My favorite version of this question is “What inspired you?” because it’s the easiest one to answer. I grew up reading the “Little House On The Prairie” books – I had the boxed set and read the entire series at least 7 times. I then graduated to reading source materials: diaries of pioneer women, men on cattle drives, explorers and madams and settlers and people on wagon trains. I would try to imagine myself into their lives but their world had vanished and there was no going back. I did my best; growing up in East Texas my sister and I would dress up in the hoop skirts and sun bonnets Mom sewed for us and drove our pony, hitched to a wee Conestoga wagon, to church on Sundays. I got to go on cattle drives working one summer on the Boot Ranch in Wyoming and I spent a winter in Nebraska as a goat herder, spending 12 hours a day sitting on a horse trying to keep 1000 Spanish Meat Goats out of the alfalfa and busy eating the weeds and cedars they’d been hired to clear from the cow pastures.
Then, summer of 2011, I read a book by Mesannie Wilkins, “The Last of the Saddle Tramps” (I know, book titles are supposed to be underlined, but wordpress ‘pages’ don’t allow that, sorry) and it got me thinking in a whole new way. Mesannie Wilkins was 63 years old in 1954, she had no family, her farm was being repossessed and her doctor said she had a year or two to live, if she lived quietly (I can imagine her thinking “Live Quietly, Where!?”) and she’d lived her whole life in Minot, Maine. Her mom had always wanted to go to California but never made it. Mesannie had nothing to lose so she put in one last crop of cucumbers, got a contract with the pickle company, did all the work herself and in the fall bought herself a grumpy summer camp horse named Tarzan for $5. Tarzan wasn’t pretty but he was tough. On 8.November, 1954 Mesannie loaded all her gear on her horse, called her dog and, with $32 in her pocket, headed out for California. She met a bunch of wonderful people, saw some beautiful country, had a few hair-raising adventures and two years later arrived in California. She appeared on the Art Linkletter show (he’d given her a beautiful white horse as an enticement) and was having so much fun that she turned around and rode to Texas. She lived another 20 years (shows what doctors know!).
That was 60 years ago. Sixty years before that, horses were the most common form of transportation in this country. The world had changed a Lot between the late 1800s and the mid 1900s. I was fascinated and encouraged by Mesannie’s experiences and my own dream of crossing the USA on horseback was rekindled. Much has changed between 1954 and 2012 and I started to wonder what it would be like to ride through today’s world, coast to coast, on horseback. Was it even possible? If I’m honest, I really didn’t think I’d get away with it. I expected sometime in the first month to run into the law enforcement person whose job it would be to tell me to cease and desist with such retro-madness. I expected to be harassed by animal rights activists, run off by shot-gun wielding ranchers and envisioned myself riding through the night looking for a place where we could stop. It’s amazing what a scary place the inside of a brain can be!
Since 1954 the population of the USA has doubled and the majority have moved from rural to urban living. I’ve been amazed by the number of kids I’ve met (and remember that I’m Not riding through cities or even very large towns!) who have never touched a horse. I carry a cell ‘phone and a laptop computer and I have a groovy little solar panel (Nomad – Goal Zero) that hangs from my saddle on the sunny side and charges my ‘phone in an hour while I ride! The parts of the country that I’ve been riding through have been suffering the worst drought since the dust bowl and economic times are none too good for an awful lot of people I’ve met and still, I have been welcomed and taken in and assisted on my Journey by person after wonderful person – just like Mesannie.
The decision to embark upon such an epic adventure isn’t a simple one and “Why?” is a complex question for all it has a single word. Why did I suddenly return to working full time with horses (as a trail guide this time) after 18 years away? Who could have predicted my connection with Jesse James, my funny little orange horse, who had such a reputation as a psycho when I met him that he hadn’t really been ridden in a year and a half? I’d made an attempt at an East->West ride back in the late 1990’s but I just didn’t have the right horses for the Journey. Sometimes I think this trip is as much Jesse’s idea as mine.
Then there was the reality of being in expensive Northern California with a horse but no car, with a seasonal job ending and my living situation ending as well. The $2400 I’d managed to save over a whole summer of long hours at $10/hr wasn’t enough to buy, register and insure a vehicle – much less drive it anywhere. It certainly didn’t seem like enough to get someplace and start a life all over again and with a freshly broken heart I didn’t really want to. There were times when my panic attacks has me convinced that the whole scheme was just a thinly veiled version of suicide – but it also felt true that only something completely insane and all-consuming – an undertaking that was going to take everything I had and stretch it to the limits had a chance of saving me. I’d dreamed of this my whole life – put up or shut up time!
When the riding part of the Journey is complete and I’ve paid my respects to Mesannie Wilkins in Minot, Maine on 8.November I plan to stop for a while and write a book. That’s another part of the “Why?” I want to share some of what I’m learning on this Journey, including how wonderful “we the people” are – despite what they show (over and over and over again) on the TV “news” programming. Mesannie’s book was so inspiring to me, reminding me what can happen when we have the courage and the faith to Do what we Dream – to listen to our own souls and get past the fears and excuses and live the unique and specific lives that are our birthright. What a privilege – what a Blessing.