There aren’t many of us who will ride a horse clear across the country, but in 1982, before GPS and cell phones, Melissa Chapman did it. On her own with just her horse and her dog for company, Melissa depended on the kindness of strangers to help her complete her journey. In this excerpt from her memoir, Distant Skies: An American Journey on Horseback, we see how a sudden sickness led to a chance meeting that would impact her adventure in more ways than one.
The sun burned high and hot when I stopped Rainy in the shadow cast by a large billboard along the side of the two lanes of Route 54. Rainy snatched at the green grass growing thick there, the reins lying loose on his neck. Gypsy’s tongue hung out as she stretched in front of me on the saddle.
Me, I just stared, in wonder you could say, up at the great sunflower welcoming us to Kansas.
We were halfway across the country.
Rainy got a complete checkup at the veterinary clinic in Fort Scott, the first town we came to in our new state. One of the vets, Dr. Durling, offered us a place to stay the night. In the morning, the family bustled about, getting ready to leave on vacation. Despite all she had to do, Mrs. Durling was kind enough to make a big breakfast before I hit the road. I appreciated it, but for some reason, I could hardly eat.
I felt weak when I tried to tighten the girth of my saddle, but I swung up and waved goodbye as the Durlings packed up their car.
Two miles. That’s about how far I got before my vision started to turn black around the edges. I slid off Rainy and stood there, leaning on him. It felt like I was going to faint. My legs trembled. My horse stood motionless, not pulling to eat like he usually did whenever we stopped. Gypsy sat quietly, staring up at me. I felt a sharp pain in my side and wooziness in my head. The dizziness came again as I rested my head on Rainy’s side.
I walked a few steps on wobbly legs and threw up in the tall grass, holding the reins behind my back. Gypsy whined nervously. I was sweating like crazy and could barely pull myself back up in the saddle.
Rainy began to walk slowly along. I struggled to stay upright. I didn’t hear a car pull up beside us, my head was buzzing so. Then, distantly, I heard my name.
“Missy? We came to say goodbye. We’re—hey, Missy…are you okay?” It was the Durlings, heading out on their trip. Mrs. Durling’s face was full of concern as she said, “You’re bright red.”
I looked at them with watery eyes. “I think I’m sick.”
“Go back,” Mrs. Durling said without hesitation. “Go back to our house. You can stay until you feel better.”
She told me where to find a key, and I thanked her feebly before turning around and backtracking to the Durlings’ place. It was all I could do to untack Rainy and turn him out in their pasture. I fumbled my way into their house and immediately crashed on a sofa in their basement.
The whole day passed as I drifted in and out of sleep. I got sick again. I managed to get up once to check Rainy. Gypsy stayed right beside me, wherever I was.
When I woke once again, it was almost evening. I checked on Rainy and didn’t feel as bad—just weak. I even managed to drink a little water. I stood outside on the deck for a few minutes, looking down at my horse, when I heard a sound from inside the empty house. I turned to see someone walking toward me and yelped in surprise.
“Sorry! Sorry! I didn’t mean to scare you! But John asked me to come check on you, see if you’re all right. I’m Dr. Reid Scifers, Dr. Durling’s partner.”
I stuttered, trying to find a response, unsettled because I’d been in my own strange world all day, sick, and I knew I must look a fright. And maybe a little bit because Dr. Reid Scifers was really, really cute.
“I think I’m feeling better,” I offered with a weak smile. I was so glad this guy hadn’t shown up while I was heaving in the toilet or lying in oblivion on the basement sofa.
“So, they tell me at the clinic that you rode here? From New York?” Reid motioned toward one of the deck chairs, and I thankfully sat down, acknowledging I was pretty shaky.
“I did.” I was relieved to have something to talk about other than being sick. “With him.” I indicated Rainy, out in the pasture. “And Gypsy, too.” I nodded toward my dog, who it occurred to me should’ve barked when this young vet had come into the house, what with me in my weakened state and all. But she hadn’t. In fact, there she was, scooched up to him, practically sitting on his feet, gazing up at him adoringly.
“Why are you riding your horse across the country?” Reid asked. “And how’s he holding up?”
About an hour later, Reid and I were still talking on the deck; we were both surprised when we realized how much time had passed.
“I better get going,” he said. “I have to stop back at the clinic.”
He rose and walked toward the door, then turned back toward me.
“Are you feeling well enough to go to the rodeo at the fair tonight, maybe get something to eat?”
“Sure,” I answered, trying not to seem too eager or show how glad I was that he’d asked. And I was definitely feeling better.
The Little Britches Rodeo was pretty funny—the equivalent of Little League to baseball, basically giving little guys a chance at a sport for big guys. Reid and I laughed and talked and walked around the fair. My stomach reminded me I was not ready for any midway offerings yet.
It felt like everyone at the fair knew Reid and stopped him to say hello or ask him about a calf or pony. He spoke kindly to everyone. It’s easy to tell when someone is just putting on an act and when someone is for real.
Back at the Durlings’, Reid came out to meet Rainy as I did night check.
“Will you be here tomorrow?” he asked.
I still felt a little weak, and fun with Reid aside, I’d already decided I was going to stay and rest one more day.
“Because if you’re here,” he went on, “I could come back over and give Rainy a really good checkup. If you want me to,” he added.
I could have mentioned that his partner, Dr. Durling, had just checked Rainy. But I didn’t. Truth was, it made my heart light to think of seeing him again the next day. Besides, it wouldn’t hurt for Rainy to have as many vet checks as possible.
“Yes, I will be here tomorrow,” I answered.
For Rainy. Of course.