She left her family and all she knew behind, got on her horse, and rode west.
Sounds like a song about some long-ago adventure, doesn’t it?
It was only 40 years ago—not that long ago, really—that a young woman from Upstate New York decided to do just that. Her goal? To reach California by horseback.
Hers is a true story, and a special one, for all the reasons that may be obvious: She was alone except for her Quarter Horse partner Rainy and a rescued puppy named Gypsy (and later, a very special mule she called Amanda). She had no cell phone or GPS or support vehicle following along behind. Hers was a journey that required a certain amount of bravery and a whole lot of faith—in her animal companions, in who she might meet along the way, in a world of unknown that stretched between her hometown and a faraway place she had never seen but had often imagined.
Many years later, after marriage and raising children and other grown-up-kinds of pursuits, Melissa Priblo Chapman wrote a book about that cross-country adventure. Distant Skies: An American Journey on Horseback was published in 2020.
And on April 21, 2023, the story that sounded like a song, became one.
California country songwriter Victoria Bailey released “A Cowgirl Rides On,” an addictively lilting track that transports the listener to a time when such a trip could be taken, before technology and sprawl limited both our dreams and the unidentified “somethings” that draw us to try and live them.
“I was completely shocked to learn that a talented singer like Victoria Bailey had written a song inspired by my book,” says Melissa, author of Distant Skies. “She said in interviews about her forthcoming album [also titled A Cowgirl Rides On and due out in October] that the book moved her, and also mirrored experiences she was going through in her own life…I was incredibly excited and honored that my words and stories had connected with her in such a powerful way.”
One of the keys to good songwriting—good book writing, too—is the line or lyric that listeners can identify with, that draws them in. Victoria Bailey’s song, like Melissa’s book, is full of them.
Having listened to the song “quite a few times now,” as Melissa admits with a laugh, “there are a few lines in particular that really tie together the book and the song. One is when Victoria sings the words ‘the road west was waiting.’ The second I heard it, it took me back to early dawn at a prairie farm in Kansas. Rainy, Gypsy, and I were preparing to set out again after staying at the same place for a while. I felt sad and a little scared, but there was a bright morning star on the horizon, and my animals were there, under that wide sky with me, ready and willing to move onward. The road west was waiting. So here was the memory that came to me, the memory that had caused me to write those words in my book, and now it connected me to this young singer on the other side of the country.
“At its heart, my book is about connections of all kinds, and this feeling of Victoria and I connecting across the miles and the years—well, it was a testament to the power of stories and how they bring us together.”
It seems only fitting, then, that we bring memoir-writer and songwriter together across the miles to connect with us and talk a little about what is now an extraordinary story they share.
Q: Victoria, your song “A Cowgirl Rides On” was inspired by the book Distant Skies by Melissa Chapman. How did you discover the book? At what point in reading it did you know you needed to write a song about Melissa’s journey?
Victoria Bailey: My friend and barnmate, Marissa, passed the book Distant Skies around for all of us at my barn to read, and we all fell in love with Melissa’s story. I don’t think I knew I wanted to write the song until a bit after it sank in.
The story just really connected deep in my heart, and I was so inspired by Melissa’s bravery and strength, and her life truly just became something I felt I needed to express through a song. I was going through an emotional rollercoaster in my own life at the time, romantically—in the middle of the pandemic, and during a house move with a partner, which led into a breakup—and I think that made me feel even more deeply connected to Melissa’s story. It made me recognize life’s bigger picture, and it lit up a little courage for me in making choices in the chapters of my own story.
The song “A Cowgirl Rides On” is truly Melissa’s story and my story woven into one, but it is ultimately an anthem to all the cowgirls. To hopefully pass on the inspiration of her story and her heart and for others to be encouraged to “saddle up” and ride through any hardships and heartaches that life throws your way, and to keep riding through the good moments, too.
Q: You have mentioned that aspects of Melissa’s heartbreaks and lessons corresponded with your own. Is there one of these moments from the book that particularly resonated with you?
Victoria Bailey: There’s a line in the chorus of the song, Through the distant skies, a cowgirl rides on, which is, of course, a play off the title of the book, but it also holds a lot of meaning to me and what I received emotionally from this book. Melissa’s courageous journey, I know, has moved a lot of readers, and I think the thing that stands out the most is, wow, she is so brave and is someone who is greatly admired by anyone who reads her story or anyone who followed along in real-time while she was out there.
She had a lot of heartbreak to leave behind and had a lot of land ahead of her to travel, and through all the bumps in the road, she continued on and never looked back. Through the “distant skies” ahead, she did what cowgirls do and followed her heart.
Melissa Chapman: I love that you sing that. I hope that people hear it and maybe when things get tough for them in whatever they’re going through, those words can help them find strength and keep riding on, just as you say you did.
Q: Melissa, how did the song leave you feeling when you had finished listening to it?
Melissa Chapman: The song left me feeling happy…and so honored to have my journey and my book be the inspiration. I just loved it.
Q: Victoria, how did the book leave you feeling when you finished reading it?
Victoria Bailey: I truly just bawled. I feel like anyone who has read this book knows and believes Melissa is going to make it across the country to California, but it is still this giant feeling of joy that rushes over you reading her final words ending her journey and calling her mom. I just cannot even imagine the joy and feeling of accomplishment on a huge level, and for her to be able to carry that feeling with her forever is what really moves me.
Her love for her animals and her connection with them on this journey is what I imagine to be one of a kind. Having a horse and dog myself really made this part hit home so much; they are my greatest teachers in this life, and I know Melissa’s animals have done the exact same for her.
At the end, she speaks of how many different ways this story is a love story. The love from people she met and that carried her along the way, the love and strength she receives from her beautiful animals, and the most impactful one being the love she poured into this journey and the powerful prints she set across the land she traveled on.
My hope for the song is for people to feel even just a sliver of this inspiration and encouragement in their own lives. For them to connect to the pieces of heartbreak in it and to find comfort in that. And, ultimately, to lead them to this book, as well.
Q: Have you ever experienced a journey like Melissa’s?
Victoria Bailey: I have not experienced anything similar through horseback riding, but I will say I can relate to Melissa taking big leaps of faith. Especially in my music: it’s a scary, vulnerable world to be working in most of the time, to lay these songs out there from the deepest parts of my heart and to perform them night after night. But I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Melissa’s faith in her journey and knowing she could get to the finish line is the kind of confidence I try my hardest to grasp onto.
Q: And speaking of having faith…Melissa, one of the messages you shared in your book was having faith in people to support you and care for you, even when they are from very different places and backgrounds. A big part of your ability to succeed in crossing the country on horseback alone was the kindness of strangers. Do you feel the kindness of strangers is still something we can be open to experiencing today or has society changed in such a way that it is unlikely?
Melissa Chapman: Interestingly, this question comes up a lot when I do book signings and public speaking events. Without fail someone will say, “You couldn’t do that now.” But I can assure you I speak to others all the time who have had or are having similar adventures.
There’s a woman I know who did something somewhat similar in terms of a long ride around 2010, and she has the same kind of stories I do. And a news reporter who interviewed me told me about his youthful journey riding a motorcycle he had just learned to (shakily) drive. He crashed the bike in Colorado on a mountain road. The very first person who came along helped lift the bike into the back of his pickup and took him home to feed him.
Different eras, different genders, different journeys…yet we all have very similar tales of kindness. Society certainly has changed, but I think that helpfulness, kindness, and openness are a core part of who we are, and I have faith and hope that it will always be that way.
Q: Victoria, have you ever relied on the kindness of those you do not know? If so, how did that experience affect you?
Victoria Bailey: This is one of my favorite parts about Melissa’s story—the people she met along the way that became family to her. They play such an important part, woven into the fabric of her journey. I learned a lot from this and keep it in mind everywhere new that I travel now. There is so much kindness preserved in this world, but living in a time that has become, unfortunately, not always as personable and intentional as it once may have been, it is important to grasp onto those who genuinely want to help.
I’ve come across this on the road in music and traveling and performing. I’ve stayed in friends-of-friends’ homes while playing shows in different towns. I’ve eaten a home-cooked meal with a family who opened their arms to me when I played a show for their neighbors on their farm. I’ve been taken on the road by friends who have made it in music and believe in what I’m doing and strive for me to get there, too.
All these people play such a big part in my journey and keep me moving forward. It truly restores my faith in humanity and keeps me connected and grounded.
Q: There is something empowering in Melissa’s solo journey as a young woman, and yet, your song is more about a choice of loneliness. Really, her book is kind of a crossroads of the two. Where is it that you see independence merging into loneliness and vice versa?
Victoria Bailey: I believe, in some ways, they go hand in hand. Although I can’t completely relate to the feeling Melissa had on her horseback journey, I’ve experienced a sliver of this on travels of my own. It takes a lot of guts to choose to set forth on your own and to embrace the solitude and to learn so much from the silence, and, at times, loneliness.
When I was about 23, I began traveling solo a lot, to play music mostly, and I completely fell in love with it. At times, it was really hard, and I had to work through a lot of fears, but I came out so much stronger and filled with new stories, and I really view the world in such a different way. You become so comfortable with just yourself, and independence is truly such a beautiful thing to have.
Melissa Chapman: Everything worthwhile has some type of price you pay, and for the real true incredible untethered freedom I had during the time of my journey, the cost to me was times of deeply felt loneliness. There were times when I lay in my tent and thought, “Not one single person in the whole world knows where I am right now.” It’s a strange feeling in our crowded, busy lives. Yet it was exhilarating, too.
I might think about how alone I was at night, then the next morning the sun would rise over cottonwood trees and a roadrunner would pass across our path, and it would move me and fill my heart with gladness. It made me feel I was right where I was supposed to be. It showed me I did have inner strength.
And I don’t think the deep bond and incredible level of communication with Rainy, Gypsy, and Amanda would have been quite the same if we hadn’t been alone. Victoria’s song captures that part of the journey perfectly. It has an old school, lonesome rider feel to it, and that was certainly part of what I felt during much of my trip.
Q: Tell us about your horses.
Melissa Chapman: I have two Quarter Horses, Starbuck and Rio, and a mule, Abby. Oh, they are just a light in my life! I spend a lot of time out there with them. I am a devoted trail rider and love nothing better than riding out in the woods, fields, and yes, still along the roads!
Victoria Bailey: I just adore my big guy, Weasley. He’s a 19-year-old Mustang, given to me by one of my closest friends and mentors, Britt. He has been my rock and has carried me through really tough times and really good ones, too.
A connection with a horse is truly unmatched. I would have to say my favorite thing about him is his eyes. They are so expressive and so kind; they truly just melt me and make me want to hug his giant head constantly. Although, at times when he’s feeling sassy or stubborn, his eyes tell me that as well, ha ha!
I am so lucky to live really close to where I board him, so I go to visit him almost every day—sometimes to ride, but often just to be with him. Sitting in his stall on the floor and just taking a break from busy life is truly so healing and grounding for me. He knows all my secrets.
Q: Victoria, what are you reading now?
Victoria Bailey: I was recommended Lone Cowboy: My Life Story by Will James, and I am loving it so far. It’s a really inspiring and authentic story of a boy growing up in the West in the 1800s. There are beautiful sketches from the author throughout the book as well, which add so much charm to reading through it.
Q: Melissa, what are you listening to?
Melissa Chapman: I’m almost embarrassed to admit how many times I’ve taken a drive and played “A Cowgirl Rides on” by Victoria Bailey! That is definitely my most played! The next two getting heavy rotation right now are “I’ll See You in my Dreams” by Bruce Springsteen and “Ripple” by the Grateful Dead.
Q: What’s next from Victoria Bailey and Melissa Chapman?
Victoria Bailey: I will be releasing the album, also called A Cowgirl Rides On, as a whole in October. It’s been a long labor of love for this project, and I am over the moon for it to come out. In the meantime, I am playing a ton of shows and festivals, playing the new songs, and soaking up all of the good feelings from playing these songs live.
Melissa Chapman: My main project right now is a middle grade novel, a horse book, of course. It’s a fiction book but based on true events. I’m getting close to a complete first draft so that’s exciting.
You can listen to and buy Victoria Bailey’s song “A Cowgirl Rides On” here: https://lft.lnk.to/Cowgirl
You can preorder her new album A Cowgirl Rides On here: https://lft.lnk.to/Cowgirl
Follow her on FB and IG @victoriabaileymusic to watch for the release of her new album A Cowgirl Rides On (and find out more about her and her music at victoriabaileymusic.com).
Distant Skies: An American Journey on Horseback is available from Melissa’s publisher Trafalgar Square Books (www.HorseandRiderBooks.com) or wherever books are sold.
Follow Melissa on FB @melissaapriblochapman and on IG @melissapriblochapman