My plan for today was simple -- ride Itchy up the mountain to do the final trail clearing so we can trot non-stop to the top, and get Andy out to see how fit he still is for foxhunting this Wednesday.
Of course, I had to wait until the weather warmed up a tad more -- it was in the 30's this morning with a tiny wind -- just enough to make me say "I'll wait until late morning to start". While that meant I was going to be working Andy later in the afternoon, it didn't bother me too much. Getting up the mountain and getting the rest of the fallen trees out of the way was my main priority this morning.
As soon as the temperature gauge crept up to 45 -- around 11AM -- that was my signal to go. This time I had packed along my new camera as I wanted to get some shots from the trail going up to the crest of the Blue Ridge.
I elected to take the shorter route to the mountain, which meant going cross country and lots of boggy trails. It wasn't too bad -- we walked through the sloshy areas and trotted the gravel roads until we hit Rock Hill Road, about 4 miles from my farm as the crow flies. At that point we followed the old bridle path into the woods alongside the ancient, but now treefilled byway once led to William Littleton's house in the late 1700's. The property, then owned by his heirs, still shows on the 1850's map of Loudoun County, and the county archives still have the original map of the road leading past Littleton's house and on up the mountain. The stone sides of the old bank barn and the standing chimney are all that remains -- a quiet reminder of a place, and a man, whose life and history are now only a few pieces of paper in an archive.
I stopped to take a photo, as I have done every year, of the solitary stone structure that was once the hearth and heart of a home, and then turned Itchy's nose to the mountain where William Littleton's road, now only a faint depression in the grassy fields, turned once again into a trackable byway, albeit full of rain-cut ditches and tossed rocks.
As we started at a trot up the mountain, I noticed a set of tire tracks in the mud that hadn't been there before. My heart lifted. If someone had come up, then they surely would have had to cut some windfall trees out of the way. I saw one chainsawn tree, and rejoiced! Not having to clear the trail, I could just ride and enjoy myse.....opps! The tire tracks made an abrupt turn and stop at the old mill pond which lay about two tenths of a mile up the old road. I looked ahead down the trail with sinking heart. There were no more tire tracks ahead of me. Just the same downed tree still suspended over and across the trail the Itchy and I had to jump last time.
Ah, well. It was nice while it lasted.
We casually jumped the overhanging tree and continued our climb. The ground was very slick from all the rain, and I was extremely glad Itchy was still shod for foxhunting with studs in his back shoes. At least he could grip the slippery ground and keep pushing up the mountain until we reached the point where the road took a dogleg to the right, directly where an old stone wall had once held the yard and garden of a 1700's log cabin, now all gone, the stones fallen down and scattered, all traces of humanity having been there erased... except for an old carriage spring still sitting on the remains of the wall, a 100 year old metal relic from 1905-1910 recalling the days when horse drawn vehicles would travel this road up to the top of the mountain, the horses struggling on the hard ascent and descent, not knowing that in a few years motorized vehicles would do that job quicker and more efficiently. The spring obviously came from a broken carriage -- one that was left on the side of the road, the rest of the carriage parts eventually carried away except for the spring which was left to sit, unnoticed and forgotten as the old road soon became less and less traveled as other roads that were more agreeable to the new horseless carriage became the favored byways. In time the trees began to encroach the old road, but for the dedication of the adjoining estates, the woods would have reclaimed the road decades ago.
But the old road has remained alive , still a pathway for horses, but no longer seeing any carriages. Rather, it is trucks and 4 wheel drives that now tread the old roadbed, coming up the mountain every fall with hunters to shoot the wild turkeys and sit in the trees hoping for a trophy buck to walk their way.
Up and up the road we trotted, at times Itchy's heart monitor beeping at top end when the road lifted itself up in a hard incline, the steepness and mud making the workout a tough one. Once we reached the a new path I'd made into the woods to avoid the 3 major windfall trees that blocked the old road, I dismounted and started to widen the trail I had blazed a day or so ago, cutting back the overhanging briars and kicking away the rotting deadwood underfoot. My new trail cut in close to an old, old home -- one that hadn't been lived in for many, many years. Yet a new well that had been put in about 3 years ago -- perhaps when the current owner had thought about selling the property -- but after that brief flurry of activity the house saw no more sign of human life -- just the ever present deer, fox, and an occasional bear. Years ago the Appalachian Trail used to pass right by the house, but about 25 years ago the US Government "reassigned" the trail to the other side of the mountain. The old AT trail is still visible near the abandoned home, but so overgrown that it is impossible to follow it.
I glanced at the broken windows and the lovely French roofline of the old house as Itchy moved back into a trot, focused at getting to the top of the mountain -- only a 1/4 away -- with no more delay.
At the top I dismounted, opened my pocket crammed full of horse cookies, and turned to head back down the mountain, walking along feeding Itchy cookies and pulling up bits of newly sprung grass for him to enjoy as well. When we reached the bottom where a lovely woodland stream bubbled and gurgled along -- for which Itchy had no interest as of yet -- I remounted and we turned right onto Trappe Farm's back road, heading down the muddy dirt road at a trot, all the way down to the road head at Trappe Hill Farm. Passing along behind the stables where Trappe Hill kept it's racehorses, I was hallooed -- and stopped to see Jeff Crandell (John's brother) who works for the estate. We had a lovely chat for several minutes and then waved goodbye to one another as Itchy and I were off again, turning onto Trappe Road -- a lovely public gravel byway -- heading a short distance east until we reached the old farm lane heading south toward Corotoman behind Newstead Farm (now owned by the Firestones). Enroute the farm workers were already busy, putting in new fencing for the hundreds of acres of cattle fields. We all waved hello to one another as I kept cruising along, stopping on when I haled some old hunt friends of mine out riding. We stood and chatted for a bit, then said our goodbyes as we all moved on.
We were at about 10 miles along at that point. Itchy was feeling fresh and moving out with a spring in his step, even after that hard workout on the mountain, so I opted to continue further south, then east along the back fields of Clifton before turning left onto the end of Willisville Road.
I debated heading into the fields and woods, but.. the ground was so awful -- wet and mucky -- that I decided it would be better to stay on the roads until I reached Cannon Hill Farm. This several hundred acre estate has mowed a network of carriage paths for us local drivers -- beautiful grassy byways that are a joy to ride and drive. However, the wet ground was too happy to leave big holes in our wake, so we kept to the rough hayfields where our footfall was absorbed by the dense high grass.
After trotting and cantering some good sets in the fields, and stopping periodically to encourage Itchy to munch down on the newly emerging grass, I turned my pony's nose towards home, a little over a mile away. He was happy to make time, finally drinking heavily at the creek below Cannon Hill's main house. Once we reached sight of our house, I stopped and dismounted, walking the final 1/2 mile home. As we reached the barn I checked his heart monitor -- mid 50's.
A wonderful 20+ mile ride... and still enough daylight to ride Andy.
A quick hot bath for Itchy, and a big heaping dinner, and then he was dressed in his blankets and turned out to enjoy some rolling and rest and relaxation.
Now it was Andy's turn. A quick brush down, saddle up.. and we were off, heading down the 3 mile long Willisville Road.
I had been foxhunting Andy during the weekend hunts at the start of the season, but once the hunts began to stay out for 3-4 hours, I thought it was a bit much for a 24 year old pony, and so Itchy stood in for all the hunts after that. Even though Andy had been off work pretty much since mid January, and not re-clipped, his coat under the blankets was still nice and short.
He seemed fresh and happy to be out, so we did some trots and canter sets along Cannon Hill Farm's pathways, and then out onto Willisville Road again for a lovely trot down to the end and back. It was a good 7+ miles, and I was pleased to see that his conditioning still held up quite nicely. I would have no problem worrying about him hunting this Wednesday -- although I did need to put new shoes on his back feet with studs.
By the time we reached home again and I had bathed, re-blanketed, fed, and turned out Andy for the evening, the cloud front moving in from the west had overtaken the skies with a cold leaden dreariness. I headed up towards the house, tired but happy.
A prefect day spent just the way I like it -- on ponyback, heading down the trail.
To see a snapshot of the GPS tracks ...