Grandpa was a hero that rode off into the sunset… sort of.
In June of 2009 my dad and I had been asked to speak together at the Grassland’s Men’s Trail Ride in the wild prairies of Southern Saskatchewan, an annual event that drew attendees from across various parts of Western Canada. The weekend was spent riding horses and sleeping outdoors in some of the most beautiful and rugged countryside in the world. Local ranchers provided horses for the out-of-towners and offered a special kind of hospitality that made each guest feel like he was born to ride. The weekend was filled with all things “cowboy.” Roping, riding, and shooting were followed by fantastic meals of red meat and (more red meat) topped off by hours of story-telling and the singing of old songs around the campfire. In recent years, the camp had moved its base to a spot where a small dirt road provided access for campers and trailers so that those who weren’t able to ride in on horseback were still able to enjoy the experience.
And so it was that my Grandpa, now 95 years old, traveled with two of his sons, as well as several of his grandsons and great-grandsons, to spend one more weekend with his boys around his beloved horses. His mind was alert, and his memory was still razor-sharp. He knew the name of almost every person at the ride, often knowing their parents or grandparent as well. Time, however, had exacted its toll on his body. He had been sick throughout the winter, and had spent several days in and out of the hospital. He was rail-thin and no longer able to walk steadily. His days now included frequent naps and infrequent meals.
When he was up and about, Grandpa rode a small battery-powered scooter to get around. The low-to-the-ground scooter had four 8-inch wheels and was designed as a kind of motorized wheelchair. Grandpa, however, seemed to think that it was built for adventures! The first time I saw him at the trail ride, he was trying to move his scooter over a large tree root that was getting in the way of him making it to the campfire. The low scooter and small tires couldn’t get enough traction, so Grandpa had turned around and taken a run at it! Before I could get close enough to help, he drove straight into the root, and when the scooter made contact, it tipped sideways onto two wheels, tilting precariously close to falling onto its side, but then flipped slowly back onto its four wheels, thudding upright on the ground, the root now its rear-view mirror. And Grandpa just glanced over at me nonchalantly and said, “Hi Steve.” At the time I did not realize that this was going to be just one of the adventuresome rides that Grandpa would take during the coming weekend.
Clearly, Grandpa was prepared for a weekend with ranchers. Astride on his now muddy and dented scooter, Grandpa was dressed fully in his cowboy attire. He wore his cowboy hat and good boots along with a dark-brown leather vest over a long-sleeve navy shirt, buttoned all the way up, and the look was completed with a cowboy string tie. It had been years since he had been able to ride a horse, but he was clearly still a horseman.
I remember standing up to give a talk in the early afternoon and looking out into the crowd to see my son, my brother, my father, and my grandfather all listening as I spoke. The men I loved the most in world, together in the countryside that I love most in the world—what a moment! Their faces, in that setting, are marked in my mind forever. I don’t remember what I spoke about that day or even how it was received, but I do remember that after I had finished speaking and after all the other hands had been shaken, my dad placed his hand on my shoulder and said, “Great job, son.” And a few minutes later, Grandpa scootered up next to me and, with almost the exact same tone, said, “You did well Steve, we’re so proud of you.” (After seven decades of marriage, Grandpa almost always spoke on behalf of himself and Grandma.)
Before supper that day, several men were saddling up to go for a ride. Horses were gathered and somehow Grandpa made his way over to the makeshift corral. He asked one his cowboy friends which horse he would be riding. We all laughed and said, “Well, if you could, which one would you want?” He pointed to a large black Morgan gelding named “Bandero,” who was prancing energetically around in the corner, and said, “That looks like a good one right there.” We all laughed together, again, but Grandpa wasn’t laughing. And then, in that brief moment, a long-time cowboy friend seemed to grasp the significance and possibility of what Grandpa was suggesting. He pointed to a beautiful palomino mare and asked, “Grandpa, how about this one?”
“That should be fine,” Grandpa said.
By now, the rest of us were wondering what exactly was going on. Could Grandpa actually ride one more time? What about his balance? What if the horse misbehaved? If this went wrong, we would all be in big trouble. And with no women nearby to offer words of wisdom about the situation, the mare was saddled, and Grandpa drove his scooter next to her for his final ride. The bulk of the men had already left for their afternoon ride, and a small group of us gathered around and lifted Grandpa off the scooter and into the saddle. I wondered what it was like for him, after spending his entire life near horses—loving them, working with them, living his entire life in their presence—to be given a chance to finish with them. I wondered how it felt for him to be in the saddle again.
One of Grandpa’s many cowboy friends, a man named Glen Elford, rode up next to him and said, “If you’re ready Grandpa, let’s go!” Grandpa smiled and replied, “You be Tonto and I’ll be the Lone Ranger,” and the two of them rode off together.
My brother Tim and I sat on the corral rails in a kind of giddy disbelief about what was happening. I remember having the awareness that something special was taking place, that this would be a defining moment in Grandpa’s life. Tim and I sat and talked about all the time Grandpa had spent on horseback in his life, and all the people that he had connected with through his love of riding. And after what seemed like a long time, Tim pointed way up towards the top of hill and said, “Hey, look up there!” I turned and saw that he was pointing to the top of a hill in the distance, where the outline of two horses and two cowboys was faintly visible. I quickly took as many pictures I could and then prayed that Grandpa would make it down safely.
Several minutes later, Grandpa and Glen rode back into the corral. And as they came past us, I asked, “Grandpa, where did he take you?” He grinned and said, “I’ve been to the top of the world and back again!”
Grandpa passed away a few months later, on October 19th,, 2009. And now, years later, his many friends and family members still tell the story of Grandpa’s final ride. It has become the stuff of campfire stories—the story of a man who lived his life, and completed his life, surrounded by his loved ones and doing the thing that he loved.