The ride was my idea, actually.
I was 8 the last time I'd been on the back of a horse, and that was a pony, and we rode in a circle at the Wisconsin State Fair - not exactly a journey John Ford would direct an epic western about.
Not that I was hoping for countryside to open up underneath my feet, all cinemascopey and widescreeny. It's a testament to my tenderfoot-city-slickerness that my idea of big country is set in terms usually reserved for DVDs.
But there was also a century's worth of iconic images weighing down on me - images of men and women that built this country (the west end of it, anyway) on the backs of horses - good men and bad men, brave women and desperate women - all armed with six-shooters and gumption. I wanted me a saddle and a sunset to ride into.
So Honeysuckle said that when we got down to Indiana (to meet her family) she'd show me cows, she'd show me her cool-as-hell little nephew, and that, at 31, I'd get some real, honest-to-goodness trail time with a real live horse.
A notion which, standing next to Dixie - the tall, well-mannered mare her family put all the novices on - seemed like a horrible, insane, very-no-good idea.
The V-Chip, I thought, should filter out John Wayne and Clint Eastwood as well as excessive violence and boobies. Kids, twenty years removed from their televisions, will grow into adults with dangerous, romantic notions of these creatures, adults who no more belong on a horse than chickens belong in bobsleds.
I'm like a lot of folks who didn't grow up around animals - as long as they're smaller and cuter than I am, I've got no qualms. Apprehension, I learned, sets in when they get to be six or seven feet tall, fast, heavy and capable of crushing your sternum if they trample you. A rickety deathtrap of a drag racer is packed with gallons of highly flammable fuel and depends on a perfect symphony of thousands of moving parts - but only moves when someone pushes a gas pedal. Horses, on the other hand - like my friend Dixie - can be free-thinking, easily distracted jittery little fussbudgets who arbitrarily jerk your spine out of its mooring, especially when they’re following 'Suckle's Dad's horse around like it had magic golden apples glued to its ass.
Don’t get me wrong – I’d go riding again in a heartbeat and Dixie was sweet and gentle and only racked my hihowyadoins a few times – I think I’ll be able to father children at some point.
But still. A little harrowing.
Honeysuckle's mom was very helpful, and did best to counter my mood which, as you can tell from this photo, mixed resolve with equal parts apprehension and constipation.
She’s giving me instructions here, almost none of which I heard completely – they were blotted out by my brain humming “Horses don’t like it when you piss on their backs. Horses don’t like it when you piss on their backs.”
That’s 'Suckle's nephew Hunter in the lower left corner. Don’t be fooled by his adorableness – he was trying on my jacket earlier, just in case he could peel it off my paralyzed form if I happened to get bucked into a ditch.
Originally, this was actually the only photo I was going to post. I’m looking relatively calm and urine is not dribbling out of my pant leg. Looking at this, you’d almost think I’d been doing this all my life.
So we set out down the road from 'Suckle's family farm and moved across a few fields - all the corn had been chopped down, and the late autumn air and the sunshine and the easy grade of the ground made for a very pleasant ride. A couple of fields and ten minutes away from the house, I'm ambling along, sitting high in the saddle, wondering if the dogies needed tending and when Rusty would stop the drive and fix us some vittles.
'Suckle's dad led us into some trails he'd built on his property, and into the trees we went, ducking under branches and the death-clench I'd been putting onto Dixie's back loosening to the point where my feet were up in the stirrups. I found myself relaxing in a earthy, rein-fitted mobile Lay-Z-Boy. It seemed like hard-core horse people - a class of folk I'd always regarded with bewildered contempt - had the right idea. The boots, the gear, the stables, the money - they seemed so ridiculous before. So necessary now. They say the world looks different from the back of a horse - but they forget to tell you that it changes forever, also. There are farms all over the Chicago suburbs. Numbers and futures tumbled together in my mind, trying to find space for a dream of a creature, and all the illusory freedom it could provide.
And then there was the creek.
'Suckle's Dad's horse, JoeBee, made a sharp left turn, and instead of moving up a gentle slope, we headed for a stream - shallow, about the length of a medium-sized sedan. Dixie moved in close behind. I looked for the path to continue along side, left or right, but when I saw none, I realized, hey! We're going to amble through this brook! I mean, that's what horses do when they come to a body of water they can ford, right? They amble through it, throwing up picturesque sprays of water into the November sunshine, carrying themselves and their rider nobly onto the opposite bank and onward. That's what the movies tell me. That's what "Oregon Trail" taught me. We ain't caulkin' SHIT. FORD that creek, Dixie!
My little dream of the American frontier came to a pants-crappingly tense end as JoeBee came to the edge of the creek, stopped, stutter-stepped - and leapt.
As JoeBee landed and clambered up the steep opposite bank, the word "FUCK" rang out in the November air. Autumn, my favorite season, one that had colored my ride so far with the ochre of fallen leaves and filled my lungs with the smell of woodsmoke and the hills laying down to rest before the winter - autumn had betrayed me. Autumn wanted me to crack my head open and join the leaves, and nourish the earth with my pride, spilled brains, blood and regret.
'Suckle and her sister laughed and laughed and laughed.
Dixie had stuck to JoeBee like flies on shit the whole ride, and I knew what was coming. She would not find the water with her hooves. She would come to the edge, she would follow her stablemate, she would jump, I would fall, and I would die. Away from my family and friends, save one, the one who had brought me here, the one I would curse with my dying breath.
She padded the ground. I slapped my hand down on the horn of the saddle (which, I'm sure, now bears my fingerprints pressed into the leather) and gripped Dixie's sides so tight I'm sure she was thinking I was trying to get my toes to touch underneath her.
And I held my breath, and someone laughed, and the ground rushed up at us, and in a second, I was beside JoeBee, turned around and looking down at 'Suckle and her horse, ambling up.
"That wasn't so bad, now was it?" 'Suckle's Dad asked.
It wasn't, but at the time, thighs buzzing with adrenaline, teeth ground down to nubbins, all I could manage was a squeaky "erp."