Thursday, December 10, 2009
By Rosalie Rayburn
Journal Staff Writer
Somewhere in southeastern New Mexico a 55-year-old woman, two horses and a dog are continuing a 7,000-mile journey that will take them across the heartland of the continent.
Bernice Ende and her animal companions began their odyssey eight months ago in the snows of northwestern Montana, spent Thanksgiving in New Mexico, now they're headed for Texas. From there they will trace a route east and north via the Appalachian and Andirondack mountains to Canada, then west to Montana, by mid-2011.
Once they return to base in Montana, there will be more open roads, more journeys, following the call of what Ende (pronounced N-dee) calls the “unattainable horizon.”
Since 2005, when she began her cross-country rides, Ende has covered about 11,000 miles on horseback; learning to live off the land, shoe her own horses and cope with the constant dangers of the road. Despite the perils and hardships, Ende has no plans to stop.
“I don't see myself ending this lifestyle any time soon,” Ende says. “I imagine it will be my body that will complain enough to make me stop. I feel there must be another five years left in me.”
Dressed in her signature jeans and broad-brimmed sun hat, Ende looks weathered but fit. Her skin is tanned, her blue eyes piercingly intense.
The trips began, Ende says, four years ago when she felt drawn to ride down from Montana to visit her sister in Edgewood, and knew it was time to change her life.
Trained as a classical ballet teacher, she spent 25 years living in the small community of Trego, Mont., growing her own food, cutting wood for heat and making a subsistence living teaching dance.
“It was just time to go,” Ende says, “I had no idea that I would ride this long.”
Each of her four horse treks has taken her to New Mexico, where she spends time with her older sister, Mary Ann Ende.
Mary Ann Ende says she was taken aback by Bernice's initial suggestion to make the trip on horseback.
“I think I was just amazed. I didn't know if it was really doable.”
Bernice Ende admits the first 2,000-mile trip was the toughest. With only one horse and no tent, she had to sleep on the sheepskins she used beneath her saddle, covered with blankets and a tarp. About 1,000 miles out, after passing through a storm in Wyoming's Red Desert, sore and exhausted, she hit what runners call “the wall.”
“I was sobbing,” Ende says. “I couldn't go any further. I was just tempting myself to give up.”
The next day, a rancher's daughter spotted the lone horsewoman and the dog and offered them shelter until they were fit enough to go on.
“After that, I realized I had fallen in love with this,” Ende says. “There was something here I wanted to learn, something I found was buried inside myself. “I'd been pulled by this undeniable pull to the horizon.”
As she talks, her voice becomes soft, mesmerizing, like a monologue in a play. Living outdoors, away from the conveniences of houses and motorized transportation, you become acutely aware of your surroundings, Ende says.
Preparing for her first journey, she pored over hundreds of maps. Gradually she learned how to navigate, using forest and county roads, railroad lines, power line easements, canal routes, anything to find the shortest route, to cross the rivers and minimize the danger from traffic.
“A semi whizzing by at 70 mph just sucks you along.”
Water is a constant challenge. Even with the pack horse she now has, she is able to carry only about 2.5 gallons at a time. She searches out stock tanks, stops at ranches and asks for water whenever she can. Crossing a desert, she has learned to follow a storm.
“After a storm you've got puddles, and puddles in the desert last days on the packed sand.”
The horses mostly graze along the way. Honor, Ende's mount, is a 12-year-old Thoroughbred. Her Norwegian Fjord pack horse, Essie Pearl, 7, carries equipment including a gun for personal protection, horse shoeing tools, Claire, her mixed-breed dog, and food.
Ende lives mostly on rice and beans. She typically carries molasses, salt, carrots, apples, cabbage which she shares with the animals and olive oil. The latter serves as a food additive and a lubricant for saddlery, hooves and skin.
Over the years, she has honed her travel skills. Alternately riding and walking beside her horse, she usually covers between 20 and 30 miles per day, stopping every five days or so for a rest day. Using this routine she can cover about 400 miles before pausing for a longer rest.
During the day, she soaks her rice and beans in a water bottle. When she stops she either uses a single-burner propane camp stove or makes a small fire, boils the food for about 10 minutes then wraps the container in her wool blanket to save fuel and let it cook while she makes camp. Her nightly chores include setting up her tent, grooming the horses, cleaning herself and the saddlery.
“Everything needs to be kept clean,” she says. “My appearance is very important. I'm in and out of churches and schools and I need to look presentable.”
Talks she gives to groups along the way help bring in enough to support her $30 to $40 per week budget. She is frequently invited into homes. She recalls spending several nights in a mobile home with a family west of Albuquerque, followed by invitation to stay at a high-end hunting lodge near Magdalena. Everywhere, she says, people are eager to hear her stories.
“The horse and rider is such a legendary romantic image. Thousands of people have said they would want to do this. I know how hard this is, but it's a dream. It's freedom.”
A thick, palm-size notebook is packed with addresses of people she has met along the way. At the end of every trip, she sends them cards to let them know she has made it safely back to base.
Ende's journeys have earned her widespread admiration, but those close to her still have concerns.
Mary Ann Ende says, “I recognize what an incredible accomplishment this is. But I still worry about her safety because of the hardships and dangers.”
Long, dusty trail