35th John Wayne Trail ride starts May 19
Thirty-five years ago next month, Andy Neault and the late Chic Hollenbeck mounted their horses in Easton and set off down a trail on the way to making history.
Hollenbeck had spearheaded the effort to convert the old Milwuaukee Road Railroad right-of-way, abandoned in 1980, to trail use.
Neault had supported the effort.
“There was a lot of political controversy over what to do with it even after the state bought it,” Neault says.
Six months after the deal was closed, he and Hollenbeck organized that first trail ride out of Easton.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Neault says now. “But there were people who signed up and rode with us. About 20. And we rode from Easton to Thorp in two days.”
It was a place riders could go without having to worry about motorized traffic.
And thus began the John Wayne Cross State Trail Ride, an annual excursion that now takes riders 250 miles from Easton to Tekoa, a small farming community on the Washington-Idaho border.
“By 1983 and 1984 we started getting numbers like 200 riders,” he says.
“The highest participation came in 1989 when we put on the ride from Tekoa to Olympia for the state’s centennial celebration. Probably a thousand people were involved.”
This year’s ride begins May 19 at Easton and ends June 4 at Tekoa.
“My wife and I and one of my boys are already signed up,” says Neault, a retired Boeing employee from Maple Valley who is now 78.
Hollenbeck has passed away.
But Neault is still in the saddle and preparing for the 35th ride, having participated in all or at least part of each ride for all but three years.
“Some people ride for a weekend and go home or come for a couple of days. We still count them as participants,” he says. “Last year I only rode three days because I got the flu. Some people ride the whole way.”
There’s a small, but highly prized, award at the end of the ride for those who go all the way — a white bandana,
“It’s just a piece of cloth but it’s amazing that every year there are always 25 or 35 people who win the award.”
And yes, Neault, whose mount is now a 16-year-old Tennessee Walker he calls Magic, has “several” of those white bandannas.
“In the early years I rode everyday,” says Neault, who also participates regularly in a competitive mounted orienteering group.
It’s not just horses and riders who make the journey, he says.
“There are people who have ridden every year in their buggies,” he says. “We’ve had wagons come from Alberta, British Columbia, Montana. We’ve had riders from Florida, California, Idaho, Oregon, Michigan.”
The ride, which takes participants over railroad trestles and through tunnels, forges memories — and friendships, Neault says.
“It’s a relaxing time,” he says. “I think at the end of something as arduous as this you’re stronger. You feel better. If you’re going to ride 15 to 20 miles a day you’re going to strengthen muscles and tighten ligaments.”
And then, there’s the route trail itself. Going east it descends from the mountains down into irrigated farmland, passes through range land and ranching communities and sagebrush-dotted lands and ends up in the wheat fields of Tekoa.
“If you look for it,” Neault says. “There’s magic everywhere.”
This year’s ride begins with registration and a welcome dinner on May 19 at the Double K Christian Retreat in Easton, one-half mile from the trail. The next day riders will travel 11 miles to the South Cle Elum Depot, 17 miles the following day to Thorp, then 12 miles on May 22 to Ellensburg where ride participants will parade through town at noon.
The route will take them from the John Wayne Trail to D Street, onto University Way and then to the fairgrounds where they will spend the night.
Dar and Mike Brady will host the Ellensburg stop which includes dinner at The Porch and Cowboy Church at 6:30 p.m.
Dar Brady, who has been a member of the John Wayne Pioneer Wagons and Riders Association since 2007, has been on the Ride Committee for nine years and is in her fifth year as president.
Besides horses and mules, “for several years we have had people on foot and on bicycles also,” says Brady whose own mount is an 18-year-old Tennessee Walker named Timer.
In the days that follow the Ellensburg stop, the ride will pass through Vantage, Warden, Lind, Ralston, Revere, Ewan, Malden and Rosalia before ending in Tekoa.
“The experiences on this ride are many. I can truly say this is the most amazing ride I have even been on. The different landscapes on that trail are amazing,” Brady says. “This ride and trail are unique to the nation. How fortunate that it all belongs to the state of Washington.”
What she loves best about the ride, she says, is spending 18 days with her horse without interruption: no TV, spotty cell service and nothing to do but ride the trail, enjoy the company of others, the social gatherings and the varied landscapes.
“It is truly cowgirl heaven for me,” she says.
Participation in the John Wayne Cross State Trail Ride is limited to 150 people. Each morning, participants move their vehicles from the previous night’s camp site to the next camp site, then are shuttled back to their horses to start the day’s ride.
For information, go to www.jwpwr.org.