Gil Breeding followed his dream this fall.
He packed his pickup truck and camper, loaded his horse Amigo in a trailer, said goodbye to his wife, Janet, on Sept. 8 and left the 100-acre family farm in Louisville for a monthlong visit out West.
"I had no reservations, didn't know where I was going, just wherever something was happening," the 58-year-old former forest ranger said.
"It was the first time in my life I've had the opportunity, so I decided I wanted to go after Labor Day, when the kids were back in school and the tourists off the road."
His idea was not to travel as a tourist, but to see the "real West" by meeting farmers and cattle ranchers and sometimes joining them in their work.
"If I'd just taken the camper, I'd have been a tourist," Mr. Breeding said. "But with the horse trailer, I became a horseman and it opened a lot of doors for me.
"Ranchers invited me home with them. They figured if I brought a horse from Maryland, I must be doing something right."
His original plan was to cross the Mississippi River, then take things from there. But when he saw the rich land of Indiana and Illinois, the farmer in him had to stop and take a horseback ride to see the country.
Once across the big river, he touched parts of Missouri, Iowa, South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado and Texas.
He saw things he'd never seen before and did things he'd only dreamed of doing.
In Winterset, Iowa, he visited a hardware store and talked to the owner, someone named Breeding, who may have been a distant relative.
In Nebraska, he rode Amigo across pastures that still grew original native grasses.
"The funny thing is, somebody told me not to go to Nebraska, that I wouldn't like it, but I went and enjoyed it," Mr. Breeding said.
L He quickly learned how to meet the people he wanted to know.
"The way you meet these guys is you go to the cafe -- I don't believe any of them eat breakfast at home," he said. "They have a general store and cafe in the town and that's where they meet."
He'd visit cafes and listen to conversations to learn who was doing the things he wanted to do. Then he'd join the conversation.
Hoping to stay on ranches, Mr. Breeding took gifts for families -- ranger coloring books and pencils for children, maps to show where he lives in Maryland and copies of Susan White-Bowden's latest book, "Moonbeams Come at Dark Times," which includes a chapter about Mr. Breeding.
Besides herding cattle, driving a $400,000 state-of-the-art farm vehicle and riding Amigo, Mr. Breeding received invitations to help drive cattle and offers to buy his horse.
"Some of the older ranchers wanted to buy Amigo real bad, they liked the way he rode," Mr. Breeding said. "One guy wanted me to come back and help him drive cattle in November -- in Wyoming, where they have 10-foot-high fences made of planks so they can find them in the snow!"
A man in South Dakota was so hospitable he sent his wife to town to rent a John Wayne video for their Maryland guest.
"They had company and felt they had to do something and I appreciated it," Mr. Breeding said.
In Kansas, he saw onion fields being harvested commercially and in Texas visited the 550,000-acre J. A. Ranch, which is almost twice the size of Carroll County. He also visited commercial peanut, sugar beet and watermelon farms.
In Oklahoma, he wrangled his way into the dilapidated farm once owned by his hero, Gene Autry, and visited the Gene Autry Museum.
"Gene Autry had started a ranch, but then the war [World War II] broke out and he went off to war, the ranch was sold and he never went back," Mr. Breeding said.
One of his favorite pictures from his trip is of Amigo tied outside the stall where the famous cowboy once kept his horse.
But most of all, Mr. Breeding saw what he set out to see -- the old West, albeit mingled with the new.
An example of the new is a cattle sale, he said. Instead of the buyer looking at the cattle in person, ranchers send videos of their animals to potential buyers by satellite.
Mr. Breeding returned home Oct. 6, satisfied his dream was fulfilled.
"I got a taste of the life, I had a good time and met a lot of nice people," Mr. Breeding said. "I like the plain, simple things in life and that's what I did out there."