James Brown set out from New Mexico in April bound for Canada. Instead of enjoying the sights by plane, train or automobile, Brown traveled every mile on horseback.
Brown, a former Blountville resident now living in South Carolina, joined a group of riders who took the organized, 2,228-mile ride with the Best of America by Horseback Trail Club, headquartered in Virginia and owned by Tom Seay. The adventure was captured on video for an upcoming series on the “Best of America by Horseback” television show broadcast on RFD-TV.
Traveling with — and carrying — Brown was his American Paint Horse, Rocker.
Brown grew up in Blountville on a 93-acre farm. After a stint in the U.S. Army, he earned a bachelor of science degree in business from East Tennessee State University. He and wife Lorraine moved to Greenville, S.C., in 1970. Their daughter Michelle King and her family live on the farm now.
Brown learned about Best of America by Horseback through The Trail Rider magazine. He became a member of the club, then went through an application process to be selected for the ride. One requirement was that he had to have his own horse and trailer.
“They did screen the applicants looking for those with experience who could make the trip safely,” he said. “Originally, 26 riders signed up to go the entire distance. An additional 57 joined along the way for brief portions.”
Constant communication between Brown and the trip organizers helped to prepare both him and Rocker for the trip. Brown said Rocker — along with a second horse — had been checked by a veterinarian who decided Rocker was the stronger of the two and could go the distance.
Brown trailered Rocker from the Blountville farm to begin the ride at the United States/Mexico border at Santa Teresa. The group followed the Rio Grande northward, traversed the famous Journey of Death Trail, the White Sands Desert and included in their travels the crossing of trails such as the Oregon Trail, the Mormon Trail, the Santa Fe Trail, the Pony Express route, and the Lewis and Clark Trail.
The riders opened three rodeos, were featured in six parades and attended dozens of community events as they were welcomed from town to town. They were recognized along the way by mayors, governors and one lieutenant governor.
They traveled on average about 20 miles a day, but sometimes only covered 16 or 18 miles, Brown said.
“That was long enough to ride for us and the horse,” he said. “That was a reasonable riding distance that most could do without difficulty.”
The routine was to leave from camp every morning, ride the route, tie up the horses at the next stop, hitch a ride back to camp to retrieve the trailers, and drive the trailers to the new campsite. This didn’t necessarily mean that Brown and the others covered the exact route twice because most of the riding was done off-road, giving them a chance to soak up the countryside.
The route had been traveled twice before by Best of America staff during the planning stages. Where the riders stopped each evening depended on the availability of overnight accommodations.
“We traveled based on campsite availability,” Brown said. “Sometimes we were on private land, sometimes in towns on rodeo grounds or fairgrounds. Sometimes electricity was available. Most often water was available.”
Once or twice a week, the riders and their horses were given a rest day. The riders used these days to replenish their food, hay and feed supplies and do laundry.
The riders were from 41 states and seven countries. Of the 26 who signed up to go the entire distance, six had to leave for personal or medical reasons, Brown said, although one of those did rejoin the group. Seven riders rode the whole way, but Brown and Rocker were the only rider-horse combination who rode every step together. The other six riders who went the distance did so by alternating between two horses.
Brown and his wife had done some some car touring along the Oregon Trail through Nebraska and north to Belle Fourche, S.D., and the Black Hills and into Montana. But there was much about the West that he was unfamiliar with.
“When you’re riding on your horse, you hear things around you. ... You’re much more aware of the world around you. You form a bond with your horse, which is pleasant. You can see a whole lot more from the back of your horse,” he said.
Along the way, the riders saw bison, open range horses, antelope, mountain lions, eagles, hawks, bobcats, coyotes, mule deer, white tail deer, prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse.
The weather was usually ideal; although, they did encounter an occasional thunderstorm and hail.
“It was a mild summer in the West. There was enough rain that it was green. The nights were cool, into the 50s ... but by middle of the day it’d be high 80s to 90s. As soon as the sun went down, so did the temperature,” he said.
Lorraine Brown joined her husband twice during the ride — for two weeks traveling through Colorado, then again in North Dakota during the final two weeks of the ride.
The riders arrived in Ambrose, N.D., on Sept. 4, and the next day crossed the Canadian border into Estevan, Saskatchewan, three days ahead of schedule.
There was one other Tennessean on the trip — a retired lieutenant colonel from Jamestown who rode three-quarters of the way. The riders ranged in age from 16 to 88.
“I had a great trip,” Brown said. “It was a wonderful experience, a growth experience. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, my horse and riding, the people I met, seeing the countryside.”
Rocker, Brown said, seemed to enjoy the trip as much as he did. “He was ready to go every day,” he said.
For Brown, the journey was a growth experience. “The focus was just seeing a lot of new country. It was nice to be able to get on your horse, go into countryside you wouldn’t otherwise have an opportunity to see, and see just how beautiful a country it really is.”