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Pod Corner: Ride of Passage

: [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The introduction to this story incorrectly implied that Matt Parker was the first person to cross the country on horseback. Parker was the first person to cross the country on horseback using the American Discovery Trail.]


Twenty years ago, a young man from Michigan set out to do something no one had done before. Matt Parker rode across the country on a horse. The horse was named Smokey, and the two of them used a system of trails known as the American Discovery Trail. That journey is the subject of the Michigan Radio podcast Ride Of Passage. Here, host Laura Weber Davis asked Parker about his first major adventure on the trail. He's in Forest Hill, Calif., and it's his last night before leaving the comfort of civilization.

MATT PARKER: When the locals found out who I was, there were these two bars, and they would periodically grab me from one bar, and the people who patronized the bar across the street would come over and take me over to their bar. And so I was sort of ping-ponged between these two places. But one of the bars, and I'm not sure if it's still there or not, it was like directly across the street from the Forest Hill Lodge, and it had tons and tons of deer antlers and things like that, like, inside.


LAURA WEBER DAVIS, BYLINE: Matt, spinning yarns with locals plying him with beer, says, hey, looks like the hunting is good around here.

PARKER: And then that started sort of this story amongst a lot of the locals of saying, yeah, well, the deer hunting used to be really good.

WEBER DAVIS: But not anymore, they say.

PARKER: I kind of didn't think much about that at the time.

WEBER DAVIS: But Matt would revisit that conversation soon. Matt headed back to the Forest Hill Lodge that night and soaked in what would be the last truly comfortable night for a stretch of time that he couldn't foresee. In the morning, Matt collected Smokey from a paddock about a mile down the road, cinched his saddle, and they rode off into the Sierras.

PARKER: The Sierras are quite steep, so it's sort of like peak, valley, peak, valley. There's some very well-known drop-offs that are in excess of a thousand feet down. There's a section called, like, One Horse Gap, which is literally like a shelf road that's wide enough to get, you know, a horse through it and that's it. And I'm not a fan of heights. So it was an experience. It was an experience.


WEBER DAVIS: Matt and Smokey wound their way along a narrow trail of shale and exposed roots. Scrub brush and craggy gray rock lined the path. Matt and Smokey passed through Deadwood Cemetery, its weather-worn wooden sign arching over markers for its 17 residents. They passed by long-abandoned sluice mining operations, the decay of 19th century entrepreneurship. Lodgepole pines blanketed the landscape, their wind-whipped broken limbs giving it once the feeling of a lush, untrodden forest and a tinderbox.


PARKER: The day kept getting longer and longer. And I was looking around going, you know, there's no place to camp. I was always thinking, OK, time to make camp.


PARKER: I remember going through this sort of green area where there was a seep nearby. There's just a little bit of water that had allowed green grass to grow. And I said, OK, well, this is the best we get. And it was right on the trail. And I tethered Smokey to this one pine tree. And I set my tent up, you know, close to it. And I started hearing this really funny whistling noise. To this day, I can't explain it. But this sounded like a - it was bizarre. It sounded like a human whistle.


PARKER: And it would circle my camp. And I remember hearing it down in the wash, but you can't really see. And I'd hear it at like my 12 o'clock. And then I would hear it, you know, in the woods, you know, 30 yards away.

WEBER DAVIS: Like echoing or...

PARKER: Yeah, just - it sounded like a - like it was like (whistling).

WEBER DAVIS: But was it bouncing off the rocks?

PARKER: No, no, no, no, no. It was - the source was moving. And so I would just hear this whistle. It sounded like a person whistling, but - and it didn't sound like a bird. And it kept - it would circle me. And it never stepped on itself.


PARKER: It was always - I would hear it, and then it would come over, you know, to like my 9 o'clock position, you know, 6, 7 o'clock behind me, then to like, you know, 3, 4 o'clock position, then back to - you know, like, over time, you know, over the course of several minutes. And so it was just kind of spooky.


PARKER: And I was - it just - it bugged me. And it bugged Smokey. He would just - he would hear it, and he would just stop.

WEBER DAVIS: If we can take a moment here and head back to the bar in Forest Hill, Matt, surrounded by deer antlers, asks about the hunting in the Sierras. The locals say the hunting used to be good but not anymore.

PARKER: And I remember one guy looking at me and saying, yeah, there's a mountain lion problem. They're thick up there. They were kind of bitter over the fact that the mountain lion population had grown to a point where they estimated it was a problem. And they were actually killing the deer, and that had sort of changed the hunting dynamic locally.

WEBER DAVIS: The mountains were thick with wild cats.


PARKER: And for anyone, any normal person who doesn't try to look for mountain lions, I suppose, as a living, seeing a mountain lion is extraordinarily rare.


PARKER: So finally, it got dark. And this is summertime, so it's dark dark.


PARKER: I laid down in the tent. And I had my pants off and my boots off. Neither one of those were ever repeated on the trip.


PARKER: And I'm just drifting off. I'm like, you know, I, you know, right at that stage where your body gives like an almighty, like, lurch. And I hear Smokey just scream. Like, he just screams. And this, you know, like, you know, like just - like, it sounds like there is a brawl happening right at the foot of my tent. And then I hear this huge scream of a mountain lion, and I rip open the tent. And then I hear this - the scream and this thwack, like the sound of, like, Rocky Balboa hitting a side of beef. Or if you ever hear a horse kick another horse, you can feel it in your chest. Like, it's like a, you know, like, this, like, whack, you know, like this very thick smack. And as I get the tent open, Smokey then takes off down the trail. Like, he's, like, gone. And I'm just like, oh, s***.


PARKER: I throw on my boots. I'm still in my boxers. I grab my gun and my flashlight, and I take off after Smokey. And it's only as this process unfolds that I realize, like, there's a mountain lion that's at least out there willing to take on a horse, which is either they're crazy, you know, they're starving or they're big enough to think that a horse could actually be a meal. None of those are good things.


WEBER DAVIS: Was there any part of you that was like, my horse is gone, I'm alone out here?

PARKER: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, that was - at that point, it was just terror.

WEBER DAVIS: And it was dark.

PARKER: Oh, yeah.


PARKER: Pitch black.


PARKER: Pitch black. Nothing. I don't remember any light whatsoever.

WEBER DAVIS: Terror for you, terror for him...


WEBER DAVIS: ...Or just, like, all...


PARKER: All bad terror. All bad terror at that time. So I get to the creek, and I don't see him, but I also don't see another set of hoofprints going across the creek. Like, so he ran over the creek and just kept on going. So I'm like, well, he's got to be around here someplace. And I'm, like, calling to him - nothing. And so I start a grid pattern with my flashlight, and I see like sort of the creek running in front of me, the spines of this really sharp pine tree, and then beyond it, these eyes and a whole bunch of steam.

DETROW: That was an excerpt of the podcast Ride Of Passage. You can find out just what Matt Parker saw and learn about his 4,000-mile adventure with his horse, Smokey, at michiganradio.org or wherever you get your podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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