Somewhere between Gatesville, Texas, and Estes Park, Colo., today there rides a cowboy — on a three-month, 1,000-mile trek to honor a lost friend, and doing so on a saddle that serves as a symbol of the two’s undying friendship that even some outsiders describe as one they’d never seen.
The two young Texas lads — Jonathan Avitia and Winston Hall — shared a typical childhood in small-town Texas, and their friendship strengthened as they grew up together.
Years later, Avitia called from his University of Colorado-Boulder dorm room to invite Hall to join him at a Rocky Mountain summer job. Avitia had so-enjoyed his previous summer’s work at the camp in Estes Park that he encouraged Hall beyond refusal.
In the summer of 2001, Hall joined his buddy at not some bare-bones camp, but rather Wind River Ranch — a Christian guest ranch with lineage tracing to the property’s original owner, Rev. Elkanah J. Lamb, an esteemed Bible teacher, pioneer and Long’s Peak hiking guide.
Not only did Hall immediately fall in love with the ranch, its people and purpose, but he and Avitia were there off and on for the following five years.
Hall’s blog notes they experienced everything from cattle drives to lightning storms, bear encounters, blizzards and wildfires. Their bond further strengthened through sharing the fullness of mountain life’s bounty.
They met people from around the country and the world.
Also, Avitia bought a saddle Hall came to covet — but in a friendly, brotherly way. He even borrowed it for one entire summer after his purchase offers were repeatedly rebuffed.
As always, time marched on.
Avitia and Hall shared more adventures, including a few years in Texas hill country where Jonathan implemented his architectural skills to collaborate the design of the Marquardt Ranch. Then it was on to Nashville and Shreveport, La., where the young men worked in the motion picture business.
But all work no play ... so they spent a few weeks soaking up rays on a Puerto Morelos, Mexico, beach simply for the fun of it.
Everything changed on Oct. 6, 2011, when, to determine the cause of a strange pain in his chest, Avitia went to the doctor.
The dreadful diagnosis was a shock wave that within four days sent him to M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston for treatment of an extragonadal germ cell tumor.
Avitia spent the following 16 months on a nightmarish roller coaster.
As Hall writes in a blog, “Those of us close to him watched him endure pure hell, pushing his body to the limit to rid itself of the cancer.”
The one bright spot in that painful darkness was the marriage of Avitia and then-girlfriend Lindsey Dotson.
By October 2012, medical options had been all but exhausted.
Avitia texted that, if he didn’t make it, his saddle and black cowboy hat were to go to Hall.
On March 27, 2013, Jonathan Avitia, age 31, passed away.
Following the funeral, Hall retrieved from Avitia’s parents’ house Jonathan’s hat and saddle, the two bequeathed, tangible vestiges of camaraderie.
Six months after Avitia’s death, and after much contemplation, Hall realized a way to create a lasting legacy to that brotherhood.
As a writer with a degree in journalism, he will self-publish a book about their bond and his experiences from the “Journey for Jonathan,” a 1000-mile memorial horseback ride from Texas to Wind River Ranch in Colorado, where he’d donate Avitia’s saddle.
Months of logistical planning and fundraising began.
By Feb. 6, 2014, he reached the financial goal.
But one doesn’t simply hop aboard the nearest equine and set off down the road.
The “perfect” horse was needed. It had to be mentally and physically conditioned, well-trained, and fit Avitia’s saddle.
Entered Mandy Bradford of Bono, Texas.
She’d read about the planned trek and felt she had just the horse. Hall’s friend and horse mentor, Nick Herold, volunteered to fly from Denver to Bono to appraise the animal, a 4-year-old Bureau of Land Management mustang.
Incredibly, the saddle was a perfect fit, as were the buckskin gelding’s personality and stamina.
The chosen fellow was dubbed “Durango Bobwire,” to pay double homage. Avitia’s father, Pepe, was born and raised in the Mexican state of Durango, and K.C. — younger brother of Hall’s girlfriend, Donna Chance — had lived in Durango, Colo., for a time before his death.
Durango Bobwire was born in captivity to a mare captured wild in Nevada.
Durango spent his first two years at a Bureau of Land Management holding facility. Then Bradford adopted the scraggly boy, whose mane and tail had been chewed off by other horses, and transformed him into a well-trained and conditioned contestant in the Mustang Heritage Foundation’s Mustang Million event.
Hall thoroughly meshed with his equine partner.
He declared, “Bonding with an animal that has its own spirit and ideas, then melding and even reconciling them with your own, is an amazing process to be a part of.”
Preparations continued, including selecting the exact route for Hall and Durango. Chance and Hart (Hall’s dog that Avitia picked out of a litter for him in 2006) would accompany them in a support vehicle toting people/dog/horse supplies and other sundry necessities. But no horse trailer.
The symbolic starting point was the Avitia’s land in Gatesville, Texas, where he and Hall had spent countless childhood days.
Some of Avitia’s ashes rest there.
His parents had arrived in America young and penniless. Their land tells how one cattle ranching family’s sacrifice and hard work made their American dream come true.
Two carefree boys had left that land years before, and every mile beyond forged them into men.
And so, on March 13, 2014, (Avitia’s birthday) the monumental journey began.
Myriad challenges lay ahead, including potential injury, sickness, lameness, support vehicle problems or adverse weather.
For the next couple months, the team would advance from central Texas through the vast Llano Estacado and the Kiowa Grasslands of New Mexico to Colorado’s Front Range and the Rocky Mountain destination: Wind River Ranch in Estes Park.
Hall’s ongoing blog tells of incredible encounters with people, circumstances and weather events.
For example, aggressive winds blasted at a hearty 25-35 mph, with sneering 45 mph gusts, the entire day of March 17.
Yet Hall on Durango trudged on.
The team fares far better with people, including family, friends and total strangers who spring up along the way with delicious goodies and other generosity.
Folks who’ve lost loved ones to cancer share stories, tears and encouragement for Hall’s ambitious travels.
Off-the-cuff offers of nighttime sheltering barns or corrals for Durango are accepted.
Monetary and in-kind donations cheer Hall and Chance on, including from pancreatic cancer survivor, Weldon Faught, who they met at a Richland Springs, Texas, feed store. He invited them to an overnight stay at his home.
A bone cancer survivor greatly admired what Hall was doing to keep a promise, and just wanted to shake his hand.
On March 22, Durango faced his first working oil well, a fearsome, oil-belching monster he decided was best avoided. Anticipating about 5,000 more in west Texas, Hall patiently worked with the smart mustang to conquer his fears. By monster No. 5, the still wary but bolder little mustang confronted the noisy demons with great valor.
And, from Hall’s blog, March 23, 2014, when the team passed Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas, they approached Lone Wolf Gap. Hall was unsure how Durango would react on the pedestrian bridge spanning the expanse. Chance walked ahead so the horse would follow, which he did. At the bridge’s center they met a couple taking engagement photos. Chance explained the special 1,000-mile journey the pair were now witness to.
Per the bride-to-be’s request, Hall and Durango posed with her in what will surely be a very unique pre-wedding photo.
Don McIntyre, executive director and cowboy of Wind River Ranch, said that when Hall reaches Last Chance, Colo., many dear friends will join him for the remaining distance to the ranch — at that point, what would be a three-day ride to go.
Awed by Hall’s determination and unbreakable bond with Avitia he marveled, “I’ve never seen a friendship like theirs, and I’ve seen some great ones. They truly were like brothers.”
The saddle that became a symbol of undying friendship and carried one man to fulfillment of a promise made to the other will be used on Wind River Ranch trail rides for a while, then retired into a collection of historical items.
For 1,000 miles, the saddle will have sat upon a once-wild horse while the man sitting atop both accomplished what many would think a wild idea.
Winston Hall will encounter numerous additional miles of trials and blessings on his “Journey for Jonathan.”
At the ride’s conclusion, many will remark of him as long-ago was said of the Rev. Lamb, who founded the Wind River Ranch near Estes Park, “He traveled on horseback from one place to another ... carrying broad cheer to many a heavy heart.” ❖