Wednesday, November 15, 2017

From Sea to Shining Sea—the Cross Country Ride of Nan Aspinwall

One of my dreams when I was young was that my parents would drop me by the side of the road (in this case, The Belt Parkway in Brooklyn, NY) and I would get on my horse and just ride away clear across the USA. Little did I know that, as far as the cross-country ride was concerned, another woman had beat me to it some fifty years earlier.
Nan Jane Aspinwall was also born in New York, in 1880, but she spent most of her formative years in Nebraska where her parents were shopkeepers. By 1899, she was performing in burlesque as an oriental dancer by the name of Princess Omene, but by 1906 she had reinvented herself once more as ‘Montana Girl.’ With this moniker came a reinvented history—that she had been brought up on a ranch in Montana.  Whatever the truth of the matter, she did manage to learn trick roping, stunt riding, steer riding, archery, sharp-shooting, and other rodeo show events, eventually gaining medals and becoming the highest paid artist in the combined Buffalo Bill Wild West and Pawnee Bill Far East show. Also in the show was husband Frank Gable, whom she had married around 1900. Apparently, it was on a bet from Buffalo Bill that she undertook the cross-country ride carrying a letter from the mayor of San Francisco to the mayor of New York.
Going against advice to ride a sturdier horse, Nan chose instead to ride her Bay thoroughbred, Lady Jane. Now think about this:  in an age when women were still not permitted in many states to ride astride, Nan, aged 31, undertook this ride of 4,496 miles, over some 180 days, alone and with full responsibility for her horse—whom she had to shoe some fourteen times herself. She supported herself by giving roping and riding demonstrations and hoping for hospitality, which was not always forthcoming. Two towns at least disapproved of her so greatly, that she shot off her gun in disgust.
Somewhere between Shafter NV and Procter, Utah (now, apparently ghost towns), Nan turned off onto an old prospectors’ trail she believed a shortcut through the mountains. Unfortunately, the trail petered out, and the
horses’ hooves had not left marks in the granite. She apparently rode aimlessly without food or water until nightfall and in the morning left Lady Jane to climb up a peak to try to get her bearings. It was only the horse’s whinny that let her find her way back to the mare. The next day she led Lady Jane to alleviate the horse’s burden, finally deciding to mount and let the mare lead the way—which the animal did, straight down a mountain into a railroad camp where Nan collapsed. This adventure cost her a week in hospital.
She crossed the desert, sixty-five miles with only arsenic water available, in one day. At other times, she made as much as ninety-five miles a day, but from San Francisco to Denver she averaged forty-one miles a day and thereafter only twenty-seven. On July 8, 1911, Nan completed her journey, drawing a crowd to City Hall Park where she delivered the letter to the mayor. She also took her horse into the freight elevator and went up twelve flights! News articles of the day all mention the fact she was wearing a divided skirt, an item just coming into fashion according to the New York Times.
Nan and Frank ran their own Gable’s Novelty Show after 1913, a sort of vaudeville Wild West show. Frank passed away around 1929 and sometime in the 1930s, Nan remarried to an Al Lambell who also predeceased her.  For whatever reason, Nan removed herself from public life. She moved from Seattle, where she had been living, to southern California in 1954, apparently to be near a brother. She was childless, heavily involved with the Christian Scientist church, and spent her last seven years on a farm in San Bernadino, where she died in 1964.
Nan’s amazing ride was immortalized both in a radio show and in a 1954 TV episode of Death Valley Days.  At a time when nice girls rode side-saddle, and barbed wire had already cut across the country, Nan faced both prejudice and open hostility as well as the hardships of the elements and geography.
It makes me think that perhaps that little daydream of mine might have turned into a night-mare.

For more about me and fewer bad puns, find me at:

Twitter:  @andidowning

Monday, November 13, 2017

Cinnabar Basin School House: A Small Piece of Montana History

Last summer, while searching online for a place to stay near the north end of Yellowstone National Park, my husband and I came across a posting for Stermitz Ranch.  We'd been looking for a hotel in the town of Gardiner, Montana, just outside Yellowstone's north entrance. The ranch clearly wasn't going to be as convenient to the park. But it was a historic schoolhouse! On a ranch! As usual, we chose adventure over convenience and booked our stay.

Weeks later, heading into the mountains on a gravel road in the pitch dark with a carsick child, we questioned the wisdom of our choice. After an enormous day of driving we were all miserable. We reached the schoolhouse, found the key and stumbled into bed.

When we opened our eyes in the morning, we felt transported to another era.

When the owners of Stermitz Ranch decided to renovate the old, abandoned school house on their property, they were surprised to discover that many of the original furnishings and school supplies were still inside. They used them to decorate the one room cabin.

The old school books are still on the shelves.

The owners created a book about the schoolhouse that was pretty fascinating for a history buff like me.

After wandering around the school house, we stepped outside. While we knew the ranch would be beautiful, our surroundings still took our breath away.

And of course there were the horses. I couldn't wait to go riding, and I was thrilled when my little son said he'd like to go too.  Best of all, he absolutely loved it! In this photo he's meeting Reuger, the sweet horse he still talks about all the time.

While the location of the ranch isn't entirely convenient to Yellowstone, it was worth the extra twenty minutes of driving time. The road from the ranch to Gardiner follows the Yellowstone River.  We took the dirt back road and found ourselves driving through herds of antelope and elk.

Sometimes, taking a chance while traveling truly pays off, and our stay at the Stermitz Ranch Schoolhouse was one of those times.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Native Numbers

Before the Europeans came over on their handsome ships, before the “new world” was “discovered”, we’re told America was a great big empty land. Sure, there was an indigenous culture, but it was a handful of isolated people here and there, barely ever seeing each other. The continent was basically a blank canvas waiting for the mass of Europeans to come and settle it. A great wilderness with a giant vacant sign out front. Except it wasn’t.

Far from being just a bunch of ragtag tribes, Native Americans may have numbered as many as 100 million when Columbus first missed India by a few thousand miles. To gain perspective on this, one should know that the entire population of Europe numbered around 70 million in those days. Giovanni de Verrazzano, an Italian sailor, describes first seeing the East Coast of North America in 1523. “He observed that the coastline everywhere was ‘densely populated,’ smoky with Indian bonfires; he could sometimes smell the burning hundreds of miles away.”
It was Smallpox that wiped out about 90% of the population before the pilgrims arrived, contracted from European settlers used to living in close quarters with their livestock. Despite the plight of this plague, at least 1 million Natives still remained. And they were sophisticated. Television might have you believe the Natives were all about war paint and taking scalps, but there was more to the indigenous people by far. Native culture was all about extensive agriculture, opening up new trade routes across the continent and building America’s first city. Then “civilization” showed up, and any chance of recovering from that super-plague was swept away on a tide of smallpox, STDs and genocide.

About the Author:

I have been writing westerns for many years now. I feel my obsession with the Wild West stems mostly from my western heritage. My family is spread across the Appalachias, the Rockies, from the East Coast, all the way back to the west. I am mixed with Cherokee Indian, Irish, Black Foot Indian, French Creole, and several other nationalities I probably know nothing about. Through my journey to discover myself, I have managed to write some pretty amazing stories. If you would like to read any of my works you can find me at 

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Hell Without Heat

I'm resharing  blog post I wrote two years ago after an early October blizzard decimated the cattle herds out West. 

I’m a weather watcher. This winter is seemingly starting early, starting out viciously and unseasonably cold (it’s ONLY mid-November!), and appears to be headed to another long, cold, and snowy winter, thanks to “polar vortices” and “above average precipitation” and “la nina” (or is it el nino?).

When I was a kid, we used to call this kind of weather “winter.” Last winter started out much the same and it was devastating for the cattle industry in places like Wyoming, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, and Iowa. Because the snow came very early, the cattle hadn’t put on their winter coats, and the snow was followed by the first, hard blast of the polar vortex, many ranchers lost a considerable number of head to hypothermia. It wasn’t that the ranchers don’t do all they can to help their herds survive the winter with hay feeding and by moving them down into lower pastures in the late fall or that the cattle couldn’t handle the cold and the snow under normal conditions—it was that “normal” wasn’t in play in fall and early winter last year.
Last winter and this year’s early arrival of winter make those of us who are Western history buffs think of the “Great Die-Up” on the Western Plains in the winter of 1886-87. The losses that winter were staggering and ruined many ranches. “Normal” wasn’t in play that winter, either.

The winter of 1886-87 came on the heels on one of the worst droughts that the settlers and ranchers on the Great Plains had seen in their limited time there. Prior to that winter, for many years of the preceding three decades of settlement, rainfall in a usually semi-arid land had been well above normal, creating lush landscapes on which to graze cattle. After the American Civil War, land was basically free for the taking under the Homestead Act and the land they grazed their cattle on was owned by no one so these cattlemen established codes to govern the West and to protect it from outsiders. Principal among such codes was the Law of the Open Range, the unwritten rule of free access to grass and water. Most did not own the land on which their cattle grazed, and thus the Law of the Open Range secured their rights, by warning farmer-pioneers “not to stand in the cowman’s route to the ranges, not to block his way with towns and fields–and of all things—fences.” The cattlemen had settled the West prior to the Civil War. It wasn’t until after the Civil War that their empire was built. After the Civil War the demand for beef reached unprecedented levels, driving the cattle to higher and higher values and more and more cattle were brought to graze the “free land” of the West.

Because of the railroads, that beef could be transported quickly and efficiently (either on the hoof or in rail cars specifically designed to transport meat kept cool with ice) to markets back East.
In the 1870s, barbed wire made its first appearance on the range, following the passage of The Homestead Act in the late 1860s. Now, smaller homesteaders could settle the Plains, keep their crops protected from ranging cattle and prevent access to water. The cattlemen were furious and range wars became the normal—but that’s a story for another day.
The rains dried up and the lush grasses that had first lured the cattlemen burnt in the summer sun. Two years of extreme drought was followed by one of the worst winters on record. The snows started in late October of 1886 and didn’t stop until the following May. There is a recorded period, from November 13, 1886 until December 24, that it snowed every single day. When it wasn’t snowing and would warm up to a few degrees above freezing, it rained. This rain created a cap of ice several inches thick on the snow cover. And when it would momentarily stop snowing or raining, the bitter cold would return.
In January of 1887, the blizzards came and with the blizzards came a kind of cold that locals call “freeze-eye cold”—a cold so intense and bitter it would freeze the moisture on eyelashes. Blizzards came howling over the plains, blasting the unsheltered herds. Some cattle, too weak to stand, were actually blown over. Others died frozen to the ground.
Starving cattle, already weakened by a lack of grazing fodder because of the drought, would attempt to paw through the ice and snow to what was left of the drought-blighted and sun-burnt grasses. “The cattle had the hair and hide wore off their legs to the knees and hocks. It was surely hell to see big four-year-old steers just able to stagger along” (Teddy Blue Abbott). The cattle would drift with the howling winds. Cattle won’t stop “drifting” until they run into an immovable object: a dead-end canyon, a rock face, a barbed wire fence. The results were horrific as one account states:
They moved “like grey ghosts” . . . icicles hanging from their muzzles, eyes, and ears,” directly into the fences. There they were stalled; they could not go forward, and they would not go back. They stood stacked together against the wire, without food, water, warmth or shelter. The pressed close against each other in groups all along the fence line, and sometimes they gathered in bunches reaching as much as four hundred yards back from the fence. Still there was not enough warmth in their huddled forms to counteract the cold, and within a short time they either smothered or froze in their tracks (Hill, J.L.. The End of the Cattle Trail. Austin, Texas: The Pemberton Press, 1969).

The spring thaw of 1887 (in late May) revealed the extent of the devastation. More than fifty percent of the cattle herds died that winter from hypothermia and starvation. Some ranches lost upwards of seventy-five percent of their livestock. Dead cattle were found everywhere, observed bobbing in the streams as the ice broke up, and discovered in large groups dying where they stood.
It was a perfect storm of conditions: decades of unusually high rainfall in a semi-arid land, overgrazed land, a severe drought that ended the wet period, too many cattle and the open range cut-up and sectioned off with barbed wire. The “Great Die-Up” as cattlemen called it in a dark attempt at humor marked the end of open range ranching, that supposedly sure way to riches which Theodore Roosevelt called “the pleasantest, healthiest and most exciting phase of American existence.” And it proved again that nature can at any moment shatter all sense of human control.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

by Shanna Hatfield

Read a Book, Help a Cowboy!

JCCF_2017 REVISED 10-04-17.jpgNovember 1 through December 24,  ten percent of the net proceeds from all my book sales are donated to the Justin Cowboy Crisis Fund.
The JCCF is a non-profit organization that assists rodeo athletes who’ve sustained catastrophic injuries and are unable to work for an extended period. Every book purchased during this promotional period adds to the donation total. Don’t forget to include books on your Christmas lists!
Back in 2013, I was researching details for The Christmas Cowboy, the first book in the Rodeo Romance series. I wanted to know how much medical care an injured cowboy would receive at a rodeo versus going to the hospital.
In the story, the hero is a saddle bronc rider named Tate who sustains an injury at a rodeo. In an attempt to get my facts straight for the story, I reached out to the Justin Sportsmedicine Team®. Through mobile medical centers, they provide care at more than 125 PRCA rodeos annually. Their responses to my questions were extremely helpful and I was so impressed with them, I wanted to do a little something in return.
So I launched a campaign to donate a portion of my book sales to the JCCF during the month of December.
Two years ago, I added the month of November to my promotion, giving two months to raise funds for JCCF.
If you enjoy rodeos and the cowboys who make them possible (or reading about them in books), I hope you’ll take a look at the JCCF. It’s a great organization that really does make a difference when these cowboys are injured.

Be sure to come to the party planned Nov. 9 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. (Pacific Time) to kick off the campaign. Great prizes, giveaways, freebies, guest authors and more – so don’t miss out!

In addition to raising funds and awareness for the JCCF, I'll also celebrate the release of my fifth Rodeo Romance series book - Chasing Christmas!
He certainly didn't ask Santa for a bride. . .

Professional bull rider Chase Jarrett has the world on a string. The only blight in his idyllic existence is his nosy cousin’s nonstop nagging about his need for more publicity. Tired of listening to her suggestions, he gives her free rein when she hatches a plan to skyrocket his popularity. All he has to do is show up for a phony wedding in Las Vegas. Then Chase discovers the wedding was real, the surprise bride is beautiful, and his sponsors are demanding he remain married.

Shy and introverted, the last thing Jessie Pierce wants is to find herself in the spotlight. But thanks to a meddling so-called best friend, that’s exactly where she’s at. The promise of an all-expenses paid vacation to Las Vegas lures her on an adventure that ends with her unexpectedly married to a hunky bull rider who would draw her out of her shell if she’d let him.

A business proposal leaves the two of them committed to a year of marriage. How hard could it be to remain wed in name only?

Wrap yourself up in the joy of holidays and falling in love in this sweet, lighthearted romance from USA Today Bestselling author Shanna Hatfield.

 USA Today bestselling author Shanna Hatfield is a farm girl who loves to write. Her sweet historical and contemporary romances are filled with sarcasm, humor, hope, and hunky heroes. When Shanna isn’t dreaming up dreamy characters, twisting plots, or covertly hiding decadent chocolate from the other occupants of her home, she hangs out with her beloved husband, Captain Cavedweller.

Shanna loves to hear from readers. Follow her online at:

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Monday, November 6, 2017

Madame Blavatsky

By Kristy McCaffrey

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky was an unconventional figure to emerge from the Victorian era, a time of high morals and puritanical behavior. Born in Russia in 1831, she was self-educated and widely-traveled, developing an interest in Western esotericism during her teenage years. She also claimed to be a psychic.

The rise of science in the 19th century had had a paradoxical effect—it undermined faith in Christianity and the literal word of the Bible while also creating an enormous void for an explanation to the mysteries of the universe. People became caught up in table-rapping, materialization, séances, clairvoyance, palmistry, and crystal-gazing.

In 1849, Blavatsky visited Europe, the Americas, and India, and it was during this period that she encountered a group of spiritual adepts known as the Masters of the Ancient Wisdom. They sent her to Tibet where she developed her psychic powers. Many critics dispute these claims, saying she fabricated these travels.

By the 1870’s, Blavatsky was involved in the Spiritualist movement, supporting the existence of Spiritualist phenomena (making contact with elementals and spirits). In 1875, she co-founded the Theosophical Society, describing Theosophy (wisdom of the gods) as “the synthesis of science, religion and philosophy.” Based heavily on occult teachings and Eastern religions, her work in the Theosophy movement influenced the spread of Hindu and Buddhist ideas in the West, with some Theosophists becoming Buddhists.

According to Blavatsky’s biographer, Marion Meade, people across the globe furiously debated whether the medium was “a genius, a consummate fraud, or simply a lunatic.” Madame Blavatsky had professed to be a virgin, but in fact, she had two husbands and an illegitimate son. She claimed to be an apostle of asceticism but smoked up to two hundred cigarettes a day and swore like a soldier. She was considered an enlightened guru while at the same time ridiculed as a fraudulent charlatan and plagiarist, but there is no doubt that her ideas eventually led to the New Age movement in the 1970’s.

Blavatsky died of influenza in 1891 at the age of 59 in the home of her disciple and successor, Annie Besant.

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