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The Trek of the Electric Horseman

Travel: Equipped with solar panels, batteries and a computer, a cowboy rides into L.A. on what he calls a decades-long odyssey to Peru.

April 04, 2001|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Roundup, Mont., cowboy Dane Hartwell brought traffic to a stop Tuesday as he moved his tiny high-tech herd of horses down Hollywood Boulevard.

Hartwell, 37, is headed for South America on saddleback. But he's one cowpoke who is really poking along.

"I've been on the road for eight years now, and I have about 15 more to go," he said. "I'm taking my time. I like to look at the sights."

That explains why Hartwell was tying his horse--a 7-year-old Peruvian Paso named Valerosa--and two pack horses trailing along behind to a wrought iron parking lot fence next to Mann's Chinese Theatre.

"It's always been my dream to come here," he explained as he ambled toward the famous forecourt where the hand and boot prints of movie cowboys John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and Tom Mix are set in concrete.

Hartwell is no celluloid buckaroo. But he's no sagebrush hick, either. His pack horses are solar-powered.

Along with boxes of food and camping gear, the horses are outfitted with solar panels and batteries that power flashing safety lights on their backs. They also help run Hartwell's computer, an amateur radio transceiver, an infrared burglar alarm, a video game and TV set, and fluorescent camp lights.

Instead of jeans and a 10-gallon hat, Hartwell wears a dirt biker's jumpsuit and a helmet with a miner's lamp attached to it. The motorcycle suit is for its durable, easily cleanable fabric. The light is for when he gets caught on the road after dark. The helmet is for when he gets tossed on the road without warning.

"My horse is high-strung. He can get skittish and buck a little if he's agitated," Hartwell said, tapping his helmet where it got dented when he was recently thrown head-first onto the ground.

Hartwell said his slow-motion odyssey began in June 1993. He was living in the Montana mountains, working in construction, he said, when it dawned on him that he hated going home to the same place every night.

His friends in Roundup were horrified when he announced his intention to hit the trail, traveling around the American West on horseback, down through Mexico, eventually ending up in Peru. He would live off the land when he could, Hartwell said. When he ran out of money, he would temporarily stop and take on wiring and plumbing jobs.

"Everybody tried to talk me out of it. They said I'd get shot or run over," he said.

His wife, Gretchen, signed on for the trip, and they invested everything they had--about $40,000--in horses and equipment, he said. They zig-zagged through Wyoming, Idaho and Oregon before reaching California, where she decided to quit the ride but not the marriage.

"She wanted to stop and board the horses, and I didn't," he said.

For the past three years, Hartwell said, he has wandered the Pacific Crest Trail, camping in the wild in the summer while his three horses forage in meadows for grass. He heads to lower elevations in national forests and local parklands to avoid wintertime snowstorms.

"I carry a two-month supply of food in the mountains. But I can live off the land too, processing acorns into flour, harvesting edible plants, fishing and hunting," he said.

His solar-powered equipment takes care of the isolation. Batteries run a pump that can draw water for the horses and operate the infrared alarm Hartwell uses to warn him if bears are approaching his horses at night. Tiny battery-driven electric fans are used to keep the horses cool in the summer. A solar-operated laptop computer connects him with a Web site run by a friend--www.horsebackamerica.com--that prints a journal of his trip.

"It's kind of a balance between the Computer Age and the Stone Age," Hartwell said.

"These are not tall horse stories," said John Schaeffer, head of Real Goods Trading Co., a Northern California firm that supplied Hartwell's panels. "We call him the solar electric horseman."

But the solar panels, flashing strobe lights, olive drab storage boxes on the pack horses and the sight of the helmeted, jumpsuit-wearing Hartwell sometimes alarms passersby.

In Tehama, Calif., when he was spotted recharging his batteries in a park, someone called authorities to say he had a bomb. Local police and firefighters investigated before wishing the horseman well.

As Hartwell was riding toward Los Angeles from the Santa Barbara area a week ago, a woman in Calabasas noticed the miner's lamp and the flashing yellow strobes and concluded that the ominous-looking pack-horse boxes must be filled with explosives. Hartwell managed to calm her down.

The horses easily win most people over.

"Everyone's usually pretty nice. People always accept me, not because of myself, but because of the animals," he said. "Hippies, yuppies, environmentalists--people all love horses."

In the Los Angeles area, kindness has abounded for Hartwell. A Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy in Malibu bought him lunch and then helped him plot the safest way through the Santa Monica Mountains. A Topanga Canyon horse ranch owner invited him and his horses to stay for several days.

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