So last night - and a chilly night it was, dropping to 15 below zero before morning - I ran some sheep feed out to S and R's after work. When I get there I bang on the door, which was promptly answered by R who says, "Two things: get inside quick, and go grab a plate."
"Oooh!" I say, sniffing appreciatively as I kick off my boots. "What're we having?"
"Roast kid," R says, pointing me at the roasting pan, "and mixed greens and baked parsnips. And you like red wine, right?"
"Mmm, yes," I agree happily, ladling out some au jus on top of a healthy portion of roast kid and shuttling over to the parsnips, which smell divine, baked with onions and butter to a lightly caramelized surface. The greens are mixed snow peas and fine-cut broccoli. Yum.
I fill my plate and go to the table, where everyone else has finished eating but is happy to keep me company with wine and conversation while I eat. Some neighbors are over, in a highly celebratory mood, and S's daughter YS is there too, drinking root beer and adding good cheer.
As always at Wildwood, the conversation is good and the company warm and pleasant. The food, it goes without saying, is always excellent. I'd never had parsnips before that night, but they were delectable, tender and flavorful. We chitchat about the sheep, the farm, people's lives, laughing and generally enjoying ourselves. Before long the neighbors go off to their own house, YS driving them in case they might have been a little more celebratory than is wise to put behind a wheel.
As S and R and I linger over the remnants of the wine, I ask if S doesn't mind me telling this story about her girls. She doesn't, so here it is.
I've known the Wildwood clan for over a decade, and when I first met S's girls, they were polite, personable, wiry and energetic kids of maybe 7 and 8 or so. At the time, they all lived in a smaller cabin than the house they now occupy (which they built a few years ago on a neighboring property, though they still own the cabin.) They have always had horses, and the girls have ridden and been around animals of all descriptions since early childhood. They have grown into lovely young women: smart, good-hearted, caring, generous and capable, with warmth and humor and a kindness that is wonderful to see. This is partly their good parenting, but it is in part the choices they have made, the people they have chosen to become. There's plenty of credit to go around, and I think it should be divided evenly amongst the girls themselves, and those who had a hand in rearing them. They have been taught since childhood to think of the welfare of themselves and others, and have internalised the lessons well. But no childhood is complete without a few miscommunications.
One summer day, S relates, when the girls were quite young, she looks up from her chores to see the girls riding double, bareback, on one of the horses, their little helmeted heads close together as they bob sedately along with the motion of the horse, their little riding-booted feet bumping gently at the horse's side. S's first thought is: How did they get up there by themselves? [As it turns out, they had the bright idea to put a pan of grain on the ground so the horse would stand still, then climbed aboard with the aid of an up-ended bucket.] And her second thought is: Where are their clothes?
"Girls!" S exclaims, in obvious agitation. "What are you doing?!? Why are you RIDING NAKED?!?"
Big tears form and roll down their little faces. "But Mom!" they wail. "You told us never to ride without boots and helmets, and we're wearing them!"
"And pants!" S exclaims. "New rule! Boots, helmets and pants!"
I about died laughing. I could just see their sweet adorable little faces, all big eyes and trembling chins and tear-streaked rosy little cheeks, completely bewildered as to why S's hair was standing on end. After all, they did everything safe! They made the horse stand still, they used a mounting block, and they were wearing their safety gear! How could anything be wrong?
Sigh. Bless their adorable little hearts. Oh, well; in those days this was a wilder place, less populated, fewer paved roads, a bit more rough-and-ready, more of the last frontier. Maybe it didn't seem unreasonable to the girls to be riding around naked in those days (and of course, things that seem unreasonable to adults often seem QUITE reasonable, even eminently logical, to little children). I guess what is sensible and logical is to some degree in the eye of the beholder, however, because another time S told me this story.
When she first moved to AK - well before the girls were even thought of - S was a new graduate, struggling to make ends meet. She had student debt, and had not been working long enough to have much of a bumper. She remembers one time spending literally the last of her money for the month on a 40# bag of dog food. It was going to have to last her the rest of the month; there simply wasn't enough to stretch her budget any further, but with luck she'd be able just squeak through with what she had - so long as nothing went wrong.
You know something went wrong, don't you?
That night, after a long day at work and doing chores and worrying about finances, S finally retires in the long summer twilight. Late in the night (or early in the morning, whichever) the dogs suddenly start going mad, barking and carrying on. She gets up and looks out the window.
Oh, son of a bitch. There's a black bear standing in the bed of her pickup truck, eating her last $20 in the world, in the form of the bag of dog food. Worse, this is a problem bear: any bear that takes food from human habitation is a hazard, dangerous to the livestock and pets and humans that live there and in nearby homes. Typically, unless you relocate them many many hundreds of miles away, they just migrate back to their neighborhood and resume being a problem; as a result, most such bears must be destroyed.
S jams on her boots and grabs her gun, loading it hastily. She runs outside, draws a bead and shoots the bear, dropping it in the truck bed. Right about then, as the report of the gun is fading from her ears, she thinks: Maybe I should go inside and put some clothes on.
Put some clothes on?!? I am thinking.
Because, after all, S tells me, butchering out a bear at one in the morning is all very, well but the mosquitoes are going to have a field day if you don't get dressed.
About here I give her a sidelong glance. "You went outside, completely naked, to shoot a bear?"
"I was wearing boots," S denies, faintly defensive. "Besides," she says, "I had to hurry, if I was going to get my dog food back."
"Get it back?" I demand, goggling slightly. She can't mean....
But she does. "I was down to my last $2o in the world," she reminds me. "There's no way I could afford to let that bear have my dog food. I gutted it, opened up the stomach and scooped out the dog food."
"How was it, after all that?" I ask her.
"Bit damp," she allows, "But not bad. I dried it out so it wouldn't mold."
She also - being a frugal type, and not wanting to disrespect the bear's sacrifice - butchered out the bear and put it in the freezer. It kept the wolf from the door long enough for her to get her feet under her, and to this day its hide hangs on her wall, a reminder of Providence. I wonder sometimes if that bear was visited upon her expressly to tide her through.
At any rate, if you're ever asked to do things bareback in AK, it might be best to clarify what, exactly, is meant by "bareback." Because it could mean you're riding without a saddle. Or it could mean you're riding without clothes. Or it could mean you're running outside in the wee hours with nothing but boots and a gun to defend the last thin margin of your survival. Bare-naked.... or bear naked, perhaps.
When I think of these two stories together, I have to grin. Maybe the bareback riders are a wee payback for S's own midnight adventures in the raw. You know what they say: the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.....