Sunday, August 24, 2003

I rode through the grassy fields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania last Tuesday. There were seven of us, edging forward where the North and South had clashed, killing tens of thousands. Cannon booms, cries of battle, and musket shots had once filled the air, but today the only sounds were the soft hoof beats of my horse and fellow riders taking part in a guided horseback tour through the battlefields.

I'd found myself on the back of that horse in a rather odd way. A friend of my mom's from work is undergoing a mastectomy. This woman usually drives her husband Ed to Gettysburg where he is a guide. Ed is legally blind and can't drive himself, and when my mom asked her friend if there was anything she could do during her time in the hospital, she said, "Actually, there is."

And that led to my mom and I riding through Gettysburg on horseback, tromping through the fields, listening to Ed as he pointed out where rival generals had led their soldiers into one of the biggest battles in the Civil War.

Before the ride, we picked Ed up at his house in Hampden. Neither my mom nor me had ever met the man, and weren't quite sure what to expect. When she approached his door, he popped out in a "here I am," stance with his hands on his hips and chin raised to the air. He wore his official guide hat and shirt, light khaki pants, sported a red and grey beard, and was as spry as a fox. He was in his early sixties, and when my mom introduced me he proclaimed, "We're having historical weather today for our ride!" Meaning, that the battle took place in weather just like we were experiencing. Mid-eighties, humid, and partly cloudy.

At that, I knew we were in for a great time.

The drive to Gettysburg was about an hour, during which my mom and Ed talked about the history of the surrounding countryside and the war. My mom asked Ed what his background was, and he told us that he is a former mathematician, having quit when his eyesight started to fail to the point where he could no longer read the yearly mathematical journals. Twelve, intricate, very large journals that were essential if one wanted to be on the forefront of mathematics. Instead of letting his eyesight limit him, he became interested in the Civil War and found out by accident about horseback guided tours through Gettysburg. In order to pass the rigid guide test, he visited the battlefield several times to memorize by foot placement where the events took place, as well as where landmarks, both natural and manmade were located in order to give an accurate historical tour. When his test came, the day was foggy and visibility was low, but Ed pointed out the places of note with ease, down to where the last foot soldier may have fallen or where a cannonball rolled across the field to take the lower leg off an unsuspecting general. After he passed his test, one of the Gettysburg board members told him, "We really thought your eyesight was going to be a problem, but you could see things that we had a hard time seeing today!"

Truth be told, Ed had memorized the battlefield so well, that he didn't need his eyes to guide him anymore. He had no idea the day had been foggy.

As he spoke to us in the car, I marveled at his knowledge of the land through which we were driving and the history of the Civil War. It's one thing to know names and places, but to be able to point somewhere and say this general was standing here, and this one was there, and to tell the story as if he just experienced it yesterday was just amazing. I had a wonderful time just sitting in the back of the car and listening to Ed, imagining the people he was talking about and the events that had taken place. The people he described became three dimensional beings and I soaked it in. I could see the sweat dripping down their foreheads, hot and weary in their wool uniforms and brass buttons, their muskets slung over their shoulders and their hair blowing in the wind. I felt the fear and anticipation, and between the trees I expected to see soldiers lurking or sense an unnatural silence as we approached the enemy. By the time we arrived at Gettysburg, I was ready to get on a horse and ride, not drive through history.

Right: Me on the white horse on the left, and my mom on the brown horse on the right. This photo was taken by the horses' owner just after our ride.

I had taken English style horseback riding when I was in grade school that included some jumping, and had also ridden Western style through the Colorado Rockies at Estes Park a few times when I was nine through eleven years old. When I got on the horse, everything came back except one thing. I had always harbored some fear of horses when I was that age, being so small on top of such a big animal, but that didn't surface this time. I felt in unison with my horse, and her sudden movements beneath me didn't frighten me, but instead seemed natural. I felt in control and at ease, thinking, "If I fall, well, then I fall. If the horse becomes frightened, well, then the horse bucks and I hang on. It's all cool." I think my horse could sense that from me, and the two of us worked together seamlessly.

My horse was a spackled grey Arabian, just like the one that Legolas and Gimli ride in the movie The Two Towers, and as Ed told me from his encyclopedic mind, the kind that Napoleon preferred. Her name is Tania, pronounced Tah-ny-ah. She was such a beautiful horse, and I spoke to her and pet her before I got onto her. My mom's horse was a beautiful brown horse named JD, short for Jack Daniels.

Though we were on a battlefield, the ride was incredibly peaceful. The sounds of the horses' steps changed with the terrain, whether we were on gravel, dirt, grass, or a wood bridge. I felt Tania expand underneath me when she took a deep breath, and the twitches of her muscles when she warded off flies. I saw butterflies land on blades of grass and swarms of grasshoppers hop out of our way as we passed, causing a ripple effect in the tall grass. I heard the creaking of my leather saddle and the songbirds' varied tunes, the wind whispering through the grass and the rustle of the leaves in the trees.

I wondered sometimes if the ghosts of those who fought and died there were among us, looking at us with curiosity and listening to Ed as he pointed out from where regiments had attacked or the more intimate stories of lookout soldiers from opposing sides forming friendships on the fields they surveyed. Maybe they silently walked beside our horses, enjoying the same tranquility that we were and proud that we remembered their sacrifice. Perhaps they reached out and tried to touch us, feeling only air as we passed through them. And some of Tania's twitches were not the result of flies, but of ghostly fingers brushing against her skin.

As I looked across the landscape, right in the middle of where our country fought itself to gain freedom and opportunity for all, I resisted the urge to gallop across the fields, hanging on for dear life, wind through my hair and stinging my eyes, filling my lungs and caressing my forehead. The beating of hooves as fast as the beating of my heart, feeling the land underneath me instead of being separated from it by pavement and tires. Going off-road, in the way it was originally intended. Experiencing freedom in one of the very places that helped birth it and shredding boundaries. Being so alive that fear and doubt seem impossible, almost laughable. And having possibility within my grasp, riding alongside me and sharing my triumph, both of us gut laughing at the sheer wonder of life as we part through the vast fields of opportunity that seem to stretch forever.

Ironic that it took someone who is legally blind to enable me to see that so much more clearly. To see that even though you may have limitations, you can find a way around them. But you are the one that has to find the way and carve out that path that is custom made just for you. And then, it's just a matter of remembering your foot placement.