When you’re on one of these wagon trains, everybody’s equal. When you’re out here, you’re judged on your work ethics and your skills as a teamster or a horsemen. And as ranchers, horsemen and teamsters, we try to be stewards of the land while we’re out here. – Paul Bliss, a wagon teamster from Salem

SANPETE COUNTY — A line of about 10 wagons clattered along as they set off on a 100-mile trek across rocky trails that rose and fell with the gentle slopes of green meadows. Those replicating the pioneers' wooden rigs clashed and lurched at each stone.

Drivers held fast to the reins of their two-horse and two-mule teams as they neared camp set against a backdrop of cowboy skies, wildflowers fragrant in the air.

But the plodding pace of the wood-on-rock rattling of wagon wheels turns to choas in a start when a rein slips from a driver’s hand.

His team turns tight and is out of control. The wagon hits a bump and the driver is catapulted from his wagon. The team is frantic. The driver’s grandson lets loose a scream from the back of the wagon as it thrashes violently away.

Cowboys jump into action. Their steeds turn and gallop to the wagon. One manages to lasso one of the chargers, but he is forced to drop the rope as the wagon hurtles up around a trailer. Provo resident Julio Gonzalez chases after and grabs the rope. With the help of other horsemen, Gonzalez pulls the team into a circle and an eventual stop.

It's another tale from the trail, a place where service is the byword.

“When you’re on one of these wagon trains, everybody’s equal,” said Paul Bliss, a wagon teamster from Salem. “When you’re out here, you’re judged on your work ethics and your skills as a teamster or a horsemen. And as ranchers, horsemen and teamsters, we try to be stewards of the land while we’re out here.”

Throughout the rest of the trek, fellow horsemen and horsewomen would speak fondly of how the boy was saved and how the kinship of the Back Country Horsemen of America is manifested out of such calamity.

BCHA, a national, non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the rights and land use of horses in the backcountry and providing education, service and involvement in public land management, celebrated its 40th anniversary with a nine-day wagon and horseback excursion across more than 100 miles in the high mountains of Sanpete and Emery counties along the Skyline Trail above Ephriam.

About 150 people—members and non-members—participated in the trek and commemorated the cause of BCHA by practicing “Leave No Trace” camping and completing a service project for the U.S. Forest Service every few days, said Jeff Nichols, the president of the BCHA Utah County Chapter.

The group donated about 150 hours of volunteer work throughout the trek by cleansing a meadow of about five bags of noxious weeds and dismantling some abandoned stock corrals and test plot fencing, Nichols said. The rest of the time, participants rode leisurely through grassy valleys, forested mountains, and fields of wild flowers on the trek that ended Saturday.

“We’re here to ride for fun too, but part of the charter of Backcountry Horsemen is to provide service,” Nichols said. “In order to make this meaningful, we felt like we needed to incorporate service into this. We’re celebrating what we do, after all.”

Deeds of the Horsemen

Joel Murphy, a member of the Utah County BCHA chapter and the trek’s trail boss, said between 1993 and 2011, BCHA members donated about 3 million hours of volunteer labor and cleared more than 20,000 miles of national forest trails across the nation. The labor converts to a value of more than $74 million to the U.S. Forest Service.

“Figures for 2012 will most likely exceed a value of $13 million, and it continues to grow each year as our membership continues to expand,” Murphy said.

Nichols said about 650 members make up the Utah membership.

Mike Schlosser, first and former president of the Utah BCHA and member of the BCHA Wasatch Chapter, said strong and everlasting relationships between the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management give BCHA opportunities to ensure public lands stay healthy and enjoyable for future generations as well as open to the public by keeping the state of backcountry trails in check.

“We’re another set of eyes and ears,” he said. “We see these things that need work, and because we have a good relationship with the Forest Service and the BLM, we can notify these people and we know who to call.”

The Forest Service often saves labor costs by turning to BCHA volunteers for the manpower to maintain the trails with animals that can tread landscapes with minimal damage, Schlosser said.

“It’s a win, win, win all the way around,” he said. “I get to enjoy this mountain and scenery, my horse enjoys his day and we accomplish something that helps someone else.”

Nichols said BCHA’s work to protect and maintain public lands not only helps ensure public lands stay open to equine travel, but also all types of public access.

“A lot of people don’t realize when they go out and they have a nice trail to ride their bikes on or hike on, it’s probably because we’ve been through there and cleaned it out in the spring,” he said. “We don’t just do it for us. We do it for the bike guys, we do it for the motorcycle guys, we do it for the ATV guys, we do it for everyone.”

“It’s our land,” Schlosser said. “If we don’t take care of it, we’re not going to have it."

The Wagons

The purpose of inviting wagon teamsters to join the trek was not only to assist in the service projects and celebrations of the organization’s cause, but also to represent the state’s pioneer heritage, Schlosser said.

“We invited the teamsters to come because we wanted to have that flavor. This is our heritage, this is our gift to the next generations,” he said.

About 10 wagons wheeled their way along the trail, covering about 10 to 12 miles of ground per day. With only 12 to 15 teamsters to be found statewide with the average age in the mid-sixties, Nichols said he fears wagon driving and other lifestyles that represent what BCHA members hope to perpetuate are diminishing.

“It really is a dying pastime,” Nichols said. “Kids with their fast cars and video games, are just not excited about going down the road at 3.5 miles per hour, and yet when you look around you can see so much more from the back of a horse than you ever will in a car."

Events like the wagon train across Skyline Drive are organized to not only bring together the BCHA community, but also to welcome the public to discover its joys and learn about how participating in the traditional ways can give new perspectives to life, Schlosser said.

“Coming to the country, it’s a battery charger,” he said. “It’s a renewal of life. There’s a saying that there’s something about the outside of the horse that makes the inside of the man or woman a much better person. I really believe that.”

“You can feel yourself unwind when you come out into the country,” Nichols said. “You feel a completely different rhythm to life when you’re out here. Everything slows down and you’re not in a hurry and you know it’s going to take you three or four hours to go eight miles, and you don’t care.”

BCHA member Teresa Harris from Delta brought her horse and mule to join the trek. With some convincing, she also brought her friend of 20 years, Bonnie Anderson, who wasn’t quite sure she’d be able to complete such a journey. Harris said the trek enabled Anderson to ride a horse for the first time in 30 years.

Tears in her eyes, Anderson said riding horses and wagons was an unforgettable, rejuvenating and eye-opening experience.

“My ancestors did this, and it’s just so neat to understand their way of life and what they went through to get here,” she said. “I really appreciate what they went through, and to have a little bit of understanding of how that took place is really fantastic.”

Harris said traveling across the backcountry at horse and wagon pace grants unique and moving chances to bond with people with the same passion for horses, mules, livestock and other traditional ways of life.

“It’s really hard to describe the phenomenal experience of meeting people at 4-miles-per-hour and the friendships you make,” she said, her voice cracking. “I’m so grateful; it’s been a godsend to my life. It’s given me something to look forward to and be apart of. I’d rather be here than home any day of the week. I love it, and I cry when I go home.”

Email: kmckellar@deseretnews.com