On Stevens Creek
The house was at the end of the fire road, but you couldn’t get to it that way. A metal gate, tangled with laurels and scrub oak, closed off the spot where the fire road ended. I’d been coming to this spot for two years, since I was 10 years old, and I still wondered about it every time I stopped there on my horse: What would a fire crew do if they came up on that gate, a rusted 10-pound chain and a battered, keyed padlock stopping them?
Beyond the gate was the county park road, a one-lane paved drive that looked incongruously black and clean so far into the forest. It wound past and curled to the right, and there in its crooked elbow stood the house.
I’d never seen anyone coming or going at the house, or even a parked car. In truth, I could barely make it out through the mossy oaks: brown, low, with a shallow-pitched roof and a dark porch. It was well off the usual roads haunted by teenagers with sixpacks and shirtless men in pickups with dogs and tackle boxes rattling in the back. This was the house’s peculiar charm: No one seemed to live there, and as far as I knew, no one but me ever even saw it.
My horse was always happy to stop there, after a dogleg back from where the steep trail angled down into the fire road. That stretch of bridle path was known as the galloping alley, and Amarillo, at 16, didn’t have much gallop left. He was taking up his dotage, a sour old man who didn’t like to be rushed. I had already paled on the surge of a horse at full tilt and the crazy, breathless edge a rider had to keep at that speed. I’d seen horses with bowed tendons and worse, had seen riders break their teeth and more. It had gotten to where the warm swell of ribs between my calves was riding enough. I fancied that my old horse liked this spot, this backwater of empty trail fenced in by a gate, a half-paddock out in the middle of nowhere.
I’d point him at the gate and give him his rein, let him browse leaves or just stand and stare in the manner of an old dog. I’d hitch a knee up over the horn and unbuckle my saddlebags, pull out a tuna sandwich and a couple of warm plums that were beaten but sweet. Fifty yards behind us, I could hear horses clop down the last steep grade before they hit the wide fire trail and took off, riders whooping like a Wild West show. We were far enough away that the dust never reached us, and a bend in the road put us just out of sight. I would sit and eat, Amarillo’s back undulant under my legs as he rested on one hip, then the other.
I would sit and think about that house.
It needed windowboxes, for one thing. Red geraniums like I’d seen on ski chalets in German books. It needed a rocker on the porch, and a garden out back with a high deer fence. It needed a woodstove for the winter, and a large old pantry just off the cramped kitchen. I’d have to lay in groceries by the month. I supposed I’d be a ranger, suffering the public all day, reminding drunks to leash their dogs and ticketing the odd expired fishing license. I would carry a gun and know the right and wrong of using it. I would be the sheriff of a very small town, and at day’s end I would have my house, my warm barn out back, my old horse waiting for me there. And I would feed him and he would show me the trails beyond the gate, take me right down to the lake where the water rippled out to tell which way the wind blew.
And we would stand and watch it for an hour, and at dusk we’d ride back home to where the hay waited and the lamps blinked on, yellow and warm in that voiceless tract of trees.
Amy Miller‘s essays and poems have appeared in Fine Gardening, Gulf Coast, Longridge Review, and ZYZZYVA. Her full-length poetry collection The Trouble with New England Girls won the Louis Award from Concrete Wolf Press. She lives in Ashland, Oregon, where she works as a print production manager and is putting the final touches on a travel memoir. Follow her on Twitter, @AmyMillerPoet.