The Outlaw Trail Ride

Each year the residents of Thermopolis Wyoming host the Outlaw Trail Ride that traces the steps of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid through Wyoming. It is a historical adventure for the trail riders.

Burning daylight!” a booming voice rang across the flats. We peered sleepily at our luminescent watch hands. It was 5:30 a.m. We had two hours to dress, pack our gear and tent, care for our horses, eat breakfast, tack up, and be ready to ride. We were on the Outlaw Trail Ride near Thermopolis, Wyoming, and definitely feeling like we were “on the run.”

The Outlaw Trail Ride is a seven-day, point-to-point, 110-mile adventure that follows portions of the Outlaw Trail, an old stagecoach road, and an ancient Sioux trail. Volunteers transport gear from camp to camp, while riders travel by trail, road, and cross-country to see great sights of the Old West. Best yet, this is a nonprofit ride. The price is right!

Trail boss Vince Hayes was instrumental in organizing the first Outlaw Trail Ride 16 years ago. He was the first chairman of the Outlaw Trail Committee and is still a dedicated chairman today. He says he enjoys “having people share history and giving them a good time.” People from all over the world – including Australia, Canada, Germany, and England – as well as from across the United States, have come to ride this historic trail.

Local Color

We gathered at the fairgrounds in Thermopolis, Wyoming, before being bussed to the trailhead. If you have time, take a couple extra days before the ride to enjoy Thermopolis attractions. It has world-famous hot mineral pools, water slides, and a free public hot-springs bathhouse.

At the public bathhouse, you may soak in immaculately clean pools or have your own personal bathtub. My sweet little mother-in-law, Betty Shadduck, and I decided to go the tub route. Lounging in warm mineral water up to my neck with an exciting book was a great way to prepare for long days in the saddle.

History buffs, you’re in for a treat! The Hot Springs Museum is a treasure trove of artifacts and historical information. (Proceeds from the ride help support this museum.) If you go, be sure to read about Chief Washakie and his life-and-death battle. Fascinating! The museum also displays the original back bar from the Hole In The Wall Saloon, where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid would bend an elbow.

Other town attractions include a wax museum that showcases local history with lifelike figures in realistic displays, and a Dinosaur Center.

The Pageant Days celebration is held before the start of the Outlaw Trail Ride. It commemorates a treaty in which the Indians gave the hot-spring area to the state of Wyoming so the springs would be free to all people for all time; the result was the public bathhouse.

This celebration includes Indian dancing and a parade. Outlaw Trail Riders are invited to ride in the parade – a fun, exciting way to begin seven days of riding and six nights of camping. The entire town is involved, and it’s a great send off for riders leaving on a journey into history.

‘Bucking Flats’

The first day of the Outlaw Trail Ride began very early. We were bussed and our horses were trailered to the trailhead, approximately three hours away. As we drove along, we watched the scenery fly by. It’s difficult to find words that describe this country. The words open, wide, vast, majestic, and lonely come to mind. I enjoyed the others’ reactions to the passing countryside. For many folks it was a “brave new world”; at times, a world where even cell phones didn’t work.

After arriving at our trailhead, we enjoyed a catered lunch of hamburgers, saddled up, and headed toward our first camp near Hole In The Wall. We were warned that the first part of the ride was called Bucking Flats. Unfortunately, this area lived up to its name: One poor gal was bucked off three times!

Whenever a large group of horses first head out, some get very excited and become “knotheads.” To our dismay, Buddy and Scout were in the knothead group. They didn’t buck us off, but were antsy and at times quite a handful. As the ride progressed, we all became more relaxed.

And then there was our good friend, Natalie Riehl and her beloved 18-year-old mule, Petunia. Natalie is the founder and editor of Rocky Mountain Rider Magazine, an excellent publication distributed in 11 states. (For information, call 406/363-1056)

Natalie and the two of us decided to go on this ride together. In early summer, Natalie began conditioning Petunia. Petunia seemed a little tired, and at her age seemed to have lost her edge. No problem! Natalie began giving her Ultium, a high-performance feed supplement from Purina. Petunia became Power Petunia, zooming smoothly all over the vast Wyoming landscape! After a few days, Natalie gave away Petunia’s Ultium stash.

We were told the temperatures on this ride could be very warm, often in the 90s. In fact, before we left Thermopolis, the temperature was 103 degrees. We’d told Natalie to expect hot weather; wisely, she came prepared for all weather scenarios, which would come in handy for all of us later in the trip.

Hole In The Wall

The first night, we camped near the fabled Hole In The Wall, the actual hideout of Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and the Hole In The Wall Gang. Clay Gibbons, a local historian, spoke to us about the area’s history while we were gathered around the campfire. He spoke eloquently about people who’d lived there in the late 1800s. Those who’d fought, loved, dreamed, and were worn down by constant physical labor.

Using a metal detector, Clay located the actual site of the Hole In The Wall gun battle that took place in 1897. He was able to find metal shell casings and other artifacts from the battle. Because of Clay’s efforts, a monument was established commemorating the battle site.

Our camp was located below the actual “hole” in the wall, which is really a notch in a long, red reef that extends some 35 miles. One man in the hole with lots of ammunition could hold off an entire army. It also offered good forage for stolen cattle and horses. That’s what made this area so enticing for many outlaws.

The few ranchers who lived in this area quickly learned to coexist peacefully with the outlaws. The ranchers left the outlaws alone, unless the outlaws needed help. The outlaws would leave money on a rancher’s table when they needed to “borrow” a horse or take some food.

At dawn on the second day, the sun came up over the Hole In The Wall and filled our valley with the bright promise of great riding. The second and third days, we rode a total of 40 miles. We rode past large canyons, teepee rings, and rock piles that marked portions of a 1,500-year-old Sioux trail. Everyone was in a great mood for adventure.

Tough Crowd

The people who happily do this ride are amazing! It’s a tough ride. The days are long, generally beginning at 5:30 a.m. Spare time is in short supply. When you aren’t riding, you’re usually packing, unpacking, or caring for your horse.

One incredible rider was Dale McMurren, an 83-year-old World War II veteran who came with his daughter. This man was unfailingly upbeat and had a dry sense of humor even when it began raining.

The oldest and toughest rider was probably Nate Brown, 84 years old and a living legend. He’d ride from sunup to sundown, wrangle the 20 horses that people had leased from him, eat dinner, then sing and recite poetry around the fire. And, unless it was raining, he’d throw his sleeping bag on the ground and sleep under the stars.

One little gal had come out by herself. Linda Trapp, who’s in her mid-50s, is an office worker, widowed, and four-feet-ten-inches tall. She’d leased a horse that turned out to be 16 hands high. Caring for her horse, her gear, and doing the ride took every ounce of energy she had. Still, she was unfailingly cheerful and pleasant.

The trail we followed went through ranches, crossed the spectacular slopes of the Big Horn Mountains, and reached 9,000 feet in elevation.

The third evening, Mother Nature became cantankerous. Blinding streaks of lightning zigzagged the night sky. Thunder rolled; rain pounded down. In the morning, riders were soggy, but their spirits weren’t dampened. I asked Ryan, a 16-year-old caterer, how he fared during the torrential downpour. He grinned and said, “Oh, I did a lot of swimming.”

The fourth day found us riding 18 miles to the Bloomquist ranch where we’d camp for the next two days, providing us with a restful layover day. The varied terrain ranged from miles of flatland pockmarked with badger holes to huge hills and lush valleys.

Unknown to us, on the first night at our new camp, a tornado destroyed 40 to 50 trailer homes not far from our location. We received the storm’s tail end, and learned that having a big, roomy tent is a negative factor in a windstorm. Kent and I stood in opposite corners of the tent, bracing it so it wouldn’t collapse. Strong winds drove the rain through our rain fly. Every time Kent said, “It can’t get much worse than this,” the wind and rain increased!

The next morning, the sun appeared and so did piles of soggy clothing. Belongings were spread on bushes, fences, and piles of grass.

On our layover day, we had time to mingle and enjoy one another. If we’d had a congeniality award, it’d go to the life-of-the-party group, the Canadians! The five of them set up a “Canadian Consulate”- a tent and lean-to with the Canadian flag flying above. These guys were fun-loving, high-energy, generous people. And they were tough. They’d be last to leave the campfire at night, the first ones up in the morning, and they’d gallop their horses up and down hills and ridges for sheer pleasure.

Kathy McCoy, owner of the 9,000-acre ranch where we camped, aided and abetted us in pulling a joke on the Canadian Consulate. She donated a pair of black-lace panties, which we tied to a wire pole and presented to the Canadians. Delighted, they flew the panties above their lean-to. As a reward for our prank, we were knighted with tent poles, given little Canadian hat pins, and declared honorary Canadians.

True History

On our day off, descendents from the Hole In The Wall Gang and early day ranchers shared oral history that had been passed down from their families.

Butch Cassidy’s great-nephew, Bill Betenson, talked about his famous great-uncle. I tend to think of the character played by Paul Newman in Hollywood’s lighthearted movie. But Bill told us his family experienced feelings of shame, embarrassment, and sadness. “Butch’s mother, a deeply religious woman, cried many tears over the fact that her son was an outlaw,” Bill said. To avoid public shame, the family shunned public celebrations.

Trail boss Vince Hayes and Colin Taylor spoke about Kid Curry, a noted outlaw and a cold-blooded killer. Kid Curry, whose real name was Harvey Logan, had dinner with Vince’s grandparents. On one occasion, Logan noted a money jar that was in plain view on a shelf. He told Vince’s aunt (who was a little girl at the time) that she should put that jar out of sight. According to Vince’s grandmother, Logan had manners of a gentleman, but had cold, ruthless eyes that made hairs on the back of her neck stand up.

One of our very own Outlaw Trail Riders was Jim James, third cousin to Jesse James. Jim’s great-uncle was in his 90s when Jim was a little kid. The great-uncle shared memories of Jesse and Frank James with Jim. The great-uncle didn’t believe Bob Ford killed Jesse James, as most people think; rather, Bob Ford killed someone else who he claimed was Jesse James to collect the reward and gain notoriety. The great-uncle also remembered the James brothers riding to his parents’ cabin for visits. They always had new, fast horses and didn’t stay long.

Our restful day wound down with a display of trick roping by a local rancher, Rob Felt. He made it look so easy. Kent, who’s tried to learn trick roping, can surely tell you differently!

A special event was the branding done by Tim Beckstrand and his friend, Roger. Tim and Roger worked by the campfire branding “OTR” (for Outlaw Trail Ride) on the riders’ saddles, chaps, boots, gloves, hats, etc. I got my hat and gloves branded, and Kent, his spurs.

Bright and early on the sixth morning, we were on our way again. During the course of this 21-mile day, we rode past many stone teepee rings. The rings are hard to find at first; all you’ll see are rocks and stones. But once you know what to look for, you can easily identify them. The Indians built larger rings after they acquired horses, because the horses could carry and drag more weight. Pre-horse rings are much smaller.

We approached our last night of camping with enthusiasm. Little did we realize that Mother Nature was going to sock it to us! The temperature plummeted, and the wind increased. Our tent was a freezing wind tunnel. An icy wind flapped our rain fly up and down like wings of a prehistoric pterodactyl. Our sleeping bags were “freezer bags.” Natalie generously loaned us a down vest and a pullover jacket. We also put our wool horse blankets inside our sleeping bags. It was a miserable night, but it could’ve been worse.

A Fond Farewell

The next morning dawned cold and cloudy. The thought that this was our last morning to pack up was a mixture of happiness tinged with sadness. This weeklong trip was like being in a different world, where people see different sides of themselves. People gain valuable insights when they’re put in different environments and faced with new challenges.

On the last day of riding, we passed by ruins of a stagecoach station, followed a series of red cliffs, and rode back into Thermopolis. That night, we had a banquet and dance as our farewell send-off. It was fun seeing our trail riding buddies all cleaned up.

Ride leader and Minnesotan Tim Beckstrand called our Canadian friends to the front of the room, asked them to kneel, knighted them “honorary Wyomians,” and pinned them with Wyoming hat pins. I asked Tim where he got the idea for “Burning daylight!” He said John Wayne used that phrase in the movie, Cowboys.

And so our Outlaw Trail Ride was over.

If you’re looking for a great experience, one that will take you into the land of Butch Cassidy and The Wild Bunch, test your mettle, and give you an opportunity to meet dedicated, fun-loving people, consider following the trail of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on a seven-day ride through history.

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