I’m riding my sorrel companion down a two lane backroad through northeastern Tennessee. In Texas, they would call it a farm-to-market road. Sometimes it has a grass shoulder to ride on, sometimes not. The road has seen better days, but it retains its utility and manages to serve its original purpose of providing a means of driving farm vehicles (tractors, combines, cotton trucks, and others) across the local countryside without interfering with those driving on the main roads and highways. There isn’t much traffic along this route, save for the occasional car or truck that passes on its way to or from town.
Gizmo trots smoothly in a gait practiced over months. The journey has covered more than three thousand miles so far, and his long pasterns, sloped at graceful angles that match his shoulders, allow for an easy and effortless pace that covers ground at roughly seven miles per hour. At this rate, we meet the our usual limit, twenty miles per day, within three or four hours, depending upon how much time I spend on the ground, walking, and leading him, or how often a motorist stops to take our picture and talk. The days are getting shorter and because of these frequent interruptions, we often stop short of our twenty-mile goal when we run out of daylight. The long-range goal—the finish line at the Atlantic Ocean in Virginia—is still a good way off, and I view the long ride less as a challenge and more as a chore now, less as something to overcome and more as simply something to be finished with.
Today follows the pattern of the past few. After several news stories on various Nashville television and radio stations, and with the publicity accumulated from local newspaper pieces back through Tennessee, Missouri, and Arkansas, it’s difficult to find any time to myself. Aloneness is a thing of the past. I have once again taken to hiding in cemeteries at night—that is, when I can sneak my horse into one without being seen. People are good-hearted and well-meaning; they love to talk, and when they’re finished, they wish us a safe journey and caution me against all the bad people out there who would do us harm. So far, the only evidence that those sorts of people exist is on the TV news, and I’m not so sure the news is representative of the America we have crossed. Still, I appreciate the concern for Gizmo and me.
A grey sedan slows down ahead of us and pulls off onto the grassy shoulder. The road’s shoulder is invariably filled with broken glass and discarded beer cans, and I don’t allow my horse to trot there. I wonder how many of the cars that pull off for us will drive away with punctured tires, but there are too many who want to talk, and I have given up trying to warn them. The driver of the grey sedan doesn’t exactly climb out of his car. Rather, he seems to unfold himself as he emerges. He is enormously tall and has a thin, wiry build. It is a mystery how he managed to fit into the car at all. As the man approaches, Gizmo stops automatically, having trained himself that this is now the daily routine. When someone speaks to me, Gizmo knows he’s supposed to stop. The driver is in his fifties or sixties. He introduces himself, and I reach down to shake hands. I remain in the saddle as we chat for a while about the ride, about Tennessee, and about other things. He says he’s a farmer and that his place is just up the road. He offers us a place to stay the night. I normally turn these offers down, but when he mentions feed and a stall for my horse, I’m sold. After our chat, he gives me directions, and I thank him. Then he folds himself back into the sedan and drives off.
Three hours later we arrive at the entrance to a large estate. Once again I am reminded of the irony of my mode of travel, and of my skewed worldview from the back of a horse. The man had probably driven here in less than fifteen minutes. I pull the slip of paper from my jacket pocket with the directions written on it because I think I am mistaken. The address is the right one, but this place isn’t a farm—it’s more like an eighteenth century plantation. The fences are rock walls, like many we have seen all through this country—made from the rocks and boulders that were removed from the land to make it tillable. The rocks were laid by hand without mortar. These fences were built long before the Civil War, most likely by slaves. They probably look much the same now as when they were made. It doesn’t look so much like a plantation as it does a movie set, something you’d see in Gone With The Wind. I’m still not sure I have found the right place, and I check the directions on the paper again.
I had a picture in my mind of a weathered barn nestled next to an old frame farmhouse, some corrals, and maybe an outbuilding or two for tools and storage—the sorts of farms we have been riding past lately. Instead, I behold a magnificent two-story Antebellum mansion, its huge white columns supporting a covered porch that wraps around the entire second floor, a porch meant to duplicate its counterpart on the ground floor. The windows are as big as hangar doors. Those on the front of the elegant gabled dormers that perch above the second-story porch serve to define the house’s roofline and suggest a third story. The structure continues to pull my eye upward until it comes to rest upon the widow’s walk, augmented by a glassed cupola, which boasts a cast iron weathervane in the shape of a sailing ship.
As we make our way up the tree-lined drive toward the house, I see a large stone two-story building off to the right behind the main house. I guess (correctly) that it must be the stable area (something I have always referred to as “the barn,” though that would be woefully inadequate in reference to a building such as this). It is a splendid structure—nearly as large as the house—and rests in the shade of several very large trees. The pitch of its shingled roof is drastic and does not match the gentle slope of the main house’s—the first clue that this structure predates the house by many years. Its enormous windows are set well back into the walls, and yet I can see that they are closer to the outer surface than to the inner, and I realize the walls are massively thick. The second-floor windows are arranged in pairs around the building, with small porches hung beneath them. The large pair of sliding barn doors stand open at the stable’s midpoint, allowing the autumn breeze to regulate both temperature and ventilation inside.
As we approach the house, with its circular drive in front, the tall man emerges from the enormous double doors that mark the residence’s main entrance. With him are two black men dressed in the uniform of house staff, and an elegantly dressed woman about the same age as the man. He gives instructions to the two men, one of whom takes the reins as I step down from Gizmo. The other extends his hand—at first I don’t know why—and motions that he wants to take my backpack for me. As the first man leads Gizmo toward the barn, I notice that he leaves slack in the rein and does not pull on the horse, but allows him to follow. The rein continues to hang loose as the two walk away. Because he does not pull Gizmo, I know immediately that this man knows his way around horses, and I feel better knowing this.
After the owner introduces me to his wife, I follow them into the house, where I find myself in a museum. Huge paintings, which I imagine must be hundreds of years old, cover the walls of the rooms. Through the windows, I can see what a cowboy friend used to call “nekkid art”—statues of nudes from Greece and Italy that I assume are the real thing and not fakes. Some have water fountains flowing from various strategic orifices, and some are employed as garden ornaments. Looking around the room, I see that the dining room table is enormous—twelve chairs around it. I’m told that we’re not in the formal dining room, and this is not the dining room table, but only a secondary one used for informal gatherings. I later learn that the real dining room and its table are much larger.
I am shown to my room, a second-story corner bedroom with a view of the stable area from its private balcony. I can see Gizmo there. He pokes his head through the top half of a stall door, where he munches on a mouthful of hay. He retreats into the stall to grab another and returns. The loose grass drops from the sides of his mouth as he takes in his surroundings.
One of the staff members (butler, servant, help, domestic?—I don’t know how to address him) knocks on my door to inform me that the family will gather downstairs in an hour, and would I like to join them? I answer that yes, I would be happy to, thank you very much. My pack has been deposited on a shelf in the walk-in closet. Miraculously, so have my saddlebags, and I have no idea how they got there so quickly. After a quick shower in the enormous bathroom, I avail myself of the cleanest clothes I have, which, embarrassingly, are not as clean as I wish they were. Later, when I return to my room, I will notice that my dirty clothes have been cleaned and pressed and laid neatly on the shelf next to my pack.
In what is referred to as the sitting room, I find the man and his wife, along with their children. The son is perhaps seventeen or eighteen, dressed in slacks and a polo shirt, his hair meticulous, his teeth white as fresh cotton. He is perfectly groomed. His speech belies the fact that the owner is his father, and the two couldn’t be more different. Whereas the father’s is plain, outspoken, and reveals rural country roots, the son’s is eloquent, reserved, and suggests years of private school refinement. The young man is serious and somber with a severe countenance, as though a lifetime of overly zealous tutors have managed to scrub away any semblance of a sense of humor. He has taken up the mantle of maintaining appearances from his mother.
I shift my gaze across the room to the daughter—a young woman in her early twenties—who sits across from me and eyes me intently. She is silent while the parents establish a formal manner of communication and then guide the conversation toward a more informal one. I marvel at their ability to direct and control the topics of discussion and sense that this is second nature to them. When the daughter seems to feel the time is appropriate, she enters into the dialog freely, being neither shy nor inhibited. In contrast to her younger brother, she is dressed casually in jeans and flannel shirt, her long hair tied back in a haphazard fashion that speaks to functionality more than fashion. A weathered jacket is draped across the arm of her chair. I feel a bit uncomfortable looking at her because she is beautiful, because she looks at me with such intensity, and because her parents are sitting right there.
She says she has been at the stable visiting Gizmo. I can see that she has fallen in love, but I have learned my lesson well. She is in love with my horse and not with me. She overflows with this love and cannot help gushing about him. She admits that she has brushed him and given him some corn and, slightly embarrassed, says that she hopes I don’t mind. I thank her, and she blushes and continues, going on and on about what kind eyes he has, how intelligent he is, and what a marvelous horse he is. She exclaims that oh, what sights he must have seen along the way. I begin to think that maybe she really is interested in me, but decide I will not fall into that trap again and resign myself to playing second fiddle to my horse.
I find myself once more sliding down a slippery slope toward a woman’s charms, and even though I know in advance what the outcome will be, I find myself smitten with her. Still, I try my hardest not to let it show, and I try to include everyone in what I have to say, to avoid steering the conversation only to her. But I know I’m failing, and I know her parents know it too. I decide to keep quiet, but the family won’t let me. I am a captive guest, and finally I give up and try to make the best of it.
The farm, says the father, was built by slaves. They cleared the fields and used the rocks and boulders to construct the walls and fences that surround the place as I had suspected. The stable was part of the original farmhouse that was built in 1781 but was later converted into a carriage house and stalls with slaves quarters upstairs. It too was built using these stones. Some of the house staff still live there. The house we are sitting in was built in 1821, a hundred fifty-three years ago. It is unimaginable to me to have lived in a place all my life, to have my family’s history linked to the same location for so long. I stare at a large idyllic painting—it must be at least six-by-eight feet—and think that it must be worth more than the combined lifetime incomes of my entire family. I smile when I think of that.
We eventually sit down to dinner. By this time, the mother has had a few drinks (mixed drinks, but I don’t know what kind) and has loosened up considerably. She begins to compare her husband to me. She says that when he was a younger man, he would not have been afraid to do the sort of thing I am doing, but that now, he has become old and scared. Her complaints become accusations that quickly escalate into a mean-spirited indictment.
I become more and more uncomfortable with this line of talk and change the subject by asking various questions of each of the family members. I ask the father how deep they have to drill for water in their wells. I ask the son what university he is planning to attend. I ask the wife questions about where she grew up. And I ask the daughter what sort of riding she does. This seems to work, and each replies in turn, and it mollifies the wife. The daughter asks if I know anything about Arabian horses, and I reply that yes, I have worked with Arabians but that I’m not exactly an expert or anything. She asks if I would like to see her horses after dinner. I look around the table for approval or disapproval and can’t tell whether it would be inappropriate to accept, or whether it would be an insult to decline. Finally, I simply say, “Sure, I’d love to,” and everyone seems okay with it.
The autumn evenings have been turning cool here in eastern Tennessee, and this one is no exception. After dinner, I grab my worn out denim jacket and walk with the daughter to the stable where I formally introduce her to Gizmo. I can see that he has achieved hero status with her. They say that a smile begins with the eyes, and in her case it’s true. They sparkle when she looks at my horse, and I wish some of that infatuation was directed at me, but I know I will simply bear the ache of being smitten and let it go at that. She shows me two of her Arabian horses—a three-year-old chestnut mare and an older bay gelding—and talks about preparing the mare for English Pleasure competitions and riding the gelding in Park Seat show classes. Having a peripheral knowledge of these disciplines, I am content to listen quietly, watching her eyes as she expounds upon the finer points of each.
When darkness settles, we head back to the house, and she takes my arm as we walk. I don’t want to reach our destination—I want this to last—but once there, we settle into one of the sitting rooms—to me, they all seem like small concert halls—with the parents. Her brother has left, so it’s just the four of us.
The mother seems calm and placated now, and the discussion continues where it left off earlier, but without the tension it held then. I’m not sure why, but I sense the brother had something to do with that, and now that he is gone, things are running smoothly. I enjoy learning a bit about the history of the area, though I realize the viewpoint I am hearing is skewed toward that of members of the ruling class. I imagine its narration would be quite different if recounted by one of the staff.
The evening concludes with the man making an elegant toast to Gizmo and me. Toast making comes easily to him, I observe, and he takes pride in his ability to embellish an otherwise simple expression of goodwill into something eloquent and articulate. I thank them again for their hospitality, and everyone retires to their bedrooms.
Upon entering my room, I notice the bed has been turned down and a comforter has been laid at its foot, in case I might need it in the night. An antique porcelain wash basin and pitcher have been placed on the nightstand beside the bed, along with a small saucer of mints. A servant knocks lightly on the door and asks if I need anything, to which I reply no, thank you. I retrieve my logbook from my pack and take a seat at the desk, where I begin to write about the day’s events. I hear another quiet knock at the door, and I say, “Yes? Come in.” But the door does not open.
I get up to see who is there. I am somewhat taken aback to see the daughter there, although this is not entirely unwelcome. She asks to come in, and I ask if that would be wise, but she brushes past me and into the room. Not knowing what to do, I shut the door and turn to face her.
She has on a silk robe, which immediately causes me to think about what she might or might not have on beneath it, so I blush and turn to stare woodenly out the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of my horse in the moonlight and to take my mind off her. Again I mention that this might be a bad idea, to which she replies, don’t you like me? I tell her that I like her very much, but that her being here in my bedroom isn’t appropriate. I start to say something about her parents, and she interrupts. You have a funny way of showing it, she says.
I am now stricken with fear. As she approaches, I head to the other side of the room, to another set of windows that faces the southwest. While I pretend to be lost in thought (a very lame attempt), she comes up behind and slips her arm through mine, coming to rest beside me and leaning against me with her head against my arm. My mouth is suddenly dry, I take my breath in short gasps, and I realize I have been here before. I remember the water tank back in Arizona. I thought I had learned my lesson, but now I know I hadn’t. This time, I think, I won’t put my arm around her. But she turns to face me and reaches up to kiss me, and one thing leads to another.
The next morning, I am in the saddle, and I bid our farewell to the parents. The son is nowhere to be seen, but I spot the daughter through an upstairs window. I try to keep my cool when she blows me a kiss, and I reply discreetly by tipping my hat and nodding. I turn my horse down the tree-lined drive and back onto the two lane to the east.
Twenty-two miles down the road, late in the day, we are searching for a place to spend the night. We come upon a lonely tobacco shed that leans to one side in a decades-old fight against gravity and the wind. It is held upright only by the moldy stacks of decayed tobacco piled inside. On its lee side is a pen that houses several pigs. As it begins to rain lightly, I pull Gizmo inside the shed, unsaddle, and make camp that night with our new porcine neighbors. Before I fall asleep, I think about the daughter the night before, and about the pigs who are our neighbors tonight, and I smile.