The Southern Mississippi forests are like something out of a fairy tale. Thick tangled vines writhe from tree to taller tree, spanish moss hangs like moth-eaten curtains, the kudzu has yet to leaf out and covers whole areas in shrouds of grey. There are dark glossy green magnolias and slender bamboo, white clouds of dogwood shine from deep in the middle of nowhere, ferns and flowers, mossy banks and exposed tree roots, sunken roads and huge chasms and rifts where the earth just drops away in ragged depths. This last is the most disturbing because it lends an air of impermanence to the very ground I’m riding on, like any of it could just collapse with no warning. My photos don’t begin to do it justice, but I’ve been riding along feeling like gnomes and goblins and strange flying creatures are just on the edge of my vision. The trees are barely hiding their faces and might very well start to speak. I’ve been told that in another week I won’t be able to see into it at all.
Spring moves North at 30 miles a day, 210 miles a week. I’m lucky to be making one third of that distance and am seeing the unfolding in slow motion. Yesterday the ponies and I covered 25 miles, much of it in rain. Today we took the day off and saw that the forest floors were suddenly carpeted in green. In the past week I’ve spent two nights camping out at 27*F and several days i’ve been very grateful for my oilcloth duster and wide brimmed hat. Twice in the past few weeks the area I’m in now (6 miles west of Flora, not far from Jackson, the capitol) has been bombarded with hail the size of baseballs and the damage to vehicles (and windows in buildings) has been extreme. (The body shops figure it’ll take them a year to get to the end of it.) Tonight the ponies are tethered so that they can get under a roof if the predicted storm brings more hail.
Tuesday morning Katie and I woke up in an open barn in a lush pasture with a good fence and an abandoned house. It wasn’t a place that we could stay another day. We had coffee and packed up our gear and went to catch the ponies and Sir Walter. As Katie was grooming Sir Walter she noticed that the area where his girth went was a little tender and swollen and his legs were puffy. She realized that he needed a few days off and that the 10 miles we’d covered were really too much for him while carrying her plus 40# of packs without more gradual conditioning. We’d been planning to stick together up to Oxford and this was a shocking and unwelcome development. Walter had done really well the day before on a 17 mile day when the packs had been carried in a truck and he’d just been carrying Katie. Frantic ‘phone calls were made and suddenly a trailer was arriving and Walter was loaded up and Katie and I said a too-hasty good-bye before Jesse James, Finehorn and I were riding solo up the road again – all of us a bit in shock.
Katie returned to our hosts of the night before to give Walter the recovery time that he needed with plans to then start travelling 5-7 miles a day, leading him at first if need be, as he toughens up for the Journey ahead of them. I rode towards a campground I’d heard was 10 miles ahead, a short day, but it was 1pm already. Landed in a different campground, Rocky Spring, just off the Natchez Trace – well stocked with friendly Canadians who were very patient with my lack of French. The first place I had started to tether the ponies turned out to be carpeted with poison ivy! A hot egg sandwich with BBQ sauce was a treat the next morning before heading onward with no idea of where I’d be spending the night. Sometimes that’s a lovely feeling! A local man directed me to an actual trail through the woods, carpeted in pine needles, fording creeks and twisting and turning up and down hills. Mr. James was catfooting and suspicious at first, head cocked and testing every step. It’s been a long time since we’ve been on a real trail and Finehorn had to be clever to keep the packs free of the vines and trees, but soon enough we’d rediscovered the knack and then too soon we were back on the roadside and heading to the Crossroads Store where two different people had recommended I stop for lunch.
I tethered the ponies on grass and clover out back, walked up the front steps and into a bar. Not what I’d been expecting. There were people sitting on most of the bar stools and when I walked in they all stopped talking and turned to stare at me. Nobody smiled. Nobody said hello. This was starting to feel like a scene from a movie that I probably wouldn’t want to watch. I walked up to the counter and ordered a cheeseburger. “Fries with that?” “Why not – and a Dr. Pepper please.” The man behind the counter went to start on my order and I went off in desperate search for the ladies loo. There was one bathroom and as I approached the door a large man in overalls came out. I went in, sat down, and was looking at a large blue tupperware tub full of – crickets? Distinctly Odd. I returned to the counter and people started leaving until it was just the man behind the counter, a very thin woman and me. I made eye contact and smiled at her. “Not from around here, are you?” (This has replaced the “You lost?” that I got in TX and OK.) “No ma’am, riding across the country with my ponies and was told this was a good place to eat lunch.” Well – suddenly she was friendly and the next thing I knew she’d called her uncle and sorted me into a place to stay for the night up the road a piece.
The next morning, I’d been riding for an hour and 1/2 when a trailer pulled up behind me. My hostess of the night before and her neighbor got their horses out and rode the rest of the day with me. It was great to have the company and the day fairly flew by. That night found me in a building that used to house exotic birds and the ponies in a pasture that they loved so much that they literally begged me to linger. Finehorn went straight into the pond, belly deep, flopped down and rolled. When I rolled down the truck window en route to the grocery store and called to them they cantered and pranced along the fence, bucking and playing and soooo happy.
Saturday I was riding by 10am. I had a few ideas of places I could ask about stopping for the night. I had a ‘phone number of a woman my sister-in-law went to high school with who is now living in Madison. As I was riding through Edwards a beautifully dressed black woman told me to wait and went into her house. I assumed she had gone in for her camera but she came out with a handful of Easter candy! 🙂 “Happy Easter” was a great surprise! My sister’s friend came out with her family and brought a picnic lunch and abundant treats for the ponies. They then rode ahead and checked distances with their odometer and called me – yikes! – quite a bit further than I’d been told, but I figured I could still make it by dark. About 5 miles from my destination a van pulled up next to me. It was very full of black men who asked me where I was going and if I was ok or did I need any help. They had a very different accent than most of what I’ve been hearing down here – almost faster than my ears could follow. They were on their way to pick up a trailer and move a horse and were happy to give me a lift somewhere if I needed it. I told them where I was aiming for and they said it was still quite aways ahead and gave me a ‘phone number. I felt much calmer knowing I had a back-up plan – of sorts.
Half an hour later a pick-up truck slowed down politely as it came up behind me – then revved its engines, blatting through glass-pack mufflers, and zoomed off down the road. The ponies and I all were startled, but aside from half a stride of scoot it was no big deal. Another truck slowed down and rolled down a window. “I hope that made him feel like a man.” I know my disgust came through in my voice. “Yeah, that was really mean” the woman in the passenger seat replied. When I told them where I was going they offered to go ahead and see if the man was home. They came back and said that he wasn’t, but I was welcome at their place instead and told me where the turn-off was. Sweet. Just as I was getting worried about the fading light the truck returned with two young men who put on their blinkers and escorted me the rest of the way in, chatting through the window and making the time fly by. I was so grateful for their kindness, especially since by the time I finally finished the day’s ride it was 8pm and Dark!
This morning I joined the extended family for Easter breakfast, tomato gravy and biscuits with ham and grits. Aunt Debbie presented me with an Easter basket (including a horn I can blow at impolite drivers ;-)) and I had a chance to take a shower. The rain poured down today and the thunder rumbled and grumbled in the not-too-distance. I’m in a cozy shop which coincidentally has a double bed in it at the moment and the ponies are tethered in the back yard. I’ve met more members of this family than I can keep straight – at least 4 generations all living between this beautiful valley and the town of Flora. Monday it’s time to ride on once again.