The End of the Trail…and of a Legend

Erin Walti/Sun

While most people in South Dakota don’t think twice when they see a horse or rider, traffic slowed considerably on Monday near Alco in Chamberlain when they saw a team of six horses, a trailer, and a sheepherder’s wagon camped in the opposite ditch. That outfit belongs to Ron McGilvery, also known as Ron Dakotah, who has been travelling the country with a wagon and team for 26 years.

“They’ve been going by like their going to a funeral,” joked McGilvery.

McGilvery was born in Gettysburg, SD and joined the military in the 1963. After his stint of service, he moved out to Oregon and worked on various guest ranches and outfits. After his wife left him in 1983, McGilvery gave up on the “real world”, as he put it, and set out from Sisters, Oregon with a team and wagon.

“I didn’t really plan on doing this,” said McGilvery.

He went through a religious experience, and traveled with “Pulling for Christ” on his wagon. However, he found that the lettering didn’t let him talk with those he wanted, and he now only has a cross and an American flag on the wagon.

From 1983-88, he traveled in California, but found that the lifestyle there didn’t let him stay there in peace.

“People couldn’t wait to call 911,” said McGilvery.

In 1988, he heard about the South Dakota Centennial Ride, and attended with a number of friends, including Harold Schnee of Kadoka. He has been in every state west of the Mississippi River, and several states east. His main concern through all that has been trying to keep his horses fed and the wagon stocked.

He said he meets a number of people who say that he’s living their dream and how much fun it would be; McGilvery has another view.

“People say it’s fun. If it’s fun, why won’t anyone go with me? Why would anyone want to do this?” said McGilvery.

McGilvery goes about 20 miles a day with his team, taking him roughly six hours on good terrain. He runs his horses four abreast in order to pull the three ton loaded wagon, which has been updated half a dozen times for weight and convenience. He receives a good amount of his food and the horses’ feed from people he meets on the trail.

“I’ve met a lot of wonderful people. They’re still out there,” noted McGilvery.

He learned much of his methods from old pioneer books and bygone methods. For instance, he found out from old Kentucky coal miners how much weight a horse can pull.

“They told me a horse can pull two times his weight. A pony can pull three times his weight. That took me ten years to find that out,” said McGilvery.

Just because he travels and lives in a wagon doesn’t mean he’s without some conveniences. McGilvery depends on a wood burning stove for heat (which he refers to as “cowboy tv”), and has a cooktop inside for meals. He keeps in contact with others mainly by cell phone. On the roof of his wagon are solar panels to charge a battery in the wagon for, surprisingly, Sirius satellite radio.

Once when he was in Ennis, Montana, McGilvery met an artist named Teri Freeman, who has a cowboy store there called “The Rusty Cowboy”. The two hit it off, and have been in contact since then through all of his travels. Freeman established a website and blog to share McGilvery’s journey with others and to raise donations.

Partially because of his relationship with Freeman, and partially because traveling is becoming more and more difficult legally, the 67 year old teamster is planning to set up camp for the last time this week in White Lake. He plans to meet Freeman and a number of friends and family there. One of those friends will haul McGilvery’s six horses to Montana. After a few days rest, he and Freeman will head back to Montana with his wagon in tow to settle down.

After all the years on the road, the horses will be bedded down, the wagon will be stored, and Ron “Dakotah” McGilvery will share the reins of his life with a woman who turned out to be a major stop on his journey.

Writer’s note: People can learn more about McGilvery’s journey at www.rondakotah.com