So in my 1989 F150 we drove behind her. I chased her brake lights like hope around the curved back roads of Salem, NY. I was tired and happy from the day and grateful for the story and the company. Soon we were all back at the place where fear swallowed me and I choked on prayers. But instead of holding back a team of horses there was just the work of pushing a wagon into a horse trailer. We did  this by the headlights of my truck, loading it up and into the horse trailer without fuss.

And that was my birthday. It was farming and grand hardship. It was horses and rivers. It was new and old friends raising glasses around a familiar kitchen table with fluffy puppies scampering at our feet. It was perfect and broken. I held on to the memories as they happened with white knuckles and clear eyes.

I said last post I’d try to add more music. This song is what driving home happy and tired from loading a horse cart in the dark without a thunderstorm in an 1989 f150 feels like at 36. I can't vouch for the sad lyrics, but the cadence of horse and road and heat and hope feels tired and lovely Regardless, more beautiful music than what I could ever write and fitting to that day's end.

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