Thursday, April 05, 2012

To the creek...

A walk with my sister through the Carolina hills near her small ranch east of Charlotte is a mini-adventure.

"Watch out for the fire ants!" "There's poison oak around here." "Don't step in a hole!" "Careful, you might slip here!"

Her own adventures here have mostly been on horseback — until recently. She's been thrown more times than she dare count and has the scars and X-rays to prove it. In her mid-sixties and slow to recover from her most recent mishap, a broken arm, she's grudgingly stopped riding. The arm is finally mended but is noticeably weaker. An occasional wince belies a tough stoicism.

As she hikes her old horse trails, she still sees the terrain from the ingrained perspective of the saddle. Her own stride becomes a sure-footed lope. I push myself to keep up.

She knows where she's going too. To the "crick," she says gently mocking the North Carolina dialect of her rural neighbors. She's a Yankee transplant, and a liberal, humanistic Democrat at that.

"All Southerners think Yankees are crazy and stupid," she says. She's hardly stupid, but crazy? Possibly. That's what we all love about her. That and her good nature and unbridled enthusiasm for life.

We're hiking across the fields with two of her six dogs. She and her husband have eight horses, a mule, a pony and a drooling, pot-bellied, mud-encrusted pig. Somewhere in the stables are four cats — with one about to deliver more. In the idyllic, spring-fed pond is a snapping turtle the size of a small pizza.

Gnats pester the horses in swarms. Fortunately, they disperse with the wave of a hat, or tail.

This is a lush country in early spring. Morning light falls gently on swelling hills and clustered forests. The grass is wet and the air cool when we set out under slate skies. But now, with the sun pushing through, the air thickens, slowing my sister's pace to a stroll and mine to a shamble. By the time we reach the creek, we welcome the shade. The tongue-lolling dogs ply through the cool water like canine alligators.

The forests hide deer but the only evidence of them are camouflaged hunting refuges. Some look like guard outposts; others are miniature lookout stations. One is a platform perch in a tree. Its access is a tall, spindly ladder. These hunters are akin to snipers. No doubt some come from Confederate sharpshooter stock.

In a copse, my sister points out a family burial ground. The untended, haphazard plot is Civil War antebellum. Only one or two names are still legible. "There's one here somewhere for twins," she remarks. The weathered tombstones are small, little more than memorial outcroppings.

We retrace our trail back to the big, yellow-brick ranch house. The trek returns to a dirt road, then on a forest trail. On a gravel driveway now, we pass a neighbor's stark, narrow mobile home. We cross the paved country road, skirt round the pond and, presumably, the turtle. Our arrival is greeted by shambling stay-at-home dogs.

Looking back to where my sister and I have been — through the forest, along a ridge, then over to where the creek runs free — I feel farther than I see.

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