For those of us who grew up in the South, one cannot escape the sight of the Kudzu that covers the sides of the roads, entire forests, and power poles without prejudice. The thick coarse vines meander like beds of winding snakes. Even more frightening is how fast a vine grows: 12-14 inches PER DAY. On an abandoned road, the vines could hide the pavement within a few days. Cars and trucks on the busy roads are what prevents Kudzu from stretching to the other sides.
Kudzu, once established on a plot of land, is nearly impossible to destroy. Cutting a vine in half only produces two plants instead of one. The chopped vines are quick to root and are problematic.
During my youth and with my creative imagination, these vines took on new forms once the sun began to set. Masses of these clinging vines clumped over trees and on the power poles often looking like hunched monsters ready to attack anyone foolish enough to walk into their reach. While the vines couldn’t do such a thing, seeing their odd shapes actually helped enable my mind for writing fantasy, with many ‘What if’ prompts.
I first noticed their strange changes after sunset when a friend and I were on a wagon-ride and riding horses through Big Wills Valley in Alabama. We had been riding for over twelve hours and were still a couple hours from home if we continued riding alongside all the horse and mule-pulled wagons. We decided to leave the group and head home ahead of the others, so we tapped our horses’ flanks and galloped away.
I suppose we were a few miles ahead of the group by the time night had fallen. The moonlight kept the old chert road lit, but the shadows of the Kudzu-covered trees at the edges of the roads played tricks on the mind. As we rode, the shadows constantly moved, which made the monstrous shapes look like they were alive. My friend was several years younger than I, and when I pointed out my observation of these ‘monsters’, he became nervous. Of course, it didn’t help when I also brought up the supposed sightings of Bigfoot in this particular area (the news had actually interviewed people living there about the sightings). He wanted to get home even faster after that and challenged me to race for a while.
He rode an old mare named Lily, and I rode my stepfather’s quarter horse, Chief, which happened to be an extremely fast runner. Chief left the other horse behind in a matter of seconds. I glanced back and noticed my friend frantically trying to get the horse to run faster, as the trees to both sides of the road were covered with the Kudzu. I laughed to myself for a moment and Chief sprinted from the spooky tree-covered section of the road to an open area.
On both sides of the road were pastures and a few yards ahead were two chicken houses. Chief galloped furiously and had no intention of slowing down. He loved to run and who was I to discourage that?
I was glad that we had gotten away from the wooded area that darkened the road and felt a moment of relief at the safety lights that lit up the road near the chicken houses. No more shadow monsters playing tricks on me.
My friend was pleading for me to slow down because Lily could not keep up. To my surprise, something to my right blurred from in between the two chicken houses and came right at me. At first I didn’t know what it was. I only saw that it was furry and dark and larger than a Saint Bernard.
With the talk of the kudzu looking like monsters and the Bigfoot sightings, seeing this animal alarmed me for a moment until I realized it was a calf that must have gotten out of the pasture. The sound of the horses’ hoofbeats apparently frightened it, and it tore off in front of Chief, which was a problem in itself. Chief hated cows. Not disliked, not tolerated–he hated them. The irony was that my stepfather had sent the horse to be trained at a roping school, and the instructors had told him that Chief was one of the best horses to rope off of because he was bent on catching the bull, even if the rider missed with the rope. They swore the horse would kill a cow if necessary.
And this calf unknowingly challenged Chief to a race on the chert road. I have to give the calf some credit. I’ve never seen a calf run as fast as this one. And if Chief had even thought for a moment about slowing his gait before seeing the calf, he suddenly had gotten a second wind. The chase was on!
At this point, full gallop was no longer exhilarating and fun. Barbed wire fences were on both sides of the road. I had no interest in getting my legs shredded and worried that might just be how my night ended. I pulled back on the reins, but Chief ignored it. He wanted to stop that calf.
The little calf kicked up dust and Chief huffed furiously panted on its heels. The calf couldn’t possibly keep up its pace, and luckily it was smart enough to take a sharp right at the end of the next chicken house, somehow squeezing through the fencepost and the chicken house wall. Chief turned sharply to follow, but I guided him back onto the road and finally coaxed him to slow down. Even though the calf was no longer in sight, Chief kept looking back, hoping to find it.
My friend and I rode at a slower pace until we reached home without incident. The day of riding and the spookiness of the night and the unexpected calf had given me a night worth remembering.
There was something about those days during my teen years that helped shape my imagination. The summer nights held a different sort of pace. Now, time seems to go faster than I wish it did. I find myself outdoors at times thinking about those years, thinking about how growing older was so long away, and now it’s here. Times of reflection soothe the soul. I sometimes sit outdoors and absorb the sounds of nature, the sweet smells of the changing seasons, and these simple things free memories from my youth when I worried less about the hardships of the world and concentrated on the beauty nature has to offer.