I drove to Knoxville for Thanksgiving break – it was the first time I had ever spent time away from my immediate family, parents and siblings, but I had a dream a few nights before that I was riding down Huffaker Ferry, a road near my Grandfather’s farm that they used to herd the cattle down when my mother was young. I could smell the grass, see the bend of the river between the trees: I called my mother that morning and told her I needed to go.
I left directly from Statesboro after work with a few books on tape and drove through the mountains, into the night, to the farm. Walking in my Aunt Sadie’s kitchen was the same that night as it was every other night, as far back as I can remember, ever since I could walk. The lights spill out of the windows out onto the lawn, drawing moths and cats to the warmth. The glass door slams shut behind and you stand on a linoleum floor, mud in your boots, breathing the aroma of biscuits and brownies, so relieved it looks just as it did when you left.
My hat hangs on an old bell that hooks out from the wall, a halter and lead-rope just underneath. I’m always greeted by the dogs and “Well Caroline!” with bear hugs and smiles and “Go see your horse, he’s in the front pasture.”
I pet the dogs and slip a candy bar in my pocket, walking back out into the cool night, under a sky lit with stars, to the fence line and the whoosh of breath and whiskers.
That has to be my favorite moment – the feeling that you are exactly where you belong, with the people who matter most. Feeling dead tired on your feet, weary from all the strains you have had to put up with since you last left. And yet unable to pull away from the night, the mountains, the free air and the temptation that you could saddle up right there and ride until dawn, and the horse lipping your palm is just as ready as you are, He knows the mountains like you do.
I give him and the Mule a last goodnight pat and walk back up the hill, through the kitchen to my Nana’s room. Her blue eyes widen in surprise – she knew I was coming, but she is always so happy to see me. I take off my boots because I know once I lay in her bed I won’t be getting up. I get hugged up again and Sadie brings in Popcorn or Pie or all of the above, and we three sit on her bed and catch up. And the dogs are there and the cats sneak in, and someone is staying in the guest room, and Uncle Jack is watching a western with the volume so loud, I heard it before I reached the border.
Someone brings in a jar of cherries and offers me a spoonful – I cough and choke, looking up to see smiles and grins: They’re a special recipe that have been in the freezer all night. We pass them around and laugh at my Nana’s reactions. The cherries go down smooth and warm, filling me with a sweet, spicy flavor. A new tradition, a new story to tell.
And then, I drift off to the sound of Sadie’s laugh and the smell of my Nana’s perfume, with popcorn on my lap and a dog under my hand. In the morning, there are chickens to feed and ducks to water, horses to hay and cats to pet. The dogs will be up, waiting, and Sadie will make coffee and cheese toast. And then, maybe then, it will be time to take that trail up the mountain.