Home, Home, Via The Range

Essay Question: What did you do over your summer vacation? For Brannon Cavalier, William Hockey, and Max Pillsbury, three high-school seniors at Thacher School in Ojai, this will be a no-brainer.

Starting June 7, a few days after the close of their junior year, the three 17-year-old students embarked on a two-week journey home – by horseback. Leaving the Ojai boarding school, they rode northwest for about 160 miles, crossing the Nordhoff Ridge and then traversing public lands in the backcountry of Los Padres National Forest, as well as a few private ranches. By the time they reached their destination of Santa Margarita, they had spent 14 days and 13 nights on the trail.

When the boys first announced their idea at the beginning of the school year, “Everyone said ‘Yeah, yeah, that would be great,’ never thinking it would really happen,” said William Hockey from his home in Templeton. “But,” he added, once planning began in earnest two months before departure, “our parents were great.”

Because Hockey lives in Templeton, not far from Rancho Santa Margarita, reaching the private ranch became their goal. Brannon Cavalier lives in Half Moon Bay, and McKinsey “Max” Pillsbury hails from Ross, California. While the boys had some exposure to horses before enrolling at Thacher, it was there they became experienced riders and outdoorsmen. All freshmen are required to participate in Thacher’s horse program, but after that it is an elective. Both Hockey and Cavalier are “A Campers,” the highest rating in Thacher’s camping program. Pillsbury is a B Camper but has nearly completed the requirements for A Camper status. In addition, Hockey is an Eagle Scout.

The end of the school year found the trio busy with final tests, papers, and SATs. Once through with those rituals, they hurriedly turned their attention to last-minute details of their journey, right down to securing elusive permits at the eleventh hour. But their sendoff turned into more of an overnight party, as they were accompanied by eleven Thacher alumni, in town for Alumni Weekend that was held two days before, and who wanted to ride along for the first segment. The alumni group included Max’s father Phil Pillsbury, who graduated from Thacher in 1967.

“By the time we got them all packed out, it was late in the afternoon, so we had to overnight at the same place again,” recalls Hockey.

Since none of the boys owns a horse, Thacher School loaned them mounts for the trek. Along with the three packhorses they led, William rode Baja, Max rode Belle, and Brannon rode Pretzel. “The horses we usually ride are high performance horses. But for this trip, we took the school’s toughest horses,” said Hockey.

Still, they ran into some problems due to lack of water. The boys knew the lack of rainfall this season would make for dry conditions, but even they were unprepared for how parched the backcountry was.

The Search For Water

One of the scariest moments of the trip was when the group left their campsite, having had no water that day or the night before, expecting to find water about three miles out. “When we got there we found the hole was dry, and we still had 15 miles to go. For the last five miles we were all semi-delusional and suffered severe headaches,” said Hockey.

The situation became even more complicated when Hockey’s horse stopped dead in his tracks. After dragging his head on the ground for some time, he refused to take another step. “I had to get off and lead him,” said Hockey, but they finally made it to the next watering hole and both boys and beasts were revived. “That water was the best I’ve ever tasted in my life.”

While they had a satellite phone in case of emergency, the only time they really needed it was to find another watering hole. The group had permission to camp on a private ranch with water, but after finishing a nearly 30-mile ride with no water for 14 hours, they couldn’t find any. In desperation they called the ranch contact, who directed them to a spring that was another 30-minute ride away.

Prior to this adventure, the longest pack trip any of the three had completed was six days. For navigation, they brought along over 25 quadrangle maps, each of which showed about 40 square miles in great detail. They used a GPS device to calculate their mileage, and found they were averaging 18 miles a day in the saddle. “Some days we rode twelve miles, others almost thirty,” said Hockey. “Our route was determined by water – we were going from waterhole to waterhole.”

Their daily routine was fairly rigorous: Up at dawn to boil water, get the horses cleaned and medicated, pack and weigh the panyards (the boxes on each side of the pack saddle). Each panyard weighed between 50 and 60 pounds, and had to be weighed by hand with a simple spring scale. The weight had to be evenly distributed, within a pound on each side, so as to ride evenly. A third equally heavy pack would go on top. “Each packhorse was carrying over 150 pounds of weight, so this whole process took nearly three hours every morning,” said Hockey. “To save time, we only ate oatmeal for breakfast, never stopped for lunch, then ate dinner. Our stomachs definitely shrank.”

One night their menu was augmented with a rattlesnake they killed near camp. “I’d eaten rattlesnake once before in a restaurant, but this was different,” related Hockey. “This one tasted like weird fish.”

But the rigors of the trail had its glorious moments too, like their favorite campsite at Painted Rock near the Dick Smith Wilderness. “We got there right at sunset, when the rocks were this beautiful color, and we had time to explore old caves with Chumash paintings,” said Hockey. Eschewing tents, the three slept out under the stars each night, throwing their bedrolls (i.e., sleeping bags) down on top of their saddle blankets like cowboys of old.

Cam Schryver, head of the horse program at Thacher School, met the travelers at Rancho Santa Margarita and trailered the horses back to Ojai. Did they have a party to celebrate their accomplishment and safe arrival?

“Our biggest party was going home and sleeping on some real beds,” laughed Hockey.