The thermometer reads 21 degrees. Wind is whipping through the naked trees atop our mountain. The wind-chill is about 16 degrees. A light icy snow pelts the windows. I psych myself up to brave the cold and do the morning feeding.
I down one more cup of coffee, then I gather my barn clothes by the heater: two pairs of socks, long underwear, wool sweater, jeans, hat and a belt—because with so much clothing, I’ll no longer have a discernible waist to hold up my pants. I struggle into all the layers, then add a coat, ranch gloves and stuff my feet into the insulated muck boots I keep by the door.
I have to pee. No way am I starting all over again. I’ll hold it.
The cold stings my face as I step outside with my feed bucket. I untie the wheelbarrow leaning against the porch, kept there because it’s midway between my two barns. It gets gusty up here, and I hate when the wheelbarrow blows over, down the hill, or fills with rain. I push the wheelbarrow into the wind and head up to the hay barn to load up, then bring the hay back down to the horse barn. I grab the bucket of feed as I pass the porch again.
Fly Lazaan, my Arabian mare, and Sir William, the donkey (aka Protector of the Realm), are hollering at me to move faster. Not happening. After what seems like a decade of rain—OK, a week—the ground is saturated. What isn’t mud is ice or frost-covered.
Now, the tricky part: I have to traverse the 25-foot mud bog between the edge of my sloped yard and the barn.
Mud is unavoidable in these mountains. Any low-ish area is a boot-sucking menace designed by nature to strip you of both your footwear and your dignity. For giggles, let’s do this Flying Wallenda-style, dangling a bucket of hot mash from one hand and 20 pounds of hay clutched between my other arm and my hip. The wheelbarrow is useless from here on.
Peering past the hair that escaped my hat, I look for firm-looking rises in the mud. Steppingstones, if you may.
I pray they don’t disappear under my weight.
I cuss loudly when they do.
I sink 8 inches into the mud.
Unable to flail my arms for balance, I stand off-kilter with one foot firmly encased in half-frozen mud, the other searching for purchase as I calculate the next step.
The hay is slipping. I shrug to adjust it. This is a mistake.
It’s enough to throw my next two steps completely off-balance, and I end up toddler-careening the last few feet to the terra firma of the barn with one boot dangling precariously from my left foot.
Success! I made it without dropping anything or falling. I feed the furry beasts, deposit kisses on soft noses, check water, make sure everyone is in good shape, then turn back toward the house.
The bog stretches in front of me. I stomp my feet deeper into my boots and hike my migrating pants back up. I still have to pee, and the more I think about it, the worse I have to go.
“Alright, girl, you got this!” I tell myself.
I bravely step forward, secure in the knowledge that my arms are free to flail if needed: red light, green light. Two giant steps. Wobble. Freeze. Whew, I’m OK. I tentatively step on a mound. It holds. Then another.
There’s no gate on this side of the paddock, so I step between the strands of the electric wire fence. I’m insulated against getting shocked, so no worries there. Once through, I’m on solid ground.
I’m in the homestretch. “Woo hoo!”
I turn to look back at the barn to wave at the critters, and at that moment I lose it. Both feet fly out from under me, pitching me backward. This time, I do flail, but it doesn’t stop me from landing on my butt and sliding back down the hill. I slide just far enough through the electric fence that both feet are in the muck, and the only part of my body not covered is touching the fence.
“Huh. I wonder why the fence isn’t wor…”
A string of expletives erupts from my numb lips as I discover that the fence is, in fact, working.
The electricity jolts through my body from my cheek to the ground beneath my now damp behind.
The fence pulses at intervals.
I attempt to crab-walk backward up the hill. The bog monster has my right boot and—it’s gone. I roll sideways, holding my clean sock foot above the ground so I can reach through and retrieve my boot.
William and Fly stare at me while munching hay. Cue a popcorn emoji while they sit back and watch this show.
With my boot back on, I right myself and half-crawl up the slick hill. Miraculously, I’m not covered in mud.
Once on the porch I pull my boots off, step inside the house and take my gloves off.
That’s when I feel it: The heat starts in my neck, then blooms across my face and blazes from the core of my body outward in all directions. I can even feel my feet sweating.
Holy freaking hot flash.
I can’t rip off my layers of clothing fast enough. The sweat soaks my shirt. My bangs are plastered to my eyelids. I’m thrashing about blindly till I get down to my long underwear pants and my sports bra (the latter, as any woman knows, is impossible to dislodge when damp).
The heat continues to build.
Is this what all those spontaneous human combustion stories in the National Enquirer are really about?
I can’t take it. I scramble through the door to get outside.
Steam rises from me. I’m half-naked on my porch. It is hellishly cold. Seriously. Hell hath frozen over. The wind feels good. The heat dissipates. In another 30 seconds I’ll be fine.
I lean back on the porch rail with my back to the road. I hear a truck coming from the curve above the house. I don’t care. I stay put, raising my hand in a polite country wave as my elderly neighbor drives by. I swear, the man has SEEN THINGS since we’ve lived here. Bless him for never mentioning it.
I watch him disappear around the bend, and I head inside. I still have to pee.
Cynthia O’Neil is a lifetime equestrian who grew up in well-groomed barns and arenas in the Boston area. She traded the three-rail fences for a wild 140-acre farm high in the Smoky Mountains about an hour and a half from Tryon, North Carolina. She is an endurance rider, and together with her off -track Standardbred, Southwind Joker, is an unofficial ambassador for lupus awareness. Her work has been published in print and online in The Laurel, Homestead.org, The Nest Pets and elsewhere. In addition to her writing, Cynthia has worked as a veterinary tech, a wrangler and is a reiki practitioner focusing on the horse and rider connection.