Desire to explore country and self prompts adventure ride

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
The trail Matt Parker has been following since last summer eventually will take him across the United States on horseback.

But his real mission is to find himself.

The 24-year-old Californian-by way of a childhood spent in Connecticut and Michigan-is following the American Discovery Trail, a 4,600-mile sojourn through the country’s midsection. It starts at the Pacific Ocean at San Francisco and leads to the Atlantic Ocean in Delaware.

On Friday night, midway between those points, Parker found a warm place to sleep and some good things to eat for himself and his horse, Little Face, at the rural home of Sue and Lloyd Funk just south of Hillsboro.

“It’s a siege,” Parker said of his self-inflicted ordeal. Nursing last sips of hot coffee before heading out again on Saturday morning, he added, “I’m awfully tired.”

Truth be known, Parker ended up at the Funks’ place because Sue, a self-described animal lover, took as much pity on Little Face as she did on its rider.

“They both looked like they needed a place to rest,” she said.

Parker and Funk met at Normal Galle’s animal clinic at the junction of U.S. 56 and Kansas 15 highways just west of town. The American Discovery Trail follows U.S. 56 from Dodge City to Overbrook, near Lawrence.

Parker had stopped at the clinic, hoping for place to stay. Funk, who had seen Parker riding east out of McPherson earlier in the day, came to the clinic to pick up a pet cat.

Once they met, Sue went home, got Lloyd to hook up the stock trailer and the couple transported horse and rider to their farm.

The Funks’ kindness is one of the good things Parker said he’s discovered about so many of the strangers he’s met on his odyssey.

“There’s a vast number of good people in this country,” he said. “Only one in a hundred-maybe one in a thousand-are bad.”

Good people have been been his lifeline, said Parker, who estimates he has spent maybe half his nights sleeping in a tent on the hard ground and the other half in homes, barns and other shelters provided by the generosity of strangers.

The trip has had its share of challenging experiences, Parker said, from a cougar attack in Nevada to hailstorms in eastern Colorado.

On this day, he was barely back in the saddle again after taking a month off to recuperate from a knee injury he suffered in Larned when a horse he was training kicked him.

Since getting back on the trail about a week ago, Parker had spent most of his days riding in rain.

“Rain just kills your morale,” he said. “It’s been cold, and you’re so wet that you don’t ever get dry. All the ditches are completely full of mud. Before you know it, you’re knee-high deep in mud-and these are my only dry pants.

“It gets tedious.”

So, the obvious question: Why pursue it?

“Primarily, I just wanted to see the country-and I couldn’t think of a more difficult way than on the back of a horse,” Parker said.

Why make it difficult?

“I thought there just weren’t enough things that were testing me,” Parker said. “I’m not a masochistic person. I just wanted to know what I was made of for sure-and the only way to do that is to push yourself to the breaking point.

“In my opinion, there just aren’t many real rites of passage these days,” he said. “Especially for a kid who grows up in the city, like me.

“The usual rites of passage are getting your driver’s license, turning 18, turning 21, going to college and stuff-I had done all those things.

“I had gone to college and felt like it hadn’t prepared me in any way for what the real world had for me. But then I thought, if I could ride a horse across the United States, I could do anything.”

Parker said he has been riding horses since childhood. When he decided to follow the American Discovery Trail, he began a training regime-both for himself and his horse, Smoky.

“A lot of people ask me what that involves,” Parker said. “Well, you basically beat yourself up all the time, get used to sleeping in the dirt, and run your horse up a mountain twice a day.

“Eventually, you get to a point where you’re pretty comfortable with those things,” he said. “But that in no way prepared me for this trip. Once I became fully exposed to the rigors of it, nothing can prepare you for it.”

The biggest challenge of all?

Passing the time.

“It’s not like every day is an adventure,” Parker said. “Most days are just boring.”

Because Parker knows the welfare of the horse is as important as his own, he rides about half the time and walks alongside the horse the other half.

The distance he and Little Face cover in a typical day depends not only on the elements, but also the stamina of the horse. That’s something you learn when you spend a lot of time with the animal, he said.

“The dumbest people in the world are the people who say they are great horsemen,” he said.

“It’s just not right to say you’re a great horseman because as soon as you do, you’re going to get killed. There are so many horses out there and each one is different.”

Parker said if he had followed his impulse after his knee injury, he wouldn’t have resumed his ride until next spring. But family and friends challenged him to ride until he gets to the Mississippi River-which he hopes to accomplish in time to be home for Christmas.

“That was a good, strong point to finish at,” he said. “It breaks the country into thirds. That way, I did one third last summer, a third this summer and fall, and then next April I’ll start up and finish it in a few months.”

Parker knows if he follows the American Discovery Trail, he’ll eventually find the Atlantic Ocean.

But what has he discovered about himself?

“I’ve learned my limitations,” he said with a smile. “But I also know what I’m made of, and how much I’m willing to take.”

Looking ahead to the more traditional trail of occupation and career, Parker said this adventure has nurtured his love for travel. A job with National Geographic sounds inviting.

At the same time, the journey has taken him inward, too. Parker said he also hears a call to seminary, perhaps Yale Divinity School.

He’ll have a few more miles to think it over.

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