Heckling started when my childhood friend, Missy, caught me pulling bread bags over wool socks while seated in her kitchen. “What are you doing, Carolinee? I thought that you’d have toughened up after all those years out West. Afraid of a little cold weather?” She gave her deep, trademark chuckle.
“Girlfriend, come visit Colorado and I’ll show you what mountains can do,” I retorted.
Peeking out the windows, Missy continued, “This rain isn’t going to stop. Hope they don’t cancel the ride.”
“They better not.” I chugged the last of the coffee. “Let’s get to the barn before you wimp out.” Missy responded by calling me a name that can’t be repeated here and bracing ourselves, we headed for the door.
Every October since 2004, horse lovers across southeastern Ohio, where we grew up, have gathered to take part in the Warren/Whipple Fall Foliage tour and this time of year I long to return there. In 2007, Missy loaned me her extra gelding, Splash, so that I could participate but the saddle that she borrowed was so stiff it nearly ruined both knees. Unable to finish the route I vowed to return in 2009, that time shipping my own gear. Bandanas, thermals, gloves, cowboy hat, and Australian Outback coat with matching pants were sent too, just in case.
“Good grief, it’s always nice out this time of year!” Missy goaded after the enormous box had arrived at her farmhouse. “Are you expecting a blizzard?”
“Always be prepared,” I sassed back. The worst that could happen in a group of over 100 horses and riders, we did agree, was that someone might get thrown or kicked. Turned out, it WAS the weather that ended up packing the wallop, flipping from 73 to 34 degrees within just a few short days.
Bundled to the nines that morning, Missy, her neighbor Jenny and I saddled our horses in their stalls, half-shouting to be heard over the pounding of rain on the roof. Barely able to lift my oilskin-stiffened leg more than a foot off the ground, I was forced to awkwardly roll into Jennie’s open truck tailgate in order to climb onto Splash, which did not escape Missy’s notice. “Some cowgirl!” she teased, only to get teased back when her own mare, snorting frost clouds, started prancing as Missy’s slicker touched her flanks.
By the time we’d covered the half-mile to the meeting place, the horses were soaking wet and jogging with their heads tilted sideways. “Uh oh, I only count 11 trailers,” Missy observed. “I’ll bet this isn’t happening.” Inside the main building we found 23 equally-bundled people huddled around a propane heater. “You doin’ the ride?” Jenny asked as we joined them.
“Not before the rain stops,” was the reply.
Missy turned to me. “It’s your call, Carolinee.”
It was definitely tempting to go home, but then ... suddenly I recalled her at 14, wearing her father’s coveralls, a baseball cap, and an enormous muffler that half-covered her face, cantering bareback alongside me through deep snowdrifts along the river. As for Jenny, she’d grown up on a dairy farm and was no stranger to being out in bad weather, herself. We could do this. “I didn’t travel 1,700 miles for nothing,” I responded simply, and it was all those two were waiting for. As the others stood staring from the doorway we untied the horses and headed out together.
That morning, it was blowing so hard the leaves were falling sideways. Riding single-file across the slick and muddy trails we eased down slick hillsides; splashed across swollen creeks; quick-stepped up steep inclines; and picked our ways across recently-plowed cornfields. To this day I can hear the sucking sounds of the mud, the steady beat of rain on the trees, the whistle of the wind and the squeak of leather mixed in with the good-natured complaints of my companions. But the truly great part of an otherwise miserable experience? It was just the three of us, and the lifelong friendships made it both fun and bearable, something we’ll never forget.
Frozen nearly solid, we gave in when Missy’s farmhouse appeared. With hands wrapped around hot cups of spiced apple cider, we ventured back outside around 2:00 only after the sun had finally peeked out. Sure enough, about a half-dozen riders eventually appeared on the horizon, and seeing that we’d quit early they hollered “Wimps! Chickens! Cowards!” across the open field. We just smiled, knowing that regardless of the weather it had been one of the best Foliage tours ever. ❖
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