The fly fisherman reaches inside his pickup truck and pulls out a shotgun. “I’m not a serial killer,” he says with a smile, “but there are bears out there.” Craig Iseke points to a wall of trees across the prairie, a thousand yards away.
He was preparing to hike through that forest on his way to his favorite fishing hole when I stopped to ask him if he’d seen a woman with three horses and a dog.
“She’s camping down by the Oldman River,” he says, “but you can’t drive there.”
“This is a wilderness area. No cars allowed beyond that yellow gate. You’re welcome to walk with me, though. It’s not far.”
Iseke finishes lacing up his hiking boots. I look at my scuffed loafers.
“Can I make it wearing street shoes?” I ask.
“Sure,” he says, “I took my sister down to fish the other day, and she had on sandals. The river is just over that rise.”
The two of us are standing where a dusty road makes its first turn in 10 miles. Beyond that curve lies the end of the prairie and the beginning of the Rocky Mountains. Iseke snaps the safety on his shotgun and climbs the fence. “You coming?”
I have been driving dirt roads all morning, searching for Bernice Ende (pronounced END-ee,) a woman traveling through this wilderness alone without a cell phone or computer. She has a terrific story to tell — if I can find her. So I step over the fence and follow the stranger holding a shotgun.
“Hey, bear!” Iseke shouts as we dip into the forest. “We wouldn’t want to bump into one by surprise,” he explains.
Not much chance of that as the two of us slide down a hillside of loose shale. “How much farther?”
We hike to middle age.
The voice rises on a curl of smoke. It doesn’t sound like Yogi or Smokey, so we scrabble to the edge of a bluff and peer over.
Down below in a clearing, a gray-haired woman sits ramrod straight, tending a pot of hard-boiled eggs bubbling over a campfire. Three horses graze near a tent with front flap made of lace. A large straw sombrero hangs from a nearby tree.
“You must be Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”
Bernice Ende chuckles. “Well, I suspect I am hard to find.”
Ende grew up on a Minnesota dairy farm. She became a ballet teacher, but when she retired, she decided the only rocking in her future would be in a saddle, not a chair.
She nods toward the mountains. “See those peaks up there? It’s like they’re saying, ‘See if you can come up here.’ One peak leads me to the next, and I want to go on.”
Ende’s gone on 18,000 miles so far. If you flew from the North Pole to the South Pole and back to the Equator, that's about eighteen thousand miles.
The former teacher set out on this long ride seven years ago to learn about America at four miles an hour. “I go so slowly,” she says wtih a laugh. “I see the rows between the corn.”
An exotic-looking dog bounds up the bluff, barking loudly. One of her eyes is blue, the other brown. When she sees Ende talking quietly to strangers, she starts wagging her tail.
“This is Claire,” Ende says rubbing the dog’s ears. “A rare breed of unknown origin. She was a puppy when I found her nearly frozen in a ditch. She’s been with me the entire way.”
The two set out on this long ride in 2005. They’ve been looping around the West and Midwest ever since.
“Claire walked the first 7,000 miles,” Ende says. Back then they traveled with just one horse, but now that Claire is 11, she has a horse of her own, Essie Pearl. The dog rides atop a pack like a queen.
“People stop us all the time,” Ende says. “It’s not me they want to see. They see horses and riders all the time, but you put a dog on a horse, well,” she chuckles, “I’ve got my own dog and pony show!”
Some days she travels through remote places, but her life is too busy to be lonely. Horses need to be fed and brushed, shoed and medicated. Repair work and tent building are endless.
"I had no idea what was in store for me, when I began these long rides,” she says. “But my mother told me, ‘Live your life to inspire others and you, too, shall be inspired, not by others, but by what you can do.’ I’m a ghost from the past, a reminder of what we once were.
“It's a life-in-your-face kind of life,” she adds. “No cellphone, no computer, just people.”
She’s alone, but not lonely. “Every day I ride into smiles,” she says.
“Do you know the people that you’re going to be staying with?” I ask.
“No. You ride in a stranger, but in just minutes you’re friends. You can’t do this without having faith in others.”
Others help her find places to camp, food and water for her animals. But Ende rarely accepts invitations to spend the night in their homes. The last time she slept indoors was during a spring flood.
“I don’t want to be a guest,” she says simply. “I have a tent. That’s my home. Everywhere I go is home.”
“Do people ever turn you away?”
“No, never. The kindness that I have experienced is nothing short of phenomenal. You can’t do this without having faith in others.”
Most people who wander off on quests finish them and then dine out on what they did the rest of their lives. Why does Ende keep going?
“I don’t want to mow the lawn anymore,” she snorts. “I don’t want to clean the kitchen. I don’t want to! I’ve got one spoon and one pan and I washed it in the creek this morning. We have time for more, if we have less.”
Like the young mother carrying a baby on her hip who stops Ende and sighs: “I’d sure like to go on a long ride.”
Bernice shifts in her saddle and looks down: “You’re on the greatest long ride you’ll ever be on. That’s motherhood. What kind of courage and bravery must it take to be a mother?”
Bernice has no children. She was divorced in her 50s when she started this long ride.
“I didn’t want to be alone any more,” she says.
That’s why Ende prefers the journey and not the destination.
“There’s something thrilling about turning around in the saddle and looking back at that ribbon of highway. I wish that you could just come and see what I see. You’d think differently about our country. We really are good, generous people.” Who can and do pull together for one another.
Next year she figures she’ll ride east to New England. Watch the leaves fill with color and fall, one step at a time.
If viewers would like to contact Bernice Ende, good luck. She does have an email address that she checks occasionally on borrowed computers: firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can send her a letter at P.O. Box 284, Trego, MT 59934
Want to check her progress? From time to time she updates this webpage: www.endeofthetrail.com. Happy trails!
Know someone who would make a great American Story with Bob Dotson? Drop a note in my mailbox by clicking here.