The Red Rock Ride has all the makings for a first-rate riding vacation-awesome scenery, great riding stock, wonderful food, entertainment, and a fine-tuned organization. Although the terrific scenery comes with the territory in Southern Utah and northern Arizona, camping and the enmities come compliments of the Red Rock outfit. It's not only what they do, but how they do it that makes the week such fun.
When asked how the ride started in 1992, Keela Mangum's immediate response: "You want the real story or the National Enquirer one?"
The real story: Keela's husband, Pete, and good friend Robert Houston once participated in a 14-day trip with 150 riders. According to DayLean, Robert's wife, "Both guys came home and said we ought to do that."
"And, being the wives we are ," Keela added, "here we are."
Red Rock Rides (one each spring and fall) are produced by the Houston and Mangum families and are a natural extension of each family's business. Keela and Pete's Mangum Enterprises operates Canyon Trail Rides, which includes horse concessions in three national parks, more than 20 years' guiding experience and about 250 head of livestock. DayLean and Robert of Houston's Trails End Catering have made meals in remote areas their business, serving more than 3 million on movie sets and to forest firefighters throughout the West.
Their families offer plenty of support, much of it behind the scenes from, for example, sons Tawn Mangum and Mickey Houston. Other family members are more visible. Son-in-law Shawn Mortensen, for example, led riders much of the week, and his young son, Cache, the Mangum's 7-year-old grandson, sang around the evening campfire.
The gathering point is Las Vegas with a brief orientation Sunday night prior to leaving for Utah's Zion National Park at 5 a.m. Monday. The outfit's fun-loving approach is immediately apparent when Robert rides into the orientation meeting on Jasper, his "stick mule." Although arrangements can be made to bring your own horse and meet the ride in Utah, Las Vegas offers the nearest major airport, as well as entertainment for non-riding family members.
Monday at Zion Pete's wranglers have horses saddled and waiting to ride the Sand Bench Trail, the only one in the park open to horsemen. Although only a half-day ride, Zion is a must-see and provides an overview of the country and a glimpse of what's to come. Even from a distance, the huge red rock formations along the Virgin River are awe-inspiring. Diehard trail riders might scoff at the idea of driving so far for a relatively short ride, but it's on the way, and the views are well worth it, even those on the subsequent drive to Yellow Creek camp in Kodachrome Basin State Park.
According to early-day rancher Ebenezer Bryce, for whom Bryce Canyon National park is named, it's a heck of a place to lose a cow. And it is-a natural maze of canyons, pinnacles, and spires. Tuesday, riders get an up-close-and-personal look at Bryce's range, which now includes a $27,000, solar-operated outhouse Pete was required to install along a park trail and for which he has taken much good-natured ribbing.
Bryce's massive, convoluted red rocks offer miles of trail through nooks and crannies, ins and outs, and ups and downs. But most riders don't seem to mind sometimes steep, switchback, high-altitude horseback riding and consider this the highlight of the week. While riding Peek-A-Boo Loop, it's easy enough to see how an outlaw in times past could lose a posse in this hide-and-seek-style country.
And it's also easy to see why he might be forced to make faster time by riding through the Box of the Paria, a 30-mile canyon running along the Paria ("dirty water") River. Although prone to quicksand and in-depth flash flooding, the relatively open riverbed long served as the area's main"highway." Early settlers' names, written in axle grease a century ago, still mark the high canyon walls, and a short distance from the lunch break riders could see pictographs from an ancient civilization on a cliff face.
But the 30-mile ride doesn't seem so long when Robert four-wheels up the riverbed Wednesday to supply a welcome late-afternoon ice-cream break. Adding to the riders' delight: He bogs down the machine, and Shawn and his horse must pull him out.
Nonetheless, Thursday's move by vehicle from Utah to the Arizona Strip Badlands and a morning tourist stop offer a welcome change of pace, as do the afternoon ride to a sunset dinner and moonlight ride back to camp. The more open, less extreme terrain yields somewhat easier riding than that in Utah. Also, the dinner site, where the Kanab and Grand Canyons join, creates altogether different but, nonetheless, magnificent views.
The remainder of the ride crosses the Badlands to Tuweep Valley, as the National Park Service spells it, or Toroweap, as others do. But the big draw is the rim of the Grand Canyon near the spectacular Lava Falls overlook. The sheer gorge, with the Colorado a distant ribbon below, offers breath-taking, heart-stopping vistas all its own, appreciated all the more from the back of a horse.
However, the return to the real world Sunday does include a 61-mile drive back to the pavement on route to Las Vegas. Quite a change from riding open country managed by the Bureau of Land Management or as national and state parks, and portions of which became the Grand Staircase of the Escalante National Monument in 1996.
For one thing, organization enters into every facet of the trip. Obviously, moving livestock is in a wrangler's job description even though some campsites do offer catch pens and corrals left over from days gone by. No problem-Pete has several goosenecks and one big rig that carries 18 head saddled or 22 bareback. His crew operates like a well-oiled machine; not a moment or motion is wasted.
The same holds true for the Houstons and their kitchen staff, who make a monumental effort on meals. Coffee's on before daylight, and evening meals are unforgettable. Guest Rex Riddleman commented, "I spend a long time in the military and, as the old saying goes: The Army moves on its belly."
He added, "These people can make the Army move." They not only cook well, but also manhandle tents, chauffeur guests, entertain, and still find time to get horseback. Former high-school football coach Jim Ott, for example, has long been moving people and gear around the region, as has Don Taylor, who spends much of his time outfitting rafters on the Colorado River. The most thankless job could be driving the honey-wagons, but that's not the case for Gene Mitchell. He is, instead, most appreciated, primarily for the two hot-water showers he added to the wagon he built for the ride.
With a capable crew, it's no surprise that things on the Red Rock Ride usually happen when and where scheduled. Forget the usual 30- to 45-minute delays commonly found among groups of riders at pull-out time. Riders leave camp on time-give or take only a few moments. Likewise, when it comes to mealtime or entertainment, guests can bank on what they've been told.
The Mangums and Houstons are pretty savvy about what their guests want, but realize that some people can get too much of a good thing. Riding is the priority, but a little history and entertainment help guests maintain a vacation perspective. Not a bad idea, according to policewoman Lynnae Berg of Portland, Ore., who laughed and said: "You want the facts, just the facts? This ride is amazing, exhilarating, and-I've said it before-better than therapy.
An Un-Corporate Approach
Although Don's previous military experience is sometimes obvious in his demeanor, don't let his approach fool you. His claim to fame is The Pig Song, performed nightly around the campfire-you'll have to hear is to believe it.
Everyone, including sometimes grizzled wrangler Harry "that's H-A-I-R-Y" Hadley, is friendly and accommodating. "It's fun," said Harry of his work, but the people he works with help make it that way. "They're the most honest and upright people I've ever met in my life, and I'd do anything for them."
A wrangler's job includes before daylight-until-after-dark hours. Yet newlywed Trevor Brooksby, Klancy "Red Dog" Ott, and veteran wrangler Kitty Marr remained responsive and alert to both riders and their mounts. Better yet, the wranglers seem do have as much fun as their guests.
Each year curly Syndergaard takes time from his real job to join the crew. "I wish," he lamented, "that Pete would adopt me so I could do this all the time."
According to wife Sheryl, the working vacation is "Curly's Christmas. He gets three or four a year, and they're all Red Rock Rides." An added bonus in 1998: The couple celebrated their 21st wedding anniversary on the ride.
A Riding Recess
Of necessity, the first couple days' riding within the parks must be head-to-tail, to meet park regulations. The remainder of the week, however, riders can set their pace and path of travel-within confines of reason and good judgment. Although horse racing isn't on the agenda, at ride's end last fall, everyone watched Portland, Ore., policewoman Glenda Leutwyler and her horse win a match race against Pete and his mule.
Obviously, by all rights, Pete's livestock should be totally herd bound following a long season of head-to-tail day rides, but they aren't. Too, some might assume vacationing riders are novices, but that's not altogether the case. Most know the basics of horsemanship from riding at home. Foremost, as ride literature states: "This is a western outdoor vacation. It is physically demanding " Once riders enter the Box of the Paria, for example, there are no shortcuts-it's a 30-mile ride.
However, the riding is what prompts many to go. For Scottish horsewomen Elspeth Mitchell and Christie Cowen, the American West offers unique riding experiences otherwise unobtainable. The same holds true for Jane Ford of England. However, Heather Walker, who has gathered cattle and worked racehorses in her native Australia, probably found more similarities than most.
For some Americans, the ride was, simply, a dream come true. Helen Bachman and daughter Becky Norman, both from New Jersey, obviously had ridden together before. "All my life," Helen commented, "I've had the dream of riding a horse across open prairies, where there are no fences and no crowds-just enjoying it. I certainly have this trip."
Even Hugh Cameron of Indianapolis, perhaps the least enthusiastic horseman in the bunch, laughed and said, "I wanted the experience, and it's still fun even for someone who isn't a true horse person-and there are genuine horse-lovers here."
Wife Leah described the trip as "everything I've imagined, considering that I've been thinking about doing something like this since I was 8 and saw the Grand Canyon for the first time."
Most agreed with Letwyler who commented, "The Red Rock Rode met
every expectation I had."