Horses And Eggs
By Michael Austin
One morning over winter break in the mid-1980s, my friends and I set out on horseback.
A high school friend of mine had his own horse, Stormy, which he kept at his cousins’ farm close to the spot where Plainfield, Naperville and Bolingbrook meet. Through the years we would drive from Joliet to the farm, which was in the middle of nowhere, and saddle up Stormy and any other horses we could find. Sometimes a cousin would have a horse of her own and we could ride that one, or a boarder would give us permission to ride his or her horse, for the exercise.
We would cross the road—there were almost never cars to contend with—and then walk the horses down a lane, across a shallow river and out into an open pasture where we would shout and kick and let them bolt. If you have not ridden a galloping horse, you should.
At the height of the steamy summer we would head to a natural spring pond and jump in without testing the water. It was always implausibly cold, feeling like a thousand straight pins being pushed into my skin at once. We would tread water, struggling to catch our breath and spit out the words, “It’s…free-zing.”
On some winter mornings it was hard to believe it ever got hot enough for us to want to swim in that frigid pond. It seemed even colder when we saw ice on the river, and a blanket of snow all the way to the horizon.
Today, and for the past decade at least, the area looks like a lot of other newer suburbs. Strip mall after strip mall. Traffic. Video stores, home repair emporiums, supermarkets, bank branches, turning lanes. You could not walk a horse through there if you tried.
On that winter day in the 1980s our quest was to saddle up, ride out, build a fire and cook ourselves breakfast. I swiped an old iron skillet from my parents’ kitchen because a modern frying pan simply would not do. Instead of sliding the pan into a backpack or a Jewel bag I tied it directly to my horse’s saddle, looping a few long strands of leather through a hole at the end of the panhandle. The coal black skillet sat on my horse Cinnamon’s wide rump, slowly rising and lowering with each step, like a cork on rolling waves.
We walked the horses slowly down the lane (Stormy was carrying eggs, after all) and picked a spot under a large, bare tree. We tied off the horses and gathered kindling: thin sticks and crumbly brown leaves packed in the snow.
One match, two matches, three matches—nothing. The wind was fierce enough that day, but it was even fiercer with nothing to block it. We sat under that lone tree, looking at a pathetic pile of sticks and at one another, doubting that we would ever see a spark. We complained about our freezing toes, fingers and cheeks. We talked about packing it in.
Then finally we had a flame, a tiny flame that turned into a steady, controlled blaze. The heavy pan came alive with a trace of white smoke rising from a strip of raw bacon. We held our breath and then shouted in celebration as we heard the first evidence of sizzling. We cracked eggs in the hot bacon fat and watched them bubble. We feasted, sitting on the cold ground.
By the time we were done eating, the sting of the air had faded, though I doubt the temperature or wind had eased one iota. The only thing that was missing at that point was a tin pot of coffee, and maybe a harmonica.
We could not have been more than a half-mile from the farm but it felt like we were in the middle of the Yukon Territory, it was the 19th century, and we would be moving on as soon as we broke camp. The site of our expedition is probably a parking lot today, or a cul-de-sac.
That time—that place—is gone forever. You could not pay me to fry eggs in a cold field today, but back then it felt like we had done something—like we had really accomplished something.
Surely people were eating better meals that morning, prepared by better cooks in more comfortable surroundings. My horse sense, however, tells me that we enjoyed ours more.
I am sure we coasted for the rest of the day, gloating among our family members in our heated homes, having tamed the elements and survived out on the range—out where Will County gave way to DuPage.