25 September, 2011

Hillbillies: not just for Arkansas anymore.

There's a guy up here named Finn who lives not far down the road. Nice man, never married, I'd say in his fifties or so. I run into him every now and then and he's always pleasant, and he recently stopped by my house with a book on the local area and its history that, it turns out, he wrote himself. I've never met an actual author before, so I had him autograph it, an act which visibly pleased him.

Yesterday I was in a cooking mood and I made a pan of enchiladas. Up here, if it's not made with potatoes or served with potatoes it's probably not going to appear on the table, so whenever I make enchiladas they're always a hit. Yesterday, as they were cooling on the counter, I decided to walk some down to Finn and get some exercise in the process.

Caoilte and I set out around 4pm but couldn't pass Lucy's without stopping in for a cup of tea and a natter. After half an hour or so dark clouds began forming and it started to look as if it might rain, so Caoilte and I headed down the road to Finn's place. It's about a mile and a half away and the walk is beautiful with rolling green hills separated into lush green oases filled with sheep, cows, or nothing but late-season dandelions and whin bushes, all of it set against a backdrop of the Bluestack mountains and, smack in the middle of it all, the camelback humps that line what's known locally as "the Gap." Finn lives on a beautiful, wooded hillside that stretches up into a fully-fledged forest. He's a farmer by trade, and as Caoilte and I walked down the hill toward his house we saw him working with another, younger guy loading metal poles into a trailer.

We walked up the small lane to where they were working and stood, waiting for one of them to notice us. When they did I immediately wondered if I'd missed some local course on food delivery etiquette, because Finn smiled broadly at us but turned six different shades of red. Had I embarrassed him? Was bringing food to a confirmed bachelor to be construed in these parts as some sort of medieval courting ritual?! Finn took the Tupperware box and asked me what was in it, so I explained to him what enchiladas were and thanked him for the book he'd brought me a couple of days ago, mostly for the benefit of the younger guy who was stood there taking in every word, grinning like a hyena. I asked Finn if the little lane, which I'd never been on before, led back to the road we live on and he said it did, but warned me of some dogs at one of the houses along the way that might chase after us. He very kindly offered me the use of a stick, which I declined, and Caoilte and I went on our way.

The lane got narrower and more mucky relative to its increase in altitude, until we found ourselves approaching the top of the hill it spans. At the apex were two houses, one new(ish) and the other, well, let's just say we discovered the dogs. They didn't give us any trouble because as soon as they started to bark a greasy-haired woman who was sitting in the front window rapped loudly on the glass and both dogs shut up. The house itself wouldn't have been out of place in Arkansas, with mangy dogs out front, smashed cars stuffed with empty feed bags elevated on concrete blocks, tin cans and garbage forming sort of a moat around the outer walls, and various other bits of farming detritus blighting the landscape like a pox. Such was the state of the place and the feeling of unease it gave me that I practically kicked Caoilte to walk faster past it, and advised him in hushed tones NOT to look at the dogs, the house, the occupants, or anything but the road ahead until we'd passed by.

Once we were past we relaxed a bit, and after a few hundred yards we noticed, on our right, a group of HUGE Charolais bulls standing knee deep in a field of mud. They'd obviously been there for a while because the mud, rather than being knobbly and cloddy, was as thick, smooth and silky as chocolate pudding. There were probably 20 of them there, huge things all standing in a giant clot under a few sparse trees. I offhandedly said to Caoilte, "sure am glad we're not on THAT side of the fence, eh?" A few yards further on there was a tractor reclining on its haunches in the mud, clearly stuck there, and beyond that the gate to the field hanging wide open, as if whoever had driven the tractor in there had been in too much of a hurry to get out to shut it. And there were the bulls, standing against the trees looking at us, nothing between us and them but a swinging, open gate. My heart jumped. I grabbed Caoilte and we increased our pace, not to a run because we didn't want to attract the bulls' attention, but to something of a panic-stricken power walk. To our left was a small lane leading up the hill which might have offered an escape except that on it, just beside the junction, was a huge cow and her calf, just standing there looking intently back at us. Jesus. Some little lane of horrors this was turning out to be!

Now, dogs I'm not afraid of. Snakes, cats, mice, hamsters, sheep, goats, all good. But cows--cows I am VERY afraid of, and bulls most of all. They weigh up to 2,400lbs, they can be skittish, and they aren't terribly sympathetic (or empathetic) beasts. We practically began sprinting down the lane, kicking up mud as we raced down the narrow, dirty double tracks. We didn't slow down until we came to where it intersects the road that we turn down to get to our own home.

Later, talking to Lucy and Larry about it, we learned all sorts of things about the area, including the fact that hillbillies aren't just for Arkansas. Suffice it to say we won't be walking down that back lane again, and we're pretty damn lucky we fell in with good people to begin with who steered us right when we were looking for a place to live last October.

Time to make some more enchiladas.

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