From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream watersI tossed a bale of hay in the back of the truck. There is a lot of time to ponder life’s mysteries when you’re putting up hay, and I had a pretty big one plaguing me at the moment. How was it possible for so many feather thin looking flakes of hay to weigh a ton when they get stacked up all together? I’d never worked so hard in my life. But it was good. I could see what I’d accomplished. My muscles burned from the strain, and my face burned from the sun. My roping teacher and rodeo hero was there with her husband, him sliding me the bales and grumbling about the heat. “When it’s cold you can keep putting clothes on, but when it’s hot there’s only so much you can take off!” Every time he shared a piece of life wisdom like this one, his white handlebar mustache twitched a little bit, although less at moments of extreme concentration, such as when he nodded in agreement with his wife’s advice that if I’d pour less cereal in my bowl at a time it wouldn’t get soggy before I was finished eating it. The tidbits of advice were freely given in addition to the team roping lessons I’d sought this couple out for. These days added fuel to the fire that had been ignited years ago at the rodeo when I had my first stirrings of what I now affectionately refer to as my H4 dream. Husband, Horse, Hound dog, and a Home. The husband that loves me deeply, and loves God deeply, and that can be a best friend to me and my family and a father to a family we one day have. A horse, preferably an adopted Bureau of Land Management mustang that I’ve trained using Monty Robert’s methods, and that I can ride through the fields of eastern NC. A horse that I can whisper too and connect with so well that I barely have to touch the reins, relying instead on the intuitive brains of a cow horse that can read a steer’s mind. The hound dog to name Rhett, reminiscent of both the time I went fox hunting with red jackets, hounds, and horses, and after Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind, because for all its sins and problems, I love the Southland, and forever wish I was in the land of cotton.
***You had to recognize voices. It was too dark to see faces. The kind of dark only the country can muster. Dark as pitch, and as unchanging as the nose on my yellow Labrador retriever. I heard the reassuring sound of F’s voice close by, and knew I was not alone in this realm where there were no rules. My comfort grew as I shook the hand of a worker who looked to be about my age, and introduced himself in familiar words. J was soft-spoken, which went well with his gentle demeanor. He was patiently listening to what the other organizers and I had to say, asking good questions about the wage and safety problems he was facing, and the ways in which he could act to change his future. The brief illumination from passing headlights revealed his youthful face and intricate tattoos spanning up and down his arms, a few of which even crept up his neck. A truck driver during the year, a single dad with two small kids, working in the fields in the summer, documented and unafraid to stand up, the soccer superstar of the night. J became a father to his first child at 15. The mother was nowhere around. Family was far away. Raising two kids at nineteen, alone. Doing life best he could by himself. The kids lived with him in the labor camp, surrounded by the harsh environment, yet deeply cared for. J spoke great English, but his best speech was what he left unsaid, instead choosing to show through his actions: Circumstances don’t define you. Love does.
This land was made for you and meThe spinach green roof was jarring next to the tan walls and the giant pepperoni pizza painted on the side of the crumbling building, which seemed to assure clientele the edifice did not serve the same purpose as the Laundromat across the street. With a name like the Four Seasons, it also had to work hard to prove that it was not a motel, and with a location in a part of town people often feared to venture into, a great deal of stock was placed in the alluring artistry of that pepperoni pizza. I had been drawn in, and there I was, sitting in a booth with a girl about my age who worked in the fields nearby, her five year old son, and a few fellow organizers who were complimenting me incessantly. It had been that way for the past few days: endless dinner invitations, praise about every move I made, even the failed ones. I had apparently acquired Midas’ touch in their eyes. It was sweet, but I knew none of them were actually romantic gestures, but rather simply attempts by thoughtful friends to comfort me and try to be sure my self-esteem wasn’t too damaged in the aftermath of my platonic summer romance derailing. A few of the older men picked up on the fact that I was hurt by everything that had unfolded and were doing a great job of trying to dream up a prince charming for my future. Right then I was looking into the face of a man who worked in the fields from childhood to adulthood, and then joined the union to help his brothers and sisters voices be heard in the fight to stop the rampant abuses. We’d worked together all summer, yet he remained a mystery to me. I couldn’t read him, as hard as I tried. His gelled hair was perfectly in place despite the summer heat we’d been out in, and was a neat contrast against the barbecue sauce oozing off the chicken wing he held between his fingers. He cut off some joke I was making, waving his hand in dismissal, looked at me with a piercing gaze, and said, “Laura, I’m not trying to brag, and you might not think it now, but when I was young I had a lot of girls. But I’ve only ever said I love you to two women. One of them is my wife…I don’t think beauty has anything to do with appearance. Beauty is an internal thing… Some people think love is about the sex. Or the conversation. Or something else. But it’s not about any of those things. It’s about the little things. My wife, I just want to be in her presence. It makes me calm and I know it’s all okay when she is there.” So that was what my new friends and I did. All summer. Basked in each other’s presence. In the parking lot, in the trailer behind the office, in the Mexican restaurant across the street, under the awning by the taco truck, on my tailgate; we didn’t care where. So long as we were together. We just wanted to hold on to each other in the midst of the hatred we were witnessing. We needed each other. And we still do.
***It was bitter cold when the wind blew, and I was thankful for the flannel lined coveralls a friend had let me borrow. Those of us in charge of the guns and hounds stood by the four wheeler that we had used to venture down the narrow path when the truck could no longer fit between the trees, kneeling down to look for more tracks. Coyotes. Around here somewhere. Disappointingly not the fox that the hounds were still trying to sniff out, but cute coyote pups. Who can resist a puppy? My lesson in tracking got interrupted as we got a call over the short wave radio. A rider had been thrown from her horse, and we needed to get there fast. We made our way back to the truck and sped over there, weaving through fields, diving up and down in ditches. The truck came to a stop as we got to the cloister of riders and horses, their red jackets and black velvet helmets making them easy to spot in the barren winter fields. “Go get the horse!” I received my orders, and went right over to the horse that had thrown its rider. A young gelding who looked terrified. I didn’t blame him. Just moments before, he was walking along minding his own business and the cues he was receiving from above, when all of a sudden he saw a fuzzy brown flash and felt something graze his stomach that reminded him of an electric weed eater. If a deer had run between my legs like that, I would have freaked out too. I slipped my fingers under the corner of his leather bridle, and saw his ears go forward as he began to evaluate me. I pulled him a little closer and started rubbing his neck and whispering to him. It didn’t matter to me whether or not he understood my reassurances. I could feel his breathing slow down as he realized I wasn’t offering answers to what had just happened, but was instead telling him that I was going to stay right there, and that it was going to be okay. Really, it was going to all be okay. I wasn’t going anywhere. We were going to work through it together.