Long Riders – Pair of friends pass through Ruby Valley on epic trek

Katie Russell (left) and Tom Fairbank cross Highway 287 between Twin Bridges and Sheridan on Friday. The two passed the 1,000 mile mark on their way up the Ruby Valley, earning them a place in the Long Riders Guild. Photo by Ben Coulter.

SHERIDAN – When Tom Fairbank and Katie Russell set out on horseback earlier this summer from Palmer Lake, Wash. they had one goal in mind: to become members of the Long Riders Guild, an organization of people who have ridden more than 1,000 continuous miles on a single equestrian journey.

The pair accomplished just that Friday, more or less, reaching the mark as they rode from Twin Bridges to Alder on an abandoned rail line.

“It’s definitely not the easiest mode of travel, but I’ve learned a lot doing it,” Russell said.

Their journey began June 11 and took them across the Pacific Northwest Trail to Eureka, where they went south through Whitefish and Columbia Falls and along the South Fork of the Flathead River to the Chinese Wall in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. They turned south following the Continental Divide Trail to Butte then up Camp Creek and down Rochester Creek into Twin Bridges.

They plan to continue up the Ruby River to the Centennial Valley, where Fairbank’s grandparents homesteaded in the late 1890’s before the land was designated a game refuge.

The trip was a bucket-list item for the 66-year-old Fairbank, who drives a school bus in Leavenworth, Wash. He and 27-year-old Russell met in May at a packer’s rendezvous in Winthrop, Wash., and Russell, who makes and sells buckskin clothes, convinced him to let her come along.

For Fairbank, the trip has renewed his faith in people.

“They have just gone out of their way to help us out and be interested in our trip,” he said. “There are so many good people out there that you didn’t realize.”

While the pair might seem like an odd couple, Russell is quick to add that they sleep in their own tents.

“We were strangers when we started,” she said. “Now we’re friends for life, definitely.”

Russell took advantage of the opportunity to bond with her horse Flint, a 9-year-old Spanish Mustang, and while their travels took them new places, she admits it has been a long road.

“It is a lot of work, the packing and unpacking, and we carry a lot of stuff,” Russell said. “So we’ve got to deal with that every day.”

The most difficult aspect of the trip was navigating through the high country, where an above-average snow pack often diverted the riders from the trail to nearby roadways. But spirits remained as high as the mountains they crossed as they neared their destination.

“It’s been an amazing epic journey. Every step of the way it’s something new to see, being somewhere new every night and just seeing some awesome country,” said

Russell.

With that, the unusual pair of riders slipped across Highway 287 and disappeared down the rail line, into the sagebrush and on their way up the Ruby Valley.

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