A writer and visual artist, R. L. Tipton is descended from Scots-Irish, German, English, and Cherokee ancestors who first came into Powell County, Kentucky, as early as the early 1880s -- four generations ago. The Tiptons live in a remote, unfinished cabin on Furnace Mountain with numerous animal friends both large and small.
This time of year, responsible people worry about the roads, and often must wonder if they can scrape up enough cash to pay the heating bill before the pipes freeze up. It's cold, and while Kentucky is at risk for more ice storms than blizzards, it can be uncomfortable. It's hard to see the beauty in something that makes your bones ache and your wallet suffer. That's understandable.
When we were kids, all we saw was a day off from school on occasion. It seemed a fine time to go make some snow cream or slide down a nearby hill on sled of some sort. When you're young and the cocoa's being made by someone who loves you while you deliberately turn into a human Popsicle, getting cold is a lark.
I was the same. It's been many years since I was young and sassy, yet I have my memories of fun. I've slipped and slid using greased cardboard, real metal-runner equipped sleds, inner tubes from a big truck or tractor, or even a sheet of heavy plastic. But my most favorite activity in the winter was to ride a horse on the coldest of days, to take a wild, chilling trip around the lake and into the woods where there was no human to share that priceless experience.
I remember one day in particular, from those years past.
The day dawned bitterly cold; the air seemed to freeze around a breath, like the words or a sigh might fall tinkling to the ground in an instant. The snow was, for once, several inches deep and powder dry. Under it all was a thin skim of ice atop the long-frozen ground. Everything seemed white and ice blue, cold to look at, even, and bright enough to be painful to the eye. I'd been stuck in the house for what seemed like ages, but had only been overnight. And I had my mind made up: today, I would ride.
The crackling cold was only a minor irritation compared to the need to be in the woods, old Bess carrying me along like a feather on the wind, the sharp smells of pine and frozen lake water wrapping chilly fingers around us. The woods were calling. I would have bet every dime my teenage hands could gather that old Bess was just as restless as I; kindred souls speak the same language.
When I left the house, I had on so many layers of clothing that I waddled. The snow was slippery beneath my feet, and hiking boots took care of that nicely. In deference to the bitter cold and the wind chill of traveling horseback, I intended to skip the saddle and use Bess's warmth to aid in preventing frostbite. In the edge of the barn, I stopped to wipe my eyes. The wind was sharp, though the sunlight had turned everything in its path to cold fire. My barely-exposed cheeks were numb, my nose the same.
I began to doubt the wisdom of my decision to ride, and had almost made up my mind to go back home when a golden head thrust over the stall wall, huffing and whickering eager welcome. Cold as I was, I melted. Who could say no to a face like that?
The bridle was on in a trice, and I scrambled, clumsy in my many layers, onto her back. She jigged in place, trying to take the bit and go. I stayed with her, wrapping my legs in the saddle blanket I'd tossed up across her neck. The ends of it fluttered slightly in the stiff breeze at the edge of the clearing, and she reared onto her hinders for long seconds, dancing in the icy slickness with borium-enforced steel shoes. A handful of dark red mane held me up; her winter coat was sleek and full, slippery against my jeans.
We stepped out onto the blacktop road and made our way to the far end of my parent's loop driveway. It was a steep hill, but missed the greater length of icy blacktop base to walk on. I could circle Bess around and go straight to the creek-rocked road to the lake and hill trails. The question, at that point, was not if my sassy old mare would act up, but rather when.
Near the top of the hill, almost to the house, it happened. She began her ritual telegraph of action. Right ear flickers. Left ear. Head turns to the right, then the left. I was breathless... and she wrung her tail just as I grabbed a fierce handful of thick mane.
One more stride....
At the top of the road there, on a level with the house, she thrust her compact, meaty rump skyward, trying to get her head down and buck. Then she quickly recovered and attempted to bolt. I compensated, laughed wildly, and stayed put. She stretched into a lope around the back of the house with both short ears perked up and forward. To the hills with us, she seemed to cry; I feel wonderful and we need to run! If I had come off on the frozen ground, it would have probably meant more than a slight injury. The ground, so uneven, was filled with saplings and stumps all around, and rough stones beneath us. I was young enough not to care, reckless enough to glory in it. The old mare was never old in heart. A fine pair we were, it was often said -- wild eyed and moving like a centaur into battle.
The wind off the lake was razored and so cold it burned. We made it to the tree line and the hills broke the back of the killer wind for us, though the ridge-line trails were blown almost clear of snow. Here and there, tracks of deer or dog showed briefly, the wind keeping secrets in its transparent path.
Bess took the bit in her teeth and I let her.
Blood-dark tail a-flag, she blew hot steam from her nostrils as she pounded the ground with hard hooves. The swing of her gallop up a slight rise reached fever pitch, those short, perfect ears flattened back angrily, furious at not being able to take full flight.
At the top of the ridge, she slowed up, snorting steam and dancing sideways from a cardinal that blew past us. Ears up again, she collected herself into a prancing running-walk, smooth as silk and a joy to sit. I glimpsed a fox in the distance; it went out of sight with something feathered still fluttering in its mouth. A crash of brushy stuff over the hill told tales of a whitetail doe and her fawn startled by Bess's charge up the hillside. A murder of crows cursed us from the treetops, unafraid of the horse where a person on foot would have made all things silent within a few footfalls.
We traveled the whole trail, coming down the backside where a slide had long ago broken the original logging trail, a path set there before the region was ripped of all the primordial forest that once grew on it. The original path makers were the woodland bison, a creature extinct for over a hundred years, perhaps more. The slide was a place best walked on a good day with a stout staff of hickory or sassafras; a horse had to travel it sitting on hind feet and haunches, and it was not for the faint-hearted or inexperienced to attempt while on horseback.
At the bottom, we cut back up into the gap of the Chaney Orchard, long abandoned and grown up. At the ridge again, we caught up with the original trail, headed east and a bit north, back toward the house. About 300 yards shy of the turn to go to the house via the kennels, I turned Bess down a small path, passing the comical "two-seater" outhouse in the woods that Dad built. We slid down the hard-clay path, a coating of white making it all but impassable by dry lubrication.
Back on the road around the lake, we walked sedately, listening to the riot of life alive in the woods when a storm has well and truly passed us by. Woodpeckers pounded, crows cawed, Dad's Beagles tried to raise the roof because an opinionated squirrel hung over them on a dangling branch, scolding the foolish creatures for merely existing. Bess's feet echoed my heartbeat on the snow. A one and a two and a one and a two... as if we were made to think and move as one. The bit jingled and occasionally a steely shoe hit on an exposed stone. I was no longer cold. Neither of us had broken a sweat, but we were warm and happy and calm at soul and in the flesh.
Perfect. It was a beautiful day in Kentucky. A day I will not forget. A day like none the children of today are likely to experience in their lifetimes. A priceless memory to me, a curiosity to someone else. When I think back, I remember a fine old mare who was also my friend.