Salty Words

The Quest

Excerpt from Tuxedos and Pickup Trucks: Forever Riding on the South Wind

By Bill Thompson

It may sound too sentimental, but horses have probably had as much influence on my life as any human. I’ve bred and raised them, trained them, taken them in the show ring and on trail rides, and worked cattle with them. In looking back on my life, I have searched for those defining moments that tell me about the things I value most. Every once in a while, one of those defining moments comes along and you don’t realize its significance until it’s gone.

*                   *                   *                   *

Up until a few years ago, I kept some horses in a pasture next to my house. One of those horses was Mayflower. During the almost 30 years we were together, she had been a constant through job changes, births, deaths, marriages, divorce, and everything else.

When Mayflower was here at the house, we would often go on rides through the woods that extended for some miles behind my home. It would usually be late afternoon when I got home from work. As I’d walk to the barn, Mayflower would run up to me and nicker (kind of a cross between a snort and sneeze).

I would brush her down good and she would almost go to sleep. (I respond the same way to similar activity.) The smell of saddle leather and hay combined with the vision of slanted sunrays slipping through the walls of the old barn created a calmness — a tranquility that comes from familiarity, a contentment that comes from silence.

Back then, Mayflower and I shared a friendship with a dog named Chip. Chip was a product of impeccable breeding — the result of lust between a registered Labrador retriever and a dashing hound of unknown origin. Chip, Mayflower and I would leave the confines of the barn and pasture on those afternoons on a quest to find…? Adventure has no defined course or destination.

That road that led through the woods was a two-rutted lane lined on both sides by a mixture of pine trees and sweetgum. Some seedlings clung to the edge of the little ditch that ran along the side of the road, as a trickle of water slipped slowly and silently past. The trees were fairly young saplings, having taken seed after the field had last been harvested nearly 30 years ago. Pine needles covered the ground under the trees, and a sprinkling of spiky gum balls created a cover like an auburn-colored chenille bedspread.

The three of us proceeded through the woods one afternoon on an undetermined quest. We in no way looked like a triumvirate from a medieval story. While Mayflower was nothing like a prancing charger, she was much more elegant than Don Quixote’s Rocinante. And I was certainly no knight in shining armor. Unlike the Spanish nobleman, I was clad in a flannel shirt, jeans, and boots. Still, our quest was noble nonetheless.

As we proceeded through the woods, Chip (the Sancho Panza of this trio) would occasionally run off by himself in search of unknown quarry. In a short time, he would reappear, panting from the effort and pleased to rejoin us.

At some point, I decided to take the path less traveled, turned off the wooded road, and began to wind among the trees. I brushed the hanging pine boughs away as we proceeded through the older forest. Many of the trees in this part of the woods had been here for half a century or more, having survived somehow the saws and axes of the timber crews that had been so much a part of the lumber industry in this area. The limbs spread out and created a canopy that generated a shadowy filigree of light as the sun began to go down. Mayflower stepped adroitly over fallen branches, occasionally snapping small twigs.

In a few minutes, we came out into an open area, a dormant field. The late afternoon sun lit the old field with rays of sunshine that burst through the trees. There stood a large oak tree, oddly placed among all the pines. I dismounted and went over to that tree, then sat down beside it with my back against its trunk. I let Mayflower’s reins drop as she stood with her head down beside me. Chip came over and put his big head in my lap. I heard a bird skipping through the leaves and became swept up in peacefulness.

Then I heard the sound of traffic, of trucks and cars as they passed down the four-lane highway only a couple of hundred yards away. The sound did not diminish the moment. Instead, the sudden contrast enhanced the sense of peace I had found. But it was more than a sense, more than a feeling. The reaction was visceral: My body relaxed as the breeze blew and the sun dimmed behind the trees. At that moment, the sound of the modern world was excluded from my mind, erased by the reality of what I had discovered.

Longtime Salt contributor Bill Thompson’s latest book is Tuxedos and Pickup Trucks: Forever Riding on the South Wind (PipeVine Press), from which this is excerpted. He lives in his hometown of Hallsboro, North Carolina.

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