One Summer In Vermont

Karen Petersen

© Copyright 2023 by Karen Petersen

Image by David from Pixabay
Image by David from Pixabay
The summer after my father died my mother decided to send me away to camp in Vermont for six weeks. It was the late 1960s on eastern Long Island, I was thirteen, and had retreated far into myself out of grief, abject loneliness, and deep loss.

We drove into New York City one beautiful June weekend so I could catch a Greyhound Bus to Chelsea, Vermont where I would be picked up in a van by one of the camp owners and taken the short distance to the camp, located on a broad ridge of granite and meadow called Judgement Ridge, not far from the farming town of nearby tiny Vershire.

I had slept most of the way, but woke up as the bus was finishing the last few leafy green miles to the town. Chelsea was settled in 1784, and was still a small quintessential Vermont farming town. Located in a river valley in the center of the state, between the Green Mountains to the west and New Hampshire's White Mountains to the east, out the windows of the bus I could see that it had a covered wooden bridge and some wonderful old architecture.

As I stepped shyly off the bus I noticed another girl who had been in a seat near me. I smiled and she smiled back.

My name’s Karen,” I said, extending my hand.

Mine’s Lori,” she said. “Are you going to the camp?”

I nodded.

What brings you here?” she asked.

My Dad died a few months ago and my Mom thought this might be a good place for me,” I said reluctantly.

Oh...I’m sorry,” she replied. “My parents are getting a divorce so I was sent away until they can figure things out.”

At that moment a tall woman with beads in her long black hair and dressed in flowing clothes like a hippie came up to us and asked: “Are you Karen and Lori?”

We nodded.

Great! My name’s Peggy and I’ve come to bring you to the camp!” she said smiling.

Lori and I looked at each other and grinned. We both felt an adventure was about to begin, and that we had also just found a new friend in the other.

Peggy drove past field after sunny field of cows and sheep grazing on endless green meadows. We came to a rustic wooden gate and she got out to open it and drove the van through. After about a mile or so we arrived at a small group of low outbuildings surrounding a giant old Victorian home with a large stable and several paddocks nearby. She pulled up to one of the buildings and said, “That’s your dorm. See you in the main house for supper at 6.”

The rooms were simple and clean and just as I was about to lie down for a nap there was a knock on my door.

Yes?” I said.

The door opened slowly. A freckled brown-haired young woman of college age was standing there.

Are you Karen?” she said, with a slight Irish accent.

I nodded.

My name’s Maureen. Come with me. I run the stables and I’ll show you around and what your duties are.”

As we walked to the stables Maureen asked me, “So how much do you know about horses?”

I shrugged.

I’ve ridden since I was seven, so that’s about five years, and I know about saddles and bridles and how to curry comb a horse and clean a stall,” I replied.

Maureen looked bemused.

OK,” she said. “So your job for now will be to keep the tack clean and polished, and the stalls mucked out every morning before camp starts.”

I smiled but was groaning inwardly. These were the lowest jobs in the stable. Thank god there were only 8 horses, I thought.

One had already caught my eye: a powerful chestnut mare, around 17 hands.

Who’s that?” I asked Maureen.

That’s Lullaby, the best horse we have,” she said. “You have a good eye.”

And what about that one?” I said, pointing to a short, pot-bellied black and white Pinto.

Oh that’s poor Hazel,” Maureen replied. “No one wants to ride her because she farts when she trots.”

We both burst out laughing.

The poor girl,” I walked over to Hazel sympathetically and said hello, stroking her muzzle. Her nose was very soft. “Don’t worry dear,” I whispered, “We can go riding together and I promise we won’t trot much.”

I turned around to see Maureen looking at me with a strange half smile.

I see you really like horses,” she said.

Oh yes,” I nodded. “They’re very special beings–so sensitive but treated badly by many people.”

She patted me on the back. “I think we’ll get along well. Now off you go! See you tomorrow.”

Lori and I had arrived a week early; we were both on scholarship and she worked in the kitchen helping with meal prep and dishwashing. I was much happier around the horses, and by the week’s end the stables were spotless and all the tack freshly cleaned and polished. Maureen was very pleased.

The work helped keep my mind off my father’s death during the day, but at night I lay in bed wrapped in the darkness of my sadness. Eventually fatigue would overtake me and I’d fall into a troubled sleep of strange dreams. Sometimes my father would be there, and we’d be walking in the woods together, a beautiful woods dappled with sunlight–and it was the most immense comfort to be with him. But then I’d bend down to look at something--an insect or plant--and when I stood up again he was gone and I was alone and lost in the fading light, waking up to a face wet with tears.

That following Sunday the rest of the camp showed up. All in all there were about 25 kids, including Lori and I. That evening Maureen told me to meet her at the stable, and there was a freckled brown-haired boy my own age bashfully standing there next to her.

Karen, this is my cousin Timmy,” she said. “From now on you’ll be grooming the horses and saddling them up and he’ll be helping with everything else.”

We shook hands solemnly.

Where do you live?” I asked.

Woods-hole,” he answered with a grin.

I burst out laughing. “What? No way Jose!”

Really!” he said. “It’s a famous place in Massachusetts. My Dad’s studying oceanography there–you know, learning about marine life.”

That’s actually cool,” I said.

He nodded.

Maureen interrupted. “Listen, it’s been a long day and I’m wasted. See you all bright and early. Time to hit the hay ok?”

Timmy then punched a bale of hay as we were walking out and we all laughed. I’m going to like this boy, I thought. He’s funny.

The next few weeks flew by. The camp had a yoga class, which was taught by an introverted instructor named Luke. His yoga class and understated wit were immensely popular, and luckily for Timmy and I, it was held during some of our break time from the horses. Neither of us had ever heard of yoga, and its premise seemed strange to us but we were curious and willing to give it a go.

We walked in and sat on the mats. Luke had just turned on some soft sitar music and was saying to the group, “Ok, today we are going to let it all hang out and learn the Downward Dog.”

He bent over slowly, putting his body into a wide characteristic upside down V, his large butt in the air.

Timmy quickly looked at me and whispered “BowWowWOW.” and I stifled a giggle. “Stop it!” I said, trying to maintain some seriousness.

The class then did this pose and I didn’t dare look at Timmy because I knew he would make me laugh. Luke went on to demonstrate a few other poses, all the while telling us about yoga’s origin and practice. It was actually very interesting, and by the end both Timmy and I had learned something in spite of ourselves.

Later that day, Maureen came to the stables and told us to be ready for a road trip that coming Saturday.

We’re going to a horse auction in Woodstock,” she said. “Peggy wants me to buy a few more horses, so you’ll both get to see how these things work.”

The ride didn’t take very long and the large wooden barn was typical of many barns in the area except that this one had scores of horse trailers and vans surrounding it. Coming from the inside was the sound of the auctioneer on a microphone.

This is the end of the line. If a horse isn’t sold here then it’s destined for a slaughterhouse in Mexico and the meat is used for pet food,” Maureen whispered to them.

I suddenly felt sick to my stomach. Timmy’s face had paled.

Why had she made us come? I thought in despair.

Inside was a large tamped-earth ring around which an elderly gentle white mare limped as its owner flicked a light whip. No one bid on her. Several naked light bulbs hung from the ceiling. It was a miserable sight. I had to hold back tears and Timmy just stared at the ground.

The next horse and the next had no bidders. These were all decent creatures that deserved to live out their old age in some green pasture rather than face the violent bloody horror of a slaughterhouse. Watching their death march around the ring was unbearable until suddenly the focus of the auction shifted to the discarded trotters from the various race tracks up and down the Eastern seaboard. They had all been raced to madness and had broken down mentally.

Maureen bid on several, and lost. Then one, frantic and jittery, his head and neck up, whites of his

eyes visible, dancing around in short steps only to break and trot insanely around the ring, came along that no one bid on. Maureen looked at him carefully and finally raised her paddle.

We can help this one,” she said. “He’s had a nervous breakdown. Track overkill. He just needs his nervous system reset. It’ll take a while but we can do it.”

She won.

The next lot were the quarter horses discarded from various tracks. They were all beautiful, powerful horses--those that had been good, but not good enough to be put out to stud--and many, once retrained, would make nice riding for a kid that wanted a horse. Bidding was brisk and again Maureen lost, until the last horse was brought out, a large glossy black mare, but she was so high-strung that no one bid. She had a short, refined head and a strong, well-muscled body, with a broad chest and powerful, rounded hindquarters.

I know we can help this one too,” she said. Down came the auctioneer’s gavel and she was hers.

Maureen stepped over to the auctioneer to make arrangements for the two horses to be brought to the camp and then came back.

Let’s go,” she said grimly.”I hate it here.”

They were all silent for a long while on the ride home. “They’ll arrive tomorrow, Maureen suddenly said. “We’ll need to get the stalls ready.”

They all pitched in, mucking out two stalls, one small and one larger, putting in fresh hay.

Time to go to sleep early, “ she told us. “They’ll be here at 6a.m.

The next morning they were all at the stables, anxiously waiting. The sound of an engine was finally heard and a long silver trailer with a number of horses in it came slowly up the drive. It stopped and the driver put the ramp down and led out the black quarter horse first.

Let’s call her Artemis,” Maureen said walking slowly over and putting a lead rope on her bridle. She led her to the smaller of the two stalls.

Next down the van came the trotter.

Everyone stand very still and make no sudden moves,” Maureen said. She carefully walked over to the trotter and stood by his side for a minute. Slowly he began to calm down a bit, enough so that she could put a lead on his bridle.

As she began to walk him to the stable, she said quietly, “We will call him Peter.”

She smiled and looked back at them. “It’s because no matter how tired he is, his energy will never peter out.”

Timmy started to laugh and the horse started in response. “Timmy, I told you to be very quiet,” Maureen said to him sternly. “This is a very dangerous time. The horses need to calm down and feel safe. This will take quite a bit of time.”

She held Peter very firmly and slowly guided him with her into the stable.

As she was doing that, the driver of the trailer had walked off another horse from the van. It was the gentle, elderly white mare that they had all seen going around the ring with a slight limp that no one had wanted.

Timmy went over to the driver and said sadly, “That one’s not ours. She’s headed to Mexico.”

No she isn’t,” Maureen said, quickly coming up behind Timmy. “I did a deal. She’s going to be with us.”

Timmy looked at me and then looked at her in astonishment.

This gentle old lady we will call Iris,” Maureen said, stroking the horse’s neck. “And she will be Peter’s stall mate. She will help him calm down, you’ll see, and may even be good for young Artemis.”

Timmy and I couldn’t help it but we both ran to Maureen and hugged her.

Thank you,” I whispered.

Maureen looked at us and smiled. “You must never forget to care for the mental part of any being. Horses are physical, yes, but they have emotions and a mind, which must be as well-looked after as their bodies.”

The following weeks were exhausting. It was a hot summer, and the paddocks were dusty and the horses tense.

We need to slow down the pace of life for both Peter and Artemis so they both have time to think about their new place in time and space.” Maureen had said to them the next day, “Retraining trotters and quarter horses can be done, but it takes patience, and each requires something different. We’re going to start first with Peter, simply because trotters end up off the track half-mad from the repetition. He needs help badly, so I’m going to put him on a lunge line going around in a circle, walking, trotting, and stopping. He needs to learn what his normal length stride is and keep his head down instead of extending it horizontally to the ground as if he was racing.”

She gave Timmy and I a sheet of paper. It said: “How to Retrain the Trotter”

Helping him find his natural pace and gait is going to be a challenge for us, and we are all going to have to work very hard with him. It’s going to be frustrating initially but there will be a breakthrough and it will be a wonderful thing to see,” she said, laying down some ground poles in the next paddock. In the corner were some cones.

What do those poles do?” I said curiously.

This is how we are going to help influence his stride length,” she said. “It's a great exercise if the horse tends to rush, as the poles will make his rhythm and stride length more regular. We will be doing other things too, as he slowly adjusts and begins to understand he’s no longer at the track. Then when he’s ready, I’ll want you to saddle up and do figure 8's with him.”

What will that do?” I asked.

It will bend him from side to side, meaning Peter will keep flexing his spine back and forth in both directions rather than holding a fixed posture--which is all a trotter does at the track. So that will be really helpful for him.”

I went over to Peter slowly, who was looking a bit jumpy, and stroked his neck. I said quietly, “It’s okay Peter. You are safe here,” and he snorted and stomped as if to say “we’ll see...”

One day Luke, the yoga teacher, stopped by the stables.

Impressive work you’ve all done here.” he said to Maureen. “Now if you could only apply those techniques to us vets maybe we’d stop blowing our brains out once we got home.”

Maureen looked at him. “You’re welcome to take Hazel for a ride any time if you’d like.”

Timmy and I began to giggle.

Luke turned to us with a grin, “OK, you squirts, what’s so funny?”

She farts,” I responded, as Timmy and I burst out laughing, and Luke joined in.

Hey!” he said, “anyone want to go for a bike ride?”

He said to Maureen,“I won’t be too long. Just down one of the roads. Need to clear my head for a bit.”

Timmy looked wistful. “My Da won’t let me.”

Karen?” Maureen asked.

I was suddenly overcome with shyness.

No, I don’t think so” I said in a tiny voice, not wanting to admit that motorcycles were a little scary.

I went into the barn but it was empty. Maureen and Timmy had begun working with young Artemis in a nearby ring so I walked over to watch. Maureen was on Artemis, using a longer rein, and Timmy was on Hazel, as a nanny, for company, as racehorses don’t like to work alone. They were walking and trotting about, in different configurations, as the quick mind of a racehorse gets bored easily

Maureen had explained to them that for a racehorse no longer racing, it was all about getting the hind legs more underneath their body and the back and neck supple. Their bodies had been so used to stretching forward--they would run flat out--but most racehorses were able to be retrained fairly easily. Artemis was doing really well, with the exception of still being unable to stay at a canter. Galloping was in her nature for a long time now and getting her to behave and respond to the correct cues was taking time.

I heard Maureen say, “That’s enough now, let’s cool them down,” and Timmy came over to me.

Are we having fun yet?” I asked teasingly. “How’s Hazel?”

Timmy rolled his eyes.

Hey! What do you call a person who gets mad at you for enjoying rock music and pot?” He grinned. “A hippiecrit!”

Timmy you are the worst!” I said affectionately as I walked off. It was time for Star Trek on the little tv in the common rec room, a new show I adored and rarely missed as it gave me the chance to escape my inner sadness for just a little while.

That weekend everyone had off because the owner Peggy had arranged a hay ride for the whole camp on Saturday afternoon. She’d announced it was going to end up at a country square dance being held in one of the local barns that night.

I’m flipping out,” Lori had said, bursting into my room that morning. “What do you even wear to something like this? It’s making me meshuga!“

I laughed. “What’s meshuga?”

It’s Yiddish for crazy,” she said smiling, as I learned the first of many expressive Yiddish words over the years from Jewish friends.

Too bad we couldn’t wriggle our noses like on Bewitched and change our outfits when we want,” I said. Lori just shook her head.

That afternoon, the hay ride turned out to be a bit boring but it was fun to sit on the hay as the cart slowly swayed and the world passed by. We walked in to a big wooden barn just as the fiddlers were going all out. The room had heated up and the floorboards were shaking from the enthusiastic square dancing. It was a pressure cooker of joy, and we were immediately swept into the circling, happy crowds. It was a wonderful scene of pleasure and goodwill from mostly strangers of all ages but once in a while I’d see Timmy, Maureen, or Lori’s face flash by in the dancing.

The following weeks we continued to train Peter and Artemis, this time in the ring but also out in a grassy pasture. It was good for their balance and offered them a change of scenery. Maureen asked me to do cone work with Artemis, weaving her in and around the cones, the lateral bending creating suppleness, and the back-and-forth motion loosening her jaw, neck, shoulders, and ribs as I drove her forward.

Good work,” Maureen said approvingly to me, as she and Timmy worked with Peter. “Now I want you to canter. Many horses hold their breath, or they breathe shallowly and keep the muscles of their rib cages clamped, especially during trotting when the spine mostly serves the role of a rigid balancing rod rather than a conduit for wave-like pulsations. Cantering Artemis will help break the habit of shallow, or holding, breaths but you must ease her into it otherwise she’ll take off, thinking you want her to gallop.”

I looked down at the powerful shoulders Artemis had and felt intimidated. We came to a halt and I gathered my confidence.

We began at a walk, and then I cued her with my legs and reins to canter and to my delight she did. It was clear she was very strong but she was behaving herself. I almost felt as if she wanted to learn and said so to Maureen when we’d finished. She looked at me with that strange half-smile of hers.

You give to them, and they’ll give to you,” she said. “But they need to understand boundaries, and what

you want.”

One day Maureen said, “In a week or so we are all going to go on an overnight trail ride into the White Mountains. It will be fun for you and good experience for the horses. I will ride Artemis and Karen will ride Peter. Hazel and Iris will also come along, as the nannies. Luke will ride Iris and Timmy will be on Hazel. Some of the others from the camp will also come along on the stable horses.”

Timmy groaned. “Do I have to ride Hazel?”

Yes,” Maureen replied. “Luke doesn’t have a lot of experience and needs a slow, gentle horse on a trail. We won’t be going too far...and we won’t be trotting much.”

I burst out laughing as Timmy just glared at me.

Although it was only one night, there was a lot of packing to be done. Sleeping bags, water, horse feed, shovels for a latrine, utensils, matches, pots, dinner and breakfast...and it all had to be spread out over the eight horses that were going.

When it was time to leave, all of us were already exhausted and happy to be on the horses just doing nothing for a while. Lori had decided to stay behind so I waved back at her as we rode off.

The trail Maureen had picked wound through vast conifer forests and over ridges that gave breathtaking views of the mountains all around us. We rarely had to trot and spent most of the time at a brisk walk, slowing down when the trail got steeper. All the horses were relaxed except for Artemis and Peter, for whom all of this was new, but Maureen and I kept a steady hand with them as their ‘nannies’ walked nearby, and soon they were ambling along with the rest.

This is good for them,” Maureen said to me. “On the trail, they learn quick recovery from distractions, better balance, and they learn to negotiate obstacles. They’re doing great!”

We stopped to make camp in a large meadow between ridges late in the day. The shadows had already lengthened and the sun was setting. We hurried to get set up so that we could watch the dramatic sunset as our dinner–vegetable soup–was heating over a camp fire. Lori had made the group a large salad with croutons and bits of salami and cheese so carnivores and vegetarians alike were happy.

It was a clear, cold night. I was still a bit hungry but resigned and ready for sleep. We were all sleeping out under the stars, which shone brightly down on us by the millions. As I lay back and was taking it in, there was suddenly a rustle and Timmy appeared.

Gol-ly,” he said laughing, imitating Gomer Pyle and taking out a bag of potato chips from under his jacket. “I’ve got the munchies!”

Outta sight!” I grinned. I was hungry too.

I unzipped my sleeping bag and Timmy climbed in. We lay there innocently snuggled together, gazing at the night sky and eating our potato chips.

Are you looking forward to going home?” he asked me.

Dunno,” I said. “This summer was fun. “I’ll miss you guys.”

Yeah,” he sighed.

We saw a shooting star and Timmy told me to make a silent wish. I looked up at the stars and wished that the happiness I’d known this summer would stay with me once I’d gone home.

I turned and he suddenly kissed me, a sweet innocent kiss of affection rather than lust. But we both felt something new we didn’t recognize and blushed as our hearts pounded.

He awkwardly said, “Well, I’d better get back. If they find us like this in the morning we’ll both get hassled by the hairy eyeball!”

And then he was gone as quickly as he’d appeared. I was smiling as he left but not sure why, and fell fast asleep.

My next to last day, Timmy and Lori had already left for home that morning and I was feeling despondent. He had left a note for me under my door that was pure Timmy: Dear Karen, Did you know in 1956, a rhinoceros called "Cacareco" (Portuguese for "rubbish") won a city council seat in São Paulo, Brazil? Write to me! Your friend Timmy.

I laughed and then I wanted to cry. I missed him so much already.

I didn’t know what to do, so I went to the barn to be around the horses.

Maureen was there, grooming Iris. “You’re ready, you know,” she said. “You are finally going to get to ride Lullaby. I’m going to ride Artemis today, and you and I are going to go out into the pasture and then on to one of the trails for a bit.”

This offer made me feel much better, and as we rode out I asked, “How did you get into riding? You know so much.”

My father was one of the great horsemen of Ireland,” she replied proudly. “I grew up around them. A few years ago, my family sent me over to the States for college and in the summers I worked here. Peggy knew my parents somehow.”

Last year I got a phone call from my mother telling me my father had been in a terrible car accident. He’s now in a wheelchair. So when I graduate next year I’ll be going back home to run the family farm. It is what it is.”

I’m sorry,” I said, adding, “Just a few months ago my Dad died. I really miss him.”

Maureen looked at me sympathetically. “We are lucky to be here with these horses. They know. Believe me, they know,” and then she brought Artemis to a canter as I followed on Lullaby.

Lullaby was a magnificent horse, smooth and responsive. It was wonderful to ride her and I felt as if we were one.

You have a good seat, and good hands.” Maureen said. “We can switch on the way back and you can gallop Artemis in the pasture. That’s my farewell gift to you.”

We rode through the woods for a bit and then switched horses as the morning’s light was beginning to reach its zenith. Everything stood out in high relief from its brightness. As we came to the pasture, Maureen looked at me and nodded in assent.

I began to slowly canter Artemis and then I cued her that I wanted more, and suddenly she responded as if an electric charge had run through her powerful body. Her strength was incredible, almost overwhelming. I was worried I might lose control and fall off but instead I just gave in to the speed. I felt the horse was giving me something, showing me something about what was possible, and it was exhilarating. As we approached the gate I reined her in and she responded by turning aside as her speed was still very fast, and we rode in a spiral, slowly winding down until I was able to walk her through the gate.

My heart was pounding.

Incredible, right?” Maureen said grinning.

I nodded, completely out of breath. “Thank you,” I gasped.

The next day Peggy drove me to the bus stop in Chelsea. It seemed like light years had passed. The bus arrived and I waved goodbye, watching the quaint town fade away as the bus gathered speed.

So many of us had had wounds that summer but I was going back with a sense of self, a sense of possibilities and of a bigger world out there. I had purpose. I was ready to tear into my studies. I knew my mother had missed me terribly but my absence had helped her to focus, and plan on the future. That summer had been her great gift to me, and although neither of us had realized it at the time, it had saved both of us.

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