When Melissa Chapman was 23 years old, she said goodbye to her happy, loving family, her job, and her boyfriend. Carrying a puppy named Gypsy, she climbed aboard a horse and rode away from everything, heading west. With no cell phone, no GPS, no support team or truck following with supplies, Chapman quickly learned that the reality of a cross-country horseback journey was quite different from the fantasy. Her solo adventure would immediately test her mental, physical, and emotional resources as she and her four-legged companions were forced to adapt to the dangers and loneliness of a trek that would span over 2,600 miles, beginning in New York State and reaching its end on the other side of the country, in California.
Melissa wrote about her journey in her new memoir DISTANT SKIES. We had a chance to ask her a little about what that long-ago trip did for her life, and what she hopes the book that chronicles it will do for others.
Your book DISTANT SKIES chronicles a journey you took across the USA in 1982. You were 23 and alone but for your animals—a horse and a dog, and later, a mule. Do you think a young person could make that same journey today? If so, how would it be different?
MC: I definitely think a person, young or not-so-young, could make a similar journey now. It’s a very physical experience but most importantly, it a journey of someone who is ready to step out of the familiar world and at the same time be willing to become even more a part of the world around us. I know of several “Long Riders” who would be considered elderly who rode on this type of trip and much longer!
But there are most definitely big differences between now and the eighties when I made my journey on horseback. The main one of course, being the advancement of technology, which created a dependence on constant contact and electronics. Long-distance adventurers of today use these tools to know things like exact miles from one place to another…the days of directions like “go down the road a fair piece and watch for a dirt turnoff past a big red barn” are a thing of the past. Also gone is the adventure of getting lost, and finding your way by instinct, and using things like the sun and the stars! It’s a little sad to me that now it’s so easy to find out what’s up ahead beyond the curve of the road by looking at your computer or your phone, but the positive side of that is that it’s safer! And with GPS, blogging, social media…people will always know where you are and will be able to follow your journey along with you.
Also, in the years between then and now, many rural places have become more suburban. I still ride almost every day and I can definitely say there are more places developed and more traffic on country roads, which horseback riders always have to consider.
Despite these changes, I know we will continue to hear of people trying, and sometimes completing, modern-day cross-country rides. It just calls to some people, and with the right horse and the right mindset, there is still open land and the open road. And the solid belief that really, most people out there in the world are good. I’ll always believe that.
When do you first remember dreaming about a cross-country adventure on horseback? Did it begin organically, or were you inspired by a book, movie, or event?
MC: The desire to ride cross-country on a horse came from my own head and heart. I remember daydreaming about just living on horseback and wandering around the country as a very young child. I remember once, in about seventh grade, telling a boy I went to school with that I was going to ride my horse across the whole country. I didn’t even own a horse, and he probably thought I was weird, but I remember that exact incident.
My father introduced me to the book The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters by Robert Lewis Taylor, about a boy and his father traveling west. It became my favorite book. I’m sure this, and many of the types of books I was interested in, fanned the flames of my dream.
Your journey became less about the places you went and more about the people you met along the way. Are you still in touch with those you came to know on your trip?
MC: I remember trying to assure my worried parents that horse people would help us out if needed. I did believe that, but I had absolutely no idea how much unknown people would become part of our journey. How the way of passing us along from one farm to another, and checking up on us and watching out for us, would become one of the reasons we actually completed the whole thing.
So many people, and I should say, not just horse people, became interested and emotionally invested in seeing me and my animals follow my dream and accomplish our goal—it still amazes me to this day. After my first draft of the book, when I had to make my book a shorter, more manageable size, I hated having to eliminate some of their stories, because they were so important to me!
Many of those special people you meet in the book are a part of my life to this day. Several of my “trip families” were at my wedding. Nancy Goodman and I can still talk until phone batteries die. Naomi and I write and occasionally see each other. A story that comes to mind is the day my first child was born, I woke up after an emergency C-section to see my baby, my husband, my mom, my sister, and a vase of yellow roses from Tom and Barb Kee, who had been waiting by the phone in Kansas. So absolutely, many treasured and life-long friendships came from this journey.
What is one thing you hope readers will take away from your book?
MC: This is an important question to me.
I think it’s an uplifting story and that people will be glad they read it.
But I’m especially hoping that someone who reads my book may be inspired to pursue their own dream, whatever it may be. I’m hoping that people will be reminded of the America that is about freedom and kindness. I hope readers can see that woven throughout the stories is a reminder that there’s goodness everywhere, and that even on the bad days, there’s still the possibility of finding that goodness somehow. And that you have to believe in yourself and be open to believing in others. And that when things don’t go as planned or things are hard, you just keep going.
You just have to keep going.
Melissan Chapman’s memoir DISTANT SKIES is available now from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.
CLICK HERE to order now.
“In Melissa Chapman’s debut memoir, we meet characters that are always interesting, and almost without fail, kind. We read writing that is succinct and evocative. The author’s relationship with her animals and love for the land does what Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley in Search of America did for me—it inspires both thoughtfulness and action—and that is my favorite kind of book. This girl, riding bravely across the continent, reminds us to appreciate the journey—for the end comes all too soon. Distant Skies will move you, guaranteed.”
Author of In the Middle Are the Horsemen
Trafalgar Square Books, the leading publisher of equestrian books and videos, is a small business based on a farm in rural Vermont.