Last fall Roy and I had our annual Anniversary Excursion planned to Shenendoah, a place that Roy had been champing at the bit for years to visit. Hurricane Sandy gave it – and so many other plans – the royal kai-bosh, and put a six-month cramp in our scheduled trip. We’re taking it now, though. So here we are in the heart of Virginia Horse Country. Which, believe me now, is AMAZING. Horse people – I won’t bother trying to provide details. Just go. As soon as you can. You won’t be sorry, unless by “sorry” you mean “sorry I can’t just pull up stakes and buy a 50 acre spread and stick half a dozen horses on it and join a fox-hunting club, sorry”. If that’s your meaning, and it sure is mine, you WILL be sorry.
Driving down from BWI was hellish. I thought Houston had awful traffic, and it does, but it wasn’t a patch on the constipated automotive hell that is the DC metro area. Next time, we spring for the extra hundred bucks and fly into Dulles. At least that is already in Virginia. I’m not going to say more on DC, though, because it would harsh my mellow. I’m sitting on the screen porch of our cottage which belongs to a B&B and has a 360 view of Shenendoah and the surrounding Blue Ridge. I’m listening to the sound of barking fox hounds down the way being carried to me on the breeze. A bumble bee just flew by. And then there’s the baying and lowing of the Hamburger Cows (Angus, I think) in the pasture next door. The traffic of DC is light-years away.
I’ll also gloss over how wonderful it is to be in the South again, and surrounded by Southerners. I was from the South before I was from Texas – I claim Dual Citizenship. I love living in New England – only a complete loony wouldn’t, it’s such an incredible place with the mountains and the coast and the mild summers and the flowers and local farms – but it’s not until I go back to the South or to Texas that I realized just how much New England isn’t “home”. No one sounds like me there. No one acts like me there. Being back in a place where the accents and the cadence and the drawls is what I remember from my first conversations as a human being…where the body language is second-nature to me…where I immediately and completely grasp every tiny nuance of body language and subtlety of conversation…where the manners are the ones I know and I use – whether it’s from saying “please” and “thank you” to every single person I interact with, to calling and being called “sir” or “ma’am” because, well, that’s courteous, and you just do that…every bit of it is some tiny little thing that I didn’t even realize. It’s like having a small grain of sand in your shoe – not big enough to hurt or to make a blister, but when you take it out it’s ever so much more comfortable. I’ve been living away from anything I would recognize as my “home” for so long that I don’t even think any more about how much stuff I have to translate in my head as I interact with people. Or, rather, I don’t think about it until suddenly I don’t have to do it any more. That, alone, was worth every second of the ghastly traffic in DC.
What I want to talk about right now is today. Which started with the innkeepers delivering a serious Southern Breakfast to the door of our cottage in a basket. Fresh fruit, check. Orange juice, check. Something with eggs (a quiche with meat for me, a spinach fritatta for Roy) check. And.
STICKY BUNS. Real sticky buns. Real, fresh-baked yeast-raised covered-with-homemade-caramel-sauce-and-pecans sticky buns. Sticky buns like my grandmother, the one who could cook, would make. When you clear Saint Peter and the Pearly Gates, some haloed angel is going to meet you at the door with a plate full of sticky buns like these. Eating one of these sticky buns added three years to my life. I could feel it when it happened.
Roy, who is as finicky an eater as God ever put on this green earth, didn’t even look at the sticky buns when I unpacked them. I could tell that some wretched green-visored accountant in his brain was totting up how many calories each contained, and how many squats or something he was going to have to to do “work it off” and I could see that same cerebral accountant deciding that the sticky buns failed the cosmic cost-benefit analysis.
We had this out last night over dinner. We ate to save room for dessert. The dessert list included bread pudding with bourbon sauce (IMO, a total no-brainer, and my choice) and ice cream. “What kind of ice cream?” Roy asked. He was being daring, because he has monster acid-reflux, and ice-cream at night is usually the kiss of death for that. But we were dining early, and he was feeling like a Splurge. Waitress said “Vanilla, chocolate, black raspberry, and butter pecan”. Naturally, I said “Roy, get the butter pecan.”
I won’t have to explain that to any of you who are from the South. For the rest of you, when you’re going for ice cream in the South, and butter pecan is offered, don’t even bother to listen to the rest of the list. Take it from your Auntie Lori. I have your Best Interests at heart.
Regrettably, Roy’s cerebral accountant decided that the black raspberry ice cream probably had fewer calories than the butter pecan, and he went with that. I stared. The waitress left. In a low, penetrating voice, I said “Roy. When you’re in a creperie in the French countryside, order the crepes.” I’ll have to post my old travelogue that gave rise to that one once I get home, but in the meantime, know that this is a piece of wisdom received straight from the Man On High, right along with Don’t Kick Fire Ant Hills and When Dining At An Italian Restaurant, Order The House Dressing.
He leaned back, thought for an instant, and flagged our waitress down. “Can I change to the butter pecan, please?” he said. “Good decision” she said. And it was. Exactly as expected, perfectly divine butter pecan ice cream. It’s Virginia, for pete’s sake. And Roy concurred.
The same thing happened this morning. “I can tell you’re deciding those sticky buns fail your cost-benefit analysis” I said. “What do you mean?” he protested with that totally artificial air of surprise. “Don’t screw with me, buster. When at a creperie in the French countryside, order the crepes.” I said. He went for the sticky buns. And it was GOOD. “Why does anyone ever eat a Cinnabon?” he wondered. “Because they have no idea what a real sticky bun is supposed to be.” I said.
I had two of them. And then I felt really decadent. But only in a good way…
After breakfast, we hared off to a local riding stable for a two hour trail ride. The horses, I was happy to see, were what I’m accustomed to from my barn where Huey lives. Sane, deeply loved, well-cared for, full of Personality. There are a bazillion horses living at this barn, and you can tell that the barn owner loves them all. Just like my barn owner. I couldn’t have asked for better. Roy and I had a private trail ride, just me and him and our guide. There were two other pairs there for same, and we went through the “do you have any riding experience” quiz. I answered for Roy and said “He needs your most bombproof, trusty, push-button horse.” And for myself, “I own a horse, but know almost nothing about neck reining or trail riding, but my horse is a handful.” They assigned Roy to a mare who was, in fact, trust, push-button, and bombproof. The horse I’d have chosen for him personally if I’d known the different horses.
For me, they gave me a choice. There was a palomino gelding, who totally could not give a damn. And a Pinto with one blue eye and a huge white muzzle who managed to get himself loose enough to start grazing under the fence. They said “You’ll probably like the palomino best.” I couldn’t resist that blue eye and the daisy-eating, and said “Can I ride the Pinto?” What can I say? He had a kind eye, and he noticed me. And he had white lips. And a blue eye. I was a goner. It turns out that he, like The Wonder Horse, had been mistakenly sent to auction. He’d been abused first, too, but some cheesebrain who thought he had to whip him to get him into a trailer. I knew this horse didn’t have a crappy attitude. He told me so. His owner agreed. She said he trailed just fine, all you had to do was ask him and be prepared to wait for a minute. What can I say? Buster Kitty, Huey The Wonder Horse…I’m some kind of major sucker for a hard-luck story told by a good-hearted animal.
He was, too. Slow, but with a pace that he could keep up all day long. Carried himself like a Western Pleasure horse, and had a nice leg yield. He was, I will say, slightly dismayed to find that life with The Wonder Horse has given me a sixth sense for a Horse About To Steal Food On The Fly that is so sharp it would cut glass. Toby tried, too, and he had a different bag of tricks than Huey, but I was on him like a fly. Every time he even thought about it, and I can tell, he got a boot and some contact off the reins, and pretty soon he stopped trying and we just went. It was my first time trotting on a trail, and in a western saddle, all of which was very strange. The Wonder Horse is what I think of as a City Horse. Roy’s mom is a City Girl. Born and bred in NYC, you take her into the country, and she starts asking for sidewalks and pavement. All that wild vegetation makes her nervous. Huey’s born and bred to the ring. You take him on the trail and his response is a whole lot like my mother-in-law getting nervous from the untrammeled undisciplined plant life. So we don’t go on trails much. And because I am totally convinced that he’d step in a hole or on a rock or something and damage himself permanently, I certainly don’t ask him to trot on a trail. So this was a totally new experience, and loads of fun.
Afterward, we found a roadside barbecue pit and got take-out for the screen porch on the cottage. It was what I, with my Educated Palate, would regard as “very good” barbecue. The best barbecue we have in Massachusetts is “acceptable”. And the best barbecue that Roy had ever had was what I regard as “acceptable.” Again, we encountered the cerebral accountant. He looked at the menu. “Get the half-chicken” I said. “I thought I’d just have the sides” he said. “Don’t be absurd,” I said. “French creperie.” So he ordered the chicken.
Back at the ranch, he’s devouring that chicken like a sixteen-year-old male who has just come in from playing 3 hours of pick-up basketball. When he cleared his mouth for .024 seconds, I said “So?” He said, devoutly, “This is the best barbecue I have ever had in my entire life.” And that was it for his words. More words, like too many sides, were wasted. “This is what I’m used to,” I said. “Which is why I don’t go out more for barbecue in New England. This, I would say, is “very good”. It is not, amazingly, the best I’ve ever had. The best would fry every brain cell in your head.” “I can’t even imagine.” he said. And then he kept right on chowing down. I could tell the cerebral accountant had been dusted with the brass knuckles. With any luck, he’ll stay asleep through dinner tonight.