By Author Linda Ballou
John Muir said it best. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.
Gillian Larson is a dynamic young Californian who has fallen in love with the ethereal beauty of the mountains. Foregoing a professional career teaching animal science for the moment, she is set on doing long-distance equestrian rides. In 2014 at the age of 22 she became the first woman to ride solo the 2,660 mile Pacific Crest Trail from the international borders of Mexico to Canada. Two years later, she rode the trail again to gain more knowledge for the guidebook for equestrians she plans to write.
Obstacles on the trail include snowdrifts, downed trees, trails eroded from avalanches, bone-chilling temperatures, acclimatizing to altitude, landslides, and rattle snakes. But, the greatest concern for Gillian was providing enough nourishing feed and water for her two horses. These challenges were met with a pragmatic and well-thought out approach that she shared in her talk at Malibu Creek State park hosted by Equestrian Trails International Corral 36.
The first 700 miles of the trip from Mexico to Kennedy Meadows is on a narrow track tracing a ridge overlooking Anza Borrego desert. Water is the main concern. On this stretch of the ride a pack horse carried extra water and supplies and her mother waited for her with supplies at designated fueling stops along the way. In this same region, she stepped off her horse more than once to move rattlers off the trail with a stick. Yikes—no kidding!
When she reached the High Sierra where the John Muir Trail and the Pacific Crest are the same for 211 miles, snow drifts were a major challenge. I was especially interested in how she handled this part of her trek as I had taken a horse pack trip into “The Range of Light” that inspired sections of my novel The Cowgirl Jumped Over the Moon. I suffered from altitude sickness, and temps that dropped into the 20s at night in this celestial region where spires poke 13,500 feet into azure skies. Gillian said altitude had little impact on her or her horses as it is a gradual climb from the floor of Owen’s Valley outside of Bishop. Plus, she gave her horses day lay-overs along the way.
After 1,700 miles, she left California and entered Oregon where she met fickle weather and more snow. She dropped the use of a pack horse and wore a backpack stuffed with her sleeping blanket, tent, and food stuffs. Food for her horse was carried in saddle bags. This meant stopping more often for supplies, but it enabled her to move more freely and at a faster pace. At his point she had developed a leap frog strategy using two trucks with attached horse trailers. She would drive one truck about 4-days ride, or 100 miles ahead, of her track then ride back to where the first truck was waiting for her with supplies. The logistics were complicated, but this plan enabled her to ride sections of the trail with less snow, and return to those that had been impassable later on.
The trail through Washington was a love/hate relationship for Gillian. She found the trail through the Jefferson Range to be even more heart-stopping than the Eastern Sierras; however, it was not maintained and she ran into log jumbles that she had to ride around or jump over. Her 19-year-old mare, Shyla, will jump four-foot fences, but in some cases Gillian had to saw limbs to clear a path for her to land.
Both of her rides began in April and ended in September before winter settles in the high country. Her guidebook for equestrians will share her hard-won knowledge about grazing pastures and water holes along the way. What kind of gear to take, technology that was helpful, clothes to wear, and tips for a safe journey will also be included in her book. But all of that has to wait until she finishes doing long-distance rides in the mountains. She just completed the Colorado and Arizona trails and hopes to ride the Continental Divide trail through Yellowstone up to Glacier National Park in 2018. She says that there is struggle and sometimes terror in her treks, but that the sense of accomplishment at the end of the day makes it all worth it. Her rides have restored her faith in humanity because she could not have done it without the help of so many generous souls along the way. She can’t wait to get back to the mountain breezes that are like a lover’s kiss you can never forget.
For more about Gillian’s journey go to her website www.PacificCrestQuest.org
Nothing pleases adventure-travel writer, Linda Ballou, more than seeing gorgeous country from the back of a good horse. Her articles have appeared in Equus, Horse Illustrated, California Riding Magazine and numerous travel publications. Learn more about her novel The Cowgirl Jumped Over the Moon at www.LindaBallouAuthor.com