When the idea came to him, a loose plan to ride a horse from Seattle to New York City, Ted Friesz knew better than to expect anyone to embrace it.
Almost no one did.
“I was 28 and living with my folks in Tacoma,” Friesz said. “It was 1964, and people figured I wouldn’t make White Pass.”
Friesz admits he was hardheaded.
“I thought I’d ride from the site of the Seattle World’s Fair to the World’s Fair in New York,” Friesz said.
The two fairs were separated by two years. The two cities are separated by 2,400 miles, as the crow flies. But Friesz was not traveling by crow and thinks he rode at least 3,300 miles.
“One guy said he’d go with me, Leonard Ott. He was a vet tech, I was an industrial painter.
“We left May 16, 1964.”
What followed was one long, strange journey: Two men on horseback, in chaps and cowboy hats, riding along secondary highways.
Today, nearly 50 years after the trip ended, Friesz lives in Ethel, a Lewis County community about 40 miles southeast of Olympia. He and wife Margaret raise Arabian horses.
His long-ago adventure is rarely far from him.
“I lay awake some nights and remember some part of it,” Friesz said.
Twice, he and Ott ran out of money and had to take jobs. Friesz drove a dump truck in Wyoming, paved roads in Nebraska. When an early snowstorm hit them in Iowa, the two men joined a traveling circus for three months and worked with the animals.
Friesz once got kicked by his horse, Duke. It was worse for Ott.
“Two folks from Spanaway introduced him to a woman in Illinois, and he fell in love,” Friesz said. “They got married. I went back to Iowa to start riding where we’d left off.”
Friesz and Duke rode the rest of the way alone.
“I ran out of money and would call my mother and ask her to send $100 to general delivery in some city I knew I’d be reaching,” Friesz said. “By the end of the trip, I owed her $1,800.”
Most of that went for food. Horse food.
“I had a nose bag for Duke, and I’d find grain or pellets every other night, enough to last a couple of days,” Friesz said. “I’d stop every day at noon to feed and curry him, then again in the evening.”
On the road, they were treated like a celebrities in most every small town they went through.
“The News Tribune wrote about us quite a bit, ran photos when they got them,” Friesz said. “Every little town we got to, it seemed like the local paper wanted to talk to us.”
Horse clubs would ride out to join them. Often enough, they’d get a one-car police escort into town.
“Sometimes a restaurant would invite us in for a meal, sometimes a family would ask us over,” Friesz said.
“I slept in barns and alongside highways, with Duke tied nearby.”
One day, Ott and Friesz rode 50 miles. Another day, in near whiteout conditions, they managed 8 and were glad to have done that much.
Sitting at his kitchen table last week, surrounded by five large scrapbooks, Friesz had plenty of evidence of that remarkable year — clippings that cover visits to dozens of cities.
“In Wyoming, Len’s horse reared up and went right over backwards on him, and the saddle horn hit his chest,” Friesz said. “We had to spend eight days in Jackson before he was OK to ride again.”
Duke, a horse of unknown age, was a challenge.
“He wasn’t too friendly a horse,” Friesz acknowledged. “He bit me, kicked me, worried me sick whenever we were around people.”
A Clover Park High School graduate, Friesz was nothing if not determined. While with the circus, Friesz was loading Duke into a trailer one morning.
“He kicked me so hard he laid me out flat,” Friesz said. “I couldn’t get back on him for three days.”
On May 10, 1965, 360 days after leaving home, Friesz rode into New York and the World’s Fair.
“Washington didn’t have a pavilion, but Montana did, and they put me up for more than a month,” Friesz said. “I slept in a Pullman car and took care of the animals. Duke had a corral and was fine.”
When it came time to go home, Friesz said his father had an idea.
“My dad wanted a new truck, so he wired me the money to buy one,” Friesz said. “I put Duke in a horse trailer and drove that truck back to Tacoma.”
As the decades rolled by, Friesz had to put Duke down. His parents died and, two years ago, Ott died.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the completion of his ride. Friesz is now 79, and hasn’t ridden a horse in three years.
“It was the most extraordinary thing I’ve done in my life,” he recalled.
“I look back at it sometimes and think, ‘How did I do that?’ ”