A year ago Tracy Delp was at the end of her rope, or so it seemed. The 47-year-old Port Orchard woman had pledged to ride horseback across the country to raise awareness and funding for cancer, which had claimed her mother and others she loved, including animals. She and her riding partner Dan Shanafelt set out from the Pacific Coast on their Coast2Coast for Cancer ride on Mother’s Day 2011, but somewhere near the border between Washington and Idaho, Dan had a change of heart and turned back.
The last time I wrote about Delp, she had trailered her team of horses (and one mule) back to Washington to regroup, blindly determined not to abandon her goal.
Today, lo and behold, there comes in a Google alert news that Delp made it to Iowa, more than halfway to her destination: Delaware’s shoreline. Now riding with a trimmed down team of one woman, one horse and a plucky dog named Ursa, Delp has improvised daily and leaned heavily on the kindness of strangers to leapfrog team and trailer across the Western and Central United States.
“I’ve done it every which way to Sunday,” she said. “I’ve handed
my keys to complete strangers.”
The Rocky Mountains were her first big challenge. Delp set out late last fall (almost winter really), hurrying from the point she left off to make the crossing.
“I was told there is no way. People told me I was crazy,” she said.
It wouldn’t have been the first time.
Delp and company took 10 days to get through the mountains. “The next day, it snowed like a banshee,” she said.
Delp returned home shortly before Thanksgiving to wait out the winter and resumed her journey again in mid-April. Wouldn’t you know she picked a summer of record-setting heat and drought?
Her MO has been to start near dawn and knock off around noon. Innovation, animal instinct and sheer luck have all been required to keep the team from overheating. Ursa, it turns out can find water where there appears to be none.
“You play the beat-the-heat game. Some days you win. Some days you lose,” she said.
The heat bred crazy lightning and thunderstorms.
Delp has gotten so used to being outdoors that she almost feels claustrophobic inside a building. She’s gained a fine appreciation for the sheer size of this country and just how much of it is empty, or rather open landscape.
“There’s a whole lot of nowhere,” Delp said. “My idea of nowhere is a lot different than it used to be.”
Obstacles large and small present themselves daily, not if but when. Most recently the horse, Sierra, stepped on her cell phone. It still worked, but then she got caught in a rainstorm. Water leaked through the cracks and killed the faithful device, which had to be replaced.
Somehow, money for supplies, gas to the next town, a place to stay fall into Delp’s lap just when she needs them. Some of the funding for the trip comes from her website, which allows donors to choose whether they want to give to partner organizations, one that raises money for animals with cancer, one for people. Another option is to sponsor supplies and other costs of the ride.
Last August, Delp was in the running for a $25,000 Pepsi Refresh grant. The corporate take on crowd funding allowed supporters of micro-causes to vote, advancing programs and projects like Delp’s ride. Projects in various categories earned grants awarded monthly to those with the most votes. Coast2Coast for Cancer made it to 31st place, but Delp did not win a prize.
Often, people along the route will simply step up to fill a need. Like the woman who offered to keep the horse as Delp hauled back to Washington last week on an emergency trip to tend to one of her dogs being cared for at home, that “ironically,” as Delp says, came down with cancer.
Delp expected to have to put the dog down, but 14-year-old Duke rallied at her arrival. “I’m checking in with him, and he’s not ready,” said Delp, who makes a living as an “animal interpreter.”
On Thursday, I spoke to Delp, who was driving her truck, decorated with sponsor decals, through Colorado on her way back to Iowa. Duke was happily gazing at the scenery go by. That’s right; Delp will now bring her aging dog, who is ailing with cancer along on the journey.
She hasn’t quite figured out what she will do with Duke while she rides, but Delp is undaunted. She’s pondering how to fix up a wagon in which he can ride comfortably. Alternately, she’ll find a daily dog sitter. One way or another, she and her animals will roll with whatever the road brings their way.
“Cancer is not something you can ever plan for,” she said. “Now, here we are. This is an adventure.”
Update on Friday: Duke died on Thursday night, just a few hours after my interview with Delp. And the journey continues.