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Distant Skies: An American Journey on Horseback is the story of Melissa Priblo Chapman’s 2600-mile trek across the United States, from New York to California, on horseback when she was 23 years old. It’s a story suited for adventurous, horse-loving teenage girls, especially if you like diary-type books. “The heart of the story was the adventure. It was about back roads and small towns and good people – and about Rainy, Gypsy, and me and all that we shared together,” Missy writes.
“Missy” begins by telling the story of how she came to buy Rainy, the buckskin horse who carried her across all kinds of terrain, along busy roads, narrow roads, across bridges, and more. He is the solid citizen, never wavering horse who can always be trusted to carry her anywhere. Once she knew she had the “right horse, my dream of a cross-country journey began to form,” she writes.
Her other companion is a puppy named Gypsy, “a Collie-German-Shepherd mix with a golden coat with white markings on her chest,” Missy describes. “She was not timid, but calm, quietly observing things around her. She had a look that conveyed intelligence and a special light from within.” Gypsy was rescued from a shelter and soon became Missy’s constant companion, either walking/trotting alongside Rainy, or riding in the saddle atop Rainy (like field trial dogs do).
Before the long journey, she rides Rainy regularly to get him in shape, has planned her route, and her farrier has made arrangements for several “way stations” for her to stay along her route. After that, Missy is on her own making her way across mostly rural areas. Throughout her journey, there are periodic veterinary checks for Rainy and farrier work on his hooves.
From here on, the underlying theme of the book is the kindness of strangers. People hear about her journey and pass word along to others they know along the way, making arrangements for overnight accommodations for her, her horse, and the dog. She is a “stranger” to these people, but they welcome her and give her everything she needs - from a bed to sleep in, a stall for her horse, food, and general kindness – even money. “Whenever we arrived at a destination, I asked for nothing but a safe spot for me and my animals to spend the night off the road. Many people invited me and Gypsy into their homes,” she writes. “As we traveled my ‘chain of people’ kept on growing. It seemed to work out that at the end of each day, there was usually a place to stay or someone watching out for us.”
The general kindness of strangers shown to her reminded me of the biblical passage from Matthew 25: “I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you took me in.”
Even her encounters with people from a very different culture from hers, e.g., the Amish, turn out to be positive, learning experiences. “Finding a friend in a place where I least expected it was a gift!” Her new friend was a member of the Amish Stoltfus family. As she is leaving the Amish community, the wife of the harness maker asks her: “Were you afraid to come and stay with us? I paused, then admitted, yes. She smiled and declared, ‘We’re all just people, aren’t we, then?’”
Fairly early on she does have one negative encounter with a drunk guy, who stops his car beside her and starts to harass her. She ignores him, but he continues and shouts: “Are you ignoring me, B… (word for female dog)?” After a few more minutes of being ignored, he finally drives off in a huff. Good way to handle an obnoxious bully if you ask me! Never underestimate the power of negative reinforcement.
Along the way she is periodically interviewed by reporters for a story in the local newspaper of the town as she is passing through. She writes, “Being in the news actually helped me and my animals. It gave us credibility, and many people knew all about us and our story before we even met.”
In the southern part of Ohio, a massive 18-wheeler suddenly tops a rise in the road where they are traveling. The driver “laid on the truck’s air horn and hit the brakes with a deafening hiss.” For the first time, Rainy “freaks out:” leaping “forward in fear and bolted into the road, panicking as the truck bore down on us.” It is their first really scary moment traveling along the road. Fortunately, the truck stops, as do other cars, and, once Rainy finally stops running wildly, a woman comes to see if she and the animals are OK.
The woman introduces herself and makes arrangements for a stopover for Missy and her animals. “I thought about the saying: There are no strangers, only friends I haven’t met yet,” Missy writes. This woman had “set aside her life for a moment in order to help me. It was this kindness of a stranger that got me back up in the saddle.”
Crossing the Mississippi River is a major obstacle, so arrangements are made for “a trailer ride to get us over the Mississippi” near St. Louis, Missouri. As expected, a man in a pickup hauling a stock trailer pulls over and asks her if she needs a ride across the river. She loads Rainy in the trailer and she and Gypsy climb in the cab with “Tim,” the driver. After the successful river crossing, the travelers disembark from the truck and trailer and continue on their way. But when she makes it to her destination for the night, the folks she is staying with are worried sick! The person who was supposed to drive her across the river could not find her. They tell her, “The man we made arrangements with is not named Tim.” So, the kind stranger remained a mystery.
Along the route, Rainy develops a swelling on his withers and they have to stay a while at Tom Kee’s ranch. The longer she stays, the more the place feels like home. And the decision is made to get a pack mule to take some of the load off Rainy. This is where she takes on a “coon-huntin’ mule” named Sweetie, who she renames Amanda. From then on, it’s the four of them traveling across the country.
The first place she encounters unfriendliness is in the Texas panhandle, with NO TRESSPASSING, STAY OUT! and other unfriendly signs. Having gone nearly all day without water, she rides up a driveway to a house and asks for water. “NO!” is the woman’s answer, along with “Get off my property now. Get going!”
She makes it across New Mexico, Arizona, travels along the famous Route 66, and eventually into southern California. Needles, California is “where my animals and I stopped our westward wandering. But it’s not where our story ended,” she writes. She goes home with her horse, dog, mule, and ten puppies!
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