On a warm April day in New Mexico, I was riding with new friends through wide-open plains that are so vast, they seem untouched by man. Suddenly, out of the cloudless blue sky, I was hit by a roaring blast of wind that clocked at least 60 miles an hour. It picked up my horse and me and turned us 90 degrees.
We'd been hit by a dust devil. The spinning mass of airborne dirt, like a small tornado, stunned us. It tore the bridle off another horse, and sent a rider's new Stetson sailing over the prairie. Time and again during our week-long adventure officially known as The Trail of Billy's Last Ride, we were reminded that the West is still wild, even 100 years after its infamous gunslingers and outlaws are long gone.
Each spring, Lincoln County businessmen Tim Haggeman and Rex Buchman hold the ride that commemorates the famous outlaw's escape from a jail in Lincoln, New Mexico.
Billy the Kid broke out of the Lincoln County Courthouse on April 28, 1881, gunning down two lawmen as he made his desperate escape. Less than three months later, he was shot dead by Sheriff Pat Garrett in Fort Sumner, now the site of the Kid's grave. The ride takes seven days to travel the 125 miles between Lincoln and Fort Sumner. This year, we rode the trail in reverse, from Fort Sumner to Lincoln.
William H. Bonney (alias Billy the Kid), and the turbulent times he lived in, fascinates those of us passionate about Western history. Riding where Bonney and his gang once did is an adventure that this history buff couldn't pass up.
It's a rare opportunity, because most of the ride crosses private ranch land that's normally closed to the public. Thanks to the generosity of 19 landowners, plus the Bureau of Land Management, United States Forest Service, and other agencies, the trail riders go where few people ever do.
A Ride is Born
Seven years ago, Rex Buchman was working as a New Mexico county extension agent in Fort Sumner, looking for a way to bring more tourism to the area. Local Billy-the-Kid buff and hotel owner Tim Haggeman wanted to stage a ride from the jailhouse to the town where he met his fate.
Even though Haggeman wasn't much of a rider, he and Buchman set off from Lincoln in April 2001, on the anniversary of the Kid's escape. "We got lost and we got thirsty and we got tired and we had to be rescued," recalls Buchman with a laugh. "It was really a great adventure!" So was born the Billy the Kid Trail Ride.
Today, the ride attracts people from all over the country, as well as Canada and Europe. The gigantic ranches supply guides so no one gets lost on the vast properties.
Expert camp cook Wally Roberts provides excellent fare throughout the journey - and a mobile shower truck, which is a welcome sight at the end of a long day on the dusty trail!
Because many of the participants live too far away to bring their own horses, Buchman partners with Burnt Well Guest Ranch owner Kim Chesser, who supplies excellent stock.
Opening the Gates
The big ranches in this part of New Mexico are rich in history. Caleb Elliott's 50-square-mile El Bigotes Ranch contains a wealth of artifacts from the mid-1800s. Today, the ruins of houses, corrals and fences, all built of stone, are a common and mesmerizing sight. Just looking at the rocks in those structures, each laid in place by hand, gives you a sense of how tough life on the frontier was.
Up until the 1970s, many of the land owners in this southeastern part of New Mexico were happy to open their gates to visitors. But many ranchers grew leery about letting anyone on their places after precious artifacts disappeared or were destroyed by visitors. It was quite a task for Buchman to convince property owners to open their gates for this trail ride.
However, with the cost of diesel fuel and other supplies skyrocketing, a growing number of ranches are opening their gates to guests willing to pay to ride horses, help move cattle, and enjoy the spectacular scenery.
"We found out a long time ago that if we share what we have with others, it comes back tenfold," says 57-year-old rancher Charlie Overton, who guided us across his El Yeso Ranch, where we spent the night in a very comfortable bunkhouse.
"I have an opportunity to explain to guests what our lifestyle is - we're not rapers of the land, but actually caretakers of it," continues Overton. "They're my best ambassadors. They go back into the world, and tell people what they have heard."
It's a treat to get to spend time with genuine cowboys like Overton. His grandfather founded the ranch in 1926. Once 180 square miles, the ranch is now down to a third of that size. But 60 square miles is still a mighty big back yard!
And like many of these ranches, Overton's place is brimming with history. El Yeso Ranch includes the site of the old Sanchez homestead, where the Kid was a frequent visitor.
"You're standing right where Billy stood," declares Overton.
We learned that the legend that claims the Kid killed 21 men by his 21st birthday is just that - a legend. He apparently committed four murders, two of which related to New Mexico's Lincoln County Wars.
Those violent days of New Mexico's history have inspired several books that show the Kid was one of many who had blood on their hands. That doesn't excuse the fact that Billy the Kid was a murderer and a thief, however. The ride doesn't glorify him or make him into a hero figure.
Back to the Present
The ride is also a celebration of the present. We're writing our own history as we ride 20 miles a day or more through this vast, spectacular, unspoiled country.
Albuquerque schoolteacher Beth MacQuigg is here for the second year in a row. She's enthralled by the scenery, the chance to spend time with her beloved horse, and the special quality of the ranch families who live in this country.
"It's got everything to do with heart," MacQuigg says. "And the horses that finish this ride, they're full of heart, too!"
Our group of 15 riders got along famously. They included a banker, a computer guru, three retired police officers, a former Air Force commander, and a 76-year-old attorney from Denver. This very active, fit, personable man was an inspiration. "You can't quit!" was how he summed up his philosophy. Right on!
We rode every day, but there was no shame in taking a day or two off. And several saddle-sore guests unused to days on horseback did just that. Even people who ride every day couldn't deny they ached the first day or two. But by Day 3, many of us felt as though we were born to do this.
"If I could do this every day, 365 days a year, that'd be almost enough," former Scottsdale Police Officer Marcy Miller said with a smile.
Each day when the sun went down, the night sky put on quite a show. Most of the ride went through areas that are blank spots on the New Mexico road map, and we often camped where there were absolutely no lights in sight. Outside of those blinking satellites moving through the stars, it seemed as if we had the planet all to ourselves.
On the trail, we saw antelope, jack rabbits, and even a big bobcat.
Our last night on the trail was spent at the Padilla house on the G-Bar-F Ranch. Built in the 1870s, it was Billy the Kid's first stop after escaping from Lincoln. His friends who lived here helped cut off his handcuffs and leg irons, which were recently discovered on the property
The next day, we rode into Lincoln, one of the best-preserved Old West towns in the country. Lincoln looks much as it did the day Billy the Kid made his bloody break for freedom. You can still see the bullet holes in the courthouse wall and stand where history happened.
We paused for a picture in front of the famous courthouse before parading our horses down the quiet highway that serves as the historic town's main street.
There's no way to experience New Mexico's past and present quite like participating in The Trail of Billy's Last Ride. And if you're lucky, you'll be one of the 25 guests who get to do just that when the adventure resumes this year; the ride will take place May 9-17, 2009.