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|Publisher: Meadowlark (July 2020)|
ISBN (print): 978-1-734-2477-4-9
Purchase: Meadowlark Bookstore
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He was the size of man who could throw open a heavy, plate-glass door with his thumb. He was wearing a ball cap, a short-sleeved T-shirt, denim overalls, and fabric-and-rubber, ankle-high work boots. My horse, Chief, followed me nicely, albeit sideways, staring at and absorbing the foreignness—and by that, I mean stench (Chief’s term)—of the burros across the road. Chief, like all horses, was brain wired to believe he was a prey animal the size of a rabbit, so everything unfamiliar, like burros, probably was deadly. For that reason, I had dismounted and was leading him for comfort. I had owned him only two months. He didn’t know me yet.
The man was watching me from his riding lawn mower, canted at a thirty-degree angle on the ditch he was mowing in front of his house. I strode straight toward him and smiled brightly and waved in order to melt the guarded expression he wore that told me he wasn’t sure how friendly he should act toward a strange woman. Too friendly, a woman might feel threatened; but friendly means polite in this country, so I believed he was torn. A fifty-four-year-old woman leading a horse loaded with saddlebags, rope, canteen, and collapsible bucket through waist-high grass on a bar ditch in rural Miami County, Kansas, bore watching.
There was no full dental coverage in this man’s world. Nor likely cashmere sweaters packed away in his wife’s cedar chest while her summer things had been brought out for spring. Like me, everything she owned probably fit well enough into a six-foot-by- three-foot closet. I’d walked toward this man feeling like he was a friend I hadn’t seen in years, which happens among people who’ve haltered horses a thousand times. You can tell horse people by the way they look at your horse. The head goes back half an inch. The eyelids drop, then click on the horse’s hip, legs, chest, neck, head, back to the hind quarters. Then you. If you’ve got a decent horse, the eyes get serious—with respect. He gave me that look.
This man’s eyes were shaded by wraparound sunglasses shaped like stretched-out sports car windows and likely cost him as much as dinner for six in Kansas City. Conservatism applies to utility out here, like his sound-but-rusty stock trailers across the blacktop that more than likely took him and his grandkids to trail rides. There was probably a $45,000 pickup backed out of the sun somewhere.
I answered his questions. I left three days ago to ride my horse alone through Kansas and Missouri. I have everything I need. No, I’m not worried about somebody hurting me on my trip. I needed to get down and dirty and see my country. We gabbed nonstop for fifteen minutes.
“Do what is in your heart to do,” he said, “and you’ll be . . .” What? What did he say? I’m a writer; how could I not have said, “Excuse me, I have to write down what you just said,” and stepped to my pommel bag for my pad and pen? My later notes say, “He could have been a Unity minister.”
You walk up to a stranger and say you’re doing what you’ve wanted to do since you were a little girl, and conversation leaps not to what makes the car payments, but to what brings tears to your eyes. That doesn’t often happen with people you know. He and I had nothing to guard. We might never see each other again.
I could see his intelligence well enough through those orange glasses, so I paid no mind to his remark about not having a lot of schooling, because I already could tell he probably was better read than me. Lord knows, I’ve made such apologies since I gave up hope of finishing college in my twenties, then in my thirties, then again in my forties for different reasons. We know we’re smart, he and I, but we have nothing to prove it. What we do have, we can’t seem to admit.
“I can’t believe in evolution,” he said. “Look around here.”
We both looked around—toward the greening furrows that led in the distance to a bumper of newly leafed hedge, oak, and locust trees mingling their limbs. We stood in silence at the five kinds of herbs my horse snatched and chewed.
“If the big bang is true, then all this perfection and order is just an accident,” he said.
“I know what you mean.”
I did. Of course, I believed in natural selection. There also seemed to have to be a God, one way or another; though in truth, I think my atheist friends are smarter than I am. Maybe they would not think of me as an idiot if they could feel this presence—capital P—that I feel.
The corners of his mouth jerked down. He flicked both cheekbones under his sunglasses with the tip of his index finger. I pretended not to notice his tears.
In the thirty years I lived in the country, I never felt threatened by my dear friends and neighbors who thought there was only one way to interpret the Bible, and that my way was wrong and lethal. The worst that could happen was they’d pray for me and feel sorry I was going to hell.
The girls at the Christian Church in Hume, Missouri, where I attended high school, had never known a Lutheran before meeting me, but they knew one thing: I had not been properly dunked. Nor had I come “straight way up out of the water.” I hadn’t made a decision. I’d been given cheap grace by my church, so after trying to get me to come to their church and be saved, they invited me to a revival at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin, Missouri. I was sixteen. This was the culmination of months of prayer and discussion among them on my behalf. The dark auditorium and the music, my best friends straining toward the lights on the stage, and the call to action, lifted and carried me forward, a spirit, out of my reasoning mind to become a silent observer, above. I floated toward the stage and hovered.
I had learned to hover that way as a girl, when what was expected fell so far out of line with reason that I could do nothing else. This happened often in the home of my father, who suffered post-traumatic stress disorder from the Great Depression and having been a prisoner of war in World War II, and from being, according to some, a jerk from birth. There is not space here to explore the nature of a father who had never known security but tried to provide it for his own family in a way that seemed as if he were left-handed and all the tools given him were right-handed. I learned to hover when my father lost his temper and Mother smiled at me behind his back, “Nothing’s wrong with Daddy. Don’t you say there is.”
I registered, and floated, in silence.
At the revival, I was given a cotton gown and dressed behind the stage curtains. I was led forward in a line of other teenagers. We approached a small pool that reminded me of a feed lot’s concrete dipping trench full of liquid pesticide that cattle are run through to kill lice. Strangers held my hands on either side before the baptismal pool. I descended the three steps and went under where the water washed my nature, which, in the words of the Nicene Creed I learned in catechism, was sinful and unclean. At least I had that concept in common with the fundamentalists.
My friends at the revival cried for me. Once dressed, I even took the microphone and channeled something about having been Lutheran and suggesting that other people listen to what was being said here. That went out over the radio. I boarded the bus feeling like I had just given away my most precious possession—as precious as my horse, Honey. I didn’t speak to anyone all the way home. My best friend looked out the window, bereft, when I wouldn’t talk.
I had undone my religion. Three weeks later, my friend asked me, again, if I had told my parents I was saved. For the first time, I talked back to her—maybe to anyone—“No! I am so ashamed,” I said. “Just leave people alone!” She draped herself over the seat back of the car I was driving and sobbed. It was never mentioned again.
I didn’t hold it against her, and don’t now, but I was stepping away.
Years later, at a friend’s Baptist church, the minister repeated no fewer than six times, “God hates divorce!” My grown daughter put her arm around my shoulder and tilted her head into mine. I had been divorced twice.
God hates? I thought. The Great I Am? The omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent Love—the God-is-love, God—hates? “People,” I wanted to shout, “if we must have a god, let’s not make him need anger management classes like us.”
Growing up, I never viewed my fundamentalist Christian counterparts as anything but dear, regardless how they viewed me. This man on the mower was taking me back home to that time. I wanted to pull him onto my lap, wrap my arms around those broad shoulders draped with his graying hair and say, “It will be okay. Let God worry about the big bang. You and I will take care of the love.” We stood in the gradually building heat, cooled by a breeze that still smelled of morning.
“What is the right-of-way like between here and Block Corners?” I asked. “That’s where I’m headed, to hit as much gravel road as I can going west.”
“It’s not bad. A lot like this. You’ve got some culverts to cross along this stretch. Probably be just as easy to hop up on the road for those.”
“That’s a relief.”
“After you turn and head west, again, on John Brown Highway, the right of way is still pretty good. You’ll go through Henson. There’s nothing there but an elevator and railroad tracks. I’m sure he’ll have no trouble with that.” He gestured at Chief. My horse made me proud, standing obediently, which he always did where two or more humans were gathered.
“He’ll go through anything. He’s been a little freaked since we didn’t turn back for home two days ago. He’s not nearly as brave by himself.”
“None of them are. It’s good to make them go out by themselves. You get through Henson, and you’re still on John Brown Highway. In about two miles, you can cross the blacktop and ride along the bottoms. There’s no fence. It hasn’t rained in a while, so it shouldn’t be sticky. Once you hit Block Corners, it’s gravel for days.”
I recognized the precision of his description as coming from one who had traveled four miles per hour on horseback. He understood the impact of terrain and distance at that speed. I was beginning to understand that he, and others like him, might keep me safe on this trip.
“You need anything?” he asked, looking my saddlebags over.
“Would you pray for me?”
“What’s your name?”
“What’s your horse’s name?”
He didn’t begin to pray righ
“Be careful,” he said.
I mounted up and rode the way he told me.