I’ve taken two days off within sight of the Tennessee border. That decision was based partly on weather, partly on a wonderfully lush pasture which the ponies are relishing, partly because we’d just ridden 4 long days in a row, covering 15-21 miles each day – but mostly because I’m finding myself really sad to be leaving Mississippi. I’m not dreading Tennessee. I’m looking forward to Tennessee. I did part of my growing up in Murfreesboro; Dolly and Tinkerbell (a Shetland pony and her foal) lived in our back yard and I learned to ride at the Sikes Farm. But I’ve somehow fallen in love with Mississippi in a way that I never expected. If I’m honest I don’t think I’ve ever done more than drive across this state before, certainly never gotten out of my vehicle to explore, probably not taken a single back road. If I’d met anybody they were probably working at a gas station!
One of the joys of travelling by horseback is that you can’t help but notice the landscape that you’re riding through and the people who live there. I’ve ridden through an incredibly beautiful spring in the past 6 weeks and been welcomed by people who have made an art and a regular practice of being good neighbors. I know, I know, there’s no way to truly know a place by simply riding through for a month and a half, and I’m well aware that there are levels of life here that I’m totally oblivious to but I’ve talked to a lot of people and listened to a lot of stories and kept my eyes open and there’s something here that feels like a good place to call home. I’ve found myself saying things to the ponies like: “I know, I get it and I want to stay too - but we have to make it to Maine before we can come back so let’s get moving!”
Mostly I travel on back roads and try to avoid riding through towns that are large enough to have a Walmart. This is lovely and beautiful and easier on the ponies, but there are moments when I find myself suffering a bit of “culture craving” – not to be confused with “night life” for which I prefer the music of frogs and coyotes. I’d been down in Calhoun County where I was invited to the amazing jam session potluck in Sabougla and discovered the town of Big Creek (60 people and a steak house!) My host told me about needing to replace his front porch and starting the project on Friday afternoon with one person to help. He figured it’d take him a couple of weekends to finish. On Saturday morning 10 people showed up and by that evening the porch was done – and it looks Great! Riding north from Calhoun City I met the sheriff who told me that there’s still a law on the books that no vehicles are allowed on the town square because they might scare the horses. I stayed in a lovely old house where the entire top level of cupboards in the kitchen is filled with mason jars full of canned fruits and veggies. There’s an old-school grist mill that grinds corn (which the steak house in Big Creek buys for their delicious fried catfish and hush puppies). OK – I could go on and on about the wonders of Calhoun County and the people there – but I digress.
I rode North towards the town of Oxford. The ponies were soon deposited in a lush pasture with a pond and I was told I’d be staying in a tractor shed. No worries, I’ve stayed in all sorts of places, why not a tractor shed? Then I walked into the (literal) tractor shed, which turned out to have a posh little flat built in, wonderfully decorated, and was so very grateful that I was going to be able to stay there for two whole days! I’d been hearing about Square Books for several states as “the best bookstore in the South” and I wanted to go browse. When I got to Oxford I learned that it had recently been voted “Best Bookstore in the Nation” which is the sort of thing that I appreciate. I also came to appreciate why Oxford has been named one of the 10 best small towns in America. It’s a university town with seriously great restaurants and an interesting little museum. I got to see Faulkner’s place, Rowan Oaks, and was driven past beautiful homes and an impressive variety of Azaleas and flowering trees (the flowers have been delighting me since Natchez). Unfortunately I totally dorked out and left my camera battery charging in the tractor shed.
And now it is 11:30pm and tomorrow I must rise and shine and pack and ride into Tennessee. The first leg of my Journey I’ll have a mounted escort because I’ll be cutting across 4 farms and it’ll be easier to show me than tell me. The ponies are well rested with full bellies and their coats are glossier every day as they shed the last of their winter coats.