A Notion of Youth Fulfilled
by Robert Schweiger
Some of life’s most poignant lessons come in small, unobtrusive packages. This remarkable story is one such tiny treasure.
Without any fanfare, the author set off in 1976 to make a 1,200 ride across the United States. At the conclusion of his trip, he made several important observations, some singular and others which apply to Long Riders throughout history.
"No sham or shame, no flamboyance; just one hoof beat after another, every step of the way. Financially, the trip netted nothing. Measured in dollars and cents it could be termed a failure, but a dreamer doesn't sum up success by the coins in his purse."
This is a timeless bit of writing by one of the tribal elders who kept equestrian travel alive in the days before the formation of The Guild.
My parents were Illinois farmers, and I was born and raised around horses. My brother and I either rode or drove a pony to school, and leisure hours were spent playing games on horseback. Yes, I’ve loved and lived horses for almost a half-century.
A desire to do something different and significant has gnawed at me for many years. Something unique, an accomplishment I alone could claim. An adventure that included a horse.
The Bicentennial of the United States afforded the opportunity. Thoughts were turned to the past as horse races, pony express rides, and wagon trains were formed. Nearly everyone was making an effort to relive the efforts of the pioneers; I decided to get involved.
My ride would begin in Chicago. Travelling south, I would pass through Kentucky and into Tennessee. I would arrive in the Memphis area on Independence Day, and spend a few days there. Turning west, the route would take me through the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas. Leaving Arkansas, I would ride into Oklahoma. The last leg of the trip would be through Tulsa and end in Oklahoma City. Total distance: 1,200 miles.
Scheduling proved to be difficult, and I could fill many pages with details about the organization of the ride. Health requirements had to be met. Permission had to be obtained before I entered other states, and I needed approval to ride a horse on city streets. If you ever contemplate making a ride of this type, plan ahead. Have alternate plans, and be flexible. Get help with the planning, but make all final arrangements yourself.
I decided to take three horses. I devised a leapfrog method that would eat up several miles each day while giving the horses adequate rest. My son Jeff would move the truck-trailer unit along the route each day, cooking meals and replenishing supplies. Only 17 years old, Jeff accomplished the job like an old hand.
The horses I rode were all Tennessee Walkers, and were all using horses. Stormy, a mare, was my first choice. She’s a level-headed animal able to accept the sights and sounds of the city. Frosty, a snow-white gelding, was chosen for his smooth gait. John, a black stallion, was young, strong, sensible beyond his years, and I intended to use him in situations where he would serve best.
Flag Day, our date of departure, was bright and sunny. It was the doorstep of The American Field at 222 West Adams Street in Chicago that was my jumping-off place. Curious on-lookers were gathering, and a small group of representatives from outdoor agencies were on hand to wish God speed while reporters and photographers went into action recording the event.
I was off.
At the end of the day, we were out of the city and as yet unscathed. We had met the first test of travelling in the metropolis, and had survived. I would now head my horses south towards Dixie, and I wondered what adventures lay ahead. In other accounts of cross-country rides, I’ve read of harrowing experiences. Stories of hostility, accidents, and even some gun-play. We didn’t carry firearms, but had no accidents, and were treated with hospitality and courtesy. No wild west story, just a long, hard ride.
Although our routine was basic, we found ways to improve our progress as the days passed. On the first day of the trip, it took about 45 minutes to change horses. On the last day, it took only 11 minutes. Jeff and I seemed to develop a sixth sense, and we often worked without having to give one another instructions.
Jeff had a constant fight with boredom. His day was arranged around five-mile drives, and one hour periods of waiting. This sequence was the routine we used twelve hours a day.
My worst injury was a badly sunburned mouth. I had neglected to use any kind of skin protection, and I suffered the consequences. The horses lost weight, and had developed some sores from the tack. Horseshoes had a limited life, and it became habit to replace a shoe a day. This was the extent of our problems.
I didn’t read a newspaper or listen to a radio or watch any television, and I now have a small insight into the feelings of those who have been isolated from the world, either by choice or fate. I truthfully lived in a world of my own. When Jeff told me how far I had ridden on a given day, it seemed vague and unreal. The slow pace gave the opportunity to drink in the scenery and I know that I will always cherish and remember the things I saw and experienced on this journey.
Thirty days, eight hours, and twenty minutes after leaving Chicago, we arrived at our destination in Oklahoma City. I had accomplished what I had set out to do. I had ridden every step of the way. No sham or shame, no flamboyance; just one hoof beat after another, every step of the way.
Financially the trip netted nothing. Measured in dollars and cents it could be termed a failure, but a dreamer doesn’t sum up success by the coins in his purse. And there’s the fact that I shouted loud and clear “Happy Birthday” to this great country. That alone gave me pride.
As the days rolled past, I saw a young colt become a horse, and my young son become a man. I, in turn, was allowed to become a boy, and fulfill a dream of my youth. Time and the years have treated me generously.
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