With cowboy hats on their heads and spurs in place, trail riders saddled up and set off on journeys that would last five days to three weeks. Leaving behind the comforts of home _ most of them, anyway _ thousands of people hit the open road, headed for Houston, on horseback and in wagons in a throwback to the Wild West.
The 13 trail rides converged in Houston for the world's largest livestock exhibition and rodeo, a monthlong event that began this week. The tradition started with a handful of men embarking on a trail ride in 1952 to draw attention to the rodeo, and they now range from a ride that starts about 70 miles west of the city to a 386-mile-long trek that leaves from a South Texas border town.
"To me, it's walking history," says 80-year-old Mac Goldsby of Houston, who has been participating in the Valley Lodge Trail Ride since its inception in 1959 and now has a vantage point from the ride's lead covered wagon. "There's so many people that don't know about horses, mules. If anything, it might inspire them to read history."
This year, about 3,000 people participated to pay homage to the Texas tradition and welcome the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo to town. As the 140 riders or so of the Valley Lodge Trail Ride made their way into the city, the line of horseback riders accompanied by covered wagons and buggies, people rushed out of offices and restaurants, snapped pictures with cell phones and waved. "The little children pointing and getting their parents to look" is a highlight, said Goldsby, whose three children all took part in the ride as they grew up.
Several rodeos across the United States use trail rides to draw attention, with riders often saddling up generation after generation. Inspired by Houston's tradition, organizers of the Dixie National Livestock Show and Rodeo in Jackson, Miss., started with one trail ride in 1981. They now have eight rides, said Helen Fleming, who coordinates the "wagon trains" for the Dixie National. The San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo, which was held last month, also kicks off with a convergence of trail rides.
Of the Houston trail rides, several are dedicated to honoring the black and Hispanic cowboy traditions. Nannie Francies, trail boss for the Prairie View Trail Ride, said she believes the ride has helped educate people about the rich traditions of black cowboys.
"There have been black cowboys forever," said Francies, who founded the ride along with her husband in 1957.
But her favorite part, she says, is the day when people gather before the ride begins and catch up with what everyone else has been doing. The camaraderie is also the big draw for the Valley Lodge riders, many of whom remember the night Kelli Braunagel was born.
Kelli, now 15, is actually a bit of a legend since she was "born on the ride." Her mother, who didn't ride that year, went into labor after meeting up with the participants for their evening dinner.
"The only day I missed was the day she was born," said Kelli's father, Tim Braunagel, who returned to the riders to hand out cigarettes and rode in the parade the next day.
Kelli, clad in a brown western shirt with embroidered flowers and a pair of brown and pink cowboy boots, said she's out of class for three days for the ride, but feels taking part is an education in itself.
"I miss school and everything, but I'm kind of getting a history lesson," she said.
Debbie LeBouf, a high school chemistry teacher who along with her husband has ridden in the Valley Lodge ride for about a decade, said the ride on her horse Sneakers offers a break from the bustle of daily life.
"I'm a talker," LeBouf said. "When I'm on my horse, most of the time I zone out and I don't. It's peaceful."
While plodding along on a horse at a couple of miles an hour harkens back to times gone by, there are plenty of modern conveniences. Most people sleep in trailers that carry horses in the back and are equipped in the front with a bathroom, kitchen and bed. One of the ride members drives a flatbed truck filled with portable toilets to stops. Early each morning before riding out, they drive their vehicles to their destination and are shuttled back to get on their horses and into wagons.
And Valley Lodge, known as the "Champagne Ride" for its steak and beverage dinner on the first night, has a catered meal waiting at each lunch and dinner stop. As the cooks prepare a feast of catfish one evening while the sun begins setting, groups of riders gather to catch up. With country music wafting through the air, a few couples start to two-step.
The rides are joined by law enforcement officials along the way to make sure they are safe as they make their way toward Houston. In the city on Friday, it was the police mounted patrol that helped them move along.
"They're holding onto a tradition," said Lt. Randall Wallace. "If not for them, we lose the tradition."