Monday, September 6, 2010

High-flying haylift for hard luck horse


There are many paths to the top of a mountain but the view is always the same.
In truth, Bugs was just a regular packhorse that happened to be at the wrong place at the right time. And, like Andy Warhol’s proverbial 15 minutes of worldwide fame for people of the future, Bugs transformed into “Elijah” the marooned horse of the Colorado Rockies as the world worried about him.
“Stranded forlornly on the two-mile high Continental Divide in Colorado, a shaggy dark bay horse named Bugs was a prisoner of and the most-worried-about horse in the U.S.,” said the April 30, 1956, edition of Life Magazine. “Last autumn, Bugs and another horse, a gray, strayed off from a pack string belonging to surveyors mapping the range. Obeying the horsey instinct to seek higher ground they retreated before deepening valley snow to the ridge and were cut off by 40 foot drifts.”
Gunnison pilots Wally Powell and Gordon Warren discovered the two horses, in February as they were flying over the Collegiate Range near Buena Vista.
“Mayor Ben Jorganson, of Gunnison, Colo., hired Powell to drop hay to the horses. On the first haylift flight, Powell discovered that the gray horse had disappeared. Newspapers, recalling the stranded prophet who was nourished by ravens, renamed the survivor Elijah. People sent money to the mayor and two expeditions set out to rescue the horse,” according to the story in Life.
Reporter George McWilliams from the Denver Post, who had christened the shaggy equine Elijah, offered daily updates, often dominating the front page and all sorts of complex plans to rescue the poor bugger were contemplated.
“Officers at the U.S. army’s Mountain Cold Weather Training Command at Camp Hale, Colorado, began studying the idea of using infantry troops to rescue the hapless horse. An American Airlines pilot bound from New York to Los Angeles asked for Elijah’s precise location so that he could point out the animal to his passengers. Officials at the Centennial Race Track on the outskirts of Denver started a fund with which to feed Elijah and kicked in the first $100 themselves. They also offered to feed and stable the horse if no one claimed him after his rescue, but dozens of children clamored for the chance to keep him too,” wrote Gayle C. Shirley in Amazing Animals of Colorado: Incredible True Stories.
“On the morning of April, 11, a five-person Post rescue team led by Bill and Art Turner donned snowshoes and made the 7-mile climb to Elijah’s windswept hermitage. Although they weren't able to return with the horse in tow, they did bring back two important bits of information: Elijah was ‘fat and sassy’ and he was most definitely Bugs,” Shirley wrote.
According to the Denver Post, “the Turners … called the horse to them, put a rope halter on him and fed him a bag of oats. Bill Turner said he not only recognized Elijah as his horse, but found his brand — Heart Two Bar — on the horse’s left shoulder.”
But because of the drifts this rescue party was still unable to retrieve the horse and the haylift continued for nearly another month.
Finally, in late May, armed with snow shovels and prepared to dig through 20-foot drifts, Turners were able to retrieve the horse after two days of slow-going, back-breaking, path clearing to a high mountain road.
The horse was welcomed into Buena Vista by hundreds with an impromptu parade in his honor, but that was just a start. Thousands paid tribute at Centennial Race Track that afternoon as he was whisked up there for a ceremony, more parades in Denver, visits to Denver Post, and few days later he was briefly checked in to the Brown Palace Hotel.
“Elijah was given a small stall that had been specially prepared for him in one corner of the lobby. The management had taken the preparation of laying a piece of canvas under his bead of straw,” according to a report in the Denver Post.
“It was first planned to have the horse on view in the lobby all day. But he seemed so anxious to get away from it all that the Turner brothers led him back to the trailer and returned him to the track.”
A Reader’s Digest story, written by Bill Hosokawa, executive news director for the Denver Post, telling the tale of Elijah further fanned the flames of fame for Bugs but the humble packhorse was eventually able to return to a rather simple life.
“During his last years, Elijah was free to roam in his chosen pastures during the winter months, high above the hustle-bustle of humans,” wrote Kenneth Jessen in “Bizarre Colorado: A Legacy of Unusual Events & People.”
“In March, 1971, Bill Turner came across Elijah, crippled and in poor condition. The 27-year-old horse was suffering from a broken leg and could not be moved from his high mountain pasture. Bill Turner did the humane thing and put a bullet into the indomitable old horse. He didn’t notify the media at first because he figured Elijah had already had his share of publicity. Elijah’s carcass was left in a cluster of rocks among the tall, majestic peaks,” wrote Jessen.
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