A Place Where Normal Almost Exists

With the world changed by COVID-19, I found solace from our new reality while working on a farm.

Photo by ali elliott on Unsplash

Every morning, I drive out of my little college town and wind down quiet back roads to the horse farm where I work. As I head into the rural area, Trump flags rise up out of the front yards of farmers' houses. Many of them came down in the weeks after Trump lost to Biden. Some still remain, stubbornly flapping in the chilly winter wind and rain. You might think the election hasn’t happened yet — or, the narrative Trump is pushing, that Biden didn’t rightfully win.

When I arrive at the barn I start throwing hay to the horses, wrangling them into their rain sheets and halters while they eat so I can get them out to the pastures. I take my time with one horse who pins his ears and bares his teeth each time I approach. I croon to him, hoping his nose stays in his hay as I reach around his belly and try to ignore his threats. My own mare, an ornery rescue I’m retraining as a pandemic project, has taught me how to manage these behaviors.

My morning ends with mucking stalls and hauling the manure away on an old tractor, where it churns through a machine and is spread out for fertilizer. This job — where I wear old jeans dulled by mud, heavy boots, and a thick jacket — is a stark contrast to the business casual attire of my previous position managing an office. All that is missing is my mask.

I am alone for most of the day, so I don’t need to wear one to protect myself and others. But in my previous position, the one I worked through most of the pandemic, I spent my days taking patients’ temperatures and running through COVID-19 screening questions to assess their risks. Had they been experiencing chills or fever? Did they have a dry cough? Were they running a low fever? Any of these symptoms could affect whether I allowed them into the office to be seen in person by the practitioner I worked for.

Over the holidays I also worked weekends in retail, weighing my higher risk of exposure to COVID-19 with the benefit of increasing my income. Minimum wage can only stretch so far — and I have a horse to feed. There, I often had to ask customers to put on a mask or make sure the one they had on covered their nose. Often the request resulted in confrontation. In one memorable incident, a man screamed at me and my boss when she politely asked him to put on a mask.

After he stormed out, I started mocking him before realizing his wife was still in our store: white men think oppression is being told to wear a mask that keeps us all safe. I was embarrassed that she overheard me, but she apologized for his behavior. I assured her we have dealt with far worse. We have.

But at the farm, I have no customers and mask wearing to manage. Only rambunctious mares and grumpy old geldings who need looking after. I don’t have to ask anyone to wear a mask and brace myself for the outrage. I don’t have to stand there and take demeaning words or the fact they don’t mind exposing an uninsured, minimum wage worker to their germs. And honestly, I’d much rather spend my time catching a naughty horse who escaped from his stall than trying to wrangle an abusive customer into a mask when they’re determined to disrespect our business policies and my life.

Here, the air is fresh and clean, shared only with the horses. Occasionally another boarder arrives to clean their horse’s stall or ride in the arena. We greet each other, pausing to chat with the aisleway between us. Oftentimes we mask up if there is more than one other person present. In the horse world, it’s already standard practice to stay six feet apart. Any closer to someone leading a horse and you risk being kicked or getting in their way. We’ve got social distancing down.

It does feel good to have a moment to socialize with someone. At the grocery store, where masks and social distancing are often disregarded by customers in a hurry, I don’t feel safe. Especially when someone whose nose is exposed steps inches in front of me to manhandle the produce or skip the sanitizer at the check-out counter. No, I’d much rather be at the barn.

Honestly, I’d much rather spend my time catching a naughty horse than trying to wrangle an abusive customer into a mask when they’re determined to disrespect our business policies and my life.

Most of the time, the farm is my favorite place to be. Except when people there ask me what I’m studying. Then I have to tell them I’m majoring in microbiology. As if I’m still studying it. As if I have any idea when I can go back. Then the inevitable question follows as they ask me about the virus and the pandemic and how relevant my major is. I have to explain I’m not pursuing a degree in medicine or public health or anything useful in a world plagued by COVID-19. No, sorry, I’m studying microorganisms that live in the ocean.

At that point their interest usually wanes. After all, my major doesn’t really sound useful. Why would I study microbiology if I’m not going to use it to fight things like a global pandemic that radically changes our way of life and kills hundreds of thousands of people? It’s a good question. It’s one that makes me doubt what I’m doing, what I want to be in the future.

I used to think I had everything figured out. I never thought that I would be spending the first part of my twenties trying to navigate a pandemic while feeling lost about my goals in life. I used to be the person who knew exactly what they wanted to be. But now? Now I’m just a girl working at a farm, taking care of horses; a college drop-out with half a microbiology degree and no idea what she wants to be.

Sometimes when I drive up to the farm, there are quail darting across the dirt road ahead of me. They always remind me of California, where the quail is the state bird and they could be found on my childhood street among the sagebrush and succulents. Growing up on the desert shoreline of Southern California, I exchanged work for riding lessons in dusty arenas during the warm, sunshine-filled summers.

The ranches there were few and far between, but they were beautiful. Surrounded by swaying palm trees, tucked into the millionaire estates of places like Rancho Santa Fe and Del Mar. The first stable I worked at cost more to board a horse per month than I’m paying in rent. I was sixteen and I wanted to be a horse trainer. It was the only thing that interested me. By the time I graduated and realized no one was going to put me through college to study horses, it was too late. I had to make a new plan.

Science interested me. Over time, I ended up in microbiology. But my passion for horses and working at a stable never seemed to go away. When the pandemic took my laboratory job and I couldn’t focus on my studies, horses called to me. I hadn’t ridden or worked with them since high school, but I dove back in headfirst, wildly abandoning online school for fields and tractors and horses, horses, horses.

In many ways, being a lost twentysomething feels a hell of a lot like being a lost eighteen year old. Except now I have more bills to pay and a husband whose interests and goals I need to take into account when I make major decisions like buying my first horse during a goddamn pandemic. Hey, at least he was okay with it. He understood my need for a project, something fulfilling to devote myself to.

My crazy-impulsive horse purchase led to working on the farm, and having that haven to go to during these strange days has turned out to be the lifeline I needed. At the farm, life is almost normal. I’ve gotten so used to not having to wear a mask there that I nearly forget to bring one with me when I realize I have to go somewhere else.

For the farm, life must go on as normal. Horses need to be fed. Hay must be hauled. Stalls and water buckets have to be cleaned and scrubbed. Having routine has helped me mentally distance myself from pandemic. It’s not as if I can forget about the virus entirely. I am worrying about when my grandparents can be vaccinated. My mother, who works in a nursing home and is highly exposed, has finally gotten her second dose. I worry about my husband and his parents. I have lost a relative to the virus and some of my friends have been sick.

But being able to tune everything out and just focus on my work and routine — drive the tractor, move the hay, clean the stalls, feed the horses — gives me a blessed respite from the pandemic. A break I never had when I was confined to my small apartment, stuck in Zoom lectures and remote work for school, spending days at a time never going outside. Now I have sunshine and movement and fresh air.

It’s a place where normal almost exists. It’s beautiful, it makes me happy, and I am grateful for it. And it makes me dream of the day when we will have a COVID-free world, whenever that world may come.

Science writer wrangling words and horses in the Pacific Northwest. | she/they

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