The figure of a solitary horseman and his mount, Angel, made more than a few motorists slow their multi-horsepower engines for a better look at this quaint pair traveling alongside them on U.S. 90 in Jackson County on Saturday and Sunday.
Leslie Fender, 55, has been in the saddle for more than 6,000 miles since he and Angel left Texas 18 months ago. In Jackson County, Fender bedded down at Florida Caverns State Park, under the stars in his tent and bedroll. By early Sunday afternoon, he’d made it to westernmost Gadsden County, crossing Victory Bridge and moving on in to Chattahoochee. After he got through town and kept moving east toward Tallahassee, the driver of a passing car slowed to a crawl and the passengers rolled down their windows to chat with Fender a moment. They told him how pretty his horse was, and joked that their driver had thought it was a mule they were approaching. As they said their goodbyes, the driver sped up and pulled away, his passengers still laughing at him over the mistake.
If they had pulled over for a longer visit, Fender might have told them why he is making this journey.
He’s tired of Texas after a lifetime there, he says, and he’s moving to Florida. He doesn’t know or much care exactly where he will ultimately hang his hat, but he’s going first to visit some friends in St. Petersburg. On his way east from his long-time home in Dublin — situated almost smack-dab middle of his big home state -- he took a four-month break in his adventure to help a friend in Evergreen, Ala., with a project she was working on. He helped her build an equestrian shelter for a retreat she runs for handicapped children. He did the work for free, glad to help out on a cause he considered most worthy. Other than that hiatus, he’s been on the road pretty much constantly. He stops every few hours to give Angel a chance to graze, and if anyone stops for a roadside visit, they might learn more about the trek he’s on.
Fender had a stroke a few years back, but his doctor put him back together with few ill effects. So he’s riding, too, for the cause of stroke awareness and prevention in hopes that he can help someone else avoid or get through that kind of life-threatening experience.
He has two grown sons -- one thinks he’s crazy for doing this and the other thinks his father’s long ride is the coolest thing. The son who worries more shouldn’t, Fender says.
He has a lifetime of experience riding horses. Growing up in Texas, that’s almost a requirement. He’s outfitted like a Texas cowboy, too, wearing chaps and a worn cowboy hat, and with a lasso hanging from his saddle, which was handmade by a prison inmate. And that rope is for more than effect; along the way, it helped Fender save a youngster from drowning. He was crossing bridge when he saw the boy floundering in the water below. He tossed the rope and gave the kid a lifeline. Afterward, he moved on down the line to see what adventure lay ahead.
The son of a retired police officer, Fender knows he has to be careful of anything he might encounter as he makes his way across the lower states. But by and large, he said, his long, long trail ride has been pretty tame.
The gear in his saddlebags includes a computer -- not very cowboy-like, maybe, but it keeps him connected to that worried son and to the one who wants to hear every detail of the adventure for the thrill of it.
He’s on Facebook, too, and writes a blog to share with the world as he goes along. He keeps a handwritten journal, too. Asked whether he plans to write a book about it all, he said he hadn’t really given that much thought but didn’t rule it out, either. He’s keeping his options open in general as he makes his way toward a new phase in his life. In his front shirt pocket, he keeps a gold-plated badge of sorts on which he had a phrase engraved. It’s kind of a theme related to this trip, he says, “The Last Hurrah.” The badge also bears the name of his VFW group, Post 9181. A veteran of the Viet Nam war, the emblem is a nod to his military brothers and sisters.
When compared to his previous life experience, this trip is not all that unusual. In his past, he has been butler to a Texas oilman, A.G. Thompson. After Thompson died, Fender looked for something else to do with his life. He wound up owning a five-star restaurant, Leslie’s.
So it’s nothing new for him, really, to pull up roots and try something completely new.
He’s making 30 miles a day, on average. He hopes to be in St. Petersburg in a few weeks. But if he finds something interesting to do, he might be detained. And that’s okay with him. He’s in no big hurry.