“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found. Was blind, but now I see.” John Newton (1725-1807)
As a trail rider, I have always had a perverse desire: to get lost in the forest while on horseback. It would force my courage to test the adage: “If you ever get lost on your horse, just give her her head.” Yea. Let the reins go long and loose. She’ll find her way home. I’ve read that carriage drivers would fall asleep at the helm, knowing their horse would self-drive back to the barn. Could it really be true?
Caves in Big South Fork National Forest
How do horses do it? Find their way home to an unfamiliar barn, to a place hardly experienced? Do horses have a such an instinct? Homing pigeons for example, take their reading from the sun, and internally calibrate their direction home. Is it a scent that horses follow? They certainly sniff the ground and sometimes leave their droppings. But it is not a territorial imperative like dogs.
For that matter, how do we do it? Us humans? How do we find home, decide where to live, what our right livelihood is, who to love? I flounder with it all.
It was December 29, rainy and cold. I knew I was starting my trail ride late at 1 p.m. But I have faith in Georgia Grace, my mare. And I have faith in my Canadain cold-blooded wilderness skills. I took a compass, map, cell phone, and whistle. I would be fine even if my ride ended at dusk. I just needed to keep an eye on my time and destination: Bandy Creek Campground and Stables, in Big South Fork National Forest, Tennessee.
Creek and river junction, Big South Fork National Park
But it didn’t work out as planned. I dallied on the trail, letting Georgia splash in a deep stream. Sometimes I dismounted to help her walk up the big hills. Photo opps were too numerous to resist. We were behind schedule, but so close to our destination. We had to push on.
And it was worth it. The Bandy Creek Campground was impressive. Large, gray barns loomed up from the misty afternoon. Rolling meadows invited a good gallop. The facility appeared clean and sturdy. But not a soul was staying. We’d be all alone—no horse or person in Tennessee endures camping, or even riding, in the cold, which to me, wasn’t really cold at all.
Typical barns at Big South Fork National Forest
Typical stall, Big South Fork
Our return ride proceeded well, and I thought we were home free. But we met an intersection with two arrows pointing out different trails to the same destination, the Cumberland Lake trailhead, I became confused and disoriented. But I wasn’t scared, or desperate. I reviewed the map carefully. Even if we took the long way home, we’ll still come out at the Cumberland Valley trailhead. By all accounts I was to turn right.
Here’s where I gave Georgia her head. She chose the trail. Walking along, there were no familiar landmarks. The forest looked the same. It wasn’t long before I second guessed Georgia, and turned her around. But just as I did, I saw her hoof prints coming towards us. An affirming sign. But where was that trail crossing? Shouldn’t we have come to it by now?
So possibly, I’m lost in the forest. I half wished it. (So be careful what you ask for). Dusk is falling, made more rapid by the density of the canopy. I feel stupid to have taken Georgia on this ride, so late in the afternoon. She’s tired. It has been drizzling for a few hours within a week of rain. Everyone knows accidents happen when you get tired. What am I putting my animals through on this crazy odyssey I’m on—two cats and a mare? I feel like I’ve made all kinds of stupid decisions lately.
On the trails, Big South Fork National Forest
I’m swearing blasphemously like no one can hear me. I’m feeling sorry for myself. And did I say stupid? I feel like I’ve hit bottom. Things can’t get worse. I cry out to my ancestors for guidance. Tears and wailing.
But my mare, she just keeps on moving, never wanting to stop. She’s moving more energetically than when we were going away from the barn. Does that mean anything? Isn’t that just what horses do?
Then the magic happens. Flushing out from the forest, one, two, three, four, large white animals bounce away. They moved like deer, but with more whiteness than the underside of a tail. No. There was nothing else they could be, but deer. Four white deer. Four albino deer. Four. The medicine wheel.
From that short episode I’m reminded that powerful signs appear without warning. You cannot anticipate them. They come when they do, as they should. Sometimes it’s huge, like the rare albino deer. Or meeting an influential person at the library who claims you for his next lifetime, or woman at the grocery store who is getting paid to go on an odyssey just like yours, or the sheriff who pulled you over and took you home. And sometimes it is small, like a phrase your eyes pass over, or an interview you hear on the radio, a book someone gives you, a shedded snakeskin in the barn on New Year’s Day…. It’s all mystical. It’s called Grace. Divine Grace.
We finally got back to the barn and I rubbed Georgia down with muscle liniment. She got a massage. Her wool blanket wicked all the moisture away. She ate well. She rested.
Georgia back home with her wool cooler and supper
True West Campground, Big South Fork, TN
I came to Big South Fork National Forest to ride between Christmas and New Years. The timing was bad. The two barns I stabled at were disappointing—one a downright dive with a bad vibe, the other gussied up in a hokey cowboy theme. But it didn’t matter anymore.
I could not have a better experience than meeting four albino deer on the day I possibly got lost in the forest on my beautiful mare, Georgia Grace.
P.S. Stay tuned for my next post about guardian angels.