"There's no ride like it in the United States!" proclaimed Bucky and Sherry Smith, veteran trail riders from Columbus, Missouri.
Our friends ride their Missouri Fox Trotters extensively throughout the United States. For them, Cross Country Trail Ride in Eminence, Missouri, is special.
Bucky and Sherry invited us to "come on out" to the heart of the Ozarks and join them on the last ride of the season, held at the end of October.
So, Nate and Cowboy, our 6-year-old Fox Trotters, found themselves in a trailer heading to Missouri, 1,800 miles away from our Idaho home.
Over the years, we'd heard about Cross Country Trail Ride, LLC (www.crosscountrytrailrides.com). Every year, beginning each May, there are five all-inclusive riding packages.
The six-day package includes three meals a day; campsites with electric and limited water hookups; nightly music and dancing; a horse and tack sale; and daily organized trail rides, although you can ride your own.
Yet, what really made this ride memorable for us was the gracious southern hospitality we were privileged to experience.
Three things make the late-October trail ride special: thinning fall leaves, which make it easier to take in the views; only 500 riders instead of the usual almost 3,000; and the incredible, southern-style lunches cooked right on the trail.
The spacious campsites in the 75-acre campground, set alongside the banks of Jacks Fork River beneath stately shade trees, exude serenity.
There are 3,007 covered 7-by-10-foot stalls and a 63,000-square-foot indoor riding arena. You'll find hay, grain, stall bedding, tack, and horse equipment at the onsite tack store.
The shower house is huge, with 20 units on each side. For folks wishing to shop, there's a large, well-stocked Western store.
And for a small fee, trucks will empty your sewage tank when needed, a thoughtful-but-necessary service.
A large dining hall is run with clockwork efficiency. It's located across from a dance floor and stage where much of the entertainment occurs in the summer.
In the summer, folks enjoy swimming, fishing, or floating down Jacks Fork River, a clear, spring-fed waterway.
Jim and Jane Smith and their family have operated this trail ride for more than 50 years. Their family recipes, which have been handed down for generations, are used in the trail cookouts.
If you go on this ride, prepare your horse. This is hilly country, so he needs to be in good physical shape.
According to the onsite veterinarian we visited, the most common equine ailment on rides was tying-up. Horses that were out of shape or overweight suffered muscle cramps from overexertion.
Also, pack for conditions. The area's late-October weather can be unpredictable; temperatures may swing between the 40s to the high 60s. Bring raingear, and apparel for warm and cold weather.
For the camp, bring a hay bag, water bucket, and stall-cleaning tools. An extension cord and water hose might also come in handy.
The Smith family gives their guests a great deal of latitude in the use of their private campground, but stays firm on one rule: No dogs allowed in May, June, August, and October. Guests violating this rule may be asked to leave.
Scarlet & Gold
Around 9:00 a.m., as horsemen gathered near the gate, the Star Spangled Banner boomed over the camp intercom, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance.
Every riding day began in this patriotic manner. It gave all of us a moment to pause and feel thankful for our beautiful country and the incredible riding day ahead of us.
Although all rides go to the same area, they're divided into three riding groups: fast; medium; and slow.
The fast group was fairly small and led by retired astronaut Tom Akers, a veteran of four space shuttle flights. Fast riders zoomed out at a brisk gait, horses and riders raring to go.
The rest of the riders divided themselves between the medium and slow groups. The medium group does some gaiting/cantering, while the slow group stays at a walk.
Organized riding began on Sunday with a two-hour "break-in" ride, during which we crossed the gently flowing Jack Forks River. Over the course of our riding week, we'd cross this river many times.
We rode primarily on old logging roads in the Ozark Mountains and cut trails in the Ozark National Scenic Riverways.
We enjoyed the remaining fall colors as we rode along. When we looked up, we could see blue sky peering through sheer curtains of tie-dyed scarlet and gold.
Deciduous trees, vines, and shrubs interlaced into colorful murals. Even the air had a pleasing, earthy fragrance.
Our ride leader had stressed the importance of always keeping the rider in front of you in view, because it's easy to become lost in this country of hills and hollows.
On Monday, our first full day of riding, we went about 17 miles. This ride crossed the road to the west and went upstream of Jacks Fork River. We rode alongside the river, past dolomite rock cliffs, and up a scenic gorge.
Eventually, we reached a ridge where lunch was cooked and served. Much to our delight, we discovered our Missouri friends hadn't exaggerated the gastronomical delights of the CCTR food squad.
At every lunch stop, we'd find a giant deep fryer and huge grill. One day, there was even a machine that cut up potatoes and onions so they could be fried on the spot. Everything is made from scratch from old-time Smith family recipes.
As we bit into delectable deep-fat-fried apple turnovers, we felt our taste buds swoon and fat cells expand. This riding week would leave us with more than memories!
Many participants on the CCTR have been coming for years, and there's a comfortable camaraderie among them. As we rode along, we'd listen to sounds of laughter and gentle bantering.
Waters & Caves
We'd be remiss not to mention the fresh-water springs and resulting waterways. The CCTR campground is bordered not only by private land, but also by the Ozark National Scenic Riverways (www.nps.gov/ozar/index.htm), which covers 125 square miles.
This is largest concentration of first-magnitude springs, feeding the Current and Jacks Fork Rivers. These waters are home to such wildlife as wild horses, bears, deer, and recently reintroduced elk.
Over time, the springs have carved out caves in the dolomite rock. Some of the larger caves are Round Spring Cavern, Devils Sink, and Jam-Up Cave.
On one day, a group of us visited Alley Spring, which feeds a turquoise lake. Alongside the lake, a scenic, century-old grist mill, known as Old Red Mill, was once the heart of a small community.
From here, their children could walk to the one-room Story's Creek schoolhouse. In the summer, both buildings are open to visitors.
If you attend the CCTR for five years, you'll receive an attendance buckle. The more years on a buckle, the more value it has. Some folks have 50-year buckles!
We could understand why folks desired a long-term riding buckle. Fun riding on a good horse, amazing food, and fine friends to ride with ? what could be better? Year after year after year!
Kent and Charlene Krone combine their interest in photojournalism with a passion for horses.?They enjoy sharing their horseback adventures in the United States and Western Canada.?During riding season, you can usually find them on the trail, checking out new places to ride.