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Riding the Outlaw Trail
In the Footsteps of Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid
By Simon Casson, Richard Adamson
Eye Books LtdCopyright © 2004 Simon Casson and Richard Adamson
All rights reserved.
A Hundred Years Too Late
"I got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals."
The classic blockbuster 'buddy' movie almost certainly ensured that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid will remain immortal. Remember the second train-robbing sequence which opens with Sundance moving cat-like along the tops of the swaying carriages just prior to the holdup? At its climax is a cataclysmic dynamite explosion when half the railroad car is blown sky high and thousands of dollar bills come fluttering down out of the sky through the still quivering air. The gang's instinctive reaction to this unplanned development is to dart about, greedily gathering up the falling greenbacks like manna from heaven.
Then we see another, much shorter train approach and stop very close by. A brief pause for surprise and speculation, then a whistle blows, a huge wooden ramp crashes down and out of the sinister train rides the handpicked 'Super-Posse', armed to the teeth and led by legendary lawman Joe Lefors in his trademark straw boater. Newman, as Butch, says urgently:
"Whatever they're selling, I don't want it."
But I did.
Family history gave me the perfect excuse to pursue my love affair with the West. My father's family is connected with Stonewall Jackson, the famous Civil War Confederate General. My mother's is connected with James Wolfe, hero of Quebec – of whom King George II famously said, "If Wolfe is mad, I wish he would bite some other of my Generals." When I was young, this somehow didn't seem quite as glamorous as Butch and Sundance's bloodlines, but it was close.
From the age of six I did, of course, possess a cowboy outfit complete with hat, chaps, boots, neckerchief and six-guns, and I ran wild in the neighbourhood chasing imaginary Indians and pop-popping my guns.
But the story of our ride really began quite unconsciously in a secondhand bookshop when I first laid hands on a copy of Robert Redford's Outlaw Trail. Glossy pictures and a fast-reading script sold me on the quest of one of Hollywood's finest to seek the Outlaw Trail and learn about the Sundance Kid. I forked out my last seven quid and departed. It was a great read, but the subject matter then remained dormant until the summer of 1994.
We were vacationing in Arizona. The Grand Canyon was awesome and Monument Valley spellbinding. Tombstone, billed as 'the town too tough to die,' ignited the real flame of interest. Whose imagination would not run wild on the stomping ground of the legendary Wyatt Earp, his brothers and their deadly dentist friend Doc Holliday? As we walked through the OK Corral, my partner Julie suddenly announced her ideal holiday for next year: a Western dude ranch experience. A deal was struck there and then.
There was one problem. All the ranching brochures were offering soft adventure – I badly wanted risk, blended with history. That winter, on impulse, I tracked down the same people who had outfitted Robert Redford and National Geographic all those years before. In minutes, I was speaking to Glori Ekker, the wife of a highly regarded outfitter. I put the vital question:
"Do you still outfit horse trips in the Canyonlands?"
"Sure. AC operates maybe two a year. We'll mail you information."
Their brochure promised a fascinating trip, and I made arrangements for a five-day ride in mid-September. It was as easy as that.
So September found us driving deep into southeast Utah to a remote outpost called Hanksville, little changed from Redford's descriptions.
The gas station still functioned in the town centre. Opposite, a restaurant-campsite was the jump-off for tourists heading for Lake Powell. Our hotel, The Whispering Sands, even had a pet bison.
I rang the Ekkers, left a message and sat back to wait for the rendezvous. The phone woke us from slumber at six the next morning, and AC announced he would collect us within the hour. Sure enough, a huge truck, all V8 muscle, drove up and shut down, and out stepped AC. Medium height, swarthy, late forties, decked out in rodeo Wranglers and the mandatory weather-beaten black Stetson, he wore a toothpick in the corner of his mouth. The quintessential cowboy. Grinning, he shook hands firmly.
There were just the three of us. We trailer-hauled the horses sixty-five miles across remote country. There were no signposts or phone boxes, no anything, just a red, dusty track leading to the infamous Robbers Roost. If you broke down here, you were dead. Two hours later, the old stucco ranch hove into view. I recognised the tack store and weathered corrals shown in Redford's book. It was heartening to find little had altered. The ancient bunkhouse was still there too. Gnarled cedars were split and twisted by the brutal elements. Time seemed to have stood still around here since 1909.
We saddled up and headed off into Utah's forbidding canyon country to find the West that was. It was challenging riding. We rode our horses into places you would never think possible. Butch and Sundance had undoubtedly been the boldest (and smartest) of outlaws to ride into this beautiful but broken and hostile country, with its untamed myriad of interlocking red rock canyons, pinnacles, spires and mesas shrouding secret caverns, watering holes and grazing pastures.
AC generously shared his vast range of knowledge, history and anecdotes of the Roost whilst my camera struggled to capture the stunning scenery. It was awesome. Fabulously hot blue-sky days merged into bitterly cold nights, and the five days flew past. When it was time to leave, I was sad, but I had enjoyed my first taste of riding the trail, and I felt the early stirrings of an idea which was not yet fully formed.
Once home, I found myself becoming obsessed with those remarkable outlaw riders. I returned to America five times, travelling and researching Butch and Sundance just for fun, eventually clocking up an incredible 15,000 miles. During autumn 1996, I learned that two Swedes had ridden much of the Outlaw Trail, from Las Cruces, New Mexico to Miles City, Montana. It was a tough ride, but it didn't go all the way. Rancher Gene Vieh informed me that his cousin Dr Joe Armstrong, an equine and agriculture professor from Las Cruces, had outfitted the Swedish duo four years earlier – a casual comment which later proved highly significant.
In between my American trips I consulted everyone I could think of in the UK who might be willing to give me the benefit of some straight talking from their own firsthand experience. I talked to blonde, blunt Ruth Taggart and her partner Nigel Harvey of British riding specialists Ride World Wide in London. I telephoned Robin Hanbury-Tenison OBE, FRGS, a renowned British explorer and long rider of four major equine expeditions. Robin said he had no useful contacts in America, but advised me to ring Dylan Winter, who had ridden the Oregon Trail. Later, I had a really valuable session with Dylan at his Buckinghamshire base. I contacted equine explorer James Greenwood, recently back from completing the arduous Argentina to Peru section of AF Tschiffely's famous ride. I rang to congratulate him, and to glean advice.
To each of these experts, I outlined what somewhere along the line had crystallised into a firm objective: to be the first man to ride Butch Cassidy's Outlaw Trail from Mexico to Canada on horseback. Without exception, they were friendly and helpful. Basically, however, they were all singing from the same hymn sheet, and between them they made me face up to some unwelcome realities.
First, they scared the shit out of me with their rough cost estimates for what I had in mind – they were talking telephone numbers, way beyond my reach. Then they pointed out politely but brutally that I had neither the expertise nor the resources to tackle the projected trip on my own. They also severely disillusioned me about the prospects for some easy sponsorship money. Finally, they urged me to find someone else who was also planning a horseback expedition, and try to persuade them to join forces. Bloody but unbowed, I continued to develop my plans; though I was no longer sure they would ever come to fruition.
I joined the English Westerners Society and the Outlaw Trail History Association through which I made contact with respected former Spokane journalist Jim Dullenty, responsible for monumental research on Butch Cassidy and now an Americana book dealer. He was a founding member of the Western Outlaw-Lawman History Association (WOLA) in America, which comprises key historians and writers, including leading authorities on Butch, Sundance and the Wild Bunch. This association also led me to the outlaws' families and living descendants
I bought literally dozens of history books, whilst Jim provided added inspiration and contacts. He confirmed that nobody had authentically ridden the full length of the Outlaw Trail on horseback from Mexico to Canada. It would be a first – if I made it. I set about planning how to ride the trail, keeping one eye always on the possibility of spinning off a new business venture from all this present and projected effort.
To have real value, the project would have to replicate Butch and Sundance's travels with precise historical accuracy. I spent hours poring over maps pinpointing the Outlaw Trail's ghostly traces. It would be a massive task. I was no explorer or long distance rider, and certainly not a horse-packer, but I believed in myself. Others had misgivings, which I ignored. Riding a horse was like riding a bike, I told myself. Once done, you never forget how. The doubters and pessimists bluntly informed me I was out of shape, out of order and out of my mind. We would see.
I was getting more apprehensive by the day but continued to throw myself into the planning. Prudently, I wrote to ranchers and landowners for permission to cross their private land, so that my route could follow faithfully the faded trail from Mexico to Canada. I was greatly encouraged to receive a thumbs-up every time. These were kind folks, proud of their heritage, and it was clear that they really cared. They did, however, add to the mounting chorus of cautionary verses: did I really know what I was letting myself in for?
Oh yeah, of course I did. Well, sort of.
The fact is that Butch and Sundance had made some of the most demanding rides ever known, with the added pressure to outpace pursuit, avoid ambush and evade capture. The only way truly to understand their experiences and some of their risks was to share them, to travel the same barren desert and mountain country in exactly the same way: on horseback, with packhorses, carrying bare essentials only, finding grazing and water where and when I could and with no motorised back-up.
In those thinly populated regions, the Code of The West was important. It was the Westerner's offer of assistance to anyone in need without denial or question. A civil traveller weary or lost might expect the offer of a meal and rest. In exchange, the traveller might offer to do ranch chores or contribute financially. In Butch and Sundance's time, ranches were never locked and riders were welcome, provided they remained polite and respectful. If nobody was home, a long distance rider might well help himself, taking only what was needed for immediate use. If a man was afoot, he could procure a horse – later, he was expected to return it.
The spirit of that Code held true today, with the important addition that in an age of phones and emails, you were supposed to use them – or, better still, get your hosts to use them. Thus, a well-endorsed traveller can be passed like a parcel from household to household across the nation. So the outlaws and I would be riding the same trails in much the same conditions – apart from the fact that I was starting a hundred years too late.
I constantly debated with myself whether to continue or quit. Was it possible that so many respected authorities could be overly pessimistic? Or was it conceivable that, like Butch, I had vision and the rest of the world was wearing bifocals? Each time I confronted it (not more than ten times a day), the decision felt like twisting on nineteen when your option is to pay twenty-ones. Each time, I assessed the unattractive odds realistically. Then I twisted anyway.
Russian Ride was interesting. It told the story of a woman's 2,500 mile trek across Russia with Cossack horses. I wrote to Barbara Whittome's publisher seeking her ideas and help. Well, why not? So far these explorers had all proved to be both approachable and helpful. Weeks later, a reply indicated that Barbara was planning to ride across Europe.
On the phone she sounded bright, ever-so-English, confident, even slightly bossy – just a hint, perhaps, of the voice that lost us the Empire.
"Join me for a couple of weeks in Hungary. See what you're in for. I'm selling places to help fund the ride. My Russian trip cost a fortune."
Shrewd lady! I admired her approach, but I wasn't buying.
"I'm interested, so let's talk horses," I replied.
We met, and discussions were fruitful. Barbara hoped that I might join and subsidise her trip. Similar thoughts were crossing my mind. We agreed to correspond. As time passed, zilch happened. My major concern was not to be pre-empted on the Butch and Sundance project. Barbara eventually rang to tell me her journey was off. I cheekily suggested that we should team up for my trip, and after some more chat she accepted. Success! I maybe couldn't ride like these horseback explorers, but I hadn't entirely lost my touch – my plan was gradually coming together.
In 1998, I spent a glorious three weeks in Texas, then snuck into La Mesa, New Mexico to meet the Armstrongs. Joe and Rusty confirmed their willingness to help, advise and outfit the expedition. Timing was set for spring 1999.
One snag: Barbara seemed to know her stuff, and I certainly knew mine, but neither of us was checked out on mountain and desert survival. Barbara suggested we invite Richard Adamson to join us. Richard was described as an ex-Royal Marine Commando with impeccable credentials, presently in East Africa. Despite being nervous about someone else coming on board, it sounded logical. Besides, the three of us would neatly replicate the movie trio: the new Butch Cassidy, Sundance Kid and Etta Place. I record it a bit red-faced, but that unbelievably soppy reasoning was probably the clincher. I agreed.
No hint came from Richard about whether or not he would accept our offer. The sands of time were dribbling away, and I got mighty nervous. I was committed, and I continued methodically with arrangements. I also wrote endless letters in search of sponsorship. As predicted, I failed, and we were forced to self-fund. Groan! I even invited Robert Redford to join us. Politely, or wisely, he declined the offer.
Redford had waxed lyrical: "The Outlaw Trail fascinated me – a geographical anchor in Western folklore. Whether real or imagined, it was a phrase that for me held a kind of magic, a freedom, a mystery."
I knew it was real and I was ready to endure, a century after Butch and Sundance were at their peak and thirty years since the runaway success of the Hill and Goldman movie. And I would complete the mission playing strictly by my self-imposed rules. My main reward would be to get a unique gut-feel for the outlaw way of life, but I would also be retaking control of my own life. Freed of petty restrictions, I would become an accomplished horseman and I would ride back into the past, Winchester strapped to my saddle, determining the distinction between right and wrong and making my choices. Heady stuff.
Meanwhile, for months Richard had ignored all letters, emails, phone calls and messages. It seemed he would not be joining us. Then, at the eleventh hour, Barbara rang to tell me Richard had arrived unannounced for formalities and dinner in London. So I finally shook hands with a raw-boned, silver-haired, tanned and supremely fit ex- Marine Commando who had been permanently delayed in Somalia since October 1998.
I had been working in Nairobi helping to set up an aviation service for the European Community Humanitarian Office. After establishing outstations in Kenya, Somalia and Djibouti I moved my base to Hargeysa in northern Somalia, as General Manager of Airbridge. This was a small regional airline, which we set up in partnership with Candy Logistics, and in which quite a lot of Somali money was invested.
I was aboard our plane minding my own business (which at that precise moment was to get the aircraft back to its native Ukraine for re- certification). Just prior to take-off, armed Somalis came on board, and the plane was commandeered and grounded. Along with the Ukrainian crew I was abruptly taken hostage at gunpoint.
It was fairly dramatic, and I had visions of a Keenan/McCarthy type incarceration in a dungeon, but within twenty-four hours I was allowed to take up residence in a Government hotel, albeit still under house arrest. It turned out that the Somali investors, dissatisfied with the progress made, were demanding the immediate return of their substantial investment. They had me snatched just in case I was doing a flit with all their loot. Chance would be a fine thing.
They then attempted to give their entirely improper behaviour some slight whiff of legality by bringing a civil action against Airbridge and me in the Courts, claiming that the contracts signed by both parties were not in fact contracts.
Farcical court procedures ensued which went on for two months. First the Regional Court found in our favour, then the Court of Appeal found against us, then the High Court of Appeal ruled. During this time Barbara persuaded me to join the Outlaw Trail expedition. I had no idea if and when I was going to be released.
Whilst Simon was trying to contact me, I was requesting meetings with the President of Somalia. We had met on many occasions, and he knew of my plight. He asked what he could do, since court procedure was slow, biased and expensive. I requested arbitration.
A committee was formed, but mysteriously all the members turned out to be related in some way to the plaintiffs, so it was no surprise whatsoever when they ruled our contract null and void. Airbridge was required to return 50% of the funding, plus six months running costs of the complete operation. Thus, my freedom cost $600,000. I left Hargeysa rapidly and spent Christmas and part of January in Zanzibar scuba diving with my sons Ben and Jamie.
I met Simon in London a month later and we had four hours together. I wasn't that impressed, and had reservations about our compatibility, but I was already committed. Ours was not a partnership based on prior knowledge and shared experience – it was a completely unknown quantity. On paper, we possessed the relevant and complementary skills for such an expedition, but we were very different people.
I'd spent many years in the Royal Marines, Barbara had been a lecturer and Simon was a dodgy ex-used car salesman with a bee in his bonnet. Barbara would manage the horses, Simon would be responsible for contacts, PR, photography and the historical side, and I would handle the logistics and assume ground leadership.
After dinner, I wanted to map out the expedition in detail. I provided six state maps. Decent topographical US Government Survey maps, I was assured, could easily be procured on arrival. Next, we discussed the trail. We were to traverse a strip of land nearly two-thirds the length of Chile and seemingly less than three-tenths of a mile wide. The first thousand miles were a vast desert. Water sources were scarce: springs, streams and cattle troughs. Depending how deep we rode into the Gila and Blue Wildernesses, there was also tricky mountain country to negotiate.
Excerpted from Riding the Outlaw Trail by Simon Casson, Richard Adamson. Copyright © 2004 Simon Casson and Richard Adamson. Excerpted by permission of Eye Books Ltd.
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