Singing for my Tevis Cup Supper
Copyright Ken Harris 2008
The Western States One Hundred Mile endurance ride began in the 1950s when Wendell Robie of Auburn, California, gathered together with some trail riding friends. The topic under discussion: whether modern horses and riders were as tough as the Pony Express horses and riders of the 19th century. They knew roughly where the old mail trail from Tahoe City to Auburn was, over the Sierra Nevada mountains, and they decided to try if they could make it over that trail inside of twenty-four hours. They decided to make a race of it.
It was a wild, wooly, uncurried experience at first, but by the time Joanne made the ride in 1961 and I followed suit in 1963, the ride was much more under control. There were vet examinations on the day before the race, enforced rest stops along the way with entrance and exit vet checks, and a vet check immediately upon finishing. Additionally, a team of vets checked the first ten finishers on the morning after the ride. There were horseshoers at the major stops and each rider brought his own pit crew to nurture the horse during the rest periods. The local radio club monitored the trail in case any riders fell off the trail or got lost.
It should be noted that there were no medical doctors in attendance. Care was taken to be sure horses weren’t hurt, but if humans were stupid enough to try to ride a hundred miles over rugged mountain terrain in 24 hours, they deserved what happened to them.
For a while Joanne and I served on the Board of Directors and she always devoted a weekend to being a vet secretary while I rode the drag from Michigan Bluff to Auburn. This was the last 40 miles, rough ones, through lava flows, river fords, and all done in the dark with terminally tired riders.
Awards ceremonies were held on the evening following the ride. Buckles were handed out and people got very emotional about their horses. Sometimes entertainment was provided. It came to Wendell’s attention that I sang folk songs and accompanied myself on the guitar. He invited me to provide the music for the evening, free of charge, or course. He didn’t give me any guidelines on what he though was suitable entertainment, but in retrospect I realize he had something like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon or Tumbling Tumbleweeds in mind.
Of course, I sang nothing of the sort. I took a rollicking little tune, a song about an Arab who introduced camels into California named Haji Ali, known to one and all as Hi Jolly, and substituted my own words.
I presented the result on the night of the awards dinner. I’ve lost the words, but I can remember some of them. I touched on how easily you could get lost in the forest.
“Our trails are quite clearly marked,
At least, that’s what they say.
You can’t get lost unless you’ve really tried;
But when our trails you’ve ridden
And you see how well they’re hidden,
You’ll wonder how you ever made the ride.”
The humor of the verse comes from the fact that the trail was marked with yellow ribbon. But so were last year’s trail and the trails before that. Nobody ever took yellow ribbons down. They just put up new ones. I think Wendel had an interest in a yellow ribbon factory, because over the years we put up a lot of yellow ribbons. And we never took any down. So, a Virginia or Massachusetts rider might come along and discover, “Hello, I’m in the Yellow Ribbon Forest. Can the Yellow Brick Road be far away?”
Another verse dealt with all the expert advice old timers gave to new riders.
“There’s Robies and there’s Tellingtons
And Moyles by the score,
And every one has told you how to ride.
They advised you night and day,
But you made it anyway,
So you can be forgiven for your pride.”
The more verses I sang, the louder the laughter, and the grimmer Wendel’s expression grew. The chorus, as I remember, finished with:
“Call me a chicken drover,
But if I ever do this over,
Lock me up and throw the key away.”
The audience laughed, they cried, and finally they gave my song a standing ovation. Judging from Wendel’s granitic look, I wouldn’t be invited back, but if I left immediately, I might make it out of the parking lot alive.
I was right. I was never invited back.