This was written several years ago, obviously, before the post about burying my old friend. It was the second in a trilogy. The first seems to have disappeared over the years. It's a lot longer than most things I post, so I'll understand if many of you don't read it. I'd been saving it (and the other post) for a book, but decided to share them with you, in case I croak without them being published.
Dream as we may, our lives seldom follow the trails that we plot in our youth. That's especially true for those of us who grew up on the farm, and had hoped to spend our lives there. Yet, we who are lucky enough to still have access to the old home place, can often restore our sanity by taking a hunt up the hollow, and a walk down memory lane. Those bittersweet pilgrimages are made all the more enjoyable if an old friend is there to welcome us home.
As my little flatbed growls up the steep gravel driveway, my old friend waits impatiently at the top of the hill, prancing and wagging her welcome. Pulling beside the Civil War era farmhouse where I was raised, I open the door slowly so as not to hit her. As soon as the crack is wide enough, her head is against my left leg and nuzzling my hand. I then scratch behind her ears and we exchange a few pleasantries.
Asked if she’s “ready to roll,” she jumps backward and clear of the truck, her answer obvious. Driving slowly out the hilltop, I watch her loping happily alongside. We pass the big white barn where our Polled Hereford cattle used to spend their winters, and then cruise by the rusting sawmill where my father and I used to make a large part of our living. Finally, we stop at the edge of the Christmas tree field, abandoned only a couple years earlier, but already starting to revert to native fauna. After climbing from the cab, I pull the old Iver Johnson from behind the seat and uncase it. She gets excited at the sight and prances and jumps for joy. She’s learned that the appearance of a tool or gun means I’m going to stay a while.
She gets lonesome since I left the farm and went to the factory. My mother works through the day and feeds her morning and evening, but she doesn’t pay much attention to her. Her life was better back when I still worked here nearly every day. My presence gave her something to do besides lay around and wait for supper. My work here ended when the state’s out-of-control deer herd put me out of the Christmas tree business, since my one-man sawmill operation wasn’t enough to pay all the bills. Now that I punch another man’s time-clock, my old friend and I are lucky to see each other a couple times a week.
After slipping a low-brass #6 in the chamber of the 12 gauge, I start walking methodically through the tree field while she runs everywhere at once, nose in the air, as she seeks any scent. After a few minutes, a rabbit explodes from under my feet, but my old friend hears it and is on its heels before I can get a shot. She promptly chases it onto the neighbor’s property, only 75 yards away. She soon trots back, proud to have driven off the “wascally” trespasser.
Having passed to the far side of the field, we slow the pace as we slip into the small wooded hollow. Having burned off her excess energy, she now seems content to just poke along with me, rather than range ahead. She busies herself sniffing the forest floor as I scan the tree-tops for squirrels.
Reaching the sycamore den tree, we turn up the main hollow. In years past, I’ve taken many a mess of squirrels from the oaks and beeches ahead, as did my father before me. I notice that the small rock dam that I made twenty-odd years ago is still in place, though its pool long ago silted in. At the ginseng patch, a few wilted stems still show among the fallen tree leaves. A few more paces, and we’re surrounded by coon sign, left by the occupants of the rocky out-croppings of the steep banks above us.
High overhead, two grey squirrels zip from limb to limb in a huge beech. The shotgun is nearly to my shoulder when I realize that I may be too close to the unseen house of a relative to be legal. This was always my most dependable squirrel hunting spot before the black-sheep cousin of the family built his home just out of sight over the far rim of the hollow. Since his wife is a dedicated bunny-hugger, I hold my fire rather than embroil some hapless conservation officer in a family feud. After mumbling a few unkind words about possum-brained relatives and bureaucrats, I continue up the hollow.
My old friend and I part company when we come to the gorge of solid rock. She wisely takes the high ground while I choose the more difficult path up the stream-bed. As I struggle along, she watches smugly from the bank, as if to remind me that she's the smart one of this pair. Our paths rejoin where the gorge runs out and the old logging road crosses the hollow. We still-hunt the overgrown road as it winds its way upward through the oak woods, but, there are no more squirrels to be seen. Perhaps the cry of an unseen hawk gives a clue as to why none are moving.
We're almost to the top of the hill when we enter the pear orchard with its lone, century-old pear tree and its thick crop of broom sedge. From here, we follow the farm road out the ridge top, as it curves to the left around the head of the hollow. To the right, I see the spot where my first buck fell. Deer were scarce back then and I was the first in the family to take one. I don't know who was more proud, I or my father.
Next, we come to the peach orchard. There hasn't been a peach tree here since my father was a lad, but, I've pitched many a bale of hay in this field. It was here that I got my first good look at a fox, thirty-some years ago. As my late father and I each sat on a hay bale, catching our breath in the long evening shadow of the half-loaded truck, a red fox entered the field, searching for meadow voles. Moving from bale to bale, he gradually came to within thirty feet of us. He might have come closer, had we not loudly voiced our displeasure when he hiked his leg on a bale.
In my youth, a row of ancient York Imperial apple trees marked the far edge of the peach orchard. We follow that now non-existent row to the old horse road over the hill. It, in turn, leads us to a bench which overlooks the spot where we first entered the hollow. My old friend looks tired, and since this is a pleasant spot, I sit down, my back against a white oak. Her gait betrays her age, as she comes from behind and sits beside me. Leaning the shotgun in the fork of a small maple, I begin to massage her back. She sits quietly for a few minutes, giving me an occasional appreciative glance over her shoulder.
Her tongue no longer lolls and her breathing has slowed, as she slowly sags to her side, head resting on my knee. Recognizing her request for a belly-rub, I gladly oblige. Looking at her face, her collie/golden retriever parentage is obvious, and I wonder if that sensitive nose tells her that other old friends are resting here with us. Within a few yards lie the remains of other generations of farm dogs. No stones mark their graves as in some pet cemeteries. Here, only second-growth timber and a soft carpet of fallen leaves can be seen. Chipmunks and birds scamper and chatter as they go about their daily business of survival. Yet, since each dog here trod this peaceful ground many times, it seemed a good place to lay them to rest.
As my old friend further relaxes, her head slips to the ground. Continuing to rub her stomach, the thought comes to me that very few years will pass before I lay her, too, beneath this leafy carpet. My eyes mist with the thought, and I know it's time to be moving along. We've been here over half-an-hour, soaking up the sights, sounds, and scents this sunny autumn day. When I ask if she's ready to go, she rouses; the rest has restored her, at least in part. Her eyes, full of fawning adoration only a moment ago, now show a spark of excitement. Stroking her head a couple times as she rises, I wonder whether that excitement is for the thrill of the chase or the idea of heading back to the house. Glancing once more at the scene around me, I'm reminded of the little churchyard a mile down the road. There, lie three generations of family who've worked, and loved, this land before me. With no-one left to follow in our footsteps, I ponder the fate of this place when I fill the empty space beside them.
I pick up the shotgun and start out the trail that leads back to the truck. As we both saunter stiffly along, the sparkle in my old friend's eyes lifts me from my melancholy. Looking around me, I silently thank the Lord for this chance to take my gun and walk the farm, for the beautiful autumn weather and, especially, for a beloved old friend with whom to share the day. © 2012