Horseback Across Three Americas

By Verne R. Albright

Verne R. Albright’s expanded rewrite of the  Best Selling book about his 1966-1967 Peru-to-California ride – entitled Horseback Across Three Americas – will be for sale in the late summer of 2020 at Amazon.com and Hellgate Press. If you wish to be notified when it’s available, please send your email address to: albrightv@shaw.ca.

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On that September day in 1966 when I set out, Peru’s newspapers were full of stories about my proposed ride to California because I was using that country’s National Horse, the Peruvian Paso. The town of Chiclayo saw me off, beginning with a reception at an exclusive private club where the mayor gave me a letter for his counterpart at my destination, Los Gatos, California.

Next a representative of the National Association of Owners and Breeders of Peruvian Paso Horses – who’d come from far-away Lima – presented me with a scroll to officialize my ride. Then the Catholic Bishop blessed my enterprise. During my short speech the audience chuckled when I referred to my horses and myself as “we” and “us” but that was how I saw them, as partners in a difficult and dangerous enterprise.

The Plaza Central was filled with people who’d come to wish me good luck when I went outside and mounted my horses. Policemen on motorcycles escorted us and twenty-two riders and horses from nearby haciendas as we paraded along spectator-lined streets to the town’s outskirts. Then one-by one, the other riders shook my hand, their expressions serious. They understood the magnitude of my task far better than the dignitaries and parade watchers.

Then they loaded their horses in waiting trucks and I rode into the desert.

As we followed the Pan-American Highway for the next two weeks, people stopped their cars to talk, buses passed with passengers applauding, and drivers of soft drink trucks pulled over to give me armloads of free soft drinks and snacks.

Newspapers published daily articles that referred to me as Pablito, an affectionate nickname chosen because I’m six feet, nine inches tall, and Peruvians found it wonderfully ironic and humorous to call me Little Pablo. Reporters waited at the entrances to towns, checking their watches when we arrived, as if recording an historical event. Photographs in their articles were taken by freelancers who caught up with us however they could. One paid a bus driver to slow down long enough for him to jump out, snap pictures, and re-board. Another arrived on the handlebars of a bicycle with a friend pedaling.

At day’s end people often invited  my mares and me to stay with them as if hosting us was a privilege.  When I attempted to pay for supplies at stores, cashiers often told me,  “No charge.”

But this heady beginning only delayed my inevitable rendezvous with reality.

Soon we were in terrain so rugged my horses’ hooves were honeycombed with nail holes because their soft, iron horseshoes had to be replaced almost weekly.

Photo courtesy of Verne Albright

I’d felt well prepared for this journey but there were few days when I didn’t learn yet another useful lesson. In a desert town children taught me to recognize a toxic plant and poisonous snake, one of which had no doubt killed a bloated mule nearby. In an Andean valley cavalrymen showed me how to ward off vampire bats by weaving sabila plants into my horses’ manes. Crossing arid deserts where I could feel the sand’s stored-up heat right through my boot soles, I discovered I could buy water at remote wells or door-to-door from people who couldn’t spare more than a glassful.

There was no happy medium. We started out with our pores pouring in the formidable Desierto de Sechura. That fearsome wasteland had earned its macabre nickname – Matacaballo, Horsekiller – by reducing countless horses and more than one man to sun-bleached skeletons.

Two weeks later in Ecuador we shivered among glaciers, towering volcanoes, and Andean peaks that dwarf the highest in the United States. Then we sweat again, this time in the tropics before crossing the Peak of Death’s icy summit, where a group of ill-fated travelers once froze to death in standing positions. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

When necessary I ate goat’s jaw or guinea pig. And when no hay was available, my mares – Hamaca and Ima Sumac –  dined on bananas, coconut, sugar cane, and corn stalks. Along the way we met smugglers, a famous bullfighter, a snake hunter, a witch doctor, a camera crew from ABC’s Wide World of Sports, and a bullying small town sheriff.

One afternoon in an Andean hamlet a man on a mule followed us for no apparent reason. I hoped he was simply curious, but that seemed unlikely after he was joined by five similarly mounted companions in dirty suits and various stages of inebriation. Then the leader put his mule in a trot and came alongside Hamaca and me.

“I’m the Law here,” he announced. “You’ll have to show me your passport and the contents of your bags.”

“Do you have anything to prove you’re the Law?” I asked without slowing.

“I’m not making a request,” he replied sternly. “I’m giving an order.”

“How do I know you have the right to do that?”

“Señor, you must stop at once.”

“As soon as I see a badge or some other proof of your authority.”

He obviously didn’t have a badge, and I definitely wasn’t about to be talked off my horse. I felt sure his followers would abandon their mission if it proved difficult. The Law however, was the kind who doesn’t easily give up. Abruptly he jumped his mule between my mares and grabbed Ima Sumac’s lead rope. Holding its other end I whirled Hamaca toward him.

“Show me your badge,” I said, hoping he’d pull a convincing one from his pocket.

We were at a stalemate and his men were surrounding me. I survived but only after a long chase that ended when a road grader driver attempted to stop us and almost ran Hamaca and me down before crashing into an embankment.

In every Ecuadorian town up to that point I’d seen posters recommending malaria shots. Concerned by the time I reached the first major city, Loja, I went to the Peace Corps office and spoke with an American nurse.

“I’m not authorized to give medical advice to people from the States,” she told me crisply. “I can work only with the local poor.”

“Can you recommend a doctor?” I asked.

“We’re not allowed to do that either,” she replied, “and to tell the truth, there are few I could suggest in good conscience.”

“Thanks for your time.” I turned to go.

“Why are you in Loja?” she asked.

“I’m going to the States on horseback.”

“Oh, God! You have no idea of the diseases they have here. What are you doing for food?”

“Buying it where I can.”

“If you promise not to tell anyone,” she volunteered, “I’ll give you a gamma globulin shot for protection against hepatitis. I’d also advise you to take precautions against malaria, tuberculosis, typhoid, bubonic plague, and cholera.”

Until that moment I’d thought most of those existed only in history books and horror stories. Equine diseases too were plentiful. Twice before allowing Hamaca and Ima Sumac on their property ranchers bathed them with a caustic solution just in case they carried the hoof and mouth virus. And one morning anthrax was reported a few miles from where we’d spent a night.

From Ecuador we flew over Colombia to avoid that nation’s nineteen-year, aptly named reign of terror, La Violencia, which had killed more people than the United States lost in World War II. Our flight took off in chilly Quito, Ecuador and landed in Panama City’s sauna-like, around-the-clock heat and humidity.

There people carried parasols to protect their skin from the sun’s harmful rays and nights were so hot that hotel beds came with only a bottom sheet. The perpetually saturated air couldn’t absorb more moisture, and every morning when I put my clothes back on, they were still soaked with the previous day’s perspiration.

In South America my sleek, shiny horses had been widely complimented. But after sweating non-stop in Panama’s tropical sun and being bitten by countless parasitic insects, their coats were soon dull, faded, and pockmarked with insect bites. At night they slept next to smoldering fires that produced thick smoke to keep disease-transmitting insects at bay. Every night and morning I had to submerge their freshly cut hay in water long enough to force ticks to let go and float to the surface where I terminated them with extreme prejudice.

Life in the tropics was abundant and found everywhere. Tiny, tadpole-like creatures swam in brand new puddles until the water evaporated. Then another generation mysteriously appeared in water left by the next rain.

On the way to Costa Rica’s high country I met a fellow American who’d left the States rather than be drafted to fight in Vietnam. He predicted I’d meet a beautiful woman in San José, and I did. An

American named Emily, she was intelligent, upbeat, and confident – qualities I’d always found attractive. Before I continued on, she and I went horseback riding and enjoyed a chaperoned evening at the movies.

After most Americans fled a revolution in Nicaragua, my mares and I entered that country amid reports that violence would soon break out again. The shooting in Managua had put pockmarks in a luxury hotel and holes in several people, but bullets didn’t fly again while I was there.

Clouds of flying insects near Lake Nicaragua were so thick we couldn’t help but inhale them. By them Ima Sumac had more than once shown she was a natural born comedienne, and her antics while attempting to blow and then keep those intruders out of her nostrils were hilarious.

By the time I reached Managua, I missed Emily so much I took a bus back to Costa Rica. We had dinner – again chaperoned – and she told me she was going to attend a conference in Guatemala City in three days.

“Why don’t you put your horses  in a gallop and meet me there?” she suggested.

No horse on earth could run that far in three days of course, but by the time I was back in Managua I’d hatched a plan to see Emily again. It was farfetched, but incredibly I found a truck driver willing to take Hamaca, Ima, and me across four nations to Guatemala, free of charge. The only question was: could he get us there soon enough?

A border official in Honduras turned out to be a big obstacle.

“Before bringing saleable merchandise into Honduras,” he declared, “tourists have to pay deposits, which they forfeit if they sell anything here without paying taxes.”

I didn’t want to put that much money in hands from which it might not ever be returned, and after a great deal of back and forth the official offered a far less-expensive alternative, “We can also put a soldier in your truck to make sure you don’t sell your horses here.”

Dressed in combat fatigues and a helmet, the soldier who rode in our truck’s cargo area with Hamaca and Ima carried a submachine gun, and I never once saw him smile.

El Salvador was the most interesting country we crossed during that mad dash to Guatemala. There almost everyone, it seemed, carried a pistol and/or rifle, and signs in bars and restaurants warned patrons to: ‘Check your firearms at the door and reclaim them when you leave.’

Shades of Wyatt Earp.

I reached Guatemala City a day after Emily, but in time to see her for an hour downtown, two hours in a park, and a quick goodbye at the airport. After her return flight to Costa Rica took off, I sat thinking about Emily a long time and then left the terminal, unaware the plane I saw landing was hers – returning with engine trouble.

She and I could’ve spent an entire day together if she’d known where to contact me. But I’d been too proud to tell her I was sleeping in a horse stall between those where Hamaca and Ima were stabled.

By then my trusty equine companions had shared quarters with domesticated deer, llamas, all manner of livestock, and even convicts. My accommodations too had been varied. One of my first hosts was Peru’s richest man and since then I’d enjoyed the sterling hospitality of people from all walks of life as well as the military, police, and Guardia Civil. And when no host or affordable hotel was available, I’d slept in tool sheds, chicken coops, feed troughs, and empty jail cells

In Mexico, the last country between me and home, I was subjected to my most time-consuming and expensive border crossing yet. An hour after an official named Maximo ordered me to unpack my duffel bags, I finally had all my worldly goods spread out for his inspection.

“Put everything back,” he then told me without even glancing at what I’d worked long and hard to unpack.

I don’t think he liked Americans because next he refused to accept my mares’ health certificates and summoned a government veterinarian from Tapachula, forty kilometers away. The vet arrived hours later, filled out a health certificate without even looking at my mares, and charged me a hefty fee for travel expenses.

“To prevent you from selling your horses in Mexico without paying taxes,” Maximo then decreed, “you’ll have to leave a deposit.”

I would’ve been seen as a potential vagrant and denied entry if I’d admitted I didn’t have that much money. In Panama I’d gotten around the same requirement by suggesting that officials make a notation in my passport stating I had to leave with my mares. I showed Maximo my passport to prove it.

“This is Mexico,” he barked angrily. “We don’t care what they do in Panama or anywhere else.”

Before he said that, I’d planned to show him my letters of introduction from Costa Rica’s, Nicaragua’s, and Guatemala’s Secretaries of Agriculture. But that no longer seemed like a good idea.

“May I please speak to your superior?” I asked.

El Jefe as he was called, turned out to be equally rigid.

“My job,” he told me sternly, “is to enforce the law and that I will do. You must pay the deposit or get out of Mexico.”

“Please Señor,” I said. “Is there any way I can cross your country without that deposit?”

“There’s one. You can ship your horses to California by train.” Then El Jefe sternly warned, “But if you unload them anywhere for even an instant, they’ll be confiscated, and you’ll be jailed.”

At the train station I asked the freight agent to please find the cheapest possible way to ship my mares to Mexico City. Clearly resourceful and sympathetic he carefully examined his rule book and discovered a technicality under which I could ship them express for a ridiculously low price.

The next day I led Hamaca and Ima up a slippery steel ramp and tied them among packages and crates in an express car, intending to watch over them during the trip. But the man in charge ordered me to leave.

First I put my mares in a corner  and penned them in with large wooden crates.

“Good idea,” the attendant said. “Thank you.”

But then to his horror Ima – a confirmed wood chewer – began tearing strips off those crates’ edges.

“I’ll stay and keep her from doing that,” I volunteered.

“No,” he replied. “You can’t ride in this car and that’s final.”

Because our train went through bandit country, it was protected by rifle-carrying soldiers. Each time the train made one of many brief stops, they watched suspiciously as I rushed to the express car, checked on my mares, and dashed back to my seat barely in time to avoid being left behind.

Days later at midnight in Mexico City’s huge railway yard a kindly employee let me stable Hamaca and Ima in a vacant boxcar on the condition that we continue on to California in the morning. But I didn’t have enough money and lay awake all night in my sleeping bag on a freight cart in a warehouse, planning the escape that would make me a hunted fugitive.

If it succeeded.

In the morning after one set of guards left and before their replacements arrived, I unloaded Hamaca and Ima, rode down the tracks to the Mexico City stockyards, and hid them among thousands of beef cattle in hundreds of pens. After the man in charge let me shower and shave in the workers’ bathroom, I dressed in my best – but none-too-good – clothes and transferred from bus to bus all the way across sprawling Mexico City to the Ministry of Agriculture.

“I’d like to see the Secretary please,” I told the receptionist.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “but you can’t just walk in here and ask to see him. You need an appointment.”

“This is an emergency,” I said. “Please show him these letters.”

She read my letters of recommendation from three of her boss’s Central American counterparts and passed them along to his assistant.

An hour later he returned and said, “Follow me please.”

When I reached the Secretary’s desk he extended a welcome that obviously surprised his staff, and within an hour I had a document giving me, Hamaca, and Ima permission to cross Mexico however I chose.

Around the clock for days I met trucks delivering cattle to the stockyard, hoping for one going my way with space for Hamaca and Ima. But their drivers wanted more than I could afford. When I finally found two in my price range, they were loaded with fresh cowhides and each had space for only one horse.

One dry cowhide in a trail horse class will frighten most horses and fourteen tons of bloody ones, I feared, would spook even Hamaca and Ima. But by then they considered the unusual normal and willingly followed me into the tight spaces behind those stacked hides.

Separated for the first time in months, they called to each other – especially when stopped at gas stations – as we traveled north for the rest of that day and all night. In those trucks and others we traveled nearly a thousand miles. But four hundred miles short of California I was down to my last eighteen dollars. I’d learned to make a dollar go a long way – but not that far.

The solution came in the form of a job for which my pay would be a free train ride to the border at Mexicali for Hamaca, Ima, and me. So I became a picador. There are picadores – courageous mounted men who defy death to joust with brave bulls before thousands of spectators – and picadores – dirty, tired men who defy foul odors to care for cattle on railroad trains. I was one of the latter.

“Your work permit,” a government official demanded as I started to load Hamaca and Ima into a boxcar.

“I don’t have one,” I said, “but – ”

“Then you can’t work on this train,” he interrupted, “and that’s final.”

Not sure if my certificate from Mexico’s Secretary of Agriculture would help, I handed it to him. He read it and his attitude changed dramatically.

“As long as you have this,” he said, respectfully returning it, “no one can stop you.”

Picadors’ work on cattle trains is simple. When a steer falls in one of the tightly packed boxcars, he climbs in and uses his prod pole to clear a space so the animal can get back on its feet. Those falls almost always occur when the train stops or starts. While ours was rolling my co-worker, Carlos, and I squeezed through a two-foot-square opening in our boxcar, climbed an outside ladder, and spent much of the day sitting on the roof eating oranges as the desert seemed to flow past.

That night Carlos slept in the caboose and I unrolled my sleeping bag on a foot-wide plank near a boxcar’s ceiling. But sleeping was out of the question while suspended above 32 steers with 64 upward pointing horns and 128 hooves carrying 14 tons of beef. I wrapped a rope twice around myself and the plank, then tied it. I’d seldom been that tired but still couldn’t sleep.

In Mexicali the U.S. Department of Agriculture quarantined Hamaca and Ima for a week, leaving me time to reflect on what they and I had accomplished. In nine months we’d come through towering mountains, steamy tropics, and one of the world’s driest deserts. Our five thousand mile journey across eleven nations had been made on foot, in trucks and trains, and aboard the World War Two airplane that carried us over bandit-infested Colombia.

All totaled I’d ridden and walked some two thousand miles and was finally through dealing with bureaucracies that manufactured unnecessary paperwork to collect fees and corrupt officials who openly solicited bribes.

The day after Hamaca and Ima were released from U.S. quarantine we appeared in the grand entry at the Cattle Call Horse Show and Rodeo, where a camera crew from ABC’s Wide World of Sports filmed us. Then John DeLozier – a man who’d soon be among my best friends drove us past the Salton Sea in a desert below sea level and from there, to his Thunderbird Ranch in Cantil, California. There two more of my friends, Joe and Pat Gavitt picked us up and took us to our final destination, their ranch in Los Gatos, California.

My nine-month status as a celebrity was over. I’d seen sights and experienced events not enjoyed by many tourists. And best of all, my destiny had been linked to the Peruvian Paso breed. While promoting and importing them I made sixty-five trips to Peru, where I formed deep friendships with people I wouldn’t otherwise have met. And now I look back on countless memories that make me smile when they come to mind.

For me at least, that’s the definition of a life well-lived.

“My earliest memory,” six foot, nine inch Verne Albright remembers, “is of an English class where the teacher assigned a one-page story. The other students’ reaction was summed up by a boy who exclaimed, ‘how will I ever write a whole page?’ I however, wrote twenty and in the process discovered my life’s first passion.”

At twenty-one, Verne travelled to Peru and was enchanted by the country and its people. During that first visit he, his wife, and their year-old daughter travelled for three months by jeep in the Andes Mountains of four nations. Over the next half-century he returned to Peru sixty-four times and imported over two hundred of its Paso horses – including a pair he took overland to California, a nine-month trek of over five thousand miles in eleven nations. Riding much of the way, he came face-to-face with killer deserts, witch doctors, bandits, avalanches, poisonous reptiles, vampire bats, and a violent revolution.

“Finding a true calling is a miracle experienced by few,” he once said, “and Peru provided me with two. I promoted its Paso horses world-wide for over fifty years and more recently began writing historical fiction set in its fascinating past and rich culture.”

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Verne is a master story teller and his books are so well written that they’ve appeared on Best-Seller Lists. His historical novel “Playing Chess with God” was Online Book Club’s 2019 “Book of the Year.”

The Equestrian Voices Creative Writing Contest is sponsored by The Plaid Horse and promotes fine, literary prose involving horses and the equestrian experience. This contest is open to writers of fiction and non-fiction, regardless of any previous publications, and awards three prizes. To learn more about the 2019 contest, visit theplaidhorse.com/write.