She’s from the Piedmont region of North Carolina. A self-proclaimed “hippy cowgirl,” she grew up on a farm. A real deal farm family. Six hundred or so head of cattle. Horses. Goats. Dogs. Cats. Ducks. Pigs. All kinds of shiny, expensive equipment to milk the cows and plow the fields. Open air and vast meadows as far as the eye could see.
By the second drink of the casual conversation at the neighborhood bar in downtown Waynesville, I started to tell some tales of my own, days long gone, but not forgotten, roaming around the farms and fields of my native North Country (Upstate New York/Vermont).
I grew up on the far western edge of Rouses Point, New York. A town about the size of Bryson City, it was the largest village on the Canadian Border in that area, a mile from the international boundary, a mile from Vermont, along the shores of the majestic Lake Champlain.
My childhood home was an 1820 limestone farmhouse (once a working dairy). Behind it a large barn with slate shingles on the roof. Filled with bales of hay and rusty farm equipment, it also housed our horse, Branches, as well as numerous cats and dogs that would roam the seven-acre property (which was surrounded by thousands of acres of endless cornfields).
Located at the end of Smith Street, my driveway was where the streetlights stopped, the good pavement ended, and the smell of manure began. At night, if you looked east from my backyard, you could see the bright lights of the small town, of the (now-defunct) pharmaceutical factory that employed most of the community.
But, if you looked west, all you saw was a dark abyss. No lights, maybe just a random floodlight from some barn in the distance. But, otherwise, no light pollution. No noise. No people. No distractions. To which, my father and I would take our dogs for walks at night along those quiet farm roads, where he’d point out the constellations to me. The night sky was never as bright in my youth as it was on those walks.
Those farm roads still haunt my dreams. Roads seemingly to nowhere. Broken pavement. Gravel. Dirt. I’d lace up my running shoes in middle and high school, bolting down those routes. Miles and miles. Sometimes in the blazing hot summer when the corn was just starting to emerge from the earth. Sometimes in the early fall, the corn now taller than me and ready to be harvested.
Sometimes in the depths of winter, 20 below zero and bundled up in several layers to combat a fierce Arctic wind blowing across the empty fields. It was those icy jogs that were my favorite. Total silence. Just the sounds of your breathing and shoes crunching atop the slippery trek. You’ve never been so cold in your life, but you somehow push through — all while this crazy vibration of time and place echoes through your heart and soul.
And the people. All of those childhood friends of mine whose farms I’d find myself frolicking about on. Shenanigans. Stealing cheap Canadian beers from the barn fridge and wandering the back fields (“back forty”) and tree lines. Kicking rocks down dirt paths through the woods. Watching the cows run across the horizon in search of their dinner back at the barn.
Step into the barn, amid the milking lines, the endless chores to just keep the whole thing running efficiently, or at least for today (tomorrow is always another story). Help feed the animals. Find the wrench or tools that’s desperately needed.
Wipe your sweaty brow and grin in awe of the scene before you. Shake hands with the farmhands and old-timers, salt of the earth ancient souls who have probably seen and felt more than you’ll ever know.
Unforgettable sunrises and sunsets. Brutally hard work to just simply keep your head above water. The undying passion for the land and what it produces. Day in and day out. Onward into the unknowns of the seasons. What may or may not be in your favor. And how best to bounce back from it. Fingers crossed. God willin’ and the creek don’t rise, eh? Admiration remains in great supply for these figures.
These days, I still have personal ties up in that small town on the Canadian Border. Little sister and her family are there. My parents not far down the road, either. Several old cronies from my youth have now taken over their family farms, raising beef cattle or making maple syrup (or both). I’m proud of them all, if anything for keeping the spirit of the place alive and in good hands — deep roots never to be ripped up by those harsh, unforgiving Arctic winds.
And in those rare moments where I find myself physically back in that place, I’ll jump into my old Tacoma and cruise the backroads, this unrolling landscape of pure silence and thoughts provoked, of endless cornfields and dirt roads, and of fleeting sunsets — all eventually finding its way into my restless slumbers in the mountains of Southern Appalachia.
Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.