“No hour of life is wasted that is spent in the saddle” – Winston Churchill
Many moons ago, I was connected with the Randolph County Regional Riding Club (RCRRC). Thanks to this eclectic group of people, I’ve spent countless hours in the saddle; not a single one of which was wasted. The group is mostly made up of old-timers, grandchildren, and young guns all seeking one thing: an escape. In camping with my fellow two- and four-legged companions, I’ve come to experience West Virginia in ways understood by few since the days of the pioneers.
To some, horse-camping can seem like quite a silly thing. Isn’t camping challenging enough? It can be overwhelming to pack food, gather gear, and carry enough water for an extended trip, not to mention bringing a horse along with all the requisite gear. While the prep and planning are far more extensive than that for a typical camping trip, it’s always worth the extra effort.
The evening before a ride at East Fork Campground near Durbin, the group gathers round the fire. This is when old-timers and young folk with names like Bombshell, Hoot, and Mole share how they earned such names and then some. I live for these stories. Smoke rises into the air as someone inevitably utters the phrase, “Hey, you remember when… ” The tall tales that follow may terrify any newcomer, but can also produce belly laughs big enough to pull a muscle. Some stories I’ve heard a thousand times, like when our unofficial trail boss and fearless leader got himself lost for three days on the backside of Seneca Rocks.
Other stories, I’ve lived to tell myself. While peacefully plodding along the Greenbrier River Trail toward the end of a 17 mile-day during a three-day pack trip, we noticed cows grazing in a field near a camp called May Bottom. Upon spotting the bovines, Champ, a spunky, little, green Tennesee Walking Horse quickly dipped his shoulder to turn and run in fear. His rider was unseated, and, although she managed to stay on, the jolt was too much for her pneumatic riding vest. Designed to pop open before a rider hits the ground during a fall, this vest exploded while on horseback. The chain of events kicked off a stampede that could rival the excitement of a thundering herd of wild buffalo.
And then there are the stories you can’t help but laugh at, like the tale of a poor little jack donkey who was unwillingly adopted, castrated, and sold to a church for a live Nativity scene only to have his true owners show up months later with hopes of breeding him. How many of these stories are true, only God knows. All I know is that when someone says, “Hey, you remember when…” I buckle up for whatever’s coming next because I know it’s going to be as bumpy as a bareback ride through Dolly Sods.
Dawn breaks in Durbin. Horse camp breakfast is a family affair. Be it conversation or cooking, everyone is expected to contribute something. Together, we scrounge up a meal fit for the finest cowboys and cowgirls. My old tin percolator pours coffee so black I call it Matewan Mud. It’s paired with sizzling bacon and fried eggs flopping around in an old iron skillet so big we call it The Child Cooker.
After breakfast I seek out my horse and trail partner, Jean-Luc Ponycard. Over the years, I’ve entrusted him with my life. I toss my wool pad and black leather saddle over his white and champagne-colored back. Then he’s ready for our packs. No matter the plan, I always bring food for two days, rain gear, a good knife, and a few other essentials. If the stories from the old-timers taught me anything, you never know what to expect in the wilds of West Virginia.
I mentally prepare for the adventure ahead. Because West Virginia is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, the terrain on which we’ll be riding is a journey into the unknown. When lumbering along the trails of Lost River after a rain, I expect soupy mud that’s thick enough to suck both human and horse shoes right off. When barreling through the backwoods of Canaan Valley, our feet and nerves must be tough as nails. A tumble on the rocks could end even the strongest relationship between rider and equine. This ride in Durbin brings with it loud puffs of steam and whistles from the Durbin Flyer, an old steam engine that carries tourists into town.
Once saddled, Jean-Luc is a thousand pounds of go-anywhere, do-anything muscle and he knows it. He prances like a proud show pony. As I swing my leg over for a quick look around, it’s easy to understand how these animals helped build our modern world. A good trail horse doesn’t question where it’s going—just point and go. The weight of a human or a loaded pack of supplies on his back matters little to Jean-Luc.
The group sets off. Riders and equine counterparts fall into a rhythm. I close my eyes and the magic begins. I hear the familiar crunching of gravel and dirt under hooves. Birds chirp and chitter at one another in the forest to announce our arrival. Occasionally, a horse snort mixes with the smell of well-oiled leather and sweat.
Vistas spread out in storybook layers before my eyes. West Virginia’s wildlands offer scenic diversity rivaling that of entire countries. Riding through Little River, near Durbin, the views are deep, verdant, and fresh. It’s a lush contrast to a ride on Rocky Ridge above Canaan Valley, where big skies, talus slopes, and vast bogs play latitudinal tricks on the mind. I have to remind myself we’re not in the Alaskan Tundra.
Riders like to point out unique rock formations and prominently announce rare flowers like lady’s slippers and jack-in-the-pulpits between the silences. Everyone’s on the hunt for chicken-of-the-woods, morels, and other edible mushrooms to complement dinner that evening. The ride goes on this way for hours, plodding through valleys and splashing across streams. The places through which we travel often feel lost in time.
There’s so much to learn. Depending on who’s in front or behind Jean-Luc and me, I spend much of my time like a child, pointing at things and asking, “What’s that?” Dense as the surrounding forest, the cherished knowledge of the old-timers transforms me. I feel the fleeting responsibility to retain and protect as much as I can for the next generation.
Before long, someone shouts from the front of the team, “This one is steep!” They’re warning us about the upcoming hill. Jean-Luc breaks into a canter up the mountain side. A demanding slope, it requires experience from both horse and human. The group knows how to spread out, allowing enough room for each other to work through the line like an oarswoman working a river.
I support Jean-Luc to the best of my ability. In reality, I’m just grabbing for his mane while his powerful legs propel us up the hill. We understand respite is near upon reaching the summit. There, we rest. He’s lathered with sweat from the work. As a simple reward, I scratch his favorite spot underneath his mane. At the top of the mountain I understand why these places are known as “Almost Heaven.” The experiences I am able to have among them are provided by Jean-Luc’s hard work.
The simplicity is what it’s all about. When you’re nestled among the hills and hollows of West Virginia, nothing else matters. The world will be waiting for you when you get back, but until then, enjoy the escape.
Chelsey Jones is a lifelong resident of West Virginia and special education teacher in Randolph County. She’s also a wife, mom to two adopted pups, and forever-friend of Jean-Luc.