July 27, 2002 in Idaho

Town takes to stranger, tale he rode in on

Homeless horseman much obliged for Priest River hospitality
Kevin Taylor/Correspondent
 
Kathy Plonka photoBuy this photo

Lonnie Longwolf carries a bucket for water for his horse Comanche. Lonnie came to Priest River because he was promised a job as ranch hand. Disagreements ensued and he lost his job. He and his horse Comanche are now homeless.
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You may have wanted to say this out loud for years, and it’s official now, so go ahead: Priest River is a one-horse town.

His name is Comanche. He’s 7 years old.

He hangs out at a ministorage place north of town, lounges in the city park, cools off in the Pend Oreille River and waits patiently downtown, tied to various sidewalk trees, for Lonnie Longwolf.

And Longwolf, when he’s not rolling smokes in a patch of shade somewhere or drinking coffee at the Village Kitchen or the Pizza Place, rides Comanche around town in leather chaps, broken-in boots, a Western shirt with snaps instead of buttons and a sweat-stained cowboy hat.

“It looks like he’s 100 years too late when he rides by,” said Sonny Linton who owns Curly’s, a chain saw and snowmobile sales and repair place on the main highway through town.

Longwolf and Comanche showed up in this North Idaho timber town sometime in mid-June and have caused quite a stir with residents and tourists. He’s livened up the summer with his Old West attire, mesmerized locals with his colorful stories and generally lived off the generosity of others.

He’s from Wyoming, one excited story went. Rode his horse all the way to Priest River for a ranch job that fell through. And while Longwolf, rail-thin with Buffalo Bill hair and a flowing beard, looks like he rode out of such a cowboy myth, his story is more gritty and sad.

Longwolf came from Walla Walla. In a friend’s rig. Comanche came in a horse trailer towed behind it.

There was indeed a promise of a ranch job, and the 50-year-old Longwolf, who says he just wants to be a rancher with a small place of his own, thought he’d settle here and get away from a run of bad luck in Walla Walla and Milton-Freewater, Ore.

He had wound up on the streets in Walla Walla after a short stint in jail on what he says were false accusations he tried to break into a service station. He lost a trailer he was trying to buy in Milton-Freewater. He got booted from a low-rent hotel in Walla Walla.

It’s a pattern that seems to have followed Longwolf like a well-trained pack horse all his life.

“My whole life is just messed up, and a lot of people got a lot to do with it,” he said, sitting in the quiet of the ministorage place recently as Comanche munched on hay nearby.

Longwolf speaks little of his past, but mentioned being beaten by his father in Topeka, Kan., as early as age 5, running away from home at 15 and drifting from ranch job to ranch job ever since.

It’s hard to tell how much of what he says is true, but his hands - browned, thickened and scarred - bear the marks of years of outdoor work. A friend in Walla Walla knew of someone near Priest River who was looking for a ranch hand. Longwolf doesn’t have a car, but he does have a horse trailer. He loaded up all his stuff, and some friends drove him and Comanche north.

It didn’t take but five days for the ranch job to go south. So did a second one soon after. The friends haven’t come back to get him.

“I just got dumped here,” he said.

Longwolf’s been camping out in the woods around town, getting by on a small government check and by doing some odd jobs. He doesn’t yet have a clear plan for the immediate future.

Worse, both he and Comanche were hurt recently. On July 10, Longwolf wound up in the Newport hospital emergency room after he got tossed off his horse and severely sprained an ankle.

Two nights later, while Longwolf was sleeping in the woods, Comanche was spooked by black bears, broke his tie rope and took off running. He hit something in the dark that punctured his chest and had to be taken to Pend Oreille Veterinary Clinic in Oldtown for stitches.

He and Comanche are hanging around town as they heal. They rode in Newport’s Fourth of July parade, winning a third-place ribbon, and Longwolf just completed the entry forms to ride in Priest River’s Timber Days parade today.

“It’s an unusual circumstance. He’s not your classic homeless person who rolls into town and everybody shuns. He’s befriended a lot of people in the community,” said Sgt. Gary Johnston of the Bonner County Sheriff’s Department.

Given the unusual nature of Longwolf’s predicament, the sheriff’s deputies and Priest River city officials have cut him plenty of slack about city codes involving horses in town. The Sheriff’s Department has received a number of calls about Longwolf, Johnston said. Some callers wonder whether someone’s shooting a movie in town, others worry about Comanche’s welfare.

“He takes good care of his horse,” Johnston said.

Many in Priest River have offered help. Linton popped for a new pair of horseshoes for Comanche, whose old ones were taking a beating from riding on pavement.

People at the Village Kitchen helped get the ministorage unit that Longwolf has filled with his possessions and hay for Comanche. He’s welcome to get coffee and meals at the restaurant.

Priest River Mayor Bill Mullaley told Longwolf there’s a cup of coffee waiting for him any time at the mayor’s pizza place and also hired Longwolf to build a fence. Other benefactors have stepped up to pay Comanche’s vet bill and pick up the tab for Longwolf’s trip to the emergency room. One woman pressed a pair of $100 bills into his hands.

Some admit to a whisper of unease. It’s disturbing, one benefactor said, to see a pattern emerge where Longwolf gets a job, loses a job, gets a job, loses a job, and it’s never his fault.

Longwolf has spent recent days burning through pouches of roll-your-own tobacco and chewing over his situation.

“I’ve got to think about where I’ll be at before winter gets here,” he said. “I’ve got to think about where my horse is going to be. If he’s on the streets with me, how will I get alfalfa?”

Longwolf’s looked into buying a place around Priest River, he said, but can’t afford the down payment. He’s worried about food and shelter for Comanche in winter. At least if he goes back to Walla Walla, he said, he has a place where he can board the horse and knows it will be fed.

“He told me he’s got a month-and-a-half before it starts to get cold,” Mullaley said. “He said he wants to stick around. His big goal is to buy land and have his own ranch. But we don’t have a lot of ranches around here.”

Longwolf has won friends around Priest River.

Linton, for instance, was impressed that Longwolf paid him back for the horseshoes.

“He’s living pretty meager right now, but he tries to keep himself square with everyone.”

“I’m nobody special. I just ride a horse,” Longwolf said.

“I’m not just some street guy laying on the street with nothing. I don’t want to be a street person. I got a little more class than that.”


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