I used to look up at the mountains from my horse pasture in Virginia’s piedmont. I remember telling myself, “One day, I’m going to live up there.”
That was in the early seventies, when I attended middle school and was into horses. We rode and exercised and trained the horses at home, certainly. But we also trailered them up the slope of the mountain a-ways to a workshop/camp, escaping the thick, wet heat of August. We boarded them at a nearby farm and rode over to the workshop site, where we underwent professional scrutiny and training as we worked the horses in an arena and over challenging fences in the field. We rode English and did a lot of show jumping and fox hunting in those days.
Although we worked the horses hard and got dusty and hot ourselves, we were glad to be at the higher elevation – not anywhere near so hot and sticky as back at home. At the end of the day, with the sun settling down behind the ridge and the air quickening with night breezes and the sounds of peepers; with the aromas of horse sweat and hardhats mingling with the dusky mountain air, we rode the horses back toward the stalls. The chores of picking manure from the straw, feeding and watering the horses, and grooming the crystalline sweat off their coats still awaited us, to be accomplished under lights. The sweaty saddle pads would be separated from the saddles and hung to dry overnight. And we’d do it all again the next day.
On one of those evenings, after fifteen minutes of clopping along a paved country road, en route to the close of the day, we took a detour through an apple orchard. Our hostess assured us it would be okay to ride through and pick an apple apiece — one for the horses we rode, and one for ourselves.
I could reach some of the high apples that would have been impossible, had I been afoot. That was the first wonder. The horse I rode knew well what these hanging red spheres were, and chomped merrily and shook her head to free it for consumption. The tree seemed reluctant to release that one, so the branches shook and rocked as the horse freed her prize. I laughed as the branches whacked my hardhat and shoulders.
I reached over my head and picked a beauty for myself: red flecked with yellow; perfectly rounded; greenish on the shoulder.
I took the first bite of that apple as we reined out of the orchard while Willie, my mount, worked her apple around the bit in her mouth, tossing her head, jingling her hardware. I swear that was the best apple I’d ever eaten.
Today the horses are gone, but the apples in my mountain orchard still evoke wonder and amazement in me. Instead of horses, I ride my bike. No workshops up here, but I work hard and get sweaty training for cycling events like Bike Virginia, coming up later this month. I pedal along the Blue Ridge Parkway, in the cool, pristine mountain air. I take in the wide vistas, smell the blackberry blossoms, go slowly up and quickly down the slopes, marveling that I made it to the top of the mountains, living here for 20+ years now.
I stop occasionally to look at the piedmont below my ridge line. I am struck by awe again and again when I think that I am exactly where I had willed myself to be 40 years ago. I have found my home and my heart in these mountains and would not have it otherwise. I am lucky and fortunate and I try never to take it for granted. Who lives better than we?