The following article about April Nabholz first appeared in The Philomath Bulletin
The photo, courtesy of April, shows the adventurous young lady with her donkey Honeychild.

Retracing the Tracks of Pioneers

By Joseph Fulton


At first glance April Nabholz does not look like a modern day pioneer who crossed North Dakota and Montana on a horse before hitchhiking to Oregon with a mule.  Radiating youthfulness, with a face of innocence and eyes of wonder, she could be any young lady taking her first cautious steps into a world without parental control.  But first glances can be deceiving.

Her mud-caked rubber boots and loose-fitting work shirt offer a sharp contrast to her gentle, beautiful face.  Self-assured and happy to engage in casual conversation April is equally modest and unassuming.  Nevertheless, as she shares her adventure she unintentionally elevates herself to a position of awe-inspiring respect.   Just 24 years-old April has lived more intensely and with greater vigor than most people twice her age.  

April currently lives in Corvallis, Oregon where she works at Grassroots Bookstore but she leaves the impression that she and her mule could disappear without so much as a moment’s notice.  That does not mean that she would not be prepared to move on.  Preparedness is one of the many attributes that belie her youthful demeanor.

April Nabholz grew up the Amish country of York County, Pennsylvania.  Home-schooled by her artistic parents, she is a self-confessed tomboy who took an equal share in all the farm chores with her two brothers.  She attended Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina and studied creative writing, but dreamed of creative living.  Moving to Walcott, Vermont she found work on a seed farm and earned enough money to embark on her first adventure; wandering alone through the mountainous region of India and Tibet.

In Tibet April made a commitment to herself that when she returned to the United States she would simplify her life.  At the time she had no way of knowing that she would simplify to the point of shedding most modern-day conveniences and striking out like a pioneer woman on the Oregon Trail with only her survival skills and the generosity of strangers to see her through.

It was late in 2007 when April accepted an intriguing proposal while sitting around a bonfire in Vermont.  She agreed to join her friend, Dana Szgedy, on a horseback-riding journey to the West.  It was all a bit vague at the time.  Perhaps they would travel on a trail across southern Canada, or perhaps they would roughly follow the route of Lewis & Clark.  Regardless of the route, they would aim for Oregon and they intended to get there with as little help or money as possible.  They would collect money for the journey, but it would be in the form of pledges to be donated upon completion of their adventure to Heifer International, the Arkansas based non-profit organization dedicated to ending world hunger.

With six-months to prepare for a May 2008 departure date, April and Dana went their separate ways.  As they would be using Dana’s horses for the journey, Dana decided to enroll in a farrier school.  She also took an internship with world-renowned herbalist Rosemary Gladstar in the anticipation that she and April would partially rely on wild edibles for nutrition.

April was busy learning new skills as well; not unlike the whirlwind education that her distant relative Meriwether Lewis embarked upon as he prepared to lead the Corps of Discovery over two centuries ago.  She enrolled in the Tom Brown Tracking School and attended a ROOTS (Rediscovering Our Original Traditions) clinic.  In the process she learned to build a fire using primitive tools.  She also learned to track, hunt and skin animals. She made her own bow and arrows, buckskins, saddlebags and water-filtering system. Her family and friends thought the idea was insane and they were skeptical she could pull it off, but that did not diminish their excitement for her.

When May arrived Dana put her three horses, Gypsy, Kayah and Nama, in a horse trailer and headed toward North Dakota.  April followed in an old pickup with the gear and a blue heeler puppy named Breeze.  When they reached the Theodore Roosevelt Grasslands near Medora, North Dakota they found a place to store the trailer and pickup, packed the gear and the puppy on Nama, mounted Gypsy and Kayah and set off toward the setting sun.  Besides their gear they had a map, a compass and about $500 between them.

The two women followed a railroad line, but not too closely as they preferred to remain unseen.  They camped along the way and tried their best to stay on public or railroad lands.  An unexpected adventure struck them on the very first night.  A wild herd of horses, led by an aggressive and determined stallion, came upon their camp.  April and Dana chased off the mares, but the stallion seemed determined to get Gypsy, Kayah and Nama to join his herd.  Big sticks and lots of screaming, plus a few well-intended barks from Breeze, finally changed the stallion’s mind.

When they reached Glendive, Montana the women followed the Yellowstone River to Miles City.  Despite being the biggest town in eastern Montana with over 8,000 people, residents of Miles City were still surprised and impressed to see two female strangers in buckskins casually riding their horses down Main Street. People clamored to hear their story. A couple of local hunters insisted on supplementing their bow and arrows with a gun and gave the women a quick lesson in shooting.  They accepted the gift, but April never used the gun again.

From Miles City April and Dana moved on down the Yellowstone toward Forsyth. They worked at a couple of ranches along the way but still managed to average 100 miles per week.  They carried oats for the packhorse while their mounts just grazed on prairie grass.  April found herself singing “Home On The Range” fairly regularly as they rode along until Dana got tired of it and asked her to stop.  Sitting around their campfire at night they would often dine on wild rabbit, prickly pear and yucca flowers. When they reached the city of Helena they rode up to the capital lawn, hitched their horses to a tree and were greeted by the Lt. Governor.  In fact, April was surprised at the hospitality they enjoyed throughout their journey.  They had become minor celebrities as they rode into towns and hitched up their horses on posts that hadn’t been used for years.  It seemed that everything was going better than expected, but April was in for an unexpected surprise.

Dana had met a cowboy along the way and it was love at first sight.  Around a campfire in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Dana broke the news.  She would not be going on.  Dana had decided to stay in Montana with her cowboy and she was going to take her horses and Breeze with her. April was a bit stunned when Dana dropped her off in the middle of the night, without so much as a tent, in Augusta, Montana, a tiny town of 284.  She had less than $40 to her name.  She was miserable, but she was not completely alone.  She had Honeychild.  Honeychild was a mule April bought a few weeks earlier at a ranch in central Montana and although it was stubborn and had kicked her in the ribs, she was glad that she still had a companion.

April knew she couldn’t ride Honeychild.  While gathering her thoughts during the long night in Augusta she noticed a flyer advertising a mule-training barn near Corvallis, Oregon.  That settled it.  April and Honeychild would hitch their way to Corvallis.  She posted a sign up at the local rodeo grounds and within a few hours had secured a ride with some rodeo riders to Whitefish.

April remembered that Outfitters Supply was headquartered in Columbia Falls, Montana, just a few miles outside of Whitefish.  The owner of Outfitters Supply was Russ Barnett, a highly respected designer of saddlebags.  April had one of Barnett’s bags on Honeychild.  Desperate for a place to stay April called Barnett and much to her surprise Barnett and his wife Maxine invited her to stay with them.  The Barnett’s made April feel at home and became very fond of her.  April used the time to train Honeychild.  She felt love and contentment with the Barnett’s but she also knew (to paraphrase Robert Frost) that she had miles to go before she could sleep.

After two weeks the Barnett’s gave April and her mule a lift to Spokane where she spent a week working at a dairy farm.  Then she hitched another ride to Enterprise, Oregon.  From Enterprise she hitched one final ride all the way to Corvallis where she arrived broke and hungry on September 7, 2008.

After camping out with Honeychild at the Valley Mule Company south of Corvallis for a few days, April borrowed a bicycle and bought some clothes at Goodwill.  She secured a part-time job at Grassroots bookstore in downtown Corvallis and found a room to rent nearby.  She enjoys Corvallis, but one can see in her eyes that she is a restless soul. She would like to raise more money for Heifer International and she dreams of hiking off through the coastal mountains with Honeychild.

It is somewhat appropriate that April Nabholz’s four-month journey to Oregon coincides with the beginning of the state’s sesquicentennial celebration.  Within the spirit of April lie the flickering embers of that same spirit that drove our brave pioneer ancestors to challenge the Oregon Trail.  But April is not a blast from the past.  She is simply a beautiful example that the lure of the West and its promise of adventure live on.


Copyright 2009 by Joseph Fulton

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