The Long Riders' Guild

My Pal Apache


Mike Winter


I had ridden out of Churchville, Virginia in early May of 2002, headed for Oregon and the Pacific ocean. A few days, and more than a few miles, now lay behind me and my mustang, Apache.

But now it was Saturday and I woke up to the aroma of what was a familiar smell since the beginning of my ride – truck-stop coffee! As the memory of where I was became clear, I was suddenly more eager to get up.  The truck-stop across the field held the anticipation of the steaming hot addiction that I was missing.

I had slept well last night. My saddle had become my pillow and was a surprising comfort. But as soon as I unzipped my dew-covered sleeping bag, the very first thing I did was put baby powder on my feet. I was hoping to help the blisters I had gotten yesterday by walking part of the way next to Apache.

With my feet dusted and my boots on, I hung up the sleeping bag on a tree branch so it could dry. Then I limped over to where the tough little mustang gelding was standing.

I greeted him with his usual “Good Morning” rub on the neck. Apache barely noticed. The five year old mustang was restless because he had eaten all the grass in the limited grazing area left to him last night. Well luckily I had thought of that the night before. I led him over to an untouched area I had picked out for his breakfast when we rode up yesterday, then tied him up, double-checking to make sure there would be no way he could get away. With Apache’s nose in his morning grass, my own nose reminded me of that hot coffee.

It was only a short walk across the field to the truck-stop but my walk was unsteady from my sore and blistered feet. No matter, I felt better than most mornings. Guess I still felt fresh from the truck-stop shower I’d taken the night before. Clean or not, I wanted breakfast and the bigger the better. It didn’t take me a minute to reach the restaurant. Yet when I did I was aware of the odd feeling that hung over me. I had been driving trucks across the USA for 28 years, probably had three million miles under my belt, had most likely been in 25,000 truck stops just like this one since I started driving the big freeway rigs when I was only 18 years old. But this was the first time I had been in a truck-stop with a horse, not a truck, under me! Just before I opened the restaurant door I glanced back at Apache, then walked in like I had done so many times before.

I sat down in a booth, but that cup of welcome coffee got delayed one more time when a morning-shift waitress walked up and said, “Are you the guy with the horse”?

I chuckled to myself.

“That’s me,” I answered with a laugh, amazed at the talk and attention my little journey was already attracting. Introductions over, I ordered a big stack of pancakes, said throw in a ham and cheese omelet to be sure, and cautioned her not to forget some rye toast.

“And how about coffee”? she asked.

“You bet”, I said.

Winter-Apache.jpg (17604 bytes)

I had ridden out of Churchville, Virginia in early May of 2002, headed for Oregon and the Pacific ocean. A few days, and more than a few miles, now lay behind me and my mustang, Apache.

(Click on photo to enlarge)

When she put the hot food before me, I started to eat that breakfast like I had never tasted food before. Living in the saddle does that to a man, makes him hungry for real food and real life. I had barely polished the plate with the last of the rye toast, when the cook and his dishwasher came out to see this guy  with the horse that the waitress kept talking about. Both guys began asking the questions I was getting used to hearing.

“Where are you going”?

“Portland, Oregon”.

“How far away is that”?

“About 3,500 miles”.

“How long will it take you to get there”?

“About four months, if I hurry up and finish this cup of coffee”.

“Why are you doing it”?

“When I was twelve years old, I got the crazy idea of riding from our home in Colorado, all the way to South Dakota. Never followed up on that dream, until now. Then I decided to do it right and ride from coast to coast”.

Their interest, and that big breakfast, had started to ease me into a good mood. I could tell because my smart-assed sense of humour came back when the dishwasher finally said, “You know, it’s supposed to rain today.  What do you do when it rains”?

“Get wet,” was my reply. 

I had finished up the coffee, paid my bill, and turned to go, when the waitress shyly asked, “Are we going to get to see the horse“?

“Sure. I’ll be right back”  I told her and her two friends, then limped back towards Apache and the start of another day. Saddling up took only a few minutes when you travel as light as I do. With the reins in my hand and the horse behind me, Apache and I made our way out of the field towards the truck stop. Even though there were a line of long eighteen wheelers parked at the fuel island, we sauntered right towards them. But we needed water, not diesel. I wanted to fill up Apache’s pickle jar water bucket before leaving.

“We don’t want to run out of water,” I told my mustang buddy.

Boy, considering what we were about to live through, water was the last thing me and Apache needed that day.

No matter, I had a blast pulling Apache up to the 10-bay fuel island where a line of big trucks were guzzling diesel fuel. But we made our way to the water spigot at the end, ignoring the fuel pumps. With Apache patiently looking on, I began to fill his water jug. An owner-operator with a nice Peterbilt truck was filling up his chrome wheeled baby next to us. I took one look at the difference in our mounts and then couldn’t resist.

“Bet my bill will be cheaper than yours!” I said with a grin.

“Yeah, looks like a lot more fun too!” he added.

We talked a few minutes about trucks and the life of a cross-country driver, then Apache and I made our way back towards the restaurant and the patiently waiting waitress.

The restaurant workers patted Apache, then wished us luck. So the least I could do was to make a fine job of getting on in front of them. I had to smile to myself when I swung into the saddle and made it look like it was no big deal. Apache wasn’t impressed when I landed. The look in his eye clearly said “Still need to work on the ol’ Roy Rogers mount, cowboy.”

My spirit became renewed on that blue-sky Saturday morning as we made our way towards Bluefields, Virginia. Yet it didn’t take long before the busy highway we were forced to ride beside became interesting. Cars and trucks began honking and waving at the crazy horse and rider. Luckily, Apache acted like he was used to all the attention and didn’t even flinch at the noise and commotion.

We had been on the road a while, when off in the distance I saw dark clouds and lightning heading our way.

“Oh, great”, I groaned.

Looked like the dishwasher could be right about that rain. I no sooner had the thought than my blue-sky Saturday disappeared as quick as hot coffee in a cold cowboy. Clouds started rolling towards me and the mustang faster and faster. Being a smart Long Rider I reached around and grabbed my trusty duster from behind the saddle. Better put it on before I got wet, which is how it had usually worked out in the past. Apache kept walking towards the dark storm, while I slipped my arms into the long coat.

“Ah, lots better.”

I had no sooner got the coat on and felt comfortable in the saddle, when the soft patter of rain started coming down. The first big clap of thunder rolling across that black sky made me remember a game of we used to play as children. As soon as the thunder struck, we would say, “One, Mississippi. Two, Mississippi,” and keep counting until we saw a bolt of lightning light up the sky. The longer the count, the farther away the lightning was. It was a kid’s way of measuring the unknowable.

The rain kept falling. The thunder kept rolling. The lightning kept flashing and I kept counting. “One, Mississippi. Two, Mississippi. Three, Mississippi.”

Meanwhile, patient Apache kept walking.

Thirty minutes of hard rain came down, then it slowed to a drizzle.  I could even see a patch of blue sky up ahead.

“There”, I told Apache,” that wasn’t so bad, now was it”?

But even if I tried to sound confident to my skeptical horse, I wasn’t sure in my heart if the storm was really over yet. 

A few minutes later we came up on some road construction. Here we discovered that two lanes going west-bound, and two lanes headed east, had been forced into a single two-lane knot of a road. This bottleneck was where the cars and trucks were forced to slow down and then go through. Yet off to one side, some of the old road still existed. The dirt had been rolled smooth and looked like it was ready to be paved.

I wondered for a quick second how Apache and I should thread our way through this mess? If we followed the single lane road straight ahead we would risk being hit by a car. But if we rode on the other side we would leave hoofprints in the newly completed lane. The construction workers might be a little upset with me if we did that. But there were no road workers anywhere in sight, just lots of wet construction equipment parked here and there. In the end, Apache and I decided to simply carry on in the lane that had been torn up during construction, even though it was muddy and looked like tricky going.

The minute we started across, Apache’s hooves left a trail a blind man could see.

“Oh well, nothing a few minutes work with the steamroller can’t fix,” I told my horse.

Besides, I was keeping my eyes on the road, watching where Apache put his feet, when a strike of lightning snapped across the sky just south of me. This time the flash of light was so large it looked like some kid in science class had got carried away with his experiment. But I didn’t have a chance to comment because suddenly the sky was lit up again and again. Branches of lightning began flicking across the sky. Only this time the flashes of light stretching across the black sky were as big as skyscrapers and just as wide.

Then just as suddenly the lightning stopped and the rain came down again, only this time it was pouring. Not the kind that hurt when it hit your face, thank goodness, because there was no wind helping it. Still, the rain came down on me and Apache in buckets. In a few minutes I could feel the water sliding down my back, finding its way inside my duster. The coat tried to protect me but the storm still managed to get me wet.

That was a John Wayne kind of rain storm – the type you see in a movie that only the Duke can put up with. So what could I do but follow his example. I pulled down on my cowboy hat, buttoned up the top button of the duster, hunched my shoulders and hung on, ‘cause it was raining like a bitch.

At one point Apache glanced back at me. The miserable look on his wet face clearly asked, “Are you sure we’re having fun?” It was obvious he wasn’t and a lean-to would have fit just fine into his plans. For some reason I thought about motorcycles and remembered how their riders would sometimes take shelter under a highway overpass until the storm passes. However, overpasses come up quicker on a 60 mile per hour motorcycle, than they do on a slow, wet four miles per hour horse. Me and Apache were making progress. You just couldn’t call it fast. Besides, there were no overpasses anywhere in sight.

Well at least the lightning has subsided some, I told myself. The rain was still ruthless though. When I moved my toes, I could tell that both my boots were full of water. Then the rain backed off, turning into a light drizzle again and giving us some relief. But if things were getting dryer, they weren’t getting any safer. Suddenly the lightning came back, only this time it was striking more often, sometimes “Two Mississippis” away, sometimes only one.

I tried to sound unconcerned when I spoke to Apache. “Hell, we made it through the worst part. Quit looking at me like that!”

The mustang didn’t appear to be convinced but he at least he kept walking.

"We had been on the road a while, when off in the distance I saw dark clouds and lightning heading our way.

“Oh, great”, I groaned.

"Looked like the dishwasher could be right about that rain." 

(Click on photo to enlarge it)

Winter-LongRoad.jpg (12964 bytes)

All during the storm we had been pushing on, so now the construction was well behind us. Even the occasional passing traffic seemed to take pity on the crazy man and his half-drowned horse who they were sighting unexpectedly on that wet road. No one was honking now. In fact, once in a while some of them actually slowed down and drove by us carefully, as though they were trying to help us in some way. Most of the cars and trucks flew by like rain soaked memories, covering us with spray and leaving us half-drowned.

Me and the muddy mustang kept trudging on. A long guard rail now ran alongside us, trapping us between the speeding cars and its metal length. It was a real bad situation. Vehicles were so close I could have reached out and touched their mirrors. But I didn’t. I was wondering where we were going to find a dry spot to spend the night.

Then all of a sudden I felt as though someone had hit me with a sledgehammer harder than humanly possible. My jaw clenched. My shoulders flew backward. My head snapped forward and my fingers closed into a fist on the reins. Then I lost all body control whatsoever. I started to shake all over. I know now that it couldn’t have lasted more than a second, but the pain felt like it went on forever. Thinking back at it, I can’t remember many sensations from being hit by the lightning. I didn’t smell any burning hair, or see any bright light, or taste any bitterness. In fact the overpowering effect was that I suddenly went totally blank. One second I was riding my horse, the next instant I was zapped. I had no idea what had happened, and it seemed like an eternity before I could regain control over my body. But it was one of those hurts that was so painful that I couldn’t measure it because it was off the scale.

Meanwhile, Apache had his own problems.

The lightning had hit the metal guard rail we were next to, running its length, then jumped in our direction. That’s when it found Apache walking on the wet ground in his metal shoes. Because both of us were already soaking wet, Apache and I were perfect conductors.

The only thing that saved our lives was that the lightning bolt had not struck us directly.

Then awareness of our surroundings hit Apache and me at the same instant. Suddenly I was sitting on top of 1,200 pounds of horse that was totally freaked out. Poor Apache had no idea what to do. Run? Buck? Jump? The tough little mustang did a little of it all, with cars and trucks flying by just inches away from me and my frightened horse.

“Whoa Apache!  Whoa Boy!  We’re all right,” was what I kept yelling, even though I was not quite sure about the “all right” part.

I didn’t know what to do, so I did what came natural, started pulling the reins back with my left hand, while reaching down with my right hand to touch Apache’s neck and offer some reassurance. All the while cars and trucks kept flying by, almost brushing us with death.

We had been through a lot, that horse and I.  Up to this point Apache had always trusted me. But during the trip we had built an incredible bond. Because of that bond, Apache began to calm down.

As soon as I got him to a walk, I started laughing and laughing, sort of funny at first, but then uncontrollable.

“We’ve just been hit by lightning,” I shouted, to my still-rattled horse.

Then I started crying.

A range of emotions came over me when I tasted the salty tears that were streaming down my face. Only then did an incredible thought seize me.

Even though I had almost died, I had never felt so alive!

And I had shared this incredible experience with my horse, my friend.

In that moment Apache and I were one, and neither of us were alone.

I refused to wipe those tears from my face.

“If I’m going to have tears, I am going to be man enough to feel them”, I said to myself.

Besides they came with a lesson.

There is a special trust between man and horse that is an admirable bond. When that lightning struck us, I knew in an instant what Apache was thinking and feeling. Though he didn’t understand what had happened, some instinct told him that the pain he was feeling hadn’t come from me.

I know this understanding is what saved both of our lives. Even though he was terrified, this silent bond that went deeper than words had kept Apache from throwing away both our lives under the wheels of one of the on-coming cars only two feet away.

But that’s what I had come to expect, from my pal Apache.  

Editor’s note – Mike and Apache pressed on but soon afterwards the gallant little mustang got his leg tangled in a picket rope and came up lame. Not wanting to quit, Mike bought another horse, a one-eyed outlaw named Pride who had left a trail of injured owners in his wake. Mike and his new horse made their way into the heart of Appalachia, where they survived numerous adventures, all the while witnessing a rural way of life that had supposedly disappeared one hundred years ago. But those adventures, and the tale of how Mike transformed his new mount from renegade into close companion, are another story. Yet we finish off with this bit of news. Mike contacted The Long Riders’ Guild by phone as we were finishing this issue of The Guild website. He called to say, “I will be in the saddle again soon, but this time I’ll be traveling with both Apache and Pride together. We all miss the adventure of a Long Ride – lightning or no lightning”!

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