By Roger Dey

The Geriatric Great Divide Extravaganza

An old horse, and old dog, an old man and woman and a small wagon


September 4, 2019

Roger Dey

Rani 'Narni' Merz and Chirpa head down Main Street Aug. 28 as they leave Lincoln on their trek toward the Canadian border.

A small horse pulling a tiny covered wagon is an interesting sight.

A small horse pulling a tiny covered wagon from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, following the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, is an extravaganza.

Rani 'Narni' Merz of White Salmon, Wash., has been driving her "rockstar pony" Chirpa, north on the GMDBR since April 30, when "Narni's & Pappy's & Chirpa's Geriatric Great Divide Extravaganza" started its journey at the Mexican border at Antelope Wells, N.M.

Rani and Chirpa pulled into town Tuesday Aug. 27 and joined her husband Bob (AKA Pappy or Bobert) and their dog, who handle the support vehicle and horse trailer for the "extravaganza." They stopped in Lincoln, setting up camp at Hooper Park for the night, before continuing toward the Canadian border.

Rani is no stranger to adventure travel or to horses. In 2008 she hiked 1800 miles the Pacfic Coast Trail with the daughter and in 2010 she took on England's Wainwright Coast to Coast Trail. At 14 she even made the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest time spent on a horse – eight days and seven nights.

"I always just wanted to wander around on horses; get on my horse and ride to Texas. I've had something like that in mind," she said. "I knew of (the GDMBR). I knew it dumps you into towns and those kinds of things. And we'd taken up driving. I taught Chirpa to drive two years ago, so it seemed perfect."

Bob said he got talked into it because she wasn't going to be going by herself.

The couple began preparing for the journey a couple years ago.

Bob said they found the small, Amish-built wagon at a dealer in central Oregon. He thinks it was intended to be a show wagon, probably for a pony to pull in a parade. But they researched it and decide it would work for the trip. Bob added an office chair on springs as a seat, in lieu of the traditional bench seat it had, and they had a sail maker in Portland make the canvas cover for the wagon. A wheel wright in Joliet, Mont., outfitted the steel-rimmed wheels with rubber "tires."

Bob said Rani and Chirpa cover anywhere from 15 to 25 miles a day, depending on weather and terrain. Chirpa - actually an Icelandic horse rather than a pony- had pulled the little wagon about 2000 miles, over some of the country's roughest terrain to reach Lincoln.

By the time they got here they'd lost the rubber off the two front wheels. The first came off south of Abiquiu, N.M. and the second near Divide, Mont. The difference in wear on the steel rims is noticeable, but didn't cause any major problems. Nevertheless, even with her modern cushioned seat, Rani learned something about pioneer travel.

"It will actually make me feel bad by the end of the day," she said. "Down hills I have to actually be in the wagon became I have to run the brake, but if it's uphill, I walk. We know why those people walked across the country now. There was no way you want to ride in it. It makes you feel bad, it hurts your spine."

Rani said they had no real issues with the route, since the GDMBR is mostly laid out on roads, but there were a couple detours that forced them to leave the trail and pack up the wagon, which breaks down into "many" pieces and can be stowed in one of the trailer's two stalls.

The first detour was in Colorado where heavy snowpack forced them off the trail at about the same time the lead riders in the Tour Divide were making their way south. The second was at Grand Teton National Park, where road construction, pilot cars and minimum speeds well beyond the capabilities of a short horse forced them to haul 30 miles.

Rani said going through the park could have been awful regardless.

"There were no shoulders, you had to keep going unless there was a turnout," she said. "It worked out fine. It got us back off the trafficked roads and got us back in the woods again."

Stretches of single track also forced them to use alternate routes. Rani said the route over Richmond Ridge near Seeley Lake is the only stretch of single track they still had to contend with, but she was concerned because there isn't a designated alternate route around it.

"We'll have to figure out from the Forest Service how to get a go-around for that section," she said." Hopefully not too much on the road."

Rani explained that Chirpa is generally good about traffic, but has begun to hate big trucks coming toward her. "And things like Trackhoes, she really thinks those are the devil!"

Throughout the long trip they never had any problem with wildlife, Rani said. The noise of the wagon and harness alerted most animals they were coming through, but she said there was a real concern in Wyoming's Great Basin, where they had some trouble with wild horses. It seems the stallions were attracted to Chirpa.

"They would head her off and then start kicking her," Rani said. A couple time she had to get out of the wagon and chase them off by waving a blaze orange sweatshirt. She said she actually had to hit a couple of the more stubborn ones with it.

Despite heading north as the Tour Divide race was headed south, Rani said they never had any issues with cyclists racing down the route. The detour in Colorado put them north of the race leaders, so they wound up meeting racers and other cyclists who were taking things at a slower pace.

"We met so many people," Rani said. "There are hundreds of people touring this, doing the GDMBR."

She figured at least half the cyclists they met were from other countries.

She said near Butte they met one notable couple from France who were traveling with their two daughters, a 7-year-old and a 4–year-old, on hybrid standard/recumbent bikes. The family planned to follow the GDMBR to Colorado, detour to the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley, spend Christmas in San Diego, then head on south to Chile.

Over the months of travel, the days developed a pretty standard pattern

"We get up in the morning, I feed (Chirpa), then we have breakfast. Then I hitch her up and I take off. Robert does all the camp stuff and everything. We meet for lunch, then he goes and scouts us out a camp spot," Rani said. "We don't know any more exactly where we'll stay. We just kind of wing it, depending on the terrain and weather."

Rani said they really appreciated Hooper Park, since they could stay there with Chirpa, and because the restrooms had showers.

"This is wonderful," she said.

They are hoping to finish their journey by Sept. 15.

"We have a granddaughter due on the 21st of September. We'd like be home for that," Rani said, but admitted, "If we don't, the baby won't have any idea we're not there."

The Geriatric Great Divide Extravaganza headed out of Lincoln for Huckleberry Pass Wednesday morning and reached Ovando Saturday, Aug. 31 before heading on north.

Roger Dey

Chirpa waits patiently to hit the trail.


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