(Excerpt from Hoofbeats)
When my Cassidy story was getting ready to go to press for a second printing, probably because I was getting so many letters from teenage boys who were reading my books, I typed up an announcement to go on the back of the new book, inviting fans to come and ride the Outlaw Trail with me. I described a week-long trip that included daily horseback rides into wilderness backcountry once frequented by the Indians and outlaws in my books. The trip included Dutch oven dinners and storytelling around the campfire at night, with me telling about my books and research projects. The rides would take place only in the spring—the best time to visit the desert wilderness areas in my books.
The letters started pouring in, allowing me to put together seven weeks of trail rides that first season. I tried to limit the number of people in each group to about ten. I gave people a discount if they brought their own horse or if they were under eighteen years of age. No dogs or stallions. I lined up some extra horses and hired Carla Randolph, a cook, and Ann Dancliff, a wrangler. The next season Bryce Clayton replaced Ann to become my wrangler for many years.
About half the people came from Utah and Idaho, but there were also guests from Oregon, California, Chicago, and even Texas. Ages ranged from eight to eighty-two. That first year, six people fell off their horses, two had runaways, four horses floundered in quicksand, and one woman got splattered with the contents of an exploding Porta Potty.
About halfway through the first season, I bought the potty to keep in one of the trailers, because some of the women were nervous about wandering off in the bushes and rocks to find private places to relieve themselves. Female guests sometimes wanted to know if there were cougars and bears that might present a danger if they wandered too far, so I bought the Porta Potty for their benefit.
The very first trip we used it, a little thing called the pressure relief valve got stuck. When a woman from Arizona pulled the trigger to make it flush, the contents of the holding tank exploded upward. I didn’t know things like that happened with portable toilets, but I knew something was seriously wrong when she started screaming. When she finally stepped from the trailer there were brown stains everywhere, even on her brand new Stetson. Fortunately, we were camped by a stream—the Muddy River. She and her friend disappeared into the willows, returning an hour or two later spotlessly clean. The potty didn’t get used much after that.
From this camping location, we’d ride up the Muddy River, see some amazing geological formations, and cross the river about a dozen times, which was exciting for the riders and good experience for the horses. After about five miles of this, we’d work our way up onto the benches above the river, where we’d find mustangs. Those who wanted could take pictures. Then we’d take a refreshment break at a place where lots of Indians used to camp, a sandy place with abundant shelter among white slick rock formations. There were literally piles of flint chips and some pottery shards left behind by primitive peoples.
I’d give a little lecture about how exciting it is to find a piece of pottery or a broken spearhead at the exact spot where an Indian lost or discarded it. But if you took any of these things home, perhaps placing them in a dish on a fireplace mantle, much of the former magic is lost. A spouse might think the dish contains merely clutter to be thrown out with the trash. Besides, taking artifacts home is against the law. A BLM officer might stop us on the way out and ask you to empty your pockets. If you have artifacts, even broken ones, he will arrest you. You’ll have to go before a judge, and then there might be an article in the newspaper about how they arrested you to prevent you from selling priceless artifacts on the black market. “So please, leave the artifacts where you find them.”
One year as we were getting ready to go on this ride, a man who had been with us the year before nodded for me to come over to his horse. He showed me a can containing pottery shards and some broken arrow and spear points, items he had picked up the year before. He said I was right—the items didn’t seem nearly as precious when he looked at them at home. He said he felt so bad about what he had done that he arranged to come on another ride so he could return them. He hoped we would ride to the same place so he could do that. I told him we would. Later in the day, I watched from a distance as he sauntered around, dropping artifacts at the appropriate places.
At that same camping spot on the Muddy, on a hot June afternoon a few years later, a bunch of us rode into camp after a long and thirsty ride. That morning we had ridden up the Muddy River and onto the Perry Miller benches where we saw a band of mustangs. We followed them around an hour or two and then spent the middle part of the day looking for artifacts, mainly arrow and broken spear points. We had stayed longer than we should have in such hot weather, so as we approached camp, from the benches where there was no water for the thirsty horses, everyone was hot and very thirsty.
As we approached camp, I stopped my horse and asked everyone to come in close to hear what I wanted to say. I expressed the idea that the natural thing to do, upon reaching camp, is to jump off your horse and run to the cooler for a cold drink. But the decent thing to do is to unsaddle your horse first, let him roll, and take him down to the stream for a drink of cold water. Then, and only then, should you run to the cooler to fetch a cold drink for yourself. I explained that in my officer training in the Marine Corps it was an officer’s duty to make sure his men were watered and fed before his own needs were met. Good horsemen behave the same way toward their horses.
No one chose to follow my advice or my example. While I was unsaddling my horse to let him roll, everyone else was crowded around the cooler. While they collapsed into folding chairs to guzzle down their drinks, I was by myself leading two horses through the willows and tamarisk to the stream.
As I led the thirsty horses out of the bushes onto the bank of the river, I forgot all about my negligent companions. About ten feet in front of me, standing in about a foot of water, was a naked woman who was not wearing a stitch of clothing. She had bright blue eyes and shoulder-length blond hair, which reminded me of Eve in the Garden of Eden. She was maybe twenty years old.
My first reaction was to turn and leave, but my thirsty horses were pulling me toward the water and the girl. Sensing my reluctance, she smiled. She was facing me and did not turn away, nor did she reach for her swimsuit, which was resting on some smooth stones behind her. I turned sideways, determined not to stare, and quietly asked her what she was doing here. She said she was with a group preparing to kayak down the Muddy River to where it became the Dirty Devil at Hanksville. I told her I was taking a group of people on a horseback adventure.
I was glad my horses were so thirsty. They just kept drinking and drinking. When they were finally finished, I wished her good luck on her river trip and said good-bye.
When I arrived back at camp, I tied up the horses, threw them some hay, and sauntered over to the cooler to find a drink. I told my friends how lucky I’d been for taking care of my horses first, and how sorry I was that they had not done the same. They tumbled out of their chairs, ran to their horses, and hurried down to the river. But it was too late. The girl with the blue eyes had slipped back into her swimming suit and climbed up the opposite bank to join her companions.
The week-long trips were too long. By Friday I couldn’t get people on their horses. It seemed by then that everyone wanted to stay in camp and help the cook. I probably pushed some of the older people too hard. One year I made the trips three days long, but that was too short. People didn’t get to know each other in such a short time, and we couldn’t do enough riding to get comfortable with it. I ended up doing the Outlaw Trail rides in four days, Wednesday through Saturday. I did it every spring for about twenty years.
We usually began with a ride to the Butch Cassidy hideout on the Badland Benches above Nine Mile Canyon, or sometimes a shorter ride to the biggest Fremont ruin ever found, or the still-usable mustang trap and outlaw cabin on Flat Iron Mesa. Then we’d head over to the Little Grand Canyon on the San Rafael River, probably the most scenic horseback ride in Utah, and stop to see the dinosaur footprint on the way. Sometimes we’d ride the Jackass Benches or Cliff Dweller Flat and then head over to the Perry Miller Benches above the Muddy River to see mustangs.
One March, on a day that was cold and windy, we decided to ride through the Little Grand Canyon. We hauled the horses to the upstream end of the fifteen-mile canyon at a place called Fuller Bottom. The plan was to ride downstream to the corrals above what was called the Swinging Bridge at the mouth of Buckhorn Draw.
The group consisted of twenty-two riders from the Ogden area, more than I liked to have on a trip like this. As we were preparing to start, I told everyone there were pockets of quicksand in the river where your horse could sink to its belly real fast. Over the years I found that if I used the quicksand word to describe soft mud, people listened more carefully. I told them the only way to be sure to avoid it was to follow my mule through the river crossings. I had ridden this trail many times and knew where to cross. So to be safe, all they had to do was follow me. If they wanted to be more adventurous and find their own crossings, that was okay too, but they might get stuck in the mud. I warned them also of deep holes in the river where in a blink their horse could be in over its head and need to swim. Because the water was murky with the spring runoff, they wouldn’t be able to see the deep holes, so the safe thing was to follow me when we crossed the river. Swift water indicated a hard bottom. Still water indicated a soft or deep bottom.
So with my little safety talk out of the way, down the river we headed, into the deep canyon, fenced in by sheer and majestic red, white, and brown thousand-foot cliffs on both sides. A cold wind was blowing, and all the coats and jackets were buttoned up tight.
At the very first crossing, after I had reached the far bank, I turned to see how my companions were handling the swift brown water, which was about two feet deep at the crossing. To my amazement, one of the women was holding onto the saddle horn with both hands as her horse turned away from the others and headed down the middle of the stream toward some very calm water that I guessed might be very deep.
Just as I started to yell at her to turn back, her horse disappeared from sight. The next thing I knew, the woman was trying to swim in her heavy, waterlogged coat. Almost before she knew it, the current carried her to the shallow end of the hole where she regained her footing and waded to shore. By this time her horse was on the bank too.
We were four or five miles from the trucks if we turned back, and ten miles from camp if we kept going. One of our riders was soaking wet. A cold March wind was blowing. Her teeth had already begun to chatter. No one had brought a dry change of clothing. In a matter of minutes this poor woman would be suffering from severe hypothermia. I had seen it before and knew the danger. She insisted she was fine, but I knew better.
I told the lady she would have to take off all her clothes, including her underwear, while we got a fire going. At first she protested, but I stood firm. Several of the other women led her behind some sagebrush, where they held up their slickers to give her some privacy as she stripped down. Then they bundled her up in their coats and slickers so she could wait out the drying process in relative modesty near the roaring fire.
I picked up a piece of dripping underwear, hung it on the end of stick, and pointed it toward the fire. The rest of the men did the same with other pieces of clothing. In an hour her clothes were dry, though very smoky. She put them back on, and we continued down the canyon. The woman smelled like a campfire the remainder of the trip. I liked to remind her from time to time that she smelled just like a real Indian.
One year I sponsored a writing contest involving ten middle and junior high schools. Students had to write essays or stories related in theme and content to my Storm Testament books which were in all the school libraries. The winner from each of the ten schools got to go on an Outlaw Trail ride with me. I picked three or four teachers from the schools to come along as wranglers and chaperones.
The week before the trip, one of the mothers called several times. She seemed terrified at the thought of sending her helpless little girl on a four-day horseback ride in the desert with a total stranger. Nothing I said made her feel better, so I invited her to come along. I said I didn’t have a horse for her, but she could stay in camp, help the cook, and sleep with her daughter in the same tent at night.
The mother turned out to be a nice person, but not a happy camper. Swatting insects, breathing dust and smoke, smelling horse sweat, and sleeping on the ground didn’t agree with her. When she asked me about restroom facilities, I pointed toward a nearby canyon, saying the restroom was anywhere she wanted it to be. After one night, the woman stopped worrying about her daughter, packed up, and headed home.
What she didn’t know was that I was worried about her daughter too. I was worried about all the students. I was responsible for ten children who were not mine. Putting them on ten horses and turning them loose in a dangerous and rugged wilderness gave me plenty of things to worry about. I worried about the girl falling off her horse and hitting her head on a rock. I worried about her catching a foot in the stirrup and being dragged. I worried about trails along the edges of steep cliffs, rattlesnakes, and the three rivers we intended to cross that were filled with raging brown water from melting snow.
The worst thing that happened involved my daughter, Kristin, a fearless and experienced rider who was also a junior high school student. She came along to help with the horses and coach the students who didn’t know how to ride. At our first campsite, her horse, Joe, somehow caught a hind foot in a long strand of barbed wire. When Kristin attempted to pick up the foot to remove the wire, the horse pulled away, spinning around, tangling his other feet and Kristin in the wire too. Then he tried to run away, dragging my daughter with him. Fortunately, we got the horse under control before any serious damage was done. Kristin ended up with some bloody lines across her arm and neck. She seemed pretty proud of those wounds, until the scabs dried up and went away. When students asked about the cuts on the horse’s legs, I said I wasn’t worried because they were a long way from the heart.
Some of my fondest memories of the Outlaw Trail rides involve my black mule, Ingersoll. I named him after a famous Butch Cassidy mule. We know about the mule from a letter Butch wrote to the owner of the Concordia Tin mine in the mountains above La Paz, Bolivia. Butch said he didn’t come to a certain celebration because of a misunderstanding with Ingersoll, resulting in a broken jaw for the mule. That part of the letter showed Butch knew how to be forceful with animals. Then Butch explained how he had to spoon-feed mush into Ingersoll’s mouth while the jaw was healing, because the mule couldn’t graze with a broken jaw. This part of the letter showed how Butch could be compassionate to an animal. Butch ended the letter saying he would come to visit as soon as the jaw healed and Ingersoll could graze again.
Butch had switched from riding horses to mules not long after arriving in South America. A mule cannot run as fast as a horse but has a lot more stamina for long rides day after day. A mule is more sure-footed in rugged mountain country, and mules have harder feet, which don’t need near as much care as horses’ feet. A mule will live a lot longer than most horses. But a mule is also smarter than a horse, a condition that has its advantages and disadvantages. Old timers have told me you shouldn’t own a mule unless you are smarter than the mule.
Ingersoll provided entertainment for my guests. One of my favorite things was to turn him loose immediately following the ride to the Butch Cassidy hideout at the head of Devil’s Canyon. It is a long ride with little to drink along the way, so the horses are always thirsty when the ride is over.
We couldn’t see it from camp, but the Nine Mile Canyon River was about a quarter mile away through some sagebrush and down a steep bank. As soon as I turned Ingersoll loose, he would head for the river lickety split, sometimes taking one or two horses with him. People would start yelling at me, “Lee, your mule is running away. Do you need help catching him?”
By this time the mule would be out of sight. In such wild and rugged country, I’m sure some of my guests were wondering if we would ever see him again.
“If he’s not back in five minutes,” I’d say, “we’ll put together a search party.”
In a few minutes we’d see Ingersoll coming back, usually at a full gallop.
What amazed me about this animal was his ability to remember things on the trail. One time we had a camera crew from Channel 4 tagging along, shooting some film for a story on the Outlaw Trail. We decided to take them to the hidden remains of an old cabin up Chimney Canyon, a remote, rugged, and very scenic spot in lower Nine Mile Canyon. I hoped to show them the remains of a mustang trap not far from the cabin, made of juniper and pinyon trees and in nearly usable condition. It was likely a hundred years ago when horse thieves or cowboys last used it.
The trail up Chimney Canyon is difficult to follow because it hardly ever gets any use, and there’s a fork or two where it is easy to go the wrong way if you are not familiar with the area. Bryce and I hadn’t been up Chimney Canyon for several years, but we were certain we could find the way.
At a fork in the canyon it appeared the main trail continued straight ahead along what appeared to be the main part of the canyon, but Ingersoll was trying to turn right into a little side canyon that was blocked by a lot of brush and some fallen trees.
I stopped and asked Bryce if he thought we should continue in the main canyon. He said the main canyon did not look familiar to him, but he was absolutely sure the trail did not go up the brushy draw to our right. So I pulled Ingersoll’s head around and made him go the way we had decided to go.
Fifteen minutes later there was no sign of a trail at all as we were pushing further and further into some steep and dangerous country. We finally had to admit that we had made a mistake. We worked our way back to the brush-filled draw where Ingersoll had wanted to turn right. Almost immediately, as we passed through the brush, we found ourselves on the main trail that took us to the old cabin.
People talk about dumb animals. Bryce and I, both college graduates, had been up Chimney Canyon to the old cabin at least twice. Ingersoll had been there once. The combined memory and intelligence of Bryce and me was no match for that of an ugly black mule.
A better example of the superiority of animal intelligence occurred on the slick rock Angel Trail, the route outlaws used to take from Hanksville to Robbers’ Roost. Using one of the Michael Kelsey trail guides, we found the trail and scouted it out in March that year just before the trail rides began. It was spectacular, winding down some red slick-rock cliffs and looking a lot scarier than it actually was. It eventually crossed the Dirty Devil River at a beautiful spot with grassy meadows, sandy beaches, and Indian writings under the ledges. At one point coming up the trail, if the horses didn’t learn to strike the front of their shod hooves against the smooth rock to make toe holds, they would slip and slide and rub the skin off their knees.
There were three or four older women in the first group that year, and when they saw how steep the trail was where it dropped off the sandy bench onto the slick rock cliffs, they said they were not going with us. They thought it was too dangerous to walk on the trail, but taking their horses would be certain suicide.
I tied Ingersoll’s reins over his neck and then patted him on the rump, the signal for him to go ahead on his own. I told my two wranglers, Bryce and Wally, who had been with me on the scouting trip in March, to lead the way. I told them I was staying behind to help the women with their ponies. The women finally agreed to come, if I promised to stay with them and continue helping with their horses. Instead of riding, we were leading our horses along this steep and possibly dangerous portion of the trail.
We were moving along just fine when all of a sudden I noticed that the immediate surroundings were not familiar. I didn’t remember the trail being this steep at this approximate location. It appeared we were going off the edge of a gently rounded cliff. The trail was getting steeper and steeper, and soon we would not be able to turn back. Wally and Bryce finally stopped, no longer sure which way to go. They yelled back at me, wanting me to tell them what to do.
I looked around. Ingersoll was no longer with the group, but off to the right, a hundred yards or so, standing by a little pile of rocks, looking back at us, as if wondering why we were not staying on the trial with him. I told Bryce and Wally to take everybody over by the mule, that that’s where the trail was. Soon we were going the right way again. I was still in the rear with the three women.
It wasn’t long until we were headed over another gentle sand rock cliff that was getting steeper and steeper and nothing looked familiar. Wally and Bryce stopped for a second time, once again not sure they were on the trail. Again, Ingersoll was not with the group, but off to the right, looking back at us and wondering why we insisted on going the wrong way. That’s when I gathered everyone around, telling them that if they wanted to reach the bottom of the canyon in safety, they should follow the mule and not the men, so that’s what we did. Ingersoll, his reins tied over his neck, led the group down the Angel Trail to the Dirty Devil River.
On another trip, Ingersoll exhibited a different kind of intelligence. Some friends and I had purchased 160 acres in Nine Mile Canyon, a spot centrally located to the Butch Cassidy hideout ride and Flat Iron Mesa. One year I invited the people who wanted to come on trail rides to come to the new ranch property and help us build trails and clear brush. Of course, there would be no charge, just lots of good food to accompany the hard work.
A group from Ogden brought a handicapped boy named Steve. He was about forty years old but acted and talked like a four-year-old. He had a big teddy bear, and he sucked his thumb. He loved the horses, and while the rest of us were setting up camp, he hung around the horses, petting one whenever he got the chance.
Our plan for the next day was to build a trail up the steep rocky ridge leading to the Chimney Canyon hideout and mustang trap. With this new trail in place, the ride up to the mustang trap and cabin could become an all-day scenic loop.
Steve’s friends were concerned for his safety. They feared he wouldn’t be able to stay on the steep trail and that he would fall. They didn’t dare leave him behind by himself in camp either. Everyone wanted to work, so no one wanted to babysit Steve. When we headed up the mountain the next morning, we took Steve with us and agreed that we would take turns keeping a close eye on him.
I put the sawbuck saddle on Ingersoll that morning, along with the canvas panniers so he could carry the picks, shovels, sharpening tools, first aid kit, water, and lunches. As we worked our way to the steep part of the mountain, I noticed that Steve kept coming over by me so he could pet Ingersoll.
At a steep place in the trail I handed the brand new soft cotton lead rope to Steve, telling him to hold onto Ingersoll while I pushed a rock out of the trail. When I finished and looked around, Steve had lost his footing and was sliding off the trail. He wouldn’t let go of the lead rope, however, and was trying to pull Ingersoll with him. The mule had other ideas. He wasn’t about to step off the trail, no matter how hard Steve pulled on the rope. By hanging onto the lead rope, Steve was able to pull himself back to the trail. I commended him for his effort and informed him that his job for the rest of the day was to hold Ingersoll’s lead rope. That’s how he could help. I told him to never let go of the rope.
Three or four times Steve slipped and fell, and each time he was able to pull himself back to the trail using the lead rope. The reader should understand here that Ingersoll is a well-broken mule. I can lead him off ledges into rivers, through brush too thick to see where you are going, up and down ledges where horses refuse to go, and through places where people have to crawl. Ingersoll does all that. He goes where he is supposed to go. But he knew enough not to let Steve pull him off the trail. In addition to carrying all our stuff and tools, Ingersoll was the babysitter that day, and he did a mighty fine job of it.
One of the most memorable Outlaw Trail rides involved five or six old men from Moses Lake, Washington. They had been doing trips like this on their own for some time. They had their own mules, tents, and everything else they might need for such an adventure. Five of them were within a year or two of eighty, so I expressed concern about their ability to endure such an adventure. They assured me everything would be fine.
The oldest member of the group was Lloyd Jackson, who was eighty-two years old. He rode a white mule, one of the best mules I have ever met. To know he was good, all you had to do was stand in front of his face and look into his steady and kind eyes. I remember that a couple of days into the trip I tried to talk Lloyd out of the ride to the Butch Cassidy hideout. Lloyd had bad knees and hips, which made it necessary for us to help him on and off his mule. I told him about a portion of the trail in some very steep and dangerous country in lower Daddy Canyon where it was necessary to get off and lead your mount under a ledge or overhang. I didn’t think he would be able to do this because the trail was so narrow, and a steep drop-off to the canyon bottom would make it very difficult for us to help him on and off the mule.
Lloyd let me say everything I wanted to say, and then he looked me straight in the eye and said the following:
Lee, I am eighty-two years old. In a year or two they will put me in a rest home. If I die on this ride, I will do it with a smile. I’d rather die on a horseback adventure with my favorite author than waste away in a rest home with a gum-chewing teenager changing my diapers.
Lloyd went on every ride, confident in his white mule, no fear of cliffs or quicksand, and never complaining.
One of his buddies did complain, however. We were galloping across some sand dunes to intercept a band of mustangs when I noticed by the look on his face that something was terribly wrong. I stopped my mule and asked him what was the matter.
“I swallowed my false teeth,” he said.
“Do we need to take you to a hospital?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
A minute later he found his teeth in his coat pocket. He had put them there before the romp through the sand dunes.
Dusty and dirty, those five old guys went skinny-dipping in the San Rafael River one night. I’ll never forget them, especially Lloyd Jackson on his white mule.
The potential for injury on the trail rides was huge. Every year people fell off their horses. One time, as ten of us mounted up for a single-file journey into the Little Grand Canyon, the last rider, an overweight middle-aged man, lost his balance while climbing into the saddle and fell off the far side of his horse. His foot caught in the stirrup on the near side, which left him hanging upside down, his head nearly touching the ground. The gentle disposition of his horse was the only thing that saved him from serious injury. Rather than buck or stampede, the old buckskin just plodded up the trail, following the horse in front.
The proud victim, not wanting the rest of us to see his awkward and embarrassing plight, refused to yell for help. Instead he kept whispering the name of the friend directly in front, hoping to quietly be helped out of his predicament. When the friend finally turned around, the rest of us saw him too, and everyone raced to the rescue. Fortunately, the old horse remained calm.
After ten years of trail rides, I let this sideline to my writing get smaller and smaller until I was usually taking only one or two groups a year. It was a lot of work, but lots of fun too, and I made many friends. It gave me an excuse to do lots of backcountry horseback riding.