Do you remember what you were doing in 1970? It was the year the Neel Glass invented the first Easyboot. In Shell, Wyoming, a group of hardcore endurance riders decided to put on a 100-mile race of epic proportions. The event would take the riders from the hot, arid badlands just outside town up into the high mountain pastures filled with wildflowers and wildlife that only a handful of people get to see in a year.
Photo courtesy of Darlene Anderson
Forty years later, the event is still taking place. Big Horn is the grande dame of endurance rides, now the longest continually running 100-mile race in North America.
What better year to attend? 32 riders took on the good fight this year: their opportunity to stand face to face in front of destiny in the most unpredictable of settings. Big Horn is one of those races that just keeps you guessing from start until the horse steps his hind legs across the finish line.
The ride meeting was held at the community center in town, ten minutes’ drive from basecamp. A local band was playing on the stage when we walked in and a long snake of tables would soon be host to hungry riders and crew. At almost 8 PM, Jeanette Tolman stood in front of the restless crowd to walk us through the trail that lay in wait.
It was past 10 PM when we got to bed, and the 2:30 AM wake-up call came quickly. The 50 and 100-mile riders all started together at 4 AM. 43 riders milled around the start line for the roll call, and soon enough we were out on our controlled start for a mile along a dirt road before we were set free on a two-track road across the badlands towards the great Big Horn mountain range. The pace at the front of the pack was consistent and riders and horses were all speechless with anticipation of what lay ahead. It was thrilling.
It took us about 90 minutes to get to the first climb out of the badlands – a service road that kept climbing up through the trees. The riders had already spread out enough for the horses to settle in. Little clusters of riders had formed and the horses were focused on the job at hand.
At the summit we poured out into the first of beautiful canyons. We would cross a creek several times along a stunning single-track trail. It was hard to believe that the wildflowers could be so prolific and the views so stunning. We climbed and we climbed and we climbed. And every time we turned a corner, we came across a new high pasture and even more vistas that took your breath away. We could see plain out to Yellowstone and the snow-covered Teton Mountains.
We came to the first vet check at 27 miles. Horses, vets, riders and crew were all chipper. Tim French had a barbeque on the back of his truck: he was making food and had a pot of coffee there at a rolling boil. It was Wyoming hospitality at its best.
The hour hold passed quickly and we set out to take on the 14 miles of trail to Antelope Butte ski lodge. At times the wildflowers were so prolific that it was hard to see the marker flags in the ground. We vetted though in a brief lapse from the rain, and spent the rest of the hour watching the horses devour hay and fill themselves on lush green grass.
When we left the ski resort, a big black cloud was hanging over the mountain we were about to climb to get up to Jack Creek. We climbed up and over the summit, and as we began to wind our way down into the valley the skies opened. The muddy roads became slick, slimy clay chutes. We got off and walked: our deconstructed running shoes turned into combat boots and I began to feel like I was not born to run.
We got to the valley bottom and then began the most beautiful climb up the single track trail that would lead us towards Jack Creek. We wound our way up through old growth trees and the intoxicating smell of fresh-cut lumber. I was cold and wet and tired. I wrapped Far’s tail around my hand and let him pull us up closer and closer to the divine summit of the Big Horns. He slipped and regained his footing and stayed ever focused on the journey in front of us.
The single-track trail, alas, had to end. It spit us out and soon we were in a high mountain meadow. How did anyone know it was here? There was no road there, and hardly even a trail. It would lead us to the auspicious Jack Creek vet check – the location for vet checks three and four.
Photo courtesy of Darlene Anderson
Our borrowed crew rushed to us with blankets and waited on us. We changed into dry socks before heading out on the loop around the top of the mountain. This 14-mile loop was where the fleeting, crowning moment of the ride took place for me. Far lead us all up and over the highest point in the ride – a breathtaking 11,000 beautiful feet. Who better to be there with than Dorothy-Sue Phillips, Tom Noll and Rusty Toth. Far was focused and intent and content with his role. And I was in awe.
As we wound our way around the lakes, the skies grew ominously dark again. They would deliver hail and thunder and wind as we trudged our way back down to Jack Creek. Neither horse nor rider was happy. And nor were the vets: they checked our horses for vitals and then hurried us back out onto the trail. The skies were heavy and angry, the wind biting and order had been replaced by a sense of urgency. “Hurry down the mountain,” said Dr. Irena Weiss, “it’s just going to get worse from here.”
She was right. The single-track trail that would start the endless descent towards Trapper Creek Ranch had turned into a clay river. Each step was a slip as the horses struggled to regain their balance. We were off on foot again, wearing combat boots and tiring far more quickly than we should have been. I was wet to the bone – my raincoat was no longer keeping the water on the outside. I felt little rivers of water wind their way down the front of my chest. My socks were sponges and nerves were growing raw. And the sun began to set.
Behind us we saw a figure on horseback in a bright orange coat and hood. As we slipped and slid our way down the trail, we realized it was Tom Noll. Unlike us, he knew the trail and he would describe it to us in detail. We hooked up with him and he reminded us that there would be no moon that night. And he told us stories of the night he oriented down the mountain, getting back to base camp at 7 AM. We laughed and told stories. But as the night drew on, I began to realize how close we were to reliving his experience.
The slick roads were impassable by horse or by vehicle – we stayed up off the trail and crossed country through sagebrush. As darkness fell, the absence of the moon soon became apparent. And we realized there were no trail markings.
By some stroke of dumb luck, Tom had a GPS with the track log from two years prior. Before long he was referring to it to make sure we were still heading in the right direction. His four finishes at the ride had given him a sense of the trail, and at the point at which when we started the descent in earnest he knew we had to watch for gates and barbed wire and cliffs. And we all knew we were cold and playing some obscure game of chance. We saw lights and we heard people. And then they were gone. We doubted his GPS and the turns we made. We felt a great sense of hope when we saw the lights of Greybull for the first time, a mile or two below us. If there were markers on the trail, we did not see them. We saw nothing: not seeing, not knowing.
But the lights seemed not to grow closer and the miles grew longer and slower. I got off and ran when I could no longer feel my feet or my knees. Squelch, squelch, and squelch. As I grew more tired and less enthusiastic, Far stayed sharp and focused and ready. And I began to fade.
The descent was endless indeed. I began to wonder if we would be out there all night with the silent silhouettes of the cows and the rocky trail and the gates and the soupy blackness.
We came upon a lost rider with a sick horse – Lois Fox would join our group of four. At one point we thought we saw horses with glowsticks coming towards us. And then they disappeared. Out of nowhere we stumbled up on Jeanette Tolman out there on her ATV. She seemed overwhelmed. She was holding a flashing red light over her head, as if to mark a target for the riders coming off the hill. It seemed so banal for her to be here, of all places. I could not even comprehend how anyone could ever make it to this point without knowing the trail. It was not just a case of following a single track trail down the mountain the way Tevis picks its route to Auburn. It was a case of orienteering through wilderness trails – often against your instinct to head for the lights of civilization far beneath you.
By the time we hit the slick rock I was dazed and confused. We were on foot, but negotiating the increasingly steep grade of the hill towards the ranch was a slow and painful process. My feet were numb and bruised and it became more and more difficult to choose trail instead of cliff. My steps became short and slow and the light of Tom Nolls’ headlamp grew dim and then disappeared as he continued down the scree ahead of us and gaining ground.
We got to the ranch and to the road and onto the rolling hills of the badlands. It felt good to trot in my semi-conscious state. It had suddenly warmed and the cold, shocky feeling was replaced with the sense of sweat dripping down my back as we trotted up and down the rise and drop of the barren country – the dark side of the moon. The race against the clock was now the point of conversation.
We crossed the finish line at 2:30 AM – it had taken us seven hours to trek the 32 miles down from Jack Creek. But the achievement was bittersweet. People familiar with the trail who had left Jack Creek before us were still out there in the night. Horses were lost; people were curled in the fetal position under sagebrush; others still were vomiting. The mountain had taken its toll – it had gained the better of ride manager and riders alike. When we finished there were still more than ten people wandering and sheltering from the elements. By morning all horse and rider teams were safely back at camp.
It is perhaps the most beautiful and remote ride I’ve ever done. Tevis felt like a more challenging ride physically and emotionally: you get on the trail and you follow it. You climb and you descend and you play with fate all day and all night. But if your horse can handle the physical challenge and if you can take the emotional challenge, you just truck down the trail. At Big Horn everything is unpredictable. There is less climbing and descent, but destiny plays a different role in determining the outcome. There are less volunteers ushering you though checkpoints and the choices for trail seem almost infinite.
It was the darkest and most thrilling experience of my life. It was an epic journey that leaves me with a dizzying sense of accomplishment. At Tevis you conquer physical and emotional battles. At Big Horn you take on Mother Nature and destiny. She is the most unpredictable ride of them all.
I can hardly wait to take her on again.