Uplifted by a farm horse

How nice it would be to somehow glide up that steep path, I thought. Then I spotted Jim.

It came to me the other day, as I walked across the pasture to check on a very pregnant cow, that my long-cherished dream of hiking the Appalachian Trail is redundant, distance-wise. I have easily walked its 2,000-plus mile length right here on our 80 acres, probably two or three times over.

It's a rare day I don't traverse at least some of that acreage for one thing or another. Sometimes I shut the door on our road-fronting farmhouse for no better reason than to read or write in the solitude of the log cabin, a half-mile (and one stream valley) back; or to visit an even more remote hut, a two-valley journey that terminates at a little wooden door deep in the hinterland.

There are the horses and cows to check on daily, wherever they may be. The eight remaining members of the once larger dairy herd wander at will over most of the farm, grazing where their heads take them and lending the farm that gently lived-in look that a few contentedly retired animals bestow on a place.

Checking daily on their welfare is an exercise I have always relished, even when it involves a search during the spring-grazing extravaganza. More than once I've covered every inch of the 80 acres without seeing so much as a flicking tail in the green - only, on my next round, to find the whole herd standing smack in the center of the high back pasture as if they'd helicoptered down when my back was turned. Cows move in mysterious ways, and I've covered miles of ground over the years just trying to fathom how such large and slow-stepping animals manage to elude me again and again.

I often strike out for what is approachable only by foot. Depending on the season, it might be wildflowers or morels, ginseng, persimmons, or the tobogganing hill. Walking is such an integral part of my life that I head out the door for the flimsiest of reasons, or for none at all. To wax philosophical: I walk, therefore I am.

And yet, I admit there are times, as I head homeward after a longish tramp, that I gaze at the last long climb to the house and wish for wings. This happened recently as I paused by the creek after an early morning herd check.

I sat on the bank and thought how nice it would be to glide up that steep path under some beneficent external power.

And then I spotted Jim, heading slowly, massively my way en route to the barn for his morning grain. His broad, warm back was just the ticket. Our elder Belgian draft horse felt my gaze and seemed immediately to grasp the intent behind the languid gleam in my eye. No fool, he splashed along the stream absolutely centered between the two high banks I might have used for the advantage I needed to mount him. Then, with a sly backward glance he exited where the banks were too low and sloping to be of any use to me.

Not to be outwitted, I caught up to him at the telephone poles - big ones we'd dragged to the creek for a bridge-building project we'd never quite gotten to. I grasped his halter, stepped up on a pole straddling a low bit of ground, and managed to swing aboard.

The big horse rivals a London cab for sedentary comfort, and his heat was delicious in the damp. We idled there a while as if to discuss destinations - a moot point since I lacked reins. I had little choice in the matter of direction, but I put my trust in his stomach. Finally, he began to move barnward.

I could have walked up the hill faster. Jim paused for long minutes to graze and then to browse amid the sharp lowermost branches of a scraggly cedar. I am sure he knew exactly what he was doing to me, but I was not about to be dislodged. I flattened myself on his back, cheek to neck, until he moseyed out from under the thicket. He turned once, and made a studied show of considering other directions than the one he instinctively knew I favored. In the end, though, the lure of that morning grain carried the day - and me - homeward.

I hadn't really saved myself much effort - and certainly no time. But the sheer luxury of that peaceful warmblooded ride up the hill on a cold spring morning remains with me and won Jim an extra ration at the barn.

Maybe he'll remember that next time we meet at the creek and taxi to the high bank for his fare. It wouldn't happen on the Appalachian Trail, but such are the pleasures and possibilities of home.

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