Three for the Trail

Three for the TrailWhen three friends set out on a 1,900-mile cross-country pack trip from New Mexico to Montana, they didn’t know the obstacles they would face, or what it would take to complete an adventure that was more than a year in the making.

Usually, when someone tells of an extraordinary trip or feat accomplished, they speak of companions who have known each other for years. They talk of how their strong bond, built over time and lasting through previous trials, helped carry them through. That was not the case with Parker Flannery, Ben Masters and Mike Pinckney.

Traveling through much of the Rocky Mountains, three friends and nine horses complete the trip of a lifetime. credit: Ben MastersMasters and Flannery, both 22 years old and from Texas, had met at Texas A&M University in College Station and had played on the A&M Polo Club team. Masters met Vermont native Pinckney, 23, when they both worked in Grand Lake, Colorado, at Fossil Ridge Guide Service as pack trip leaders. The three did not share many years of friendship, but they did share a desire to travel—and to travel horseback. In early 2009, the trio began making plans to undertake a cross-country trip that would test their horsemanship, survival skills and newfound friendships.

“I kind of took the role of planning it out and doing the logistics,” Masters says. “Parker took the role of acquiring the horses. Mike was in charge of the gear. It took me about a year to get [the route] planned out.”

Using the Delorme Road Atlas, which includes both road and topographical information, and Google Earth to plan a route with potential campsites every seven to 10 miles, Masters plotted a trail from Canjilon, New Mexico, nearly 150 miles north of Albuquerque, to Glacier National Park, close to the Canadian border, in Montana. The 122-day trip covered almost 1,900 miles horseback.

“We basically connected national forest to national forest, or wilderness area to wilderness area,” says Masters. “Any type of public ground that was available for the public to use, we did. We wanted to ride the least amount we could on any type of road, and we tried to stay on maintained trails. All said and done, we probably covered about 75 percent on trail, 15 percent on old logging roads, about 5 percent on some type of gravel road, and 5 percent on a farm-to-market or fairly untraveled, paved road.”

Parker Flannery, pictured here, often chose to ride the gray Quarter Horse gelding bought from the I Bar Ranch in Texas because of its ability to cover ground at a comfortable pace. credit: Ben MastersThe trip required each rider to have three horses—one to ride, one to pack supplies, and one extra—that they would rotate daily. As college students, they could not afford to buy three seasoned packing horses apiece, so decided to get creative.

Flannery, who was working for Black Willow Ranch in Watrous, New Mexico, was charged with finding hardy horses. At first, he planned on acquiring several mustangs to train for the trip.

“I was looking for horses that had never been babied or spoiled,” Flannery said. “Something rangy or that knew how to take care of itself, and that could work hard with the least amount of care possible. The mustang was pretty much the ideal horse. They had been out on the range their whole lives, had great feet and the right conformation.”

Masters and Flannery headed to Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, in November, to the Bureau of Land Management Mustang Adoption Center, and took four mustangs back to New Mexico. After months of training, though, only two of the four were deemed worthy to make the trip—a large 7-year-old gelding and an 8-year-old mare. The rest of the horses came from various locations around the country, and were bought or borrowed.

The plan came together slowly but surely. Though the riders were of age, an endeavor such as this would worry any parent. The trip was planned in 12- to 15-day segments, with the riders picking up new rations for both themselves and their mounts before embarking on the next segment. Masters’s parents were integral to the success of the trip and shipped supplies to each stop on the route for the riders to pick up. The only shopping by the trio was done at local feed stores for grain.

The three-horse work rotation, and the decision to hobble the horses at night and not high-line tie them, was credited with keeping them in good physical condition. “We never had any skinny horses, and I think that was because every one got rest at least one day,” Ben Masters says. “The mustang [gelding] went the entire trip without a day off, and he didn’t lose a pound. Awesome horse.” credit: Ben MastersWhile some parents might balk at their child embarking on such a trek, Flannery’s mother was proud her son had a plan. Pinckney’s parents, having never been involved in the ups and downs of horseback activities, were supportive of his plans without fully understanding what he was getting into.

“Naturally, anyone’s mother would be worried about it because it does sound a little crazy,” Pinckney says. “Not a whole lot of people ride for over 1,000 miles, so obviously there’s a little bit of shock.

“My parents aren’t really horse people, and they don’t understand what goes into something like that, so they said, ‘go ahead, have fun.’ ”

The experiences that Masters and Pinckney had working overnight pack trips in Colorado could not prepare them for the adventure ahead.

“I had virtually no experience until about three years ago,” Pinckney says. “I had done a few [overnight pack trips] with clients up in Grand Lake, Colorado. We did rides in Rocky Mountain National Park. The longest I ever did was one overnight.

“I could just tell it was something I love to do. It was so awesome working with the horses and having the whole camping experience. I could tell that this trip was going to be that times a million.”More than a year after hatching their plan, the three riders and nine horses departed on May 22, 2010.

Stripped to the bare-bones minimum, the riders traveled more than 20 miles a day and wound their way up and down mountains, across rivers, and saw parts of America that a traveler on an Interstate could only imagine.

“We had no luxuries on this trip,” says Ben Masters. “When we finished, we had two forks, one spoon, one cup and one pan. Other than that, no other equipment made it the whole way.” credit: Mike PickneyEach rider had different goals for the trip, and each had a strength the others could rely on to help them through the trip. Masters and Pinckney both agree that Flannery was the best horseman on the trip.

“Honestly, Parker is far and away the best horseman,” Pinckney says. “He’s been around horses his whole life, and that’s what he brought to the table. Ben is a good logistics guy. He took care of a lot of the mapping of the routes and the planning. General jack-of-all-trades is what I brought to the table. I was pretty good at keeping morale high with humor.”

At first there were small obstacles to overcome, like adjusting to the food rations, the changes in temperature, and having time on their hands while riding over easy terrain. Daily activities changed from checking e-mails and returning phone calls to checking each horse’s shoes for necessary repairs and reading books while riding.

The guys had specific duties to complete at the beginning and end of each day, and did so happily.

“At the end of the day,” Flannery says, “I would go off and take care of the horses, and Ben would get to cooking and have his alone time. Mike would have this deal of writing down random funny things that happened in his journal. On a cold, wet, miserable day, we would sit and have coffee, and [Mike] would bust it out and we would sit and make fun of each other left and right. It was great.”

Adapting to a lifestyle away from the fast pace of city life and devoid of reliance on technology for entertainment was part of the experience.

“We did a lot of reading and fishing,” Pinckney says. “When you are out that far, and isolated with each other, there’s a lot of time to enjoy not doing much and enjoy the quietness and beauty of your surroundings. I learned how to be really patient this summer with the downtime we had.”

Masters equates the bond the guys developed to family ties, and as with any family, they stuck together.

“We had one civil war out in the woods,” Masters says. “Parker cracked the Dutch oven trying to straighten out a shoe. Mike and I wanted to kill him, because next to our horses and above my companions, the Dutch oven was closest to us on this trip. That thing cooked some mean grub.”

That crisis was averted at the next stop, when another Dutch oven was purchased, but more-serious trials lay ahead.Masters had plotted potential campsites that showed grass, water and an open area for each night’s stop. Once there, half of the horses were hobbled and the riders would make camp.

A strategy was in place to keep the horses from traveling too far from the campsite, but Flannery, Masters and Pinckney learned the hard way that horses make their own plans. One man stayed with the campsite, one traveled farther ahead on the trail to sleep, and one spent the night back along the trail they had ridden down. The plan was to keep the horses in between the riders.

“There was a morning in Southern Colorado, where we woke up and [the horses] had slipped past us and they were gone,” Masters says.

credit: Ben MastersKnowing it was not unusual for the horses to wander a bit, the riders set out tracking them. The horses, including those in hobbles, had run past the sentries set at each end of the trail and had been chased by a mountain lion. Seven miles away from camp, they were found grazing quietly. That day, both horses and riders traveled farther than expected.

By the second month of travel, both the horses and riders had figured out a routine to keep from losing each other.

“We carried 100 pounds of feed at all times,” Masters says. “It wasn’t so much the grain that was good for the horses, but it was bartering power. We trained them so that at daybreak they got a hat full of grain. It got to where we could take off our hats and they would come running. That mustang [gelding] was like a 40-year-old man who never had a Butterfinger. He was nuts for grain!”

Not all of the adventures ended well. Travel was hindered daily by trails that needed to be cleared in order to pass. While a trail might be deemed safe for travel on foot, a horse could not pass, and often the horses and riders had to backtrack, costing time and energy.

Tragedy struck in Wyoming as the group crossed the Wintery Range. Instead of going to outfitters for advice, the trio sought out information from the local forest service office, which, as Masters says, was the wrong thing to do. Given two choices, the riders opted to top Jackass Pass, at 11,000 feet.

“It’s incredible country; just awesome,” Masters says. “We went over the pass and it was pretty [rough], actually.”

The rough-cut trail had sharp drops and cutbacks that the travelers found were not passable. The group was in trouble, but luckily, the trio had dismounted before entering the pass and were leading their horses As Masters, who was in the lead, shouted back to turn the horses around, the Indian pony, “Tommy,” made his own path.

“He walked on a ledge that was inches wide,” says Masters. “We thought, ‘Oh my God, he’s about to fall.’ Well, he makes it, gets in front of us, and starts down the trail. So, we stop the horses and try to get turned around. Then, Tommy whinnies and my sorrel horse takes off across the ledge, too.”

Halfway across, the mare slipped and slid down a 45-degree rock face more than 100 yards, eventually landing in a lake.

“It was the most hopeless I’d been in my life,” Masters says.

After successfully turning the other horses around and backtracking, the riders found the mare severely injured but alive in the lake. It took a good deal of impromptu veterinary work to get her 17 miles down the trail to a waiting trailer.

Today, that sorrel mare is healthy and living with Flannery. She will be one of the horses he uses on Milima Ranch Outfitters in Ashville, North Carolina.“I’d love to do it again,” says Mike Pickney. “There’s no question in my mind that I love to do pack trips, whether they’re a week or maybe longer, like six months. This is my favorite thing in the world.” credit: Ben MastersAfter months of travel, the end goal was in sight—the Border Patrol Station at Port of Piegan, Montana. However, a last snowstorm almost derailed their plans in Glacier National Park. The storm dropped more thank 10-inches of snow, making mountains impassable. With no way to contact Josh Matheney, who picked them up at the Canadian border, the riders altered their path.

“After the snow hit, we had only three days to get to the border to meet Josh,” says Flannery. “We had to backtrack and ride through the Blackfeet Indian Reservation for three days to stay on schedule.”

When the group reached the Canadian border, it brought relief and sadness. Their 122-day adventure was over and they were headed home. Matheney drove them to Denver, and from there Flannery flew back to New Mexico and return with a truck and trailer to drive the group back to Black Willow Ranch.

“It took us three days to drive what we rode in four months,” says Masters. “McDonald’s was awesome. We grubbed out on junk food on that drive.”

credit: Ben MastersThe guys look back on their adventures now with smiles. From being chased by bison and accused of being horse thieves, to coming across other back country travelers and elk and bear, the group was never lonely for long on the trail. Each encounter taught a lesson, some more profound than others.

Flannery, who spent the most time preparing the horses for the trip, was touched one night as the group hid from a bison herd.  

“We turned all our pack horses loose, and kept our saddle horses together and ready to go,” he says. “After a while of waiting to see if the bison would pass us by, the packhorses came back to us, including the mustangs. All of a sudden, they stopped pawing and grazing, and just stood there watching where the bison were. They didn’t move or stomp or graze.

“The sense of awareness they had that something was wrong and how perfectly they acted really blew me away.”The lessons learned on the trip not only revolved around survival and horsemanship, but insight into how life could be lived without technology.

“We spend so much time babying [horses] and making sure everything is just perfect for them,” Flannery said. “I’ve mainly used performance horses, and I wanted to see what a horse could really do when it had to be pushed. We definitely found that out. These horses were always taken care of to the best of our abilities, but there’s only so much you can do out in the wilderness. They really took care of themselves. The things that we got them to do were just amazing, as far as the terrain they had to cover and how much trust they put in us.”

On their return trip, the group drove in three days what had taken them nearly four months to travel. Only 10 nights were spent indoors during the trip, and the experience was considered a lifestyle change and not merely an adventure.

“I like that way of life better,” Masters says. “You learn to really count on the people around you. A horse is a really great mode of transportation—you can take it a lot of places you can’t take a car.“

There were a lot of 15-minute breaks on the trip—let them get water or something—and you don’t get those 15-minute breaks in life. That’s when you get to know someone. It’s a slower, easier way of life. During that four months on the trip, I gained more knowledge than I would have by taking classes 17 hours a week at a university. I learned knots, navigation and how nature interacts. We learned a lot about the mountains.”

Reaching the Canadian border signaled the end of a nearly four-month-long, 1,900-mile trip for (from left) Mike Pickney, Ben Masters and Parker Flannery. To a man, each said they would do the trip again—with a few changes. Now, they know the importance of asking for guidance from outfitters who travel the trails horseback on a regular basis. They have enough stories to fill a novel and gained valuable knowledge that would make another trip even more successful, such as: chain hobbles are important; don’t mess with bison. because you’ll lose; get a horse that has never been in a barn; and, everything else you can figure out as you go.

“It really makes you realize how simple life can be until you make it complicated,” Flannery says. “Our biggest concerns were if the horses were sound and then what to have for dinner. To slow down and get back to that was a great experience.”

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