On Wednesday May 20, I saddled Smokey just outside of Grande Prairie near the Wapiti river. While a bird sang a most beautiful song, a movie played out in my head. I was about to embark on the final stretch of my cross-continental journey. Just over a month shy of celebrating the 8-year anniversary of my departure from the 2012 Calgary Stampede, I fought back the tears.
“I cant wait to live the life of a long rider for the final time,” I said to the camera as Clara filmed me. My voice crackling.
The faces of people who have been instrumental to our success popped into my head – and two of them stood nearby watching.
Rocky and Marie Aitken, the couple who lent us the 1990 Econoline motorhome we are using as a support vehicle and who have adopted us, were there to see us off.
“We brought you Tim Hortons and Hawkins Cheezies, a real Canadian treat,” Marie said handing us the delicious presents with a warm smile on her face.
I hugged them goodbye, mounted Smokey while ponying Mac, and we took the first step into the unknown. All of the stress and anxiety from the previous months faded away. I now felt like I could do this. With the reins in my hands, all of the problems and fears brought on by this pandemic seemed far, far away.
But like the beginning of all of my journeys, tragedy nearly struck right away.
Right out of Grande Prairie, Highway 40 is bustling with oil and gas traffic. As we tried to stay as far away from the road as possible, the horses found their way into a deep bog less than 3 kilometers from the starting point.
“Oh shit,” is all I managed to get out when I felt my stirrups hit the mud, followed by loud suction sounds coming from the horses legs.
I quickly jumped out of the saddle and began pulling Smokey’s reins and Mac’s lead rope while yelling, “c’mon boys, get out, get out.”
Both horses fought their way out of the bog and in a few seconds everything went silent and the chaos subdued. Only the heavy breathing from man and beasts could be heard. Deep black mud stuck to their legs and bellies. Even on top of my saddle there were big mud spots.
All three of us took a deep breath before we continued south. But this would not be our last run-in with the mud.
That night, after riding 25 kilometers we found refuge near a gas pipeline. There were tons of green grass for the horses to graze on and a great spot for us to sleep. It was a wonderful night, but the next morning we awoke to rain and very quickly realized the motorhome was not getting out. The road we parked on had turned into a muddy mess and when we went to back up the motorhome, she sank and she sank good.
As we tried to figure out what to do next, a white truck stopped at the beginning of the dirt road.
“Maybe he can help us,” Clara said before I ran over in the rain.
It turns out the universe had sent us an angel, and his name was Greg Wakefield.
“Oh I will get you guys out no problem,” Greg said before he moved his truck to the front of the motorhome.
Turns out Greg was a bull riding cowboy back in the day who now worked in road construction.
“I built the original highway 40 and now I’m back expanding it,” he told us.
In 15 minutes we hooked up the chain Greg carried around for this exact reason and with the rain still falling, finally pulled the motorhome free from the mud. All while practicing social distancing — not an easy job.
“Thank you so much sir, you saved our lives,” I said to him. “I wish I could hug you,” I said before we all laughed.
Seems like not even the Coronavirus can stop angels from helping us.