From the Chisholm Trail on My BlackBerry


On a hot September morning in 1893, my great-grandfather, Charlie Hasbrook, sat atop a retired racehorse named Old Prize and waited with 50,000 other anxious people near Hennessey, Okla. All were taking their shot at the last great stretch of free land in the United States. 

When the gun fired, the multitudes took off across the red dirt landscape.  By sundown, a few like Charlie had staked their claims and made a future, but most had lost what was, for many, their last hope. And a few were even dead.

Some 115 years later, also on horseback, I rode past Hennessey on my way to Charlie Hasbrook’s homestead — lost during the Depression, and for 60 years after that, but recently regained by the family and undergoing a full historic restoration. Why I found myself on horseback, here in the 21st century is a story in itself, one that speaks volumes about the great technological divide between Charlie Hasbrook’s world and our own; what’s been gained in the process but also what’s been lost.

Charlie’s Challenge

Charlie was in Hennessey because he had little choice. His father was dead, murdered with the likely assistance of his mother and he had left home after facing a similar threat from his step-father. The early 1890s had found him in the Oklahoma Indian Territory, working as part of a crew surveying the future path of a railroad line that would roughly follow the path of the already legendary Chisholm Trail — the great cattle drive path from Texas to Abilene, Kan., that fed the workers of a rapidly industrializing America.

In the afternoons, when the day’s survey was completed, Charlie and a friend would ride the countryside — ever watchful of Cheyenne and Cherokee braves — and look for the best ranch and farm property. When Charlie spotted one particular beautiful stretch of Wolf Creek, a tributary of the Cimarron River, he turned to his friend and said, “If they ever open up this country, I’m coming back right here.”  

A few years later, he burst off the line at Hennessey and, instead of heading toward Enid (a town he is often credited with founding), Charlie turned east, toward Wolf Creek. He staked his claim and built a dugout cave in the creek bank. It was to that homely little cave that he brought his wife, Mary, and newborn daughter, Theresa, my grandmother.  

The dugout cave is still there & and I find it impossible to enter it without being overcome with emotion. I come from this tiny space, smaller than a walk-in closet — and I try not to think very long about this little family of three, literally buried in the ground, alone in the vast prairie, another baby on the way, and the hardships and nearly impossible odds that they faced.  

Yet they made it, the family prospered, and Charlie’s and Mary’s descendents are now scattered across not only Oklahoma, but the world. And now, as I write this, I am slowly making my way back toward the Hasbrook homestead.

Lessons From the Trail

The occasion is a 50-mile ride up the Chisholm Trail, from the old cavalry fort at El Reno to the tiny hamlet of Bison, just down a long dirt road from the farm. I am part of a group of about 20 Boy Scouts and dads who are riding the trail, documenting it, repairing old markers and creating a Web site devoted to the ride.Our goal, at minimum is to establish the ride as an official BSA historic trail.

But we have a larger purpose as well: There are currently two bills in committees of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, the former sponsored by Rep. Cole of Oklahoma, the latter by Sen. Hutchison of Texas, and both designed to give the Chisholm a National Historical Trail designation.

That this didn’t happen long ago is astonishing. Few places enjoy such a vital role in the American imagination: The Chisholm is, after all, the wellspring of almost every image we have of cowboys and cattle drives, the source of a thousand movies, books and television episodes, and a crucial part of how we define ourselves.

But there is more to it than that.  Familiar as the Chisholm Trail is in our collective memories, it still has many things to teach us — as I’ve learned this week, after roping and branding cattle, driving a hundred longhorn cows, fording the Cimarron River on horseback, and meeting with a chief of the Cheyenne nation.

The first lesson is the profound distance between then and now, most of it wrought by the great technology revolutions of the 20th and 21st centuries. Standing in the dugout cave, vivid as it is, only offers a partial glimpse of the sheer toughness of our ancestors. Two of the days we rode this week were among the hottest in Oklahoma in the 21st century — 107 and 105 degrees. And it was sheer misery to be out there on horseback.

But we had water bladder backpacks on, and more bottles of water in our saddlebags — and there was always the prospect at trail’s end of iced drinks out of a generator-powered cooler. And if we slept on the ground through the miserably hot nights, we could at least spray ourselves with Deet and lie atop our expensive REI bags.

Unlike the little Hasbrook family, or the hundreds of cowboys riding the Chisholm Trail before them, we didn’t have to spend the hottest days in the dust of a cattle drive or plowing, with the prospect that night of a meager, half-rotten meal in a stifling cave or endlessly facing the prospect of imminent, violent death.

It’s only when you are out on the trail, dizzy with the heat, saddle sore from hour after hour of endless hoof beats, the insects screaming around you, and the sweat pouring of both you and your horse, can you really appreciate just how damn hard the pre-air conditioning, pre-electronic world was.

That lesson lies on the Chisholm Trail, as well at great historic sites: Every second is a lesson on just what it took to get us here. It is easy to dismiss our ancestors as primitives, but places like the Chisholm remind us that when it came to courage, grit and sheer orneriness, we are children standing on the shoulders of giants.

A second lesson is reminder of just how isolated our ancestors were.Out there on the prairie, Charlie Hasbrook perhaps read a newspaper once per month. He may have voted in a presidential election. But that was about the sum of his engagement with the larger world.

We Californians may have been something of a parody of our culture — from expecting our cooks to provide vegetarian burgers in the beef capital of America to our endless conversations about video games to our sheer incompetence at traditional skills such as horsemanship — but one thing about us for which I didn’t feel the least self-conscious was our profound connectedness.  We have with us cell phones, iPhones, BlackBerries, iPods and personal computers.

And it is not as if Oklahoma is the Wild West anymore, either. Trail boss Gary Townsend often whips out his cell phone while on horseback and coordinates the path ahead. And I am writing this column via a Wi-Fi hotspot at the McDonald’s restaurant in the small town of Kingfisher.

But to my mind, the most important lesson of Chisholm Trail, especially the experience of riding it, is of what we have lost. Out there in the Cherokee Strip, people like Charlie Hasbrook depended on his neighbors for everything from helping put out prairie fires to delivering babies.

And that traditional of mutual support and deep hospitality endures in places like Oklahoma. Literally, everyone we have met in the course of this ride and its preparation have offered their help unconditionally.  I merely had to contact Jerrica Lockwood, a local rancher, and ask if such a ride was even possible — and she set up the entire trip. Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Jeri Askins not only met us at the Chisholm Trail Museum in Duncan to greet us but showed up at our encampment the next morning to see us off.

Indeed, our ride seems to have touched some deep chords in people around the world, but especially in Oklahoma. Perhaps it’s a general unease about the once-important things, such as hospitality, that are fading from the modern world. And so what began as a Boy Scout trip has now turned into an international event: The Associated Press came out to see us Monday — and the resulting story) has not only been carried around the country but has even been picked up by the BBC and sent around the world.

Out there on the trail, what all of us seem to sense, is an important secret, a puzzle about living life well, that we are desperately trying to solve.  I know that I am. And as you read this, I’ll be out riding on the Chisholm Trail, slowly making my way home to the little dugout cave on Charlie Hasbrook’s homestead.