It’s the swayback horse I’ll miss the most.
I wouldn’t see him every time, but often enough to look for him whenever I went by. I’d make the trip each week, maybe every two, and after enough journeys across enough years, I had my markers. The roads would become familiar and the seasons would tumble. I’d watch tilled fields sprout wheat, be shorn, then lie quietly awaiting the first frost and the inevitable blowing drifts of snow.
Anyone who makes a regular trek – a work commute, a visit back home – unwittingly knows things that go from becoming registered at a glance to being embedded in your subconscious. It took me several days, recently, to figure out was what wrong with the lighting on a main street near my house. They’d chopped down a huge tree, and I’d been so accustomed to the canopy of shade it provided, my brain registered the addition of light rather than the absence of the tree. In a vehicle, you move through these montages faster, and it takes longer for change to adhere, or at least to be calculated.
City born and bred, it doesn’t take more than a handful of horses and a split rail fence to declare itself a farm in my mind. Locals often think otherwise, but flying past my swayback horse, I was little interested if he occupied a small portion of a big spread, or if I was simply seeing all there was to see. I worried about him, initially. I wondered if he was hurt, or old, or maybe abused. Each time I crested the rise in the road I’d scan for him, always apart from the other horses, his back dipping like too much laundry on a long forgotten clothesline.
I eventually learned I needn’t worry, that his swayback was not a cause for concern and while not common, also not unheard of. He’s a totally healthy horse, I’d tell myself, yet I slowed each time I drove past, checking if the other horses were out, and that he was, too.
The problem, of course, was that once I was past, I was on to my next landmark. Four-way stop, hidden driveway, oh look, they got the roof finished, they still can’t sell that truck, speed drops, watch for cops.
We make jokes about directions we finally had to abandon for guests to our cottage. You used to make a left at the broken-down green trailer, but when it was mysteriously towed away one spring, the directions became “take a left where the broken down green trailer used to be.” Believe it or not, this worked fine for workers from the area, but as you can imagine, not quite as well for new visitors.
We’re creatures of habit, all of us. When I used to commute to the next town for work, I’d see the same cars at the same time every day. I’d know if I was running late if they weren’t there, our apparent randomness not so random at all. When I took the train, I’d know what you read, how you had to face forward, if you were on vacation. Such intimacy, really, yet avoiding eye contact and having little exchange beyond a nod.
Here and There, those places we move between – sometimes charted, sometimes not – usually take precedence over the route in between. Too often, my mind is still wrestling with something from Here as I make my way to There. It’s too easy to drive absentmindedly, and too dangerous. And yet, this is what we do, why we’re statistically more likely to be in a crash close to home. We go on some instinctive autopilot, jarred from the expected sameness only when something changes.
I envy people smart enough to change up their commutes when they can; recognizing that the long way round is sometimes a better option. I salute those willing to explore, get lost, or discover new things. We can get trapped in our sameness, our order. We may be rewarded with familiarity – our swaybacked horses – but change is good, and I’ve never been punished for living outside my comfort zone. It’s how I found my swayback horse in the first place. Wheels, all kinds, give us such freedom.
Whoever owns my swayback horse has no idea the tabs I’ve been keeping on it over the years. My route has changed, and I’ll no longer be an anonymous car, one of so many, driving past and stealing mental images for some endless reel of the journey in between.