Peru’s newspapers had said a great deal about my proposed ride from Peru to California, mainly because I intended to use their country’s National Horse. On the day the ride began, the entire town of Chiclayo turned out to see me off. There was a parade in my honor. The mayor gave me a letter for his counterpart in Los Gatos, California, my destination; and the Catholic Bishop blessed my enterprise. A representative of the national paso horse association even flew in from Lima to present me with a scroll officializing the event.
Once I was on my way, people stopped their cars to talk whenever I was near the Panamerican Highway. Soft drink trucks pulled over, the drivers insisting I take free refreshments. One newspaper photographer showed up in the desert on a bicycle, and reporters waited at the entrance to most towns. Every evening, people competed for the honor of hosting my horses and me.
It was heady stuff, and it made the proposed intercontinental ride seem like a lark. Before long, however, the hard going was wearing horseshoes in half every two weeks, and I found myself tying plants into my horses’ manes to ward off bloodsucking vampire bats. Precious water for my thirsty mounts had to be bought by the glassful on one arid mountaintop, and anthrax was once reported within a few miles of where we’d spent the night.
During the trek, I rode to altitudes that exceed the highest in the United States, and I once descended to 113 feet below sea level. In the good times, I had hosts such as the richest man in Peru. When things turned bad, I slept in tool sheds, chicken coops feed troughs and empty jail cells. At times I was reduced to eating anything from goat jaw to guinea pig. My horses dined on whatever I could find, including bananas, coconut, sugar cane, flour and corn stalks.
Along the way, I met smugglers, a famous bullfighter, a witch doctor, a camera crew from ABC’s Wide World of Sports, a bullying small town sheriff, a snake hunter and a beautiful American girl named Emily. Not long before I met "the last of the true gentlemen," I ran into some men who were anything but. A gang of bandits suddenly appeared behind me in a remote Andean village, at the end of a long, hard day. It was a moment of very real danger, as shown by the following edited excerpt from my book, "The Long Way to Los Gatos":
Later that afternoon, while passing through a small town, I sensed that I was being followed. People frequently followed me, hoping to start a conversation. Most of the time, they were polite enough to require some sort of acknowledgement before approaching, and when denied this, they’d give up and go away.
But this time was different. The man behind me didn’t go away. Instead, he was joined by a companion and then another and another, until there were six, in dirty suits and various stages of inebriation. I comforted myself by observing that the mules they rode were small and scrawny. Meanwhile, I moved my horses into a faster walk and kept my eyes peeled – in vain – for an army post or police station.
At the city limits, I wondered about the wisdom of continuing into the unpopulated area ahead, but what else could I do? Stopping would make things even worse, and turning back to town also had a downside. The group behind me had grown from one to six in that very town, and given the chance, it might grow even larger.
A little ways from town, the leader put his mule into a fast trot and came up alongside me. Making an obvious attempt to sound authoritative, he announced that he was "the law" in the town I had just left.
"It will be necessary for you to show me your passport and the contents of your bags," he demanded.
"Do you have anything to show your authority?" I asked, turning to look his way without slowing my horses.
"I’m not making requests! I’m giving orders!" was the stern reply.
"How do I know you have the right to give orders?"
"Señor, you must stop your horses at once!"
"As soon as I see proof of your authority."
We were temporarily at a stalemate, and neither spoke for a moment. Obviously the "law" wouldn’t or couldn’t prove his authority. Considering the size of his "deputies" and the dubious speed of their mules, I wasn’t about to be talked down off my horse. My resolve was all the stronger because I had the impression that the men behind us would abandon their mission, unless it proved effortless.
The man at my side, however, was the kind who sees things through! He repeatedly ordered me to stop and dismount. I kept the mares a few steps ahead of his mule and double-talked him, hoping he’d tire of the game and go home.
Unfortunately, he didn’t.
Instead, he suddenly turned his mule and jumped her between my horses, grabbing Ima’s lead rope. I was holding the free end, not wishing to risk more broken parts by tying it to my saddle. I stopped Hamaca and turned her to face him. One last time – half-hoping that he would produce a convincing badge – I repeated that no one would see my passport or baggage without proof of authority. Again we were at a stalemate, but my situation had worsened. I was no longer moving, and the other five men were getting in position to surround me.
Obviously I survived my run-in with the bandits, and before I made it to Los Gatos I lived through numerous other adventures. However, I didn’t survive unchanged. My ride lasted only as long as a single school year, but I learned more than I’d ever learned in a like period.
Along the way, some people were far from hospitable, but most were so kind that I couldn’t believe it. I’d always been too proud to ask for people’s help, but there were times when I had little choice. By the time I got home, my opinion of my fellow man had changed completely; and so had my life.
Of the many paths my life could have taken, the right one for me began when I had the crazy urge to take the long way to Los Gatos.
For further information about Peruvian horses, visit the Internet Web Site of the American Association of Owners and Breeders of Peruvian Paso Horses at: http://www.aaobpph.org
For more on information about Verne Albright’s book, THE LONG WAY TO LOS GATOS, visit: www.peruvian-pasos.com/valbright_lwlg.html