As the sun peaks over the Manzano Mountains, 16 riders mount their horses for an annual ride back in time.
Valencia County Sheriff’s Posse members and friends gathered Thursday morning at Steve Vallejos’ home on North Mesa Road to prepare for the annual ride to the Old Timers’ Reunion in Magdalena.
As they tightened their tack, some knew what would be in store for them. Others were preparing for their first such adventure.
For 16 years, Gene Vallejos has been leading a group of riders through the sage and desert brush, across the mesa to Riley and on to Magdalena in the two-day ride.
“Guy Spires, who organized the Old Timers’ Reunion, asked us to start doing this about 16 years ago,” Gene Vallejos said. “Each year, we get up to 16 to 18 riders to make the two-day trip and another 28 to join us for the final day from Riley to Magdalena.”
This could be Vallejos last time to make the 70-mile trip. But he’s been saying that for the past three years. “I like doing it,” he said. “I like the challenge and the camaraderie with the riders.”
Vallejos and his son, Steve, have been making this ride a family activity for six years. “He talks me into long rides all the time,” Steve said of his father.
This year, joining them are Jerry Montoya, Frank “Pancho” Baca, Mike Piro, David Sandoval, Les Sanchez, Larry Ortiz, Leonard Carrillo, Ed Erven, Oscar Razo, Lorenzo Ivarra, Gary Mendez, Melissa Gabaldon and Ron Gabaldon.
The endurance ride is a trip back in time, when the only way to get there from here was on horseback. The riders’ packs are filled with their necessities for the day — food, bandanna, rain gear and water.
“We’ve got all sorts of food,” Gene Vallejos said, “everything from fried chicken to burritos. I don’t think we’re going to starve.”
The riders will follow a route that takes them across the mesa 48 miles through Isleta’s Comanche Ranch and the Sais Ranch, over Ladron Peak and into Riley.
Along the way, the riders will have to find water for their horses. This year, with a drought in progress, there was some concern about water, but Gene Vallejos said he checked the watering holes on Wednesday.
“The rains put some water in the watering holes, so we should be all right,” he said. “The ranchers cooperate with us and allow us to use their water for our horses.”
Once the group reaches the ghost town of Riley, located along the Rio Salado in Socorro County, at about 6:30 p.m., the riders will dismount for 12 hours after their first day’s ride.
“They’re pretty tired after that first day,” said Rose Mary, Montoya’s wife. “But family and friends are there with food and encouragement.”
After a good meal and a night’s rest at the Riley Community Center, the group is ready to mount again on Friday for the final 22-mile ride into Magdalena.
The group will be joined by other riders to travel to Magda-lena along Farm Road 354. The group prides itself in staying off the road and riding in natural terrain. They’ll reach their destination around 1:30 p.m.
“You have to prepare yourself and your horse for a ride of this length,” said six-year veteran Montoya, who has been conditioning his horse, Estrella — a Spanish word for “star” — for about a month. “This is Estrella’s fifth time to make the trip. When we get out on the desert and he realizes what we are doing, he wants to turn around and head back to the barn. But, after a while, he gets into the challenge.”
Mendez, who is riding Pusher on his sixth trip, said he likes the adventure of the endurance ride. “Plus, he made me do it,” he said jokingly of Gene Vallejos.
Sanchez, also on his sixth trip, is riding a rookie horse, Easy Chance. As the trip begins, he wonders how his horse will do during the challenging trip.
Montoya’s nephew Baca is making the trip for the third time. “I like it because you get away from civilization and have a good time,” he said. “I’ve been riding every day, getting my horse and myself ready.”
Carrillo knows the trip is a challenge for man and beast. “This is my third trip, and the second time for my horse, Chico,” he said. “I like the challenge.”
Melissa Gabaldon, 15, is making her second trip. She was 10 the first time she made the ride. This time, she has exchanged her cowboy hat for a stylish sun visor, which the other riders kid her about. She takes the kidding quietly as her father, Ron, prepares their horses, Morgan and Miller.
Piro isn’t sure what is in store for him on the ride, since this is his first time out. Baca, his brother-in-law, got him interested in the ride. “I’ve only been riding for about a year so this will an experience,” he said.
Another rookie on the first leg of the trip is Erven, who rode his horse, Little Joe, on the Riley-to-Magdalena part of the trip last year.
Other rookies are Ortiz, on his horse, Desert Storm, Razo, on Jose Gato, Ivarra, on Little Blonde, and the youngest rookie, 13-year-old Sandoval.
“I ride around the mesa all the time,” Sandoval said of his favorite summer activity. “I just wanted to do this to see what it’s really like to take a long ride.”