By Rachael Van Horn
Editor's Note: Woodward News contributor and Boom Town magazine editor Rachael Van Horn rode a few miles and visited with Lady-Long Rider, Bernice Ende this week as the equestrian traveler traveled through the rolling hills and wild flats of western Oklahoma. The two camped together at Doby Springs, about halfway between Buffalo and Laverne where Ende shared her story.
With sturdy canvas packs filled to capacity, carried by a plucky Norwegian horse and her mount, a kind, long-striding paint, Bernice Ende may look like someone who is on a long trip.
But this isn't just a journey-that would suggest a beginning and an end. It's many things more.
If you are lucky, you might happen onto Ende as she rides through your town. If you ask her to let you in on her story, she will study you with blue eyes, the color of a rare, clear western Oklahoma day and be silent for a moment.
Then, after some introspection, she will tell you that the past five years spent traveling horseback through 14,000 miles of the United States is not about a destination but instead, it defines who she is in the most complete way.
“Like normal jobs and lifestyles are for other people, long riding is my life.” she says. “Really, after doing this for these past years, I can't imagine living my life any other way now. I can't imagine any home but out here, like this.”
Indeed, since 2005, since Ende left her home in Trego, Montana for her first ride, she has become among only a few equestrian travelers inducted into the Long Riders Guild that have traveled as far. The Long Riders Guild is an invitation-only worldwide association of equestrian travelers.
But contrary to the romantic visual Ende presents to onlookers as she rides through the cities and towns of the western half of the United States this year, only she and her animal partners know the truth of her days and her nights. Only they know the sometimes dangerous life lessons learned on the trail that have changed her perception of her existence-indeed-even human existence and what she expects from it.
A journey within a journey
Ende, her present mount, Hart, her pack horse Essie Pearl and her dog, Claire wound their way through western Oklahoma earlier this week. She is already more than a year into this latest stretch of her journey, which started in March of 2009, and now is returning to her cabin in Trego, Mont., by way of Minnesota to visit her sister and other family.
"My plan is to arrive home at the beginning of November before winter really sets in there," Ende said. "I will stop in Minnesota and spend a couple of months there, through the hottest days. That will give the horses a rest. I just don't travel during the hottest part of the summer."
This life as a nomad is far from the life the slender daughter of a Minnesota dairy farmer had envisioned some 50-something years ago. Ende doesn't mention her age, instead she answers that question with hints, such as the 25 years she spent as a ballet instructor or phrases like "I'm older than dirt," when someone does ask.
But she is more forthright when someone asks her why she set out to travel horseback on her first trip in 2005.
"I don't really know," she says. "I cried when I left and I asked myself, 'Why am I doing this?'."
She describes that decision to make that first ride as "meant to be".
"I just think it is like anything in life you end up doing that you never planned," she says. "This was never my dream, to do this kind of thing."
And even after crossing the Rocky Mountains too many times to count and living through an almost fatal decision to cross the Cascades earlier this year, Ende is still searching for that elusive answer to the "whys" of life.
"That's really what it all comes down to," she says and holds her hands up. "Why are we all here?"
Not busy, but full
Yet, the woman, whose smile lines trot from the corners of her blue eyes to the edge of her graying hair, has answered more of life's "whys" than most ever will.
A thinker, who describes her life as existing just a few hoof beats to the north of her as she travels this week on Oklahoma Highway 46 toward Ashland, Kansas, Ende describes a daily supply of life lessons about people. She is not afraid to talk of her mistakes and defeats and about allowing herself to "step down off your high saddle" and be vulnerable enough to allow others to help her on her journey.
That is exactly what she did this week when she met up with Cattleman's Choice owner Dale Moore, who stopped his busy work day out of curiosity when he spotted Ende heading north toward his cattle feeding facility. Since part of her calling, Ende said, is giving talks and making herself available to the public, she had no trouble standing by the quiet road to visit with Moore.
Later, Moore, his wife Mary and another May couple, ranchers Mary and Thad Murphy, provided Ende with a place to put her horses for the night and a place to sleep and some lively conversation.
Monday, the Moores and Murphys packed what was left of breakfast and watched as Ende mounted Hart and headed again
north toward Ashland and later, Nicodemus, Kansas.
As she left, the four ranchers were quiet and just watched. Finally, Moore spoke as he continued to watch the backs of her horses ease into the distance.
"I think the number one comment she made was that her life is right here," he says and holds his hand out in front of him. "It makes me know that we should all slow down and that we are missing half of life as we speed by in our busy lives."
The lessons of the trail
As if to illustrate his comment, a full 45 minutes later, Ende is only about two miles down the road, walking in front of
her horses now, to save their backs and frankly, her own. She talks easily, a woman in amazing shape as she leads the
tall paint and the Fiord mare north. She talks of her plans for the night and shares the emotional pain of personal losses that the miles have not yet consumed in her.
“So Texas has claimed two of my animals,” Ende writes in her on-line journal of her travels and then tells of a tragic loss of longtime horse partner Honor and later, a small puppy she had rescued along her way who had been abandoned in a ditch.
In a continued study of life, she searches for the answers and the lessons of those losses.
"I think back to how Honor got hurt and I remember thinking that day to myself, 'Maybe I should put her in a separate pen.'." Ende takes a few more strides in front of Hart, who seems to be in a hurry north. "But I was distracted and in a hurry to see my sister and I remember walking away from the pens that day thinking 'Oh, they'll be alright.'."
The next day, Ende said she found her mount, Honor with a fractured femur. Honor had traveled thousands of miles with
her and Ende felt responsible.
"Well, of course I was responsible. In an effort to make me feel better, people said 'Oh, it's not your fault. These things happen.'."
But Ende says she has had enough trail time to reject that conclusion and sees self responsibility as a fading value in the United States.
"You know, it's all around us-this, 'it's not your fault' mentality.," Ende says. "But what I have learned out here is that when I make choices for me and my animals, there is no one to turn around to and look to share the blame. It's just me out here."
Ende feels that had she given the circumstances more thought, instead of being distracted and rushed, she would have separated the two horses and perhaps Honor would still be alive.
"You know, I knew that other mare kicks and I should have stopped and given that more quality thought."
Ende says from the painful loss of Honor comes a new perspective-a new value.
"I want to now, not push so hard and offer into the things I do, more quality thought," Ende says. "I think about it and the times I have worn out myself and my animals is from pushing too hard."
The trail ahead
With a new perspective and miles to go before she finds all her answers, Ende moves northward.
Her plans are to reach home and the comfort of her cabin by November but she is already planning her next trip.
"I want to do this for at least five more years," she says.
And as the Oklahoma twilight fades to blue and then to black, she crawls in her tiny tent and listens to Hart and Essie chewing the grass that surrounds a pond near Doby Springs.
As she shuffles into her sleeping bag her voice is at the same time contemplative and resolute.
"I have written here on the inside of my tent 'I love my life.'," she says. "And you know, just like a lot of
people have hard days, I do too some times. But it is true what I have written here, I love my life."