I came to Asheville after the Humane Society took my horse for the third time. They keep saying he’s too ribby. Of course he’s ribby, so am I. We walked across the country 3,500 miles together in a year. Bo is a working horse; he’s an athlete. Most horse people own horses that are overweight. They’re not used to seeing a horse that works. Bo’s my best friend; I wouldn’t treat him badly. I’m going to go back and get him.
I’m not angry, just determined. I’ve saved up a little money. Back in Utah, I had to hire a lawyer to get him back. That was tough.
Mostly people have been golden. I made some good friends along the way. We started in New Hampshire. By the time we got to the Mississippi River, we were both tired and sore. But I kept going for all the people who believed in me—I couldn’t let them down.
There was a widow in Pennsylvania, who let me stay for five days. I fixed some fences for her and repaired her bathroom sink. She fed me sourdough pancakes and rhubarb pie, saying I looked just like her late husband.
There were some long flat stretches through Kansas and Colorado where I rigged a pony cart to carry water and supplies. Those flat stretches just went on and on. We’d eventually get to a river and that would break the monotony.
In Utah, there was a kind Navajo lady who called me “Brother.” Her grandkids called me “Uncle.” She came along just when we were out of food. I remodeled a kitchen for her. I still have her phone number.
I’ve been told I’m a man of the ’90s—the 1890s. People call me “Cowboy.” A cowboy isn’t a hat or a pair of boots—it’s an attitude, a love of life and the best things that come with it. There’s nothing heroic about me, it’s just my dream—right, wrong or indifferent. I’ve been thinking about it since I was 13 or 14 years old, and people have always kept me away from it.
How great the gift we're given, A time and space to live in.
The mountains in California were steep and tough, with snow sometimes a foot deep. Bo just kept on going. He can be knot-headed at times, but he’s the toughest boy on the road you ever saw. Eighteen wheelers passed us so close I could touch them, but he never flinched. A sonic boom hit us in Nevada and he just took a sideways step and kept going. He’s tough.
Bo got the best I could find anywhere, but when I couldn’t find grain, he survived on everything from goat food, rabbit food, calf feed… even dry dog food, which is mostly corn and protein. He likes it and runs good on it. Sometimes I’d pull into McDonalds’ drive-through and order cheeseburgers for me and sesame-seed buns for Bo. I’ve known guys to feed bread to racing ponies—they call it soft-graining ’em. Bo dealt with all the changes of feed very well.
To do what I’ve been doing, you have to be point-blank honest, willing to work, innovative, flexible, and quick to learn. You need to keep your eyes open and your heart open. And you have to have a love of people, because that’s the modern way of living off the land: dealing with people.
For me, it was solid work, good people, and good times. The people on the ground, the ones who struggle to make it through the days, looking for a little peace and harmony at the end, they are everywhere. Slow talking, smells of hay and tractors, pies in the kitchen. I found them when I needed help and when they needed help; when they needed a hand with the planting or the plumbing. They helped me feed Bo: water, grain, hay, a place to stop and rest.
I remember Alice in Illinois, dressed all in black, grooming Bo with a light brush. She talked to him, and Bo talked back. Alice’s husband Bill hooked his thumbs in his belt and said he always wanted to do what I was doing.
Did you ever notice the power of nature—it's pretty hard to explain. How it brings folks together, like a doorway out of the rain?
People were awesome to us. People were unbelievable. We were offered lodging by strangers at least two of every three nights. The rest of the time we camped out. I worked at odd jobs, mending fences, painting houses, cleaning barns, doing plumbing, and chopping firewood. I never looked for charity, I looked for work. But when people started asking, “Are you the guy going cross country?” and then adding, “All I’ve got is five bucks, but I want you to have it.” Well, that’s when I realized they wanted to be part of what we were doing. Then I made sure I got their addresses so I could send them a postcard from the Golden Gate Bridge when we were finished.
It wasn’t in it for me to stick around, though. I thanked the lord for my horse and the freedom to be nowhere at all. I met a lot of wonderful people and saw some spectacular scenery.
Sometimes it was hot. I bet the sun is hot on the moon too. Cold on one side but hot on the other like sitting at a campfire. Beans and beef over coals with warm beer and a cigarette. Laying back on the ground, looking at the stars.
Bo did most of the steering on the back roads in the daytime while I navigated. There were a lot of long miles where I did the singing and Bo did the listening. He’s a good listener.
The places I went were too hard to follow, Don't look behind, think of tomorrow.
In Woodside, California, somebody called the Humane Society again, asking the Sheriff to investigate Bo for being ribby. A fellow named Keith helped me get him back and then arranged an escort for the final leg into San Francisco with more than a dozen riders, including mounted patrol units from San Francisco, the National Park Service, and the San Mateo County Sheriff’s department. It was really good to get our feet wet in the Pacific.
To sit for too long would be a waste, To move too soon might be in haste.
In Asheville, I worked over my songs and poems, and my feelings about things. I stayed at the Gray Rock Inn. When John wired the place for internet, I got a used computer. I looked up all the stuff written about me and my trip. Then I found a group called the ‘Long Riders’ Association’ who said they had been looking for me. I got excited then and decided to get Bo back. Asheville is a good town, but I’m going to ride again.
Got a wish, something you’d like to do? Don’t plan it for too long, just do it, I say. Take your dreams out of the closet and follow ’em. When I left, there was just me and Bo. Since then, we’ve carried the dreams of hundreds of people. But that’s OK: Dreams aren’t heavy.
A love we can hold with all of our heart, A love that I'm told was here from the start, That's what we should know, it's what should be right, It's what we've resolved, to live in the light.
This is a work of creative nonfiction, written from stories told by and news articles about Ray and his odyssey across the country:
The Long Riders’ Guild – The Almanac “Cross-country cowboy makes it to coast” by Susan Ditz, April 8, 1998
The Long Riders’ Guild – The Almanac “A Yankee Cowboy’s Dream” by Rebekah F. Witter
American Cowboy “A Year in the Saddle” by Susan Ditz, November/December 1999, page 39
SFGate “Modern Cowboy Blues/Seizure of horse in Woodside reins in cross-country journey” by Carolyne Zinko, March 31, 1998
Almanac News “Cross-country Cowboy” by Barbara Wood, April 1, 1998
Photo credit: Rebekah F. Witter