Bridge builder between city and country.

The Land I Love:
Rural America at Four Miles per Hour


Lisa D. Stewart (Excerpt--first three chapters)




Prologue

The Man Pulling Radishes
Pointed My Way with a Radish

                         ~Issa


 
            We took right turns north and left turns west to follow our fine blue lines over hills, into bottoms, through dense growth, far away from any highway.  We might have been riding closer to Kansas City, but we were riding deeper into the country, farther from Springfield and Branson, still more than 200 miles from a major city.  Our gravel road became more powder and less gravel, narrower, and with no ditch, but rusty fences abutting it, slack with unemployment, because there were no cattle to contain on this lowland that floods in spring and fall.  Birds zipped through it, and deer sprang or glided in our farthest periphery.  My ears buzzed with silence that was faintly disturbed by a thousand insects touching dead leaves, and leaves above lifted by a breeze penetrating in random breaths.  If you weren’t from here, you’d never be here. 

            When I was ten, I had crashed through an Oklahoma wind on my aged mare, Honey, bareback, galloping.  Before responsibility—other than mother’s call to dinner, homework, bed—and without a father to comfort or boyfriend or husbands in succession to consider, I lived in my skin at ten, melded by sweat to my horse. 

            In decades since, with every life passage—two marriages, two births and a stillbirth, a husband’s head injury, loss of business and home—one vision recurred:  A country road flowing under me and my horse, alone.  This could never happen, I knew.  I had lived in the home of a father or husband for all of my 54 years. 

             This day, I rode alone across the countryside, no one to consider, not even the wise, third husband, who had sent me on my way.  My horse, Chief, and I scribed a 500-mile loop through Kansas and Missouri, the summer of 2012. 

            By noon that late-June day, County Road 541 had become nothing more than two tracks in tall weeds, and I began to panic that I was lost.  Why would the line on my map dissolve into densely forested bottom land?  We arrived at the remains of a small bridge, not more than 15-feet long, rotted down to just four steel beams close enough together for a silly kid on a four-wheeler to try to gun it across, the tire tracks of which I could see.  How would we get across—and should we?  The so-called road beyond the bridge disappeared into tall grass and weeds with nothing beyond it but a straight gap in the trees leading up a hill.  If we kept riding, would we be expending precious hours only to learn the road didn’t go through?

            I tied Chief to a tree and slid on foot down into the ditch beside the bridge and walked up the trickle-of-a creek to find a place to cross.  I watched out for half-buried barbed-wire fence on Chief’s behalf.  I found a deer path a few dozen yards from the bridge and climbed it up the bank on the other side.  After pulling through the brush and briars, I reached the remnants of road beyond the bridge.  I stood and looked up the hill where a road had been.

            Then I returned for Chief, having made up my mind to see if the road would go through to civilization.  He stepped behind me down the creek like a gentleman to keep from catching my heels with his hooves.  We dug up the steep bank and pulled ourselves through sapling branches, cobwebs, and blackberries and climbed back into the old road bed on the opposite side of the bridge.  We stood on two faint impressions in tall grass made a century ago by teams pulling four-wheeled wagons; then Model Ts; then Ford F-250s; kids on ATVs, and now a rider and horse.  I never had felt more isolated.  It would take me nearly two weeks to reach a symphony at Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City; then where would I tie my horse? 

            For me, nothing existed but this road.  I belonged here as much as anyone, and in this land, my new kin:  grey squirrels and buff deer, coyotes at night, the Wallen family who fed me three days ago; and the next family up the road.  Nobody else counted, because my life depended on strangers.  My own family never would find me.  These Cedar County folks knew the way, and for now, the way was my truth and life.  I would take on this tribe’s language and law and religion if need be, one step at a time, pausing to eat and sleep and pee on their land.  I passed into and out of worlds in the form of sections where people lived who knew the way and pointed me to it.  As 18th-century Japanese poet Issa wrote, The man pulling radishes/pointed my way/with a radish.

            For the first time in my life, I felt grounded as a bolt of lightning, and just as electric.  I felt like a grown woman. 

 

Chapter 1:  A Woman at the Well, First Day

 
            When I saw the pickup slow, then stop, on the far side of a concrete bridge in the road an eighth of a mile ahead, I thought the driver was stopping to let me pass—and so far in advance.   It would take me five minutes to get there.  This seemed overly thoughtful, especially after what just happened.

            I had asked for my first bucket of water from a stranger.  Three hours before, my horse, Chief, and I had ridden away from his pasture on a solo journey over the gravel roads of Kansas and Missouri.  I expected to be gone at most, three months, or three weeks, or if I failed, three days.  Just now, we had crept up the gravel driveway of a spacious, split-level home on a rise, behind which I could see the tops of neat metal buildings and loafing sheds.  We were in north-central Miami County, Kansas, on Crescent Hill Township Road.  I worried this noon that everyone would be at work.  I wouldn’t take water from someone’s hydrant without asking.  I didn’t even know if Chief were thirsty.  How many hours in the sun and at what temperatures would we have to ride before he would be thirsty enough to drink?  If they are home, what will I say, and what will they say?  Perhaps, "Hi, I'm riding cross-country on horseback, and I wondered if I might have a bucket of water for my horse."  Then they would say, "How long have you been gone?"


            "Since this morning?"

            Chief used his neck like a periscope.  Each jittery leg tested the driveway like pond ice.  He dipped his head and pointed an eye at large rocks around a flower bed.   We peeked behind the house, and there by the barn near a drain-back faucet was a woman my age, back turned to me, spraying off her horse with a garden hose, while her other horses casually observed from nearby lots.  Her horse jerked up its head, then so did she.  I made a big circle with my hand.  “Hi.” 

            Only three days before, I had left my lawyer’s office after signing my first will, powers of attorney, and living will.  I had climbed into my husband’s pickup feeling embarrassed by a certain raised eyebrow from my advisor who had tilted her head at the danger into which I surely was riding, alone.  What was I doing? 

            My own 20-year-old daughter had become silent when I told her I wanted to take the cross-country trip I had dreamed about as a girl.  We stood in her upstairs apartment in a 1920s two-story, wood-frame home two blocks from the University of Missouri-Kansas City campus.  Natalie was doing everything I wish I could have done:  She had begun college, worked, supported herself, and chose not to live with her boyfriend of two years.  I came to her now, having saved enough money for my trip, but having released what I call “money-making writing”—my freelance business—to focus on preparing for a trip that might last all summer.  “Your dad and I never had a moment’s trouble with people on our trip,” I’d tried to reassure her. 

            “That was 30 years ago.  Things are different now,” she’d said.  “You had a man with you then.”  She was referring to a 3,000-mile horseback trek I took with her father to fulfill my childhood dream, which took us through seven states and four mountain ranges in the Rockies and Midwest.  I had done this before, but not alone.

            The truth was I didn’t know if I would be safe.  One phrase was repeated almost spontaneously from so many mouths before my trip you’d think the entire population of Kansas City had been rounded up to practice it:  “Be careful; there are a lot of crazies out there.”  It was a mantra—sad and discouraging to me—that I didn’t want to believe.  I chose a new one, gleaned from the 2012 presidential campaign in which Missouri’s Senator Emanuel Cleaver II said at his party’s convention, “Hope on, Mr. President.  Hope on!”  I wanted to hope on. 

            The second most common phrase I heard from friends and acquaintances was, “You gonna be packin’?”

            Despite my previous 225 days of accident-free riding with the father of my children, 30 years earlier, in 1982, I fought to go to sleep every night the month leading up to this trip.  Two scenes played over and over in my head when I went to bed:  1) Chief shying in front of a car, (with me aboard); 2) camping on some nice family’s property when their drunk nephew sneaks in and assaults me in my tent. 

            Now, I am remarried, having just disappeared from my husband over the horizon this morning, with no idea where I would wind up.  I had to “hope on.”  Bob had gotten into our car with our dog, Sparky, and driven the opposite direction from which I was disappearing.  He felt struck with confusion, he later confessed.  He hadn’t anticipated the shock of abandoning his wife to what seemed imminent danger.  In his as-needed, support position, he later said he clung to the belief that I knew what I was doing.

            How could it be that at the first place I felt compelled to ask for water at mid-day on a Wednesday, there would stand a horsewoman, my own age, holding a running garden hose next to her dripping horse?  I felt for this woman, turning to the spectacle of me in my huge, round-brimmed straw hat, black riding tights, worn, English riding boots and spurs, white shirt and red scarf.  If that weren’t enough, I was leading a horse wearing a mountain of packs whose eyes were rimmed in white and whose neck was a map of capillaries engorged with blood.

            “How cool!” she said.  “I wish I could come with you.” 

            “Really?” 

            I don’t remember a word of our conversation; I only remember that soon we were giggling like girls about our horses.  Meanwhile, they swung and tried to get their noses together.  The water ran around our feet until she clamped down the handle.  Her collection of beauties crowding the fence called for a sniff and discussing among themselves the astonishing sight of Chief walking up their drive from nowhere, as if the absence of a horse trailer were as shocking as if a space ship had dropped him.

            I didn’t even know enough to get her name. 

            The woman at the well saved me with her admiration that day and with something else, more precious than water.  It came in the form of four words.

            “He’s a thinking horse,” she observed.  Chief craned his neck at the other horses, her tractor, her plate-glass patio door, the equipment surrounding this gravel drive.  He sparkled like a copper shell casing under the mid-May sun.  A thinking horse.

            To me, Chief was the equine version of a twitchy explosives specialist. 

            He was trying to comprehend a world. 

            We both were.

            A half-hour later Chief and I approached a man who had stopped his pickup on the other side of the concrete bridge on the ecru-colored, dirt road a few miles from the woman with the water.  By now, I realized he had seen me but showed little interest.  He was taking things out of the back of his truck.  I heard him pull a commercial weed eater that snored several times before emitting a loud AAHHHhhh that soon rose and fell with the density and thickness of weeds he was cutting.  He glanced from under his cap periodically to gauge our approach.  I had both hands on the reins on a horse that felt like every step could launch a leap.

            In the center of the groomed grass, ten miles any direction from the nearest town, on a road that hadn’t been swept by a car or truck in more than an hour, this man in his late fifties, wearing a polo shirt, basketball shoes, and a KU hat, with a dusty 2012 Ford holding its ground, opened up breathing space for a white wooden cross stapled with faded silk flowers.  Hardly looking up, he cut the motor.  Chief’s neck was high and short, and he positioned every step to spring away from the truck if need be.      

            “Hi.” 

            “Hi.”

            I was too shy to say, To whom does this cross belong?  How long ago?  He would have told me the story.  I knew from my previous trip that people would tell us the most personal things—something about a stranger on a horse.  Later on this trip, four men would weep when they told me about someone they loved.  This man might have been the first, if I had known enough to ask him.  Only men wept.  Never women.    

            We rode farther and farther away from the oversized, bricked, rocked homes on barren plots scraped of their history on this southwest apron of metropolitan Kansas City—close enough for privileged people to commute.  We rode away from Johnson County, one of the richest in America that contains the fifth greatest number of horses per capita.  We rode deeper into pastures owned by ER doctors, city lawyers, and jokester farmers who amuse themselves with collections of exotic cows.  We became a satellite speck on a straight, white path between hay fields and rows of young beans, prepubescent corn that hadn’t grown its parts, much less its silks, and milo just greening up its rows.  The houses grew farther apart and many seemed to have settled their bones into elderly windbreaks as if they’d all been seeded and grown up together.  These homesteads had more than one generation of farm implements positioned where they could be hooked onto and pulled to the field.  Out here a father or a grandfather weedeats around a wood cross that only the immediate family and the closest neighbors will ever see—and who sees it isn’t the point, anyway, only that the abrupt place on the ditch looks like somebody cares what happens out here.

 


Chapter 2:  Horse-loving Gene

            My earliest memory was that of looking up into a closet at my yellow and pink corduroy overalls with my mother kneeling nearby.  I must have been two.  From that time, I had wanted a horse.  

            In Detroit, at age six, I gazed daily at the horse calendar ringed with photos of satiny, posed horses, their breed names printed beneath each one for me to memorize.  I wanted statuettes of horses for my presents and horse stories for my books.  By eight, I had wished my own horse into existence.  It is true, my parents had spent the money to purchase the aged mare, and yes, my father had been transferred to Aero Commander in Oklahoma City where his good friend had land to keep a horse.  Isn’t it possible, though, that I had played the biggest part in the manifestation of my horse, through eight years of envisioning my arms wrapped around her neck?  I spent years seeing myself as Linda Evans on “The Big Valley” television show, her tossed-back hat and thick, blond hair patting her back as she cantered her velvet mare.  Might I not have caused a cosmic ripple, emitted some boson particle while dreaming of brushing my future horse’s flaxen tail or galloping over the Flint Hills of Kansas?  Honey appeared. 

            She was a golden Palomino, dappled when sunburned, 15 hands tall, rawboned and earthbound.  We galloped, bareback, with only a halter and lead rope that I looped into reins, because I was too little to lift a saddle and couldn’t reach her head to bridle her.

            Since the time I was in junior high, riding Honey along the blood-red, shale roads of central Oklahoma with my best friend, Terrie Wahling—who rode her barrel horse or one of her dad’s roping horses—I dreamed of riding cross-country on horseback.  On day-long rides, Terrie and I braced against the Oklahoma wind that blasted over the flat plain.  It whipped and tumbled, and over centuries, sculpted rounded ravines into the scaly shale.  Terrie and I closed our eyes and turned our horses’ butts to towers of road dust kicked up by pickups pulling trailers.  We concluded our rides by tying up to Terrie’s corral and entering the stillness of her father’s barn.  Outside, cicadas emitted deafening pulses in the trees and beyond them, the horizon cut the sun in half.  Inside, dust rose in the slice of light from the barn’s heavy sliding door.  We dusted off her notebook and sat on square bales of hay at the base of a 20-foot stack, and we wrote a new chapter of our story about two girls who rode through Oklahoma and Kansas on horseback.  In our story, we entered small towns to the amazed stares of townsfolk and store keepers.  We would be thirsty and would tie our horses’ lead ropes to a barbed wire fence behind a painted, cinder block tavern whose two, small windows were shuttered with neon Miller, Coors, and Budweiser signs.  Our horses would graze half-circle patches down to the dirt while we were inside drinking Coke and flirting. 

            “Let’s don’t drink beer,” I said as she wrote in our notebook.  “Let’s make-out with the boys beside the horses, and then leave the boys in the dust,” she said, pushing a Tabby away that had stepped onto her page. 

            In the chapter Terrie and I wrote in her father’s barn, our horses would brace us up in the dark, while too-old-for-us cowboys leaned in and kissed hard.  Mine would be my favorite color combination (like the horse in pictures I drew) black hair, blue eyes.  Terrie’s cowboy was Palomino—blond hair brown eyes.  I would be afraid of mine and make tittering excuses to pull away from him.  Later, Terrie and I would giggle to each other as our horses gradually carried us beyond the reach of the town’s outermost mercury vapor light where our horses’ tails vanished into the night.   Chapter’s end. 

  

Chapter 3.  We Might Have Been Praying

            My biggest fear on this trip, besides getting hit by a car, was whether we would find water and a safe camp at night.  By mid-afternoon our first day, we had ridden twelve miles from Chief’s pasture near Edgerton, Kansas, 30 miles southwest of Kansas City.  Far enough.  Chief had tried to turn into every drive and crossroad, gesturing that now we should turn back for home—now—and surely now.  He had refused water all day. 

            The sun lowered itself in the sky as if to get a better look at us.  We came to a two-story wood frame farm house, straight as a soldier, and no landscaping, except decades-old forsythia and lilac so tall they seemed to consider the house their landscaping, rather than the other way around.  I dismounted and knocked on the back door.  In moments, a fair-skinned woman, whose few gray hairs mingled seamlessly with her Scandinavian blond, opened the door.  She was my age, like the woman at the well.

            “I’m riding cross country around Kansas and Missouri, and I have no idea if it would work for you, or if you know someone it would work for… .”  I’d prepared an elevator pitch for every job I ever had but this one.

            “Sure.  You can camp; how about back here?”  She motioned to lawn behind her house.      

            “Thank you so much.  I’m Lisa Stewart.” 

            “Andrea Miller,” she extended her hand, and I took it with my sweaty glove.  She started walking in the ground-covering stride we country girls learn from youth to keep up with mothers and fathers over rough ground.  Andrea’s hens scampered about her backyard in tan and black plumes, and she sang an air to them as she swung along, “Hello, girls, how are you, ladies!”  She and I led Chief to lush lawn at her back fence, where I would unload my bedroom, closet, kitchen.  

            Andrea invited Chief to slumber his first night out with her four angus cows and calves whose circling flies gave them a combined atomic weight of more than 500.  The three-acre pasture west of her house was ringed by dense woods, which I knew would keep Chief sleepless all night, on guard for what only he knew might emerge in the dark. 

            This elderly Kansas homestead was set back off the road just far enough not to catch too much dust from the occasional passing car and truck.  Three large trees shaded the scene like towering thugs within this alley of tornados.  All this was partitioned off from pastures silky with fescue in the afternoon light.  The place was proportioned to cinematic beauty, bordering on cliché.  We forget.  Homesteaders often are architects, without the papers to prove it.  I explained where I was from, that I was a writer, that I’d wanted to do this since I was a little girl, and that at my age, I better do it while I still can.

            “That—is—for—sure,” Andrea said.           

            Andrea showed me a drain-back faucet poking up from the ground near her well house and bent over and unspooled a garden hose.        

            “I’d better get back to my centerpieces,” she said.  “My daughter is getting married in two days.”  That was the first hint she gave that I had interrupted a major production with a tight timeline, which I would learn included floating silk flowers in dozens of mason jars of pink-tinted water.

            When she left, I returned to the pile of my life in the grass, confused.  I was still for the first time all day.  My eyes lost focus on the saddle bags.  What to do first, second, and third?  I hadn’t horse-camped in 30 years. 

            A routine emerged from this speechless gap:  First, spray Chief clean with the garden hose; second, hide behind the barn and bathe from our collapsible bucket and change into t-shirt, shorts, and sandals; third, wash my riding clothes; fourth, massage fly repellent into every inch of Chief’s coat. 

            The pile of nylon saddle bags in the grass looked like overstuffed couch pillows.  They rose behind my saddle when I rode, so I had to kick like a ballerina to clear them when I mounted, and they draped behind my legs.        

            The top pack contained light things, like the cylinder of my one-man tent, blow-up sleeping pad, silk mummy bag, extra set of riding clothes, backpacker’s bath towel, red silk boyfriend pajamas, seven silk panties, each embroidered with the day of the week (donated by Mary Green Lingerie, thank you), t-shirt, one pair of shorts, and Teva sandals for walking around in camp. 

            The saddle bags were distended with a gallon Ziploc of Nutrena Powerboost supplement for Chief, nuts, seeds, jerky, foil packets of tuna and salmon, Kind grain bars for me, travel toothbrush and paste, cortisone cream, hormone replacement, Ibuprophen, motel soap, travel shampoo, two-inch mirror, mascara, lipstick, eyeliner, small brush, two sizes of Band-Aids, sunblock, antibiotic cream, Visine, dental floss, bug-bite ointment, a hair pick, a week’s worth of multi-vitamins, manicure scissors, nail clippers, disposable razor, emery board, ophthalmic ointment for Chief, and a tube of travel deodorant, all in a gallon bag.  Another gallon Ziploc contained the folded pages of the poem “The Eve of St. Agnus,” by John Keats, whose 42 stanzas of nine lines each I planned to memorize during my ride.  Another contained signed documents from my veterinarian proving Chief tested negative for equine infectious anemia and noting his recent vaccinations.  The saddlebags contained boot lace for repairs, a collapsible bowl, Goal Zero solar charger, which I would use to charge my phone, if I had no access to electricity, and The SPOT Personal Tracker—a satellite GPS that could provide location-based communication to family, though I hadn’t yet figured out how to use it. 

            Also in the saddle bags I stored a feedbag for Chief, my bottle of biodegradable soap, and a Gerber brand Bear model camp knife with five-inch, Bowie-style blade with serrations, a spare four-inch-by-eight-inch spiral steno pad, two spare giant plastic garbage sacks, a roll of extra zip lock bags, and a gallon bag with an inch-thick pile of baby wipes, not to mention miscellaneous items that at the end of my first day I would soon would have scattered in the grass, while looking for the one thing I actually needed. 

            Small side pockets held hairbands, sun block, my all-purpose tea towel (used for washing myself, Chief, and my fork) and Chief’s special treats:  individually wrapped prunes, his favorite.

            Strapped around my thigh was a flip phone in a holster (so it would be attached to me and not in a saddlebag in the event Chief decided to divorce me), and in my bra was a brand new iPhone, which my stable owner had urged me to keep against my skin.  That morning, as I was loading up to leave, Lani Moritz spoke to me over her arm through the window of her pickup.  “You won’t be able to hear an AccuWeather tornado warning when you’re riding in the wind.  You want it against your skin so you can feel it vibrate.”  So I put it in my bra.  She said that after telling me about a lady she knew who got hit by a car and killed on a trip like this.

   

            That evening I sat alone inside my tent on another woman’s land, unmoored on a becalmed prairie, without a barometer or telescope.  I called my best friend, Tatiana, in Nevada, Missouri.  She was the only person I wanted to speak with the first night of my trip—not even my husband.  Tanya sounded surprised to hear my voice.  She had forgotten I was leaving on my trip that day. 

            None of my husband’s and my friends were thinking about me.  They would see me again weeks after I returned and comment, perhaps, “Oh that’s right!  How did your trip go?”  I decided that tonight and every night, I would “zip my tent and pray alone,” and record in my notebook gifts too intimate to share:  a cross in a ditch, a bucket of water, and a three-acre pasture for Chief. 

            The world turned its back to the sun so slowly I began to realize no amount of straining my eyes would help me find my pajamas, the pen I dropped, the headlamp in the jumble of bags and boots inside my tent.  I felt for the items that came from my pommel bag, which would remain tied to my saddle.  Its two sections held my most immediate needs: extra baby wipes, pen, headlamp, reading glasses, this week’s map, coin purse with ID and credit card, snacks, notebook, and my 31-year-old son’s Ruger .38 caliber handgun, that he insisted I carry.  These things I had tossed into the tent earlier, and now I felt for my headlamp in the dark.  I squirmed into my silk pajamas and clean socks, blew up the small, heat-reflective sleeping pad and began arranging the mound of bags and boots that filled my tent. 

            I scooted and shifted up and down, side to side, until the lumps in the turf corresponded with muscle, not bone.  There was no barrier between me and night birds.  It was not yet pitch black.  I pulled on my silk eye mask and squeezed foam plugs into my ears.  An hour later I awoke in pain from a rock under my hip, and the cold, and turned and pulled on my riding tights.  Sometime later, I awoke and dragged my saddlebags under my knees and lay on my back to relieve my hips and shoulders.  I pulled on my sweatshirt and windbreaker.  Later, I awoke to pee in the wet grass behind the well house, which shaded me from the yard light.  I dragged into my tent the dew-damp rain poncho that I’d used for a door mat outside the tent and curled under it.  I awoke and found my top pack and pulled out my extra clothes for a pillow, and dozed, shivering, until just before dawn.

 

            I was stuffing away my tent at 6:00 a.m. when Andrea came out and proclaimed I would share breakfast potatoes and eggs with her and her mother. 

            I entered her home through the back mud porch—for friends and family.  Andrea had replaced ancient cabinets with walnut modern cousins, which by now were 20 years old and surrounded two sides of the square 15-foot-by-15-foot room.  Her counters were arranged not with decorative lanterns or ceramic pineapples, but with the implements of cooking and canning and freezing and office work in a farm house of the vintage before there were closets.  I had walked past the chest-style deep freeze on the back porch, like mother’s had been on our own back porch, full of beef I had helped calve, and vaccinate, and castrate.

            I felt snugged at Andrea’s table at the nerve center of this single-woman’s farm.  Another woman, showing me the way.  Andrea’s thin mother sat across the table from me.  She had freshly dyed black hair through which I could see her scalp all around.  She had little to show for eyebrows and a fair, unlined face punctuated by red lips that either she or Andrea had painted.  Her brown eyes looked bright with the mystery of her world, which she seemed to be observing for the first time.  In other moments, she regarded her daughter with familiar dominion.  “Mother is staying with me now.  She has cancer, and she needs to be here for a little while.”  Andrea glanced to my eyes with a look that said, for the rest of her while, and said in the same breath, “I would certainly love to do what you’re doing.  I’ve always had horses.”

            “You’re lucky to have this property,” I said.  “I always say I traded 75 acres for 75th Street when I moved from Nevada, Missouri, to Kansas City for a job.  I miss having land.”

            She raised her eyebrows as if I clearly had forgotten what that was like.  “I had a manufacturing operations management job near Paola,” she said.  “I got laid off in ’07.”  (That was five years earlier.) 

             “I’m sorry,” I said.

            “Thanks.  I’m one of many.  Fortunately, I’d already restored and paid for this place.  I’ve had to sell all my horses, though.  I make a little from the cattle—and we have the beef.  “I’m doing contract office work and bookkeeping around the county,” she said.  “It’s not where I expected to be.” 

            Five years after the Great Recession, rural Miami County, Kansas, had not begun to bounce back, or slink back—nor was it likely to.

            After we ate, my host led me into her small living room.  She wanted to show me her saddle.  In the corner of the room, among overstuffed suede sofa, recliner and wood stove, sat a custom western saddle on a polished, wood stand. 

            “I’m sorry for the dust,” she said      

            I touched her arm.  “It isn’t as if you’d expected me.”

            Her name was engraved across the Cheyenne roll of the saddle—the leather binding that topped the back of the seat.  Deeply carved oak leaves trailed down its fenders.  The leaves had been worn shallow by her calves.  The suede seat had been burnished in a V by her seat bones and thighs.  She crossed her arms and tilted her head, a finger over her mouth, as did I.  We might have been praying.

            In the weeks before leaving on my trip, I had kept my own Ortho-Flex #002 Paso Royal saddle on a polished stand in our small living room, just like Andrea Miller’s.  She and I would glance at them from our kitchens as if they were babies that might at any moment roll over for the first time.

            “It’s beautiful,” I said.

            “It fit me like a glove,” she said.  Past tense.

 

            Outside, I finished saddling and loading Chief.  The farmland stretched away to the horizons.  The sky had opened its doors—a soup kitchen of light.  I filled my canteen from the hydrant in front of Andrea’s house, half-full so it wouldn’t pull my saddle off center.   I stood on Chief’s left side, known to horsemen as the “near side,” from which one typically mounts.  I gathered his reins and lifted my foot to waist height to gain a toe-hold on the stirrup.  Andrea watched to see whether Chief was well-trained—would stand still for me to mount.  He rocked, forward and back.  I lowered my foot, slid his reins through my left hand to tighten them.  I grasped mane and reins, barely able to reach his wither while I raised my left foot again. 

            “Stand,” I said.  If Chief could have rolled his eyes, he would.  Instead, he started walking.  I hopped on one foot.  He swung to get out of here, away from Andrea’s disgusting Angus cows, away from the woods where he’d spent the night.  Get out of here, to find a reasonable person with a horse trailer to take him home, or to fly back up the road to his pasture.  Move, he said, let’s move; I’ll run all the way home. 

            I swung my right leg up and over the top pack, fished for my off-side stirrup while he took his first steps, butt-tucked, suppressing a 20-mile dash.  I forgave him this dangerous act, because of what I had put him through on his first day and night; because he knew what to do; and because as with any kid, you pick your battles for a time and place where you know you can win.  At our first crossroad, Chief had forced me to tell him three times to turn south, away from his pasture, instead of north.  Giving and taking with reins, squeezing legs, step by step, I insisted we would not go home, which confused and revved him, lacking a herd, or bond with the woman in charge.

            My fellow horsewoman didn’t tell me to be careful as I rode away.  Good horsewomen don’t do that.  They know it’s a risk every time you mount up, regardless how far you’re going.

 

(End of Chapter 3)