For the last 14 years, Bernice Ende has lived the nomad’s life, traveling thousands of miles across the United States on horseback for trips that last years.
It’s about the journey, she says — not the destination.
Ende recently compiled a collection of tales from her adventures as a long rider — someone who rides for trips of 1,000 miles or more at a time — and will present her book, “Lady Long Rider” at the Whitefish Community Library on Monday, Sept. 24 at 7 p.m. during a talk titled “In My Own Skin.”
“I wanted to tell stories from each ride that were in their own right chapters that encompassed change or encounters with other people that just took me places,” Ende said. “I wanted to tell stories that everybody could relate to.”
Prior to her long-riding adventures, Ende taught classical ballet and dressage in Whitefish and Trego. She’d ridden horses all her life, but she’d never imagined she’d set out on the journeys to come.
“I was just feeling this need to change, and there was a window of opportunity — I’m not married, there’s no children, parents don’t need me, nobody needs me,” she said. “I needed to do something. I don’t know where the idea came from, because I’ve had thousands of people tell me, ‘I’ve always wanted to do that, I’ve always wanted to ride cross country on a horse.’ I didn’t even know what a long rider was. So when I set out on that ride I was completely ignorant of what could possibly happen.”
Her first ride consisted of a trip from her cabin in Trego to Albuquerque, New Mexico, roughly a 1,200-mile journey that can take a taxing 20 hours just in a car.
Ende’s trip lasted from May to September 2005 and brought her to her knees more than once.
“I cried the day I left, and I cried for weeks. I rode into a nightmare,” she said. “It was so hard. About 1,000 miles out I hit a wall and fell apart. Just sobbing on my knees, you know. ‘I can’t do this, if I go back now they won’t laugh at me.’ Here I’m this 50-year-old woman, what am I doing out here? It was so outside of anything I’d ever done.”
She learned some valuable lessons on that first ride, however.
One was how to ask for help. Giving, she says, is so much easier than asking for help.
Donned in mismatched clothing and gear, Ende says she was always afraid she’d be mistaken for being homeless.
Then there were the other things that went wrong, like her horse going lame or running away.
The biggest lesson, though, was how to overcome fear, especially the fear of failure.
“The fear of not making it. It drove me to ride 40, 50, 60, 70 miles a day. Which is just ridiculous, it’s just horrible that I rode like that but I was just afraid I wasn’t going to make it. So I just kept going all day long,” she said. “To ride with just one horse, I mean you are just pared down to nothing.”
Since that first decision to leave her home and embark on a long ride, Ende has tallied 33,000 miles on horseback over the last 14 years.
She’s completed trips in extreme lengths, from 5,000 to 8,000-mile rides, the latter taking two and a half years to complete.
An average day for Ende looks like this — at dawn she wakes up and prepares for the day, feeding and watering her horses and getting her small camping kit packed and ready. A hardboiled egg and some Earl Grey tea might be for breakfast. Once things are ready, she’s off. Ende says a normal day revolves around water and shelter — where can she refill her water supply, as she’s often traveling through deserts and other dry terrain, and where she can camp for the night once the day’s riding is done. Nowadays Ende says she puts on 20 to 30 miles a day — sometimes more, other times less — with the day spent sightseeing from her perch atop either Honor, Pride or another of the horses she’s depended on for her journeys.
For many years her other trusty companion was Claire, the canine long rider that sat with her in the saddle as they wandered through the countryside.
When asked what the value of a long ride is in today’s age of ubiquitous instant gratification, Ende leaned back in her chair and smiled.
“I have sat and laughed and smiled at that question so many times out there,” she said. “I’ll have a little fire going in the evening, and the sun is going down, and there’s just absolute stillness. I’ll listen to the horses eat, and maybe hear the coyotes or antelope run by, and I’ll sit there in that stillness and just be wrapped in the immensity of the world and realize my smallness. And I just smile and think, ‘And they wonder why I do this.’ It’s just for the love and longing of the ride.”
Embarking on such big and prolonged trips makes one face herself truly and honestly, she says.
In the end, the journey can be transformative.
“It takes you over a long period of time where you have to encounter these things, this doubt and anticipation and fear, all these things we have to encounter. Because it doesn’t happen in a short period of time. That’s not long enough to change us, to move us, to make us more than we are,” she said.
Along the way, Ende says she’s always meeting people who are in awe of what she does.
They tell her it’s been their dream embark on such an endeavor. But for whatever reason, they say, something or someone keeps that dream at bay.
Ende has a simple response for them.
“I say climb into my saddle and ride with me. And they do, and they stay in touch,” she says. “It might be a long ride but it’s certainly not a lone ride.”