Monday, May 6, 2013

Tour of the Battenkill (Farm Girl Style): Part 2

We ate ice cream and watched the race. It was a good break for the drivers and the horses. Neither Steele or Merlin seemed to have worked up much of a sweat but we still had another stop to make and the loop home. I sat on a picnic table with my prize. The ice cream was, as always, delicious. Battenkill Creamery is a little gem here in my county. They sell milk right on the dairy site, nestled in glass bottles with antique labels. You are free to walk out to the calve barns and see a half dozen little Holstein babies romp and play together. Some dairy farmers keep the calves in their own little sheds and confined spaces, but not here. It’s like a raucous summer camp. Tumbling and little bleats abound while their mothers and several other generation watched from the hillside of stream, grass, and rocky ledges. To be so close to your food, to look it in the eye and see it compete for King of the Mountain as a brown eyed-babe, never stops amazing me. Never loses its authenticity. And somewhere mid-scoop while licking the edges of the icy treat I remember that this is not a special event for me, not a paid experience. (Well, the ice cream was a paid experience, but not the countryside trek via horse cart to acquire it.) My life, thanks to a pile of good and bad decisions, had lead me to a place where this is as normal as hopping into the car and going to the mall. I know these people, these horses, this equipment and had the skills to drive me and a friend there unscathed.

We got back into our rigs and said goodbye to our new friends. We waited for a lull in the race, between clusters of cyclists, to head back onto the road. When the coast was clear we trotted off on the road and headed along a popular country highway, Route 30, to Gardenworks.

Gardenworks is an interesting and wonderful place. It’s an old Scottish farm set into some rolling hills. It specializes in You Pick berries, and grows acres of raspberries, strawberries, and blue berries which folks come out and pay for fruit so fresh it was their own hands that plucked off the vines and delivered it to their front door. However, berries alone do not make the operation that is Gardenworks. The large barn adjacent to the berry fields (just twigs and rows now in late April) holds an artisan market and gallery. The barn’s main level is dedicated to local meats, cheeses, desserts, preserves and local art and crafts. The upper loft has whitewashed hanging drywall that displays art among old plows and threshing equipment. If you were an artist who did anything even mildly agricultural this would be the perfect place to display it. And to pull up aside this sunny barn in two horse carts felt correct and happy, something that was simply supposed to happen on a weekend as festive and community-centric as the big race.

I stayed out with the horse while my fellow travelers wen inside to get coffee. Mark, Patty’s husband, eyed the plants for sale outside. It was only April but vegetable 6-packs of lettuce greens and some bright flowers were already available in 6-packs for those eager enough to gamble with the weather. Late April still left a lot of time for frosts around these parts, but Gardenworks knows people around here are thrilled to take a chance on some lettuce after the long winter. I bet they sell out of those six packs by the time the race is over. If I had any room on the forecart to pile in a flat of those blessed greens I would have took them home that instant. I was thinking about this as some folks, tourists to the area for the race, walked over to ask about the horses. We chatted and leaned back a bit towards Merlin’s head, giving him a scratch. As I told the visitor about the horses, the community, and the amazing Nuns of New Skete cheesecake for sale inside I could feel Merlin’s breath and smell his sweat, which had made his underbelly wet. He was breathing deep, working hard, and I took note of it. Breaks like this are good for both the driver and the horse because it gives us time to relax and catch our wits and breathe between the constant reaction and focus of being an animal-drawn vehicle on a road. But stops like this are also good for the people in this county, to chat and smile and share stories and buy coffee. I am grateful for my pickup truck and all the work it does but I don’t have to stop and let it rest. I can move so fast, so concentrated, past businesses and neighbors and never stop to share a mug of coffee or tell a stranger about cheesecake. The pace driving horses gives to your life is a reminder and a gift, one I am constantly grateful for. Having these animals in my life has helped me meet so many neighbors. On my little mountain road that my farm resides on folks do not stop to talk to me if I am jogging, walking my dog, or driving my truck. But if I am on horseback or in a rig they always pull over and ask how the farm is doing, how I am. I think the horses make me seem more open and friendly, nostalgic and timeless. Folks see a rider or cart in the road and perhaps they are reminded of a different time and place and part of them wants a taste of it too. So they roll down windows and wave hello and ask about the new goslings they saw following the geese or the baby goats running with Gibson past the house. We talk with the comfort of old friends, even when we don’t know each other’s first names because the situation of a horse and a country road is enough to infuse us with comfort. It is agreed upon in a smile, and understood without saying a word of confirmation.

After our second rest of the day we get back into the rigs for the last time and ask the horses to trot us home. It is four miles to Livingston Brook Farm and we take it slowly. We have sun on our faces, a bit of weariness in our voices, but it’s all happy forms of wear. If people in cars are in cages, we are range animals. We accept the sunburn, road dust, and pain in line-holding hands because we learned a bit about what traveling really is. It’s not about a means of connecting A to B. It’s not about showing off fancy horses for a local event. It’s certainly not about making good time, saving gas money, or even our horses exercise. It’s about the energy and people needed to see the world, even this incredibly local piece of it. We traveled an eight-mile loop, that’s it, and it took half a day and several stops. It took knowing every part of our harness, our horse, our rigs and the means to make it all moves us from one place to another. It involved time for conversation, song, laughter and stories. It got neighbors to walk up to us, conversations with stores and businesses, and the chance to feel like a scoop of ice cream was deserved calories for road fuel and not a guilt-inducing splurge. That is a lot to gain from a pair of horse carts plodding down the road during a bike race. It’s a lot to gain from anything.

If you want a lesson in proximity, ask a working horse to teach you.