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Old Cowhands Saddle Up, Take On Cancer Silver-Haired Riders Plan 1,600-Mile Fund-Raising Trip

Phil Thrasher, Ron Knudsen and Darrell Howard are older cowboys now, retirees and grandfathers.

But they’re leaving Wednesday on a 1,600-mile horseback ride from Mexico to Canada to raise money for cancer research.

Between them, they’ve lost nearly a dozen relatives to cancer. Raising money is how they figure they can fight back.

Of course, Thrasher’s left leg is broken and Howard will be 80 next year. But that has only made them want to ride.

“They tell me I’m crazy. They say, ‘You can’t do that,”’ says Thrasher, 75. “I just say, ‘Watch.”’

On Big Rock Road south of Tower Mountain, Thrasher’s home on 50 acres looks out on another time.

Friends dressed in buckskin, boots and spurs gathered in a neighbor’s barn Saturday to point four horses, two mules and two pickups south to the Mexican border.

A mountain man called “Chilicote” will lead the three men north through California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington beginning March 27.

Since Thrasher’s wife lost three brothers to cancer in 1985, he’s wanted to ride against cancer.

“It’s been his dream,” said daughter Della Quick.

Thrasher rounded up three friends like he would skittish horses - talking and talking until they finally gave in.

His old friend, Howard, 79, delivered mail around Manito Park for 19 years. He’s driven cattle for a friend every spring for the last 50. He liked the idea of a great trail ride, and his fight with cancer is personal. His wife, Ruth, died of colon and liver cancer in 1988.

Another retired friend, Knudsen, 60, spent 30 years teaching history and coaching football and basketball at Central Valley High School. But riding is what he loves.

“He was born 100 years too late,” said his wife, Linda.

Jim Brookover was the final key, a mountain man turned ranch manager who met Thrasher at the Spokane Interstate Fair years ago. He lives in New Mexico and organized the April to June trip.

Brookover travels under the trail name “Chilicote.” At 53, he’s ridden 14,000 miles on horseback expeditions, including a 1990 historic reenactment that took nine men and 40 horses from Independence, Mo., to Jackson Hole, Wyo.

The four horsemen hope to raise thousands in donations along the way. They’ve identified one research center in each state that will receive the money, including Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“We’re focused on the cancer,” said Knudsen. “It’s taken on a lot more meaning than just a ride.”

Knudsen - a dead ringer for the Marlboro Man - brought in the first major donation: $500 from his North Idaho Saddle Mule Club. He also brought the mules, Stormy and Grizz.

“Look at those ears,” said one observer.

“Those aren’t ears,” said another. “Those are handlebars.”

The riders hope to average 18 miles a day for 90 straight days. It could be a challenge for the horses, the mules and for Thrasher, who still has two pins in his leg.

He was injured Nov. 12, shortly after feeding his horses. He had just turned to leave when the animals spooked - cougars had been seen in the area the night before - and a mare bolted, knocking him 8 feet.

“The last thing I saw was her rear go over the top of me,” Thrasher said. When he started to get up, he realized his leg was broken. He lay there hollering until people about a mile away came to help.

Thrasher wears a medical bootie instead of a cowboy boot and the men will alternate driving and riding.

“He doesn’t care if he has to lay over the saddle to get it done,” says friend Kay Manum. “He’s tough enough to do it.”

Thrasher’s daughter, Vicki Staples, trained the horses for the long haul, while his daughter Della handmade the halters. Other family and friends stocked two campers with pot roast, meat loaf and a special feed for the horses of oats, barley, vitamins and molasses.

Thrasher took his old leather hat in for a new liner and headband.

“They wanted to clean it and I said, ‘If you do I’ll break your arm.”’

Along with his hat - and crutches - Thrasher will take his favorite mare, Lil Bit. He keeps a picture of her sire, Nugget, in his wallet because he was “a pretty darn good horse.”

All were anxious to ride in the spring. It will be warm just south of Imperial, Calif., when they start riding and warm in Spokane by the time they get back June 12. Good friends, good animals, Thrasher says, and green grass all along the way.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: HOW TO HELP Donations to Horsebackers Against Cancer can be made to any Seafirst Bank branch. For more information, call 448-0996.

This sidebar appeared with the story: HOW TO HELP Donations to Horsebackers Against Cancer can be made to any Seafirst Bank branch. For more information, call 448-0996.