Thursday, January 01, 1998

Outlaw Rider - Equestrian adventure is test of endurance - Wynne Brown

Stories by Wynne Brown - News-Sentinel staff writer
Photos by Wynne Brown and Hedley Bond
(reproduced courtesy of The Knoxville News-Sentinel)

In September my husband, Hedley Bond, and I hauled our horse to Utah so I could do the Outlaw Historical Endurance Ride. The five-day 265-mile event goes through the Aquarius Plateau, the Escalante River canyon, Little Desert and part of the new Escalante-Grand Staircase Monument recently set aside by President Clinton.

This endurance ride is not like most. According to the brochure, the trail offers an experience that is "way beyond the comfort zone." For many of the riders who come from around the world, the primary goal is to be an "Outlaw": one rider who completes all five days on the same horse.

My goal was to ride as much as Salazar could handle without being overstressed - be it one day or five. He`s 15 and is a particularly easygoing Arabian with 11 years of endurance riding experience. He travels well: he unloaded willingly every four to five hours all the way cross-country and camped in a corral that attaches to the trailer. The front of the trailer has living quarters for us.

The last 50 miles to Teasdale winds across the great red spine of the Escalante mountains, up and down deep scarlet clefts, through patches of aspens just turning gold at 9,500 feet. It`s glorious -- and a valuable sneak preview of this rugged high country I`m about to ride.

Endurance riding is partly about overcoming fear. Fear of falling off a cliff. Fear of getting lost for hours -- or maybe days. Fear of skulking home and having to say, "I couldn`t do it."

I sure hope Salazar and I are ready for this.

At noon, we pull onto a windy hilltop in Teasdale and see a banner announcing the "Outlaw Historical Endurance Ride." We immediately run into the only other Southeastern riders, Jim Barnett and his son, Duane. Twelve states are represented, and top international riders are here from Brazil, Hungary, Germany, France and Canada.

any endurance riders take a crew who helps them at vet checks. I like riding "solo," which pleases Hedley who says he is Not a Horse Person. (He is, however, a long-distance bike rider and an ex-marathon runner.) At the Outlaw Ride, each day`s route ends in a different place, and Hedley`s role is to get our rig to each new camp.

I get checked and vetted in and scramble around preparing for a 6 a.m. pre-dawn departure. There`s also a dusting of new snow on the mountain behind camp.

At the ride briefing that evening Crockett Dumas talks about the area`s history and the local outlaws (including Butch Cassidy). He and his wife Sharon are from Vadito, M.M., and have been running this ride since 1977, and they advertise it as the "Ultimate Endurance Adventure." President Clinton`s decision to change this area to wilderness may mean the last year for the ride in this location, which adds a special poignancy.

Sharon goes over the trail, reminding us that there`s no access for emergency vehicles. The veterinarians warn riders with low-altitude horses to monitor our animals carefully. We`ll leave at 6 a.m. following Crockett at a controlled trot. Once it`s light enough to see the trail markings (chalk marks on rocks or branches), riders can go at their own pace. The group breaks up, and camp is quiet soon after dark.

Day 1
Five a.m. comes quickly and we head out single file an hour later. I spend the day riding with Marilyn Bickley from Park City, Utah. From the pinon-juniper habitat, we climb steadily until we`re in aspens, leaves scattered underfoot like gold coins and deep blue lakes far below us. The "Rim Trail" is well-named: We`re on a shelf, safe enough, but the trees below are such small specks that my stomach lurches a little every time I look. We soon run out of "big" words: "magnificent" and "vast" seem flat.

The trail gets steeper, and I get off to "tail," unhooking one rein and hanging onto Salazar`s tail as he marches over the rocks so fast I`m almost at a jog. I have no signs of altitude sickness, but I`m out of breath. The trail becomes skinnier, steeper, and there`s snow under trees and in rock crevices.

The last pull to Boulder Top is a mile-long slope of jumbled rock. Salazar takes it at an even pace, always on-trail, with me hanging on to his tail for all I`m worth.

The top is a series of flat meadows, some four or five miles long and two miles wide, all edged with spiky-looking dark firs. The wind whistles around my helmet -- I`m grateful for Polartec.

In late afternoon Hedley meets us, having run 10 miles. The trail drops off the mountain down a rocky escarpment, and Salazar has to pick his way through jagged boulders being careful not to jam a hoof. I need both hands for balance. In an act of ultimate trust, I toss the rein over the saddle, and we work our way down the mountain with him in front picking his way and me several yards behind him.

Back into aspens the trail becomes a mudslide. Salazar tucks his hindquarters and calmly skis down. I try the same thing and end up on my butt.

The vet check finally appears on top of another cold windy hill. Salazar dives into the hay, apples, carrots and bran, provided by ride management. The vet checks our horses and says they both look great.

Ten miles to go. We climb back on, cold, stiff and ready for camp. It`s getting close to dark. At last the Chriss Lake camp is in sight, and the horses perk up. We cross the finish line 12.5 hours after starting. Salazar`s back is sore, but he`s fine to go out again the next day. Aside from a headache and being bone-tired, the rider half of the team seems OK. By 10, all three of us are asleep.

Day 2
It`s COLD and pitch-dark at 5 a.m.-- but I`m surprisingly limber and ready to ride. We cover 6-8 miles of mostly flat terrain with ankle-deep red sand. Everyone chats and grizzles good-naturedly about yesterday`s trail.

The trail becomes several miles of the dreaded "slick rock," which isn`t slick at all but is creamy-yellow sheets and rolls of sandstone with the texture of sand paper. It looks scary, but the horses` feet can grip well enough to trot and even canter.

More miles of sand and juniper to the vet check, which is in the Boulder motel parking lot. Hedley says tourists have been intrigued all morning ("an endurance what??").

The vet checks Salazar`s back: "Looks real good" - relief! Jim Barnett and I head out to cross 20 more miles of slick rock. An incredible area: An almost alien landscape with yellow-white gullies and towers stretching to a backdrop of red-orange mountains that fade to blue. We slither down into canyons and clamber back out for more miles of the same, alternately riding, tailing, leading.

There is little vegetation, so the trail is marked with piles of rocks. The sun beats down off the cliff faces, and it`s warm in a T-shirt. All I can hear is the wind, which never stops, and the grating of Salazar`s shoes on the soft rock. Fear? No -- I am deeply, purely happy, and my face hurts from smiling. After three or four hours, we slide down a rutted crevice into the Escalante River canyon.

Dark red cliffs now tower above us. Flash floods came through last week, wiping out the trail and leaving thickets of Russian olive, armed with inch-long thorns. Wading down the riverbed seems easiest, if circuitous, but that route loses its appeal early on when Jim`s horse disappears to the belly in quicksand. They flounder out, unhurt, and we eye the water route suspiciously from then on. After an hour or two, we catch up with other riders, some bleeding, one missing his glasses, all of us wondering: How much more? My smile is gone.

More hours and the canyon walls fade to grayish-brown. The river bottom widens to a road. Jim is burnt bright red, my lips feel permanently chapped and we drain my fourth water bottle. But the horses seem to know we`re almost done, and they trot strongly through town, now more alien to us than the slick rock.

The finish line is on the race track of Escalante Desert Downs, and Hedley has camp all set up. The vets say Salazar is "a little stiff in front, his back is better than yesterday, and otherwise he`s fine." I`m so thrilled I forget I`m tired. We eat our spaghettii dinner in the grandstand with Marilyn, who spent the day recovering from a cold, and her friend Moone Willetts, whose momentos from the river include a gashed nose, two blackening eyes and a bruised chin.

We laugh, swap tales, drink and eat some more. The moon, one day from full, rises over the valley in the half-light of dusk. What a day. What a horse!

Day 3
Today starts with a silent 4-mile ride through the Little Desert, honoring endurance riders and horses who have died. "Ghost Riders in the Sky" plays softly as we leave the racetrack. Sparks jump as the horses` shoes strike the pavement. We head up a stony ridge until the first lights of Escalante are below us. The eastern sky begins to gleam, spotlit by Venus. All is silent except for the swish of hooves through sand, the occasional clink of a metal shoe against rock. Salazar trots strong. The sun appears, and we try to get our antsy horses to stand still for a Kodak moment -- and another picture is filled with equine eartips.

The group spreads out, and we climb and climb back up into the aspens and open slopes. The chalk marks have washed off in last week`s rain, and Duane Barnett and I take a couple of wrong turns. Then we realize his mare is lame. He urges me to go on without him, but we stay together to Griffin Top, another 11,200 plateau where the markings are few and far between, the wind rips - and it`s sleeting at the vet check.

Salazar gets the OK to go, and Judy Saunders and Ron Savard, from Ontario, and Janin Cameron from California welcome another pair of eyes to help hunt for markers. Twenty miles to go.

As the afternoon goes on, I have a sneaking feeling that Salazar isn`t quite sound. We alternate between riding, tailing and leading as the trail rollercoasts along the spines of six long red ridges dotted with white rock outcrops and bristlecone pines. In the distance are vast miles of more red rock country. Finally, there`s the Canadian crew : "Only three miles to go!" they tell us.

We trot a flat sandy trail that winds through the rabbitbrush, and within several yards I know something`s wrong. Salazar is eager but short-strided. I make him walk (marvelling that he wants to trot after 165 miles), worrying, but also relishing the solitude, the silence, the evening light. About a mile from camp Hedley meets us, and we finish in a time of 11 hours. Once in camp, I realize Salazar has "scratches," a form of dermatitis, above his hoofs. Although the vet says we can go out the next day, I smear on Desitin and decide on a day off. Salazar`s done three hard travel days, followed by three hard riding days back-to-back. Besides ... I`d really like to hike Bryce Canyon with Hedley.

Day 4
We`re camped at Widstoe, a ghost town settled by Mormons who were "droughted out." At 5 a.m., there`s ice on the water buckets. The riders mill around, illuminated by lanterns and the occasional headlights, then leave in a cloud of dust. Hedley and I retreat to the warm camper and a real breakfast. We pack up, drive to the next night`s campsite and get Salazar settled in.

Bryce Canyon is only 30 minutes - and a world - away. After the solitude and athleticism of the last three days, the busloads of overweight tourists make us feel like some weird other species. But the canyon itself is magnificent. Hedley and I walk down past layer upon layer of spires, towers and "hoodoos" that almost glow in the early afternoon light -- well worth missing a day of riding.

We head back to camp where Salazar paws the ground impatiently. I`d say he`s ready to go out again - and the vet agrees. After dinner, we all stand around a welcome fire, laughing, chatting and taking in the lunar eclipse.

Day 5
Today is an easy day, so we don`t leave until a leisurely 7 a.m. The moon sinks in front of us as the sun rises behind. Many horses get stronger on a multi-day ride, and Salazar is no exception. Once we reach the Pahrea River Canyon, I linger, wanting this final day to last. We cross and re-cross the ankle-deep river -- fortunately free of quicksand.

The Barnetts catch up and we ride slowly together for several miles, enjoying the day. Salazar feels too good to walk, so we trot on alone. The canyon widens out, the cliffs turn from tan to pink, then shrink to hills. We cross the river one last time to the vet check. As I trot him out, the vet comments, "Who`s leading who?" Twelve and a half miles to go. We come to the old Pahria Movie Set where "The Outlaw Josey Wales" was filmed. A handful of tourists look disappointed that I`m not wearing chaps and cowboy hat. I tip my helmet and trot on through. Salazar asks to canter. I`m so proud of both of us it brings tears.

Seven or eight miles later, a lone form appears. Who else would be out here in the desert on foot? Salazar nickers and, after a celebratory picture (Kodak should sponsor this ride), the three of us trot on, Hedley in the lead. We pass the two French riders and then a Brazilian, and then, after 210 miles in five days, Salazar breaks into a canter and we cross the finish line, accompanied by cheers from the waiting crowd. I`m in tears again.

Eight weeks later and the spell of the Outlaw Trail is still with me. Visualizing those sandstone cliffs, still hearing the wind`s whistle at Griffin Top, feeling Salazar asking to canter that last mile -- all those memories help put the tribulations, and yes, the fears, of "Real Life" into perspective.Many events fail to live up to their billing. But the Outlaw Ride, for me, was truly the "Ultimate Endurance Adventure." Next year is Hedley`s year to pick a trip and I`ll crew for him. But after that? My calendar`s marked for Outlaw `98.

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