How many of us give up on our dreams?
Miles Dean was born in Brooklyn and lived in New Jersey in the 1950s, but from the time he was a kid he dreamed of being a cowboy. That dream was fed, as it was for me and thousands of other baby boomers, by countless TV westerns like the Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, Johnny Mack Brown, and Rex Allen. I too dreamed of riding the range on a powerful steed like Trigger, KoKo, or Champion, saving comely young women from nefarious bandits, and engaging in shootouts from behind huge boulders that bullets ricocheted off of harmlessly with that awful, artificial ping.
Dean grew up a normal, well-loved kid, went to school, got a wrestling scholarship at Howard University, and became a teacher. But the dream of riding the range never left him. In 1986, he bought his first horse. Always the teacher, he soon was giving riding lessons to children. His inner cowboy kept nagging at him, and by the mid 1990s he got a crazy idea: he decided to ride across the United States – on horseback.
His trip had to be put off when he was diagnosed with a non-malignant brain tumor. Refusing treatment, he treated the tumor holistically and the treatments seemed to work. Now, however, he realized he couldn’t defer his dream any longer.
In September 2007 Dean began his ride from Manhattan to Los Angeles, a trip that took him across thirteen states and took 6 months. Along the way, he made stops at sites marking famous events in black history and connected meaningfully with other black pioneers whose names have only recently become known to us.
A writer and educator from New Jersey named Lisa Winkler met Dean in 2008 after he finished his cross-country trek, and became fascinated by the story. The result is her book On The Trail of the Ancestors: A Black Cowboy’s Ride Across America (Createspace, February 2012).
I read this book in one sitting (it is only 128 pages long), so inspired was I by the story of a man whose dream never died. Miles Dean is, by all accounts, a true teacher and—like the best teachers—a perpetual student.
The trip was grueling and dangerous at times. But exhilarating. Friends took turns driving a trailer with a fresh horse along the way, and whenever Dean came close to a stopping point other riding enthusiasts would occasionally accompany him part of the way. Children would line up to pet his Arabian buckskin, Sankofa (one of several horses that made the trek, and his favorite). What is truly amazing is how quickly word spread, and police officers frequently accompanied him on his ride through their communities, some of them ignoring the laws that prohibited horses being ridden on public byways. He was not only studying history, he was making history: no black man had ever ridden a horse across the United States, and African-American cops who encountered him sensed the momentousness of his ride with a swelling pride.
His ride is a history lesson that is not lost on Dean’ students today, or on us. His website is well worth a visit. Few of us are aware that the Mall in Washington, D.C. was created by slaves, and once hosted slave auctions. Or that an African American named Blanche K. Bruce was elected to serve in the US Senate in 1874 (his political career ended in 1881 when the Jim Crow laws prohibited political participation by blacks). A black jockey, Oliver Lewis, who rode a horse named Aristides, won the first Kentucky Derby, in 1875. And, of course, as anyone who ever saw the made-for-TV movie Buffalo Soldiers (1997) can tell you, black troopers escorted white settlers on their trek west, fighting hostile tribes and highwaymen. Some of these units later fought with Teddy Roosevelt in Cuba. Everywhere Dean rode, he encountered African-American contributions to our history that he would later share with his kids. He was living his history on horseback.
This is a beautifully written, meticulously edited, and deeply moving book. It sets the bar for self-published works and makes me wonder even more about the shortsightedness of a publishing industry that would not snap it up.
Miles Dean is a man I would love to meet. He is a man with a dream, a passion for educating, and a man possessed of a true pioneering spirit. Winkler does his dream great justice and reminds us all not to let our dreams die before we do.
Copyright Isaac Morris 2102