Photo by Don Nelson Vern Herrst and his saddle horse Nikki are about to leave on a 2,200-mile journey.

Photo by Don Nelson

Vern Herrst and his saddle horse Nikki are about to leave on a 2,200-mile journey.

Vern Herrst heads for Michigan on horseback adventure

By Don Nelson

Vern Herrst’s planned 2,200-mile horse ride across the West and Midwest is part personal challenge, part fundraiser and part homecoming.

Herrst, of Winthrop, intends to ride his saddle horse Nikki, with a pack horse trailing along, to his hometown of Howell, Michigan, for his 50th high school class reunion in late August.

He will leave the Methow Valley on April 22, with his horses in a van, and drive to Newport, Washington, which will be the official horse-powered launch point for the trek. Herrst plans to follow U.S. Highway 2 across the top of Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and into Michigan. The trip will take 110-120 days, he estimates.

It will be just Herrst and his two horses, aiming to cover 20 to 25 miles a day.

Along the way, he’ll be raising money to support cancer research, but Herrst’s major motivation for what he is calling “The Great Northern Horse Adventure” is that he wants to try it.

“When am I supposed to do it, when I’m 70?” Herrst said. “You can’t back time up. I might as well do it if I can.”

Herrst, 66, is a former Winthrop Town Council member. He served in the U.S. Navy for 22 years as a hospital corpsman. After retiring from the Navy, he worked as a packer and guide for several local outfitters.

In late 2012, Herrst was diagnosed with myloproliferative disorder, a blood condition similar to leukemia. He is being treated for the disorder. Herrst said he started thinking about the horseback trip in the summer of 2015, with his 50th high school reunion in mind. He got support from his son and granddaughters, and a plan began to evolve.

Logistical challenges emerged right away: where to get hay and grain, where to stop and camp, where to find a veterinarian for the horses or a pharmacy for himself, where the intended route might pose special problems. He’s trying to keep expenses as low as possible, but hay alone will probably cost more than $1,000, Herrst said.

Herrst said he sent letters to more than 100 postmasters at towns along the way, including stamped, self-addressed return envelopes, asking for advice on local resources. He has received quite a few responses, Herrst said. He also contacted state transportation departments to make sure he could legally ride alongside the road.

“I tried to think of every scenario,” he said.

Hoping for help

Herrst said he’s hoping that people along the way will be able and willing to provide assistance or advice as needed. He’ll carry enough food for a week at a time but will need to regularly replenish his supplies.

The most-problematic spot on route, Herrst said, is where Highway 2 crosses from Michigan’s upper peninsula to the lower peninsula by way of the Mackinac Bridge — a soaring suspension span that is so notoriously scary that guides will drive your car across for you if the transit is too unnerving. Herrst said he may need to borrow a horse van, or see if he can arrange for a ferry crossing (bicycles and pedestrians are not allowed on the wind-swept bridge).

Herrst said he is physically fit for the adventure and has been taking training rides around the valley (you may have noticed him), including 20-mile round trips to simulate a day’s ride on the trip to Michigan. “I’ve been conditioning the horse and rider,” he said. “So a lot of people have seen me riding up and down the road.”

Both Nikki and the pack horse are OK with traffic, Herrst said.

Herrst said he doesn’t want to overtax the horses. “Why push them?” he said. “I’m more worried about the horses than I am about myself.” The horses will be shoed with rubber cushions to protect them from roadside debris, Herrst said.

Herrst said he is especially thankful to Ryan and Tiffany Surface, who loaned him the pack horse. “Without those two, this trip would still be a dream,” he said.

Herrst will be able to communicate by cell phone (except in occasional dead spots) and will post frequent updates on his Facebook page — 2016 Great Northern Horse Adventure — including photography.

Howell is northwest of Detroit. There were about 425 students in his graduating class, Herrst said. Quite a few classmates have found him on Facebook already, he said.

The Great Northern Horse Adventure is a fundraiser for the Leukemia Lymphoma Society of Washington and Alaska. Herrst hopes to raise $1 for every mile he rides, or about $2,200. Donations can be made through Herrst’s Facebook page or the society’s website at

Herrst is also selling polo shirts, T-shirts and caps through his local company, V Bar J Embroidery, to help finance the trip. For information, call 996-3210.

Herrst said he’s excited but also a bit nervous — “like a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockers,” he said. His wife, Judy, is also “a little concerned” but is supportive. She will drive to Michigan with a horse van in tow to meet Herrst after the reunion. A one-way trip on horseback is all he’s planning.

“Michigan will be far enough,” Herrst said.