Trio conquer the Arizona Trail

800-mile trek ‘validating,’ Jackson says

Molly Johnson and her former stepfather, Dr. Ken Jackson, sit atop of their horses north of the Grand Canyon during their trip on the Arizona Trail.

Courtesy<br><br> Molly Johnson and her former stepfather, Dr. Ken Jackson, sit atop of their horses north of the Grand Canyon during their trip on the Arizona Trail.

Traveling 800 miles across the state on horseback can do a lot to an individual.

For Dr. Ken Jackson, Molly Johnson and Kevin Morgan, the experience of following the Arizona Trail has changed them. They have learned more about themselves and each other than they ever have in the past.

"It's very validating for myself," Jackson said. "I'm different, even though I didn't expect to be."

Joined by family and friends during various parts of the 800-mile Arizona Trail, the three rode continuously for six weeks.

Part of the purpose of the trip was to honor the Arizona Trail, Jackson said.

"It's a magnificent state," Jackson said. "It's a magnificent trail."

Jackson, 60, has his own medical practice in Kingman and is known as the Cowboy Baby Doctor. During the last 30 years, he has served the Apache Tribe on the Whiteriver Reservation, the Hualapai Tribe at Peach Springs and the Havasupai Tribe in the Grand Canyon.

Jackson has known Morgan for more than 10 years. The pair had talked about making the voyage from the Utah border to the Mexico border for the past eight years, Jackson said.

Morgan worked as a biologist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department. He had decided to quit his job and start his own business, giving him the opportunity to go on the ride.

It wasn't until the last 15 months that Jackson began to seriously plan and map out the trip. Part of the planning process required Jackson to visit all 43 trailheads to make sure they were accessible by horse trailer.

On Sept. 13, the group left Kingman for the Utah border. The ride concluded on the Mexican border on Oct. 23 and they returned home the next day.

The group nicknamed the trip the Manifest West Quest after the "Manifest West" book Jackson is currently attempting to get published.

"We develop a bit of an attitude on the trail," Jackson said.

Along the route, the group ran into locals and tourists who were supportive and quite fascinated with the adventure, he said.

"Knowing people that wanted to do this all the time and we were actually doing it, that is what I really loved," Morgan said.

The trio had various stories of complete strangers helping them out with food, showers and encouraging words.

"People took pictures and gawked at us," Morgan said. "Then as we got further south, people were just stunned."

It wasn't until the group had gotten on the trip, they found planning could only go so far.

"Almost every day there was a certain degree of uncertainty," Jackson said.

Because of the peril, there were times the mood would suddenly change from jovial to serious.

"Nobody likes heights, especially when there really isn't much of a trail," he said.

The group averaged eight hours of ride time every day, covering 36 miles. The longest they rode in one day was 42 miles, with 12 miles being the shortest, he added.

"We once got up at 3:30 a.m. to ride with a full moon," Jackson said.

While they primarily stuck to the trail, they had to veer off the course a handful of times.

"Some places were impassable by horse," he said.

At times, the group had to rebuild the trails to cross.

"It wasn't like rides in the park here," Jackson said. "We rode places I'm sure people haven't ridden in years."

The group traveled from north to south across the Grand Canyon in one day.

Mike Ford, who serves as president of the Mohave Community College campus in Kingman, rode with the group along the first 110 miles - including the Grand Canyon section. Dr. Darla Wright invited him on the trip.

"It sounded like an outstanding opportunity," Ford said. "Not that many people ride that far in that time and I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to go the whole way."

Ford described the first 85 miles as a beautiful ride through beautiful terrain. The last part of the trip through the Grand Canyon was the biggest challenge of his life because of his fear of heights, Ford said.

"It was a life-changing experience," he said.

From those who participated for part of the ride to the main group who rode the 800 miles, each admitted the trip had changed them.

Morgan said he had a lot of time to think and has become more thoughtful. Even now, he doesn't feel like he's connected to the world around him.

"It's like I literally checked out of life," Morgan said.

Jackson said he has learned to live his life and not worry about what others think of him.

Johnson said she has realized she can achieve her goals. As the only woman to ride the whole trip, Johnson said she did not feel out of place.

"The purpose making the trip was of personal experience," she said.

While the group got to get to know each other, they often bonded with sophomoric humor.

"I've known Kevin for 10 years and I now know what he was like when he was 12 and he knows how I was," Jackson said.

With so many different personalities meshing on the trip, the trio were surprised there weren't any issues until the last day of the trip.

Jackson had experienced previous distance riding on horseback, going from west to east across Arizona and north to south with his other daughter in Colorado.

PBS KAET and Arizona Highways documented his trip across Arizona in 1996.

With those two voyages, Jackson estimated he had only covered two-thirds of the 800 miles required facing him on the trail he had never tackled before the trip.

"It was just a great adventure," Jackson said. "No one had ridden it at once."

The group rotated between horses to allow the animals to rest for the long trail. Jackson said he his horses were in shape and he had trained them for the trail.

"It's hard to really get a horse ready for a 800-mile trail," Jackson said.

Because of the strain of the trip, each horse lost weight - even though the group was constantly feeding and watering them throughout the ride.

Wright, a local veterinarian and endurance rider, accompanied the group on the first and last week of the trip to check on the horses, Jackson said.

The health of the horse was just as important as the attitude of the horse.

"You fed off your horse," Morgan said. "When your horse is charged and you're on top of it and you're feeding off that. They just want to go and you want to."

Beyond the memories, the group has more than 3,000 photographs documenting the experience.

"We got our feet wet because the Gila (River) went up to the horses bellies," Jackson said. "We galloped across the desert. We walked on foot in front of the horses, next to the horses and behind the horses."

The tone of the ride was set in the first week.

"We're galloping through the meadow and we were yelling and screaming like kids," Jackson said.

Beyond the adventure and reverence for the Arizona Trail, the trip gave Jackson the opportunity to bond withJohnson, his former stepdaughter, he said. The two had only spoken once in the past 13 years.

During the time, Johnson had been a horse wrangler and an Outback guide in Australia for two years with her father.

Johnson had contacted Jackson last fall and the two had decided the trip would be a good opportunity to be reacquainted as adults.

A second chance

Jackson said he viewed the trip as a second chance to get to know Johnson, whom he has known as a daughter since before she was 2.

"It's a great opportunity," Jackson said. "It's like the bright light has stepped back into my life."

Johnson said she didn't have any expectations going into the trip.

"I like the idea of having to go on horseback because you get to see what in the past people did," Johnson said.

Being away from her father, Johnson said having a father-like figure reappear in her life was more than she ever expected.

With this perspective, she now feels deprived for having gone so long without Jackson in her life.

"Father figure or not, he's is, without a doubt, one of the best people in my life," she said.

Since the trip and the renewed bond between the two, Johnson is staying in Kingman and continuing her education.

"I just felt blessed to be able to bond with him from an adult perspective," Johnson said.

The growth between Jackson and his former stepdaughter gave Morgan hope and perspective in dealing with his stepchildren. Morgan said he realized that love for a stepchild grows.

He said the biggest concern he had going into the trip was his children, and they were able to be a part of the trip during some portions.

"One of the highlights of my trip was getting a letter from my daughter," Morgan said.

Special delivery

She had mailed the letter to a friend in Tucson, who delivered it when the group was in the area. In it, she talked about Morgan.

"The kind of dad she described in the letter is the dad I want to be," Morgan said.

He said the trip also allowed him to become closer to his son, with whom he felt guilty for not being as connected.

The group's family and friends have been supportive of the trip from beginning to end.

When the group arrived in Coolidge, Morgan's grandparents opened up their home, providing hot food and cold showers.

"Showers were at a premium then," Morgan said.

And Johnson's mother brought much needed supplies towards the end of the trip.

"I never felt like we weren't supported," Johnson said.

Wilder lends

a helping hand

A tremendous amount of the support came from Ken Wilder, who would drive one of two horse trailers with supplies to each trailhead along the trip, including refilling a 250-gallon water tank.

"My whole purpose when I signed up was to do whatever was necessary to make the trip work," Wilder said.

Even in the support role, Wilder said he gained a lot from the trip.

"I've been in Arizona for 50 years and I got to see parts of Arizona I've never seen before," he said.

Bucket list item

Morgan's wife, Diane, said she supported the trip because she understood its importance.

"It's a bucket list item," Kevin Morgan said. "That's the first thing she said when we got out of the movie."

As a former single mother, Diane Morgan said she was used to being responsible for children by herself. Still, the six weeks were difficult, she said.

She and her husband talked an average of once a week, and she said she realized her husband didn't want to discuss the realities of the world he left behind for the trip.

"It was a harder adjustment when he came back, and that was an adjustment I didn't expect," Diane Morgan said.

The married couple had to once again reintegrate parenting styles and responsibilities.

While the initial plan wasn't anything more than the ride, Jackson said he could now write a book.

He already has been in discussions with the Arizona Trail Association to speak at their annual meeting and for fundraising events.