ELKO – The build up to the Grass March/Cowboy Express ride focused on the protest. And the conclusion of the coast-to-coast horse ride centered on organizer Grant Gerber’s death.
On Thursday, trail boss of the Grass March/Cowboy Express Jess Jones filled in details about the day-to-day experience at an Elko County Commission meeting.
On a mildly foggy September morning, seven riders saddled up their horses on a Pacific beach in Bodega Bay, California, then headed east.
Jones said the riders took turns in 5-mile stretches with new riders waiting up ahead to continue the journey. Twenty-eight horses were used, as well as a couple of mules. After a while, the groups reduced the legs to four miles.
“We were leap-frogging, which sped us up,” he said. “We were able to ride our horses a little harder and cover more country. … We were able to rotate quite a bit, but we would use every horse every day.”
Before leaving, the horses’ diets were supplemented with alfalfa cubes to prepare their bodies’ digestive system for the sustenance. Every few days, more cubes were purchased, Jones said. The horses also ate grains.
California was difficult, according to the trail boss, because of the tight roads with narrow shoulders and traffic concerns. In response, the riders mapped out routes on the back roads.
“By the time we got through California our horses were used to pretty much anything,” he said.
Along the way, people opened up their horse arenas and homes for the riders.
“Trying to find places for 28 head of horses is kind of a logistical nightmare every night,” Jones said. “And the farther east you go the less rodeo ground you can find with places to hold them.”
Cowboys in Nevada, Utah, Colorado and Kansas helped the original group for portions of the trip.
“Each day started at about 4 o’clock in the morning and ended at midnight,” he said.
The roads east of Kansas were largely unfamiliar to the group.
“We didn’t really have the time or the funds to drive the trail ahead of time, the way we would have liked it,” Jones said. “So every night, I’d sit down with a map and my phone and look at roads and try to figure out the best route.”
Along the way, the procession was mostly met with welcoming faces.
In some areas, though, onlookers reacted with bewilderment.
“You’d get a few funny looks riding through town,” Jones said, remembering a moment in Tahoe. “People don’t know quite what to expect when they would walk out of a dark casino and see a horseback rider.”
In fewer instances people expressed anger.
Jones remembered a yelling California driver who threw garbage out the vehicle window at a rider.
Wild horse advocates protested the Grass March in Salt Lake City, but Jones said the two sides were able to talk through their differences.
Jones said riders were a little disappointed with a lack of press interest.
“We didn’t really see too many cameras until we got into D.C.,” he said. Although the riders received press coverage in Salt Lake City as well, he later said, as well as newspaper articles in various spots.
Once in the capital, police escorted the group through the city’s busy roads.
“The police there were excellent. They did rolling roadblocks,” he said.
People waved from the roads and schoolchildren had an opportunity to pet the horses.
The Grass March/Cowboy Express began in response to a Bureau of Land Management decision to close grazing on areas of the Argenta allotment in Lander County due to drought. Ranchers argued that feed was plentiful.
However, as the movement grew, additional grievances were cited. Riders carried petitions that called for relief from the federal land managers in the form of a broad land title transfer.
What is next?
Grant Gerber’s wife, Lenore, said BLM Director Neil Kornze, who is also an Elko native, had planned to meet with organizers and ranchers. After Gerber’s death, she said, he sent a letter of condolence. Lenore Gerber replied, inviting him to meet with stakeholders in Elko. She said she is hopeful he accepts the invitation, but hasn’t yet responded.
Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., planned to organize a hearing with ranch families, according to county commission chairman Demar Dahl. He encouraged any ranchers who are concerned about management practices to contact Amodei’s office.