Van Gelder says goodbye to Big Horn 100

by marlys good

It was a sentimental weekend for Tom Van Gelder who was bidding farewell not only to the Big Horn 100, but to his friends and neighbors in Greybull where he has lived for the past 44 years.

Tom and his family came to Greybull in 1970 when he purchased the Greybull Elevator. He and his late wife Arlene immediately got involved with the Canyon Cavaliers riding club, which was the precursor to the Big Horn 100.

Tom recalls, “We were invited to a Christmas party/dinner at Trapper Creek Lodge. During the business meeting I was elected vice-president of the Canyon Cavaliers. And it was at this same meeting that Dale Perkins suggested holding an endurance ride to raise money; that is how it all started. Everyone agreed that that it would be a good idea.

“It was a cool December evening, and I remember standing outside afterward and being asked what I thought (about the endurance ride idea). I said, ‘It will either make or break the club.’”

Canyon Cavalier members held deep, but diverse opinions on the idea of a Big Horn 100. Whether it was this division or some other reason, “Sometime in April the president-elect resigned and I was now the Big Horn 100 president.”

Tom admits he was a greenhorn to endurance rides. “Perkins knew a lot more than I did,” he said, but he was a quick learner and no time was wasted.

Ray Cheatham plotted the 100-mile course up the Big Horns while Tom Goton and others marked the trail and by July 15 the Greybull Standard declared, “Everything set for 100 mile horse ride.” In 1971, horses and riders left the Dresser turn-off north of Greybull at 4:30 a.m., went up to the Big Horns through the Dugway, Granite Pass, Lake Adelaide and then down the mountain to the finish line at the Bluejacket Guest Ranch.

Base camp for the 2014 Big Horn 100 was the Mel Pitcht Ranch, at 3880 Lane 31, Shell. The 100-mile route was essentially the same, but read: “Base camp to first vet check at Horse Creek; to Antelope Butte Ski area, to Battle Creek, around Adelaide, back to Battle Creek and down to the finish line at the base camp.”

Tom was just an organizer the first year. “I didn’t have a horse,” he laughed. But that changed. In the ensuing years he entered the ride 12 times and completed the 100-mile circuit six times.

One ride was especially memorable, he said. “My son (David) and I decided to do the Big Horn. Dave did all the conditioning of the horses, which neither knew much about at the time.

Tom recalls Cecil Dean told Dave, “I’ll tell you how to do it. You use the horse like I use money – a little at a time.”

When Tom and Dave took their horses for the pre-ride vet check, “Dave’s failed to pass the entry test. We had paid the entry fee and that was gone; so David changed horses; we went home, put some shoes on another horse in the pasture, went back and it passed the test.”

As fate would have it, Dave and his “unconditioned” horse finished the ride; Tom and his horse did not.

Tom made a host of friends in his long tenure with the Big Horn 100. He loved the camaraderie, the spirit of the ride, but his greatest enjoyment was “just the riding – being in the mountains.”

For the past several years he has resided at the Bonnie Bluejacket Memorial Nursing Home, but friends and family have seen to it that he gets to the pre-ride and post-ride festivities, assuring that he can still enjoy that camaraderie and meet and greet riders who have returned year after year. This year was no exception.

“Well, since I’m going to be living in Iowa, this was probably my last ride. It was very special to me – it was a little sentimental, you know.

“Tom Noll (from Meridan, Idaho) came up to talk to me. I’ve known him since he first competed. He gave a testimony as to what the ride meant to him and he said, ‘It changed my life.’ That made me feel pretty good.”

Tom was at the pre-ride festivities Friday night, up and out early to enjoy Saturday’s activities, which took him not only to the base camp, but up into the Big Horns, to Antelope Butte, around the loop and back down to base camp that night. Sunday he was out and about again, enjoying the breakfast, the award ceremonies – and saying goodbye to long-time friends.

He admits, “I was pretty used up.” But it was worth it.

Early Monday morning his two older sons, Tom Jr. and Doug, picked their father up at the nursing home and headed down the road to Iowa.

Perhaps Tom’s memories of his “last ride” will help shorten the journey to his new home.