Horseman Magazine - February 2006 Issue
This outfit leaves no stone unturned in Utah's Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, on the Grand Staircase or along Arizona's rim of the Grand.
By Fran Devereux Smith
Some riding vacations are worth revisiting. The Red Rock Riding is one of them. The outstanding horseback adventure, first featured in our February 2000 issue, followed a '98 trip to Utah and Arizona. Then, it was hard to imagine the ride becoming any better, but it has.
In the years since, the Red Rock Ride's founding families, the Houstons and the Mangums, have continued to fine-tune every aspect of the journey. However, some things can't be improved - the breathtaking scenery, for instance. Red Rock guests ride trails in Utah's Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks and the Grand Staircase of the Escalante National Monument, and on Arizona's north rim of the Grand Canyon.
In 1992, when Daylean and Robert Houston, Kanab, Utah teamed up with Keela and Pete Mangum, Tropic, Utah, theirs proved a successful partnership for obvious reasons. The former own and operated Houston's Trail's End Restaurant in Kanab and Houston's Catering. Compared to their usual workload, feeding 40 guests and the Red Rock Ride staff is a busman's holiday. The same holds true for the Mangums, who've operated horseback riding concessions in Zion, Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon National Parks for more than 30 years. Plus, the Red Rock Ride now is a multigenerational effort including sons, daughters, in-laws and grandchildren.
A Not-So-Average Adventure
Red Rock Ride disclaimers describe a "physically demanding western outdoor vacation." Horseback days are the agenda throughout the week. But even the longest day, 30 miles through the Box of the Paria (canyon) along the Paria River, doesn't seem tiring because guests aren't restricted to riding in formation. That Pete's stock is equally comfortable traveling single-file along park trails - or not - speaks well for the top hands who handle his horses and mules throughout the year. However, head-to-tail riding sometimes is necessary on Red Rock trails due to terrain or park regulations.
Such is no problem for most guest, who primarily want to experience this awesome western region horseback. The adventure draws horsemen and -women nationwide and internationally. Some bring their own mounts, but for most guests the distance from home is prohibitive. Instead, they rely on Pete's riding stock, which delivers far more than the average dude string experience.
Then, again, Red Rock Ride guests aren't the average dudes. Retired Iran, Texas, sheepherder Marie Richardson, who's spent much of her life horseback, has made multiple Red Rock Rides. She's established a special rapport with Houston and Mangum family members and has become one of their own.
So has frequent visitor Ursula "Uschi" Niedecken, an appliance-safety tester from cologne, Germany. "I come here even when I'm not trail riding," the young women says. "These are my second families, and the camaraderie and friendships I've made here are the best."
Last fall's trip saw riders from 15 states and four countries - England, Germany, New Zealand and the United States. Transplanted Brit Pam Ronning and husband Arleigh traveled from their California home, as did repeat guests mom Shirley Scott, her daughter Deborah Peterson and friend Debbie Watson. The California contingent also included single-action shooting enthusiasts Dennis "Gravedigger" Lutge and his wife, "Bad News Betsy," with their Old West gear and accoutrements. Although Californian Sylvia Mabee Sometimes closed her eyes while riding the most challenging trails, she earned the most-improved rider award, a cleverly designed stuffed mule created by wrangler Kitty Marr.
Mary and Tony Seger, Trafalgar, Indiana, rode horseback as youth, but lost that connection while raising their two daughters. Then Tony started helping longtime Appaloosa enthusiasts Mary and John Powell, also of Trafalgar, at their barn in exchange for riding privileges. The neighborly relationship flourished, and Tony's 2005 Valentine gift for his wife was a registered Appaloosa, appropriately known as "Kisses," purchased from the Powells. Last fall the two couples shared the Red Rock experience.
"This has been a very good reciprocal arrangement for us all," Tony comments. "We work together, help each other and play together, too."
Like the Segers, most guests are recreational riders, who've ridden local trails and regional rides, and want to see new territory horseback. Few are high-maintenance, according to Keela, who says, "It must be because they're horse people. We hardly ever have anyone that we really must pamper. Everyone enjoys and appreciates what we do."
They must. Guests revisit the Red Rock Ride repeatedly. Between 20 and 25 percent are returning riders, all adults, a given since ride dates typically fall during the school year.
Repeat guests include Cindy Sherrill, Hillsboro, Tennessee, and friend Gwen Ray, Olive Branch, Mississippi, who've trail-ridden and attended field trails together for years, usually with their mounts in tow, and sometimes their husbands. The Sherrills, have three horses, and the Rays maintain three gaited horses and two gaited mules.
However, because they'll also ride someone else's stock, the two women have seen much of the West horseback, including Montana, Wyoming and Colorado ranches. Evaluations of their adventures often reflect directly on an outfit's horsemanship, or lack thereof.
"Here, the people are good at what they do and have good equipment," Cindy explains. "Their animals are well cared for and maintained."
Gwen concurs. "This week I rode around a corner on a ledge, and in a heartbeat was within three feet of hikers, but Pete's mules and horses have seen that time and again. They're good stock to ride on that narrow ledge at that altitude, healthy and seasoned."
"Riding someone else's stock is a different experience," Cindy admits, "but it's fun, a real vacation. Then, I'm not only out of the envelope, I'm out of the box, and I like that."
During previous rides, guests slept comfortably on cots inside wall tents, although the campground changed nightly. However, by 2005 accommodations had changed.
"Pete must be getting old," Keela laughs, "because now he can't stand the idea of people being really cold, which it was last year. The little cabins here were his winter project."
"Here" is a newly established, permanent campground on the Mangum place, just outside Tropic and near trials used much of the week. However, following Friday's ride, guests move to a Kanab motel nearer the Grand Canyon, for Saturday's ride and a final dinner before heading home Sunday.
Each small camp cabin has a porch just right for two chairs. Inside, the cabin is fitted with three wall bunks in a U design, wall hooks and a camping lantern, which serves double-duty, lighting and heating the limited space.
Bath facilities remain in an oversized gooseneck trailer. However, the two latest versions each contain three showers with small dressing areas, sinks and other facilities, including lights and blow dryers. As always, Gene Mitchel ensures that the water's hot and the generators are running each afternoon and early morning.
"Now we plan to build a big barn at the camp, to replace the big tent and serve as a dining hall and gathering spot," Keela says, "I want a big porch the length of it, so we can sit, visit and look at the mountain."
In some respects the Red Rock Ride hasn't changed. Organization remains superb; meals, rides and entertainment occur as scheduled, thanks to the capable ride crews. "In this business, as in any other," Robert points out, "our success is largely due to the employees we have."
Some ride personnel, such as longtime employee Kitty Marr, wrangle tourists regularly at various park concessions. Retired coach Jim Ott, who also runs some cattle, usually books park rides each summer, and has made every Red Rock Ride. Roger Cutler of Kanab, a retired highway patrolman now an investigator for the state, plans his annual vacation around ride dates. Nevadan Ward Mangum, Pete's brother, always helps out, but 2005 was the first ride for Hall Hamblin, also of Kanab.
Entertainment's another reliable ride amenity. Last fall's entertainment included singer Jimmy Cooper, Panguitch, Utah, and cowboy poets Curly Syndergaard, Cody Mangum and brother Stetson Mangum, who's already been invited to perform at the Elko, Nevada, National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Bert Emett of Tropic and son Scott, St. George, Utah, provided music and Elvis and Johnny Cash impressions, and Bert Leach, Panguitch, Utah called an evening class of square Dancing 101. Guests also showcased their talents, including grandmother Daphne Bridges, Boiling Springs, North Carolina, whose stand-up comedy routine was rollicking fun.
In the food-service business since 1975, the Houston family first purchased a restaurant, which grew into a catering business. To better grasp the catering operation, consider that the Houstons, generally speaking, feed forest firefighters in the western United States.
And these aren't production-line meals-ready-to-eat, but a variety of tasty, well-prepared and attractively presented dishes.
"At an Idaho fire, we fed 2,980, a record of sorts, three meals a day for a four-day period," Robert says. "We're basically a mobile restaurant. We have 48-foot semi-trailers, fifth-wheels, generators, salad bars, whatever it takes. We carry our power and propane with us.
"When the shuttle crashed in Texas," Robert continues, "we fed 1,000 people for 66 days. That's 1,000 breakfasts, 1,000 sack lunches and 1,000 dinners each day."
And, yes, Houston's Catering was called for hurricane relief efforts when the first fall Red Rock Ride was in progress. That same time, son Mickey Houston had a catering crew on an Arizona trail ride, and the outfit had committed to serve a 180-woman Arizona ride when the second fall Red Rock Ride was scheduled. "So we've gotten into the trail-ride catering business, as well," Robert explains, "simply through word-of-mouth."
Brother Joe also had been involved in the business until last year, when Micky, who'd grown up working alongside his father, became his partner. Son Tyler has an Internet marketing company and handles ride Web promotions, daughter Jaime is a para-legal and another son, Jeremy, also lives in Kanab.
Robert, a hands-on restaurateur much of each year, readily admits that Daylean masterminds the ride kitchen. "She works hard while I get to visit with the ride guests. That's a nice change I really enjoy."
"I never in a million years thought I'd be doing something like this," Daylean acknowledges. "In fact, when Robert said he wanted to buy a restaurant, I thought he'd lost his mind."
But as far as Robert's concerned, "Everybody gets one good break in life. That restaurant's mine."
Another fortunate break came in the early 1990s when 150 French nationals wanted to ride from Monument Valley to Las Vegas, Nevada Ride organizers contacted the Houstons and Mangums. Although Pete and Robert know one another, they'd never considered partnering their businesses until then.
"Pete and I realized that, given our tourist season here, we aren't all that busy in April and May, or in September and October," Robert explains. "He and Keela had the horses and mules, and we had the tents and food set-up. So we just used what we had to start the Red Rock Rides."
"The Red Rock Ride is something different that's worked well for us and our help during the slow months,"
Pete comments. "We do have good help, about 40 people, counting family and those working in the parks, who keep things going."
Most employees work through the summer, booking and guiding tourist day rides. However, the weeklong Red Rock Rides, two each spring and two in the fall, are scheduled around the summer trade.
Obviously, it takes a herd of livestock to supply three park concessions and the Red Rock Ride. "We keep about 85 head, all mules, on the Grand Canyon north rim," Pete explains. "At Bryce Canyon, we normally run 95 to 100 head every day, and at Zion have 45 head, although we turn over a lot more riders with the hour ride there."
On average, the Mangums maintain about 250 head of horses and mules, and in recent years mules, which are used exclusively on the narrow, steep grand canyon trails, have begun to out number horses. The Mangums raise trail horses, but purchase mules through Reese Brothers, a Tennessee Broker holding several annual sales. A 2005 fall mule delivery, in fact, resulted in Eric Brickell, Mount Airy, North Carolina, and two friends joining Red Rock riders for a few days.
"The old saying that a mule doesn't get really good until he's 10 is about true," Pete confirms, "so I get 7- or 8-year-old mules from Tennessee. It might take two years' riding (by guides) before we put a mule on the ( guest) string, but once a mule's broke, he'll give maybe 20 or 25 years' service. I don't dare tell you how old some of my mules are; the only time we quit one is if he starts have a little trouble keeping up. Then we swap him to the brokers for a young one."
Pete stands a red roan Quarter Horse stallion with Surf Big bloodlines, usually raising a dozen foals a year. "We start the colts right, and on the trail," he says. "A year's riding there, and we usually can put one in the string, but our stock works hard, so we're careful with our young horses. Our horses and mules are ridden every day, and they're pretty calm on the trail since that's what they do all the time."
"We certainly couldn't do this without our kids," wife Keela points out. Older daughter Crystal and husband Shawn Mortenson have four sons - Cache, Carter, Clay and Kwincey. Son Tawn and Wife Cami have three children Stetson, Cody and McCray. During the fall ride younger daughter Laycee and husband Ryan Johnson joked that they had 1 1/2 children, with a new arrival due later in the fall.
"Crystal runs the office, so that's no problem. Laycee works in Zion when she's not teaching school, and wrangles with the best of them, as can cami," Keela comments. "Tawn makes things happen; he has the animals ready and the trucks and trailers in place. At times, if necessary, he takes over for this dad. It's really amazing our girls found guys who worked right into the business as Shawn and Ryan have. They do the guiding now and are so into this they could take over tomorrow. Plus all three guys shoe stock and start our colts. The kids know our business well."
Keela ultimately see both families' younger generations carrying on the Red Rock Ride tradition, but with a grin adds a disclaimer. "If Robert, Daylean, Pete and I don't get too old too fast," she explains, 'we'll still be doing this in 10 years. But if we do get old, our kids will take over."
Perhaps most unchanging is the perpetual lure of the eye-opening Utah and Arizona scenery. Indiana trail rider Tony says, "I'd always wanted to see Zion and Bryce, and the North Rim. Now we'll be like Marie from Texas, coming here in our 70s. When we ride, everybody wishes for more camera or a wider-angle lens - and we all know we can't do this area justice with a camera. I look at one view, turn around, and there's another one just as good. Words and pictures just don't do it - you have to see it."
For German-born Uschi, "The Grand Canyon is spectacular because it's so huge, but Bryce Canyon is bard to beat; I love the colors. It's my favorite."
"It's a weeklong ride in three national parks and a monument," comments Cindy, the Tennessee trail rider. "How does it get any better than that?"
"They always ask my favorite part," adds her friend Gwen, "so I should be prepared for the question. "But I really can't tell them, because each day's ride is so individual."
As do their guests, the Houstons and Mangums truly enjoy their Red Rock Ride friendships, and appreciate their native landscape even more for having seen it from their guests' perspectives.
"Getting to know people on the ride always is a great experience," Pete admits, "but the real highlight for me is knowing how much people appreciate seeing our part of the country."
Robert agrees. "One thing I've learned to appreciate because of the ride is the beauty of where I live. I see it through other people's eyes now." Then he adds, "Another thing I've learned: Because the media covers so much bad in our world, we in small towns perceive that the whole world is bad. Then people come here, and we realize that's just not so. There's way more good in this world."