Monday, July 21, 2014
A note on the floor read: “Good morning, Sam. Could you take my black car and drive to Little Caesar’s and pick up 3 pepperoni cheese $5 dollar pizzas? Turn right out the driveway, then left at the stop sign into town and after 3 lights it’ll be on your right. We’ll be back around 11:30.” A crisp $100 sat next to Donna’s car keys. At 11:00 I bounced out the door and sat behind the wheel of a car for the first time in 8 ½ months. It was exhilarating. Windows rolled down and music on, I sped off to town, noting landmarks as I went so as not to get lost on the way back. I’d forgotten how liberating it was to drive. Cars are extremely fast. I wonder if I’ll ever be impatient again in a car. The whole thing reminded me of California where it seems like all we do is drive with our windows down. And eat burritos; that’s something I realized is very distinctly Californian, the burritos.
I secured the pizzas without incident and managed to call several people in the interim. Sprint has a terrible cell network in Alabama. Back at the house, Donna, Haleigh, Sandy, Nancy, Linda and another woman were waiting and we ate lunch together. Afterwards, I finished Breaking Bad at last. What an epic show! It’s taken me a long time to finish the series because of its brutal intensity. I had to stop watching it twice, once after the second season and again after the fourth. What most people—myself included—find riveting is the transformation of Walt, the main character, from being a good, decent man to the kingpin of a meth empire. His precipitous fall drags out over five seasons and I’m still unsure at which point his noble intentions of providing for his family turned into ruinous ambition.
Haleigh and I fed the horses in the evening again and I returned to my illustrious role of flashlight bearer. As Haleigh was mixing the horse feed, I sampled some of their electrolytes and garlic powder for some reason. I blame Haleigh. She talked me into it.
Sunday, July 20, 2014
MS left today in his Sunday best, a tailored grey suit and his staff carved into the shape of a horse’s head. Dressing up is not an easy task for MS. He joked it takes him a half hour to button his shirt. Knowing what labor went into wrestling with his suit for church gave the Sunday ritual a surprising dignity. He cuts an elegant and handsome figure, a true Southern gentleman. We shook hands and as he strode down the porch steps he turned, looked directly at me and said, “I envy your adventure, Sam.” There are moments in conversations when eyes convey more meaning than words.
Haleigh and I helped Donna with chores around the farm. What I appreciated about staying with Donna was her involving me in the daily tasks and putting me to use. We hung chicken wire around a small area where Donna’s two game chickens could graze without running loose. I’m out of practice with a hammer but by the end I got a handle on hitting staples into trees. I collected chicken eggs from the coop before we returned to the house for sweet tea made with honey produced by Donna’s bees. I love the subtle sweetness of honeyed tea.
Afterwards Donna and I observed Haleigh work the horses. Over the course of many sit-ins on Haleigh and Donna’s work, I had the opportunity to learn how little I know about horses. Haleigh was prepping a horse named Diesel to be ridden for what may have been his first time. Haleigh proceeded slowly and measurably up to the saddle, first stepping into a stirrup, then down. Up then down. After a few times, she applied weight, leaning back to test Diesel’s comfort with what she was doing. Donna’s teaching emphasizes incremental adjustments in behavior when training horses. When a horse moves or acts even a little in the way you want, praise it; horses learn from the release of pressure, not its application. When Donna was in her twenties, she and her friends would leap onto horses with few precautions and utter recklessness because they were young and good at what they did. Their wild approach to wild horses had consequences though and Donna has a long list of broken bones to show for it. She doesn’t want the same for Haleigh and has taught her a new methodology. Older and wiser now, Donna understands the relationship between horses and humans and how best to elicit the right behavior from her charges. She laments the fact that after a lifetime spent mastering horse training, her body can’t act with the same vigor and agility she exhibited in youth but she passes on her knowledge to Haleigh. Even so, Haleigh has already broken a foot and cracked her ribs and pelvis. There were other injuries but I don’t remember all of them. All I know is I’ve never broken anything in my body and I’m 8 years older than her!
At dark, Haleigh and I drove the golf cart to the barn to feed the horses. Haleigh admitted she was a bit afraid of the dark so I accompanied her. Haleigh did most of the chores since she knew what to do but I had a very important job that only I could do: wield the spotlight. It was a nice way to get to know Haleigh better. During the day, Haleigh’s focus on work is in full-throttle and she’s naturally more introverted. But at night she’s loopy with exhaustion from waking up at 5:30 a.m. and working all day and we joked around the whole time as she opened and closed gates, prepared the feed and filled water buckets. Then whooping and hollering in the warm night, we whipped the golf cart around back towards the yellow lights of the house.
Saturday, July 19, 2014
I broke away from my writing with only one reasonably good paragraph to show for the afternoon’s work and decided to walk out to the barn. I saw a girl astride a sorrel horse gliding in a circle, plumes of dust dragging behind them. The rhythm of hooves drumming the earth underlined the horse’s snorts as Haleigh urged him into a trot. It looked as though horse and rider communicated telepathically. Everything Haleigh asked of him, Tristan did and it was beautiful to watch their movement which appeared effortless and unscripted, one long improvisation.
Seeing me, Haleigh halted Tristan and we talked. She told me about her life. Though she’s 14, Haleigh looks and acts like a 19 year old. I have met kids like her before. They are harder to read, more reserved. They have had to grow up faster than others their age in order to survive. Her childhood was cluttered with an alcoholic mom and stepparents, physical and emotional and sexual abuse, fights at school. A boy once pushed her into a fence and she leapt at him, wild with rage, and broke his cheekbone and nose against the pavement. She says she nearly blacked out she was so mad. Her stepmom who would often become violent when drunk and threaten and beat he. One day Haleigh nearly knocked her out with an empty vodka bottle.
When Haleigh first arrived on Donna’s ranch at the age of 9, she was brimming with this tremendous anger and would sometimes take it out on the horses. Upon seeing this, Donna immediately took her aside, sat her down and said quietly in tone that brooked no nonsense, “Now we’ll have no more of that, you hear me?” Donna and Haleigh share a mentor/prodigy relationship but corrective moments like these resemble more closely the bond between a mother and her daughter. I see that bond today though Haleigh has learned to let go of some of her hurt and anger. In my outside opinion, Donna and Haleigh's love of horses have saved her. Through her Christian values, Haleigh also finds protection and strength in God. Now, at age 14, she has recently won the 4-H State Championship and will be competing at Regionals in two weeks. Tall, beautiful and an independent, headstrong tomboy, she loves to ride horses and work, despising "girly girls." She tells me trucks are sexy. Her dad bought her one recently and she plans to raise it up six inches then install a lightbar and a roll-cage. When I would sit and observe Haleigh train, Donna would often say in a quiet aside something like “Sam, you could watch 10,000 riders and not come across anyone like this girl here. She is simply an incredible rider.” Her talent, in combination with her strength of character and spirit, were more than sufficient to awe me. I hope I can see the day when she comes fully into her own and her self-esteem rises to a level more in keeping with who she is. Then we shall see something quite amazing, I should say.
That evening Donna hosted a dinner party and it was a nice gathering of about 10-12 of her friends and neighbors. Sandy, Donna's sister, and their friend Nancy took a particular interest in me and made certain I was comfortable and had plenty of food as well as being flatteringly curious and enthusiastic about the journey. The whole affair was a potluck and there were hotdogs, baked beans, a strawberry and tomato salad, a vegetable stirfry, rice and coconut cake. We all sat outside in a circle of chairs and the evening air was distinctly Southern in ways I can’t pin down. Maybe it was the relief from the intense heat of the day or the fireflies that bobbed above the field. Or the sweet tea Donna infuses with honey produced from her beehive or the accented chatter that sounds so casual and distinctly American. And after dinner, Donna called for everyone to quiet down and she turned the floor over to me so I could tell stories. Since the walk began, I haven’t actually had anyone set aside a space for me to occupy and talk and entertain others. I told them about John and Phoenix and I think I succeeded in holding people’s attention and piquing their imaginations. Such a lovely evening!
Friday, July 18, 2014
I struggled awake at 7:40 a.m. and the sun was already heating the earth. Enfeebled and mentally fogged, I unzipped my tent and wondered how I was going to summon the strength to pack. Probably the only motivation I had bolstering me was the fact that Donna West was driving out to come get me and take me home. If I hadn’t had a place to stay, I probably would have called it a rest day, just found me a nice shady patch of land to sit a spell and reboot. As it was though, I pulled my crap together and began walking towards 191 where I’d arranged to meet Donna.
It was a sweet, sweet moment when Donna found me because it meant the walking was temporarily done. We hugged and I got into the blessed air-conditioned motor vehicle and we spirited away. Donna handed me a slice of pound cake and I reached in the back for a can of Pepsi. Breakfast of champions right there. I turned to consider my host and savior.
I was put in touch with Donna by Traci Rainbolt, a friend whom I met and stayed with in California at the beginning of the walk so it was a special pleasure linking back to a friendship I’d made 8 months ago. Donna is 62 with electric white hair and brilliant blue eyes. She is a renowned horse trainer and gentles mustangs. I imagine the same assertiveness she has with horses comes up in her interactions with people. That, in combination with her wisdom and extensive life experience, led me to harbor a deep respect for her. Donna is informational, upfront and brisk but also kind and sweet and from the beginning I was a friend not a guest.
We drove down a gravel county road that threaded through the countryside and shortly thereafter we arrived at the house. It is tiny but beautiful and very comfortable with a porch overlooking a pasture. Two mules were pulling methodically at the grass. Donna and her husband Vince, who I never met because he was in California, recently purchased the 30 acres surrounding the home and fixing up the place has become a big project. There are several pastures, a pond, a barn and stables for the horses on the property. People bring their horses to Donna for training and she houses some of them although I learned it’s often the people who need to be trained more so than the horses. There is also a circle pen and a larger arena around which the gravel road leading into the property wraps around. It is a beautiful location with many trees surrounding the property, making it feel like its own insular enclosed space. Beyond lies the rest of the world which grows less interesting the more time you spend on the ranch.
Donna has a continual stream of friends coming in and out of her hospitality and when I first arrived I was introduced to her good friend MS. He has cerebral ataxia, a neurological condition that attacks his motor skills and slurs his speech. Walking is a full-time investment of his energy as he must contort his legs and use his arms to grip nearby objects or his walking staff for stability in order to move anywhere. But these traits quickly became secondary to my perception of his character, subverted by his twinkling humor and gentlemanly grace. I got to talking with MS over cake when Donna stepped out and I learned about his life. He first remembers developing symptoms in highschool and he wasn’t expected to be able to hold down a job much less live a full life. Yet he worked 44 years laying floors, traveled extensively and had 4 wives (not at the same time, obviously). The first two marriages lasted each over a decade and the third was good if shortlived but the fourth harmed him greatly. His wife sold everything out from under him, the house, the boat etc. and he lost all. I don’t know what it takes to survive a betrayal like that but it existed in the brilliant man sitting next to me. I liked him very much.
I didn’t accomplish much during the day. I was too damn tired, though oddly enough my body must have been confused by the opportunity to nap and couldn’t seem to sleep. In the afternoon Donna, MS and I had Rolling Rock on the porch and I floated in soft contentment knowing the next few days were going to rock.