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Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

Abe Lincoln Rode Here
and So Did I

by Lin Sutherland

My mother was a horse fanatic, despite her Charleston, South Carolina, blue-blood upbringing. When she was twenty she graduated magna cum laude from the College of Charleston and left that city of history and suffocating social rules forever. With the twenty-dollar gold piece she got for the Math Prize, she bought a railroad ticket for as far west as it would get her. Austin, Texas, was $19.02 away.

My mother was petite and lady-like, with china blue eyes, a fearless spirit and a lively, indomitable will. In Austin she met my father -- the son of a Uvalde, Texas cowboy -- and would have no one else. They proceeded to have seven children -- all girls. She took up riding with my father, a good horseman, and by the time I was born -- number seven kid -- they had horses no matter where we lived. She rode a white mare named Lady and she put me on that mare when I was two, where I stayed 'till I was about 18. My parents never over-protected us. I rode everywhere bareback with just a halter.

Every summer it was my mother's custom to pack the seven of us girls into the DeSoto and drive from Austin to Charleston to visit our grandparents. We camped the whole way. Mama's preparations for the fifteen hundred-mile trip consisted of packing the car with seven army cots, a basket of Stonewall peaches and some hackamores and ropes. "You never know when you'll run into a good horse to ride," she'd say.

Her idea of successful traveling was to get us all in the car without one of us bleeding from sitting on the spurs or being left at a gas station. Once she'd done a head count and ascertained the security of the cots and tack, she'd drive like A.J. Foyt until it was too dark to go any farther. This meant we were usually tired, hungry and lost on some back road in the middle of Louisiana or Mississippi when we stopped to camp.

"Stopping to camp" in our case meant suddenly swerving off the road when my mother spied a trail or horse pasture that stirred her sporting blood. She never once planned our stops like normal people do, timing themselves to arrive at a campsite or park around dusk. But this was the 1950s, when people still slept with the screen door unlocked and left the keys in the car. We felt perfectly safe at any roadside area, and we were.

The trip that brought us face to face with history was the one we took in the summer of 1958 when I was ten. Three days into the journey found us somewhere in the mountains of Kentucky. I was never quite sure where we were at any given point on these trips, since I knew only one landmark -- the tree-lined road to my grandparents' house -- the finish line. But again, we had driven for hours into the night. When we finally pulled off the road, the hills around us were black as midnight under a skillet. Then a slice of moon slid out from behind a cloud and delicately illuminated a rock gate in front of us.

"Oh, look!" Mama cried, "a national park."

There was an audible sigh of relief from the back seat. "Let's camp here, Mama!" we clamored urgently. Since she had been slapping her cheeks for the last hour to stay awake, she agreed.

We cruised down a black dirt road into the parking area. Nestled nearby was the outline of a log cabin. Beyond that, the glint of a dew-struck meadow and in it -- grazing horses. "See that!" Mama said excitedly. "A sleeping cabin. By horses! This is paradise."

We parked and unloaded the car, dragging our stuff into the little cabin. It was open and empty. We could see it was very old and rudimentary, but it was warm and clean and had fresh water. For us it was luxury quarters. We washed up and ate our dinner of kipper snacks and soda crackers, with Moon Pies for dessert. Then we snuggled into the cots that we'd fixed up in the one bare room. With bellies full and a cozy roof overhead, my sisters curled up next to each other like a litter of puppies and dozed off.

Mama checked with a last look at them and picked up a halter and set off with long strides toward the pasture of horses. The faint murmur of her voice as she talked to them drifted through the open window.

I slipped on my shoes, picked up a halter and slid quietly out the door.

Across the damp grass I could see my mother's silhouette next to the horses cast against the moonlit mountainside. For a moment I felt the thrill of anticipation when the mystery of life is at play. I joined my mother by her side.

"Look at this sweet bay mare," she whispered, running her fingers down the white blaze. "She's gentle as a dog." She slipped a halter on the mare, made reins with the end of the lead rope, and watched her reaction.

Nothing.

She cupped her hand under my knee and hoisted me up. The mare stood quiet and still as the night.

My mother haltered a paint gelding and slid on, Indian style. She was always athletic and limber and could mount bareback from the ground. We let the horses stand for a moment. Then slowly, she squeezed her legs and the paint ambled off. I followed. We rode round the enchanted field, smelling sweet of mountain flowers, trees outlined in moonlight. My mare pricked up her ears and fell into a little single-foot next to the paint.

My mother reached out her hand and brushed my arm. It was one of those moments that form a permanent part in the book of parent-child memories.

It was destined to be brief, though. Suddenly, some night animal rustled in the underbrush and my mare spooked sideways. She bolted into a gallop for the tree line.

"Mama!" I yelled. I leaned over, gripping the thick mane and feeling the wind rush past me.

"Bring her around, NOW!" she called, and I pulled the rope and reined the mare into a circle. She slowed a bit and loped towards the gelding, standing still in the middle of the clearing. Mama slipped off and grasped me around the waist and pulled me off.

"Feeling a little frisky, they are!" she laughed. " You did great."

We slipped the halters off the horses, hugging their warm necks good-bye. With a last stroke of her hand on the mare's nose, she took my hand and we headed back to the cabin. I fell into a deep sleep there, my dreams inhabited by the usual running, bucking beautiful horses of all colors.

It seemed only minutes later that sleep was penetrated by voices. Lots of voices. Suddenly, the door of the cabin burst open and sunlight and a large group of people led by a woman in a uniform flowed into the room. The uniformed person was in the middle of a speech.

"And here we have the boyhood home of President Abraham Lincoln... aagghhhhh!"

We all screamed at once. My mother, protective in her own quixotic way, leapt off the cot, her chenille bathrobe flapping, and shouted at the intruders, "Who do you think you are, bursting in on my sleeping family like this?"

The guide was struck speechless. She gathered herself with visible effort.

"Ma'am, I don't know who you are, but this is Abraham Lincoln's Birthplace National Historic Park," she reported tersely.

Her eyes quickly shifted sideways to take in two dirty old leather halters and ropes lying on the floor. Though she tried to conceal it, her lips pursed with disgust. I knew right off she wasn't a horse person.

"And his cabin," she continued, "is not an overnight stopover. This is a restricted area with guided tours beginning at 7:00 a.m. and... "

"Oh my goodness, we overslept!" Mama shouted. "Pack the car, girls. We've got to get on the road!"

We launched into a flurry of experienced cot-folding and were out the door in seconds.

"But ma'am," the guide called at my mother's disappearing back. "You weren't supposed to sleep in here. This is Lincoln's Log Cabin. It's a National Treasure!"

"We treasure our night here," my mother shouted back, as she gunned the car around. "Abe wouldn't have minded. He probably knew a good horse!"

She waved at the grazing horses. "Good-bye, fine ponies!"

With that we roared off in the direction of South Carolina. I saw a sign as we left: "Leaving Hodgenville, Kentucky, Abraham Lincoln's Birthplace. Ya'll Come Back."

"Not likely," my mother laughed. "A good riding spot, but I hate to do anything twice -- don't you?"

And that's how it happened that, during the summer I was ten, the course of history was changed. Unofficially, to be sure, but if there had been a historical marker by that meadow, it would now have to read: ABE LINCOLN RODE HERE... AND SO DID I.
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Lin Sutherland is a writer and horse rancher in Austin. She teaches riding and natural horsemanship through the University of Texas and has published in Field and Stream, International Living, Woman's Day, American Cowboy and Persimmon Hill of National Cowboy Hall of Fame, and other national magazines.

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