Exhausted, dealing with a lame pack-mule, at odds with trail planners and more than a little grumpy, the horseback rider called it quits for the winter just south of town, after making it nearly a thousand miles from the trail’s western terminus in California.
So what’s different this year, as Parker resumes his trek, with the Rocky Mountains dead ahead? In an interview before he loaded up last Monday, he said it’s all about expectations.
“At the beginning, I was very naive, but I had a lot of ambition. I started with this huge surplus of confidence. I would slow down and get into a rut, then refuel and spike up, so by the time I got to Moab, I was tired and spent.” He smiled as he said, “Now I’m starting with absolutely no confidence, and hoping to build slowly and go up.”
Ken and Louise Seiler of Spanish Valley hosted Parker and his animals for four days last week as the expedition team prepared to leave, and saw the respect he had for the challenge ahead. The American Discovery Trail runs from Point Reyes, California, to the coast of Delaware, and the southern route Parker’s taking is 4,880 miles long, with plenty of obstacles.
Ken Seiler, president of Southeastern Utah Backcountry Horsemen, had heard of the Michigan youth’s odyssey last year, and “wanted to meet the person who had the moxie to do this.” Parker is the first to say he’s not an experienced horseman, but Seiler saw him get through a few hiccups with his horse and mule on departure day: “He stays calm, he’s really good with the animals and he’s got a lot of fire and youth.”
Parker’s also got a few more notches cut into his already short belt, having lost weight on last year’s trek, then dropping another 30 pounds working with his horses and mule this spring.
The extra training time was mainly because he’s had to switch animals. Smokey, the smooth-gaited Racking Horse he started with, wasn’t faring well on the rough trail and couldn’t keep weight on. “I sold Smokey to a nice lady. He was raised by women and he enjoyed being around them more than a daily flogging with me. Every day he would look at me with these melancholy eyes, like, ‘why’d you drag me out of Tennessee?’ ”
Parker’s now riding another gaited horse, a Missouri Fox Trotter called Little Face, who’s more used to this part of the country. He first tried an Arabian stallion at the Antimony, Utah ranch where he prepared for this year’s attempt, but after two disagreements that left Parker with road rash up both arms and a horseshoe embossed on his chest, he decided to leave the breed to its fans.
Parker still has Danny Boy, the pack mule he borrowed late last summer, to carry the roughly 150 pounds of food, clothing, gear, water and communications equipment he and his animals need. Water is the key, and has been the biggest problem.
The ADT is the only cross-country non-motorized trail in the U.S., and links historic routes like the Pony Express and Great Western Trail. Organizers call the route “a new breed of national trail — part city, part small town, part forest, part mountains, part desert — all in one.”
Designed primarily for hikers and usually traveled by short segment, the trail passes through the center of several cities, can get pretty vertical, and often runs 50 miles or more without any source of water. Parker says it’s possible to carry enough water for one or two people, but not for one or two horses.
“On a bad day, a horse will go through 15 gallons of water a day. That weighs more than I do, so you just can’t pack enough water.” Last summer, Parker’s father set up water and feed drops for him through the most barren areas, calling Matt with GPS coordinates to locate each cache, but this time around – at least for now – he’s on his own.
Traveling solo, he said his number one possession is his flashlight, and his number two possession is his pair of weapons, a rifle and a Colt Peacemaker. He’s already had one run-in with a mountain lion stalking his horse at a camp in the Sierra Mountains, and one of the first questions he asks locals is what the “wildlife” situation is ahead: “I really don’t ever need to run into another mountain lion.”
Starting near Moab, where last year’s scout was so disheartening, was tough. The problem was that the ADT map would have taken Parker up bone-dry Lockhart Basin, then Kane Creek right into Moab. From there, it was up Sand Flats Road and then the Kokopelli Trail or SR 128, the River Road, to Fruita, Colo. The Kokopelli Trail didn’t have enough water, and the paved, busy river road was too dangerous for a rider and pack-animal.
After scouting the area and getting some guidance from the Seilers and Grand County Sheriff Jim Nyland, Parker opted to skip town altogether, riding from his starting point near Lisbon Valley through the La Sal Mountains to Gateway, Colo., and on from there.
Ken Seiler was on the Gateway scout, and saw a couple of stretches of the high-speed, shoulderless highway stitched through the official trail. He and Louise agreed one of the hardest things about such a journey was the way land has been carved up and blocked off as people have populated the country.
“You just can’t get from Point A to Point B anymore,” lamented Louise Seiler. “That’s the fight now, fences and freeways.” One of the benefits of this trip will be a new map, including GPS points, that will make the trail safer and more enjoyable for horseback riders – and most likely for anyone using it.
Parker’s trail-blazing route means bending the official rules a bit, but with nearly 4,900 miles total to ride and several impassable stretches already, he’s okay with that. “The trail organization has about killed me a half dozen times,” he said wryly. “If you want serious adventure at perhaps the cost of your mortal soul, I’d say go for the American Discovery Trail. If you want a semi-comfortable trail with water, this is not it.”
Still, he’s going to stick it out, mainly for the challenge: “I wanted to test myself. I like the idea of being the first to do this on a horse, partly because it’s so treacherous.”
Ken Seiler saw first-hand another reason for continuing: “A lot of this is about people helping people. When I was with him, he’d go into a general store and say, ‘I’m Matt Parker and I’m riding across the country,’ and people’s jaws would just drop. They wanted to help him do this thing.”
For information on the American Discovery Trail and Parker’s progress towards the Atlantic, visit www.discoverytrail.org.