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LAce Posted Monday, June 9th, 2003
Snowboarding on the Farm
Jocelyn Johnson

It’s February, late morning, and I have been staying at Clay’s farm for over a week now. Large window panes frame my view of fields still covered in snow. The old springhouse looks like a cake in fondant icing, the weather vain like a cake topper. When the collies bark sharply we know that a car is attempting the long gravel driveway. Clay doesn’t look at me as we pull on warm clothes and walk out to meet my friends from the city.

“With the new snow, the road looks so different,” Nicole and Jason tell us, “We missed your road and had to double back.”

I know these friends from years of going out and dinners in, from sitting around my apartment talking easily about what we have done and what we will do. I am surprised that they seem different to me on the farm, slippery and shiny in plastic snow pants and bright fleece parkas. They are talking too loudly. Even their puppy is sleek and out of place next to the work dogs, whose coats are mangy and reddish with winter mud. Beside these friends Clay is different, too. He seems older despite his lean frame and smooth face, dressed like a hobo in layers of cotton and wool. His outermost layer, affectionately called his “good coat,” is a quilted cotton jacket so ripped and torn that strips of fabric hang off in clusters. His coat’s patches have patches. “You all know Clay,” I say and everyone reaches out hands to greet one another, but Clay’s expression is blank, like a cow chewing grass. “I’ll bring ‘round the horses,” he says.

Last night in bed Clay talked into the darkness, describing how the farm looked when he first saw it thirty years ago; he was my age then, the barns were worn and leaning, the pastures were full of thistle and goldenrod. I pulled the threadbare comforter up against a draft, and tried to imagine the years of hard work that had transformed the farm, work mostly done with the horses and Clay’s own hands. My favorite space in the world might be his kitchen garden, two acres wide and long and full of greenery sprung straight from seeds pressed into the ground. I spent all of last August there, rustling beneath trellises for tomatoes and pole beans. After dark, my fingers still searched for meaningful shapes hidden in the foliage, like a blind women reading Braille. “You can stay on the farm full time, you know,” Clay told me in the darkness. “This farm could be yours too.”

* * *

We hear the crunch and slosh of mud and snow underfoot as the Belgian mares trot to the gate, harnessed together. They are enormous in shaggy winter coats. Clay stands behind them on a small bi-wheeled cart, reins in hand like a king. We attach a large rusty scrap of metal behind the horse drawn cart; with a bale of hay for a seat, it becomes our carriage. We sit among our sleds and Jason’s snowboard so low to the ground that the horses are even bigger; their buttocks are tires, their hooves, down-turned buckets. “Walk up,” Clay instructs and the mares jog forward. We are dragged behind and the dogs run alongside us, leaving muddy tracks in the snow.

The four of us, with the horses and the dogs find the perfect spot to pass the afternoon on the snowy hill. We take turns sledding, except for Jason, who prefers his snowboard. Strapped onto the oblong craft, he slides down the hill and flies over homemade jumps. Jason rolls out of spills like a stuntman, his half open parka flapping in his own wind, his face burned red where it met the snow. Nicole and I watch these antics, smiling; Clay watches too.

The afternoon sun makes icicles on tree branches and we sit on a set of old stumps to take a break from sledding; we aim to warm our hands on hot cups of coffee. When I bring the thermos and mugs from the carriage to the cluster of trees, Clay is telling a story I’ve heard before about a mean Doberman that use to live on the farm:

“… I kept Black on a heavy chain out behind the barn. Had to. Every time I got near that damn dog he’d come after me. Pretty quick, I figured out that if I sprayed Black with pepper spray, right in the eyes, he would whimper and back down. Worked like a charm, but the next day, he’d be out for blood again. One evening Black must of got loose because he surprised me in an ole horse stall. Before I knew it, that dog sprang for my neck. He was trying to kill me. I held Black back, hard as I could, but he kept coming. I tightened my grip around that dog’s neck, but he kept coming. Next thing I know, I’d gone and choked Black to death.” My friends look at Clay’s gloved hands, in awe. Jason’s eyes widen, he clamps his month shut holding in one of his gigantic laughs that show surprise more than amusement. “So I saw that poor, hateful creature flung backwards, lying motionless in the dirt,” Clay continues, “And I just started pounding on Black’s chest. I pounded so hard, I brought that damn dog back to life.” Jason’s laugh, released, echoes through the valley.

We finish our coffee and start back up the snowy hill. A new coldness refreezes soft snow and ices our tracks. At the top of the hill, I look at Clay; his blonde hair borders on gray, his leather shoes glisten with fresh oil. Clay straps into Jason’s snowboard. With a few awkward hops forward, he starts down the hill. As he gains speed, he crouches and sticks his butt out too far. Instinctively he reaches out to break an imaginary fall; he’s finally going to fall, I tell myself. But he doesn’t fall. He rides it out, a natural. Nicole and Jason cheer and hoot and holler. Their shininess suddenly seems a good thing, like found treasure, or else it is softened in the warming afternoon light.

We are tired when we climb back up the hill for the last time; we have wet feet, wet gloves and wet bottoms. The afternoon is gone. Clay and Jason talk loudly about “boarding” and the weather. Nicole walks ahead and puts her face up to the workhorses, still harnessed and waiting. They winy and nudge her cold face. Together, we collect our things and load them back on our rusty sled and then we get in ourselves.

Behind us the sledding hill is tracked and marred, but still white; the texture of our day of play is hard to see in the falling light. Inside we drink tea, and stand beside Clay’s curmudgeon of a woodstove, and eat the beans we canned back in September that I am sick of, but Clay is determined to finish before spring. My friends pack up their snowboard and take it back to the city; the workhorses, in their stalls, forget its contour and its odd quickness on the snow. When we are alone again, I tell Clay earnestly “I don’t know if I’m in love with you or if I’m in love with the farm.” He answers me with softened eyes: “It doesn’t matter, it’s the same thing.” I will sleep another night under the worn quilt, and in the morning if Clay asks me again, I will stay.

Comments [post a comment]

Posted by Jon Stanley [ jonathan.d.stanley@vanderbilt.edu ] on Sunday, June 15th, 2003 at 2:48 PM
I enjoyed your story very much. In a time where so much is slippery, shiny and sleek, it is nice to take a moment to celebrate things that are not.



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