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Hoofing it for heros

Cowboy's journey raising money for N.Y. rescuers

Cowboy's journey raising money for N.Y. rescuers

May 29, 2002|by KIMBERLY YAKOWSKI

kimy@herald-mail.com

When Les Nichols decided to saddle his horse and make the 1,850-mile trip from San Antonio to the site in New York City where the World Trade Center's twin towers once stood, he had a personal quest in mind, he said.

While on the road, his soul-searching sojourn became a $2 million fund-raiser for New York City rescue workers as people from his hometown and those he's met along the way held rallies, sold raffle tickets and made donations of money and services.

Nichols arrived Tuesday in Hagerstown. Rescue workers showed their support by putting him up and agreeing to sell his $5 raffle tickets for a saddle, hand-tooled with images of the twin towers and the Alamo.

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Nichols displayed his horse and his border collie, Posse, at Hagerstown's Engine 1 Tuesday. During his stop, Nichols received proclamations for fallen New York firefighters and a state flag from local officials.

In his jeans, hat and spurs, Nichols looked every bit the cowboy as he talked to firefighters and climbed onto his horse to pose for pictures.

"It's phenomenal. I think a lot of people wish they could take off three or four months and do something to help," said Hagerstown firefighter Andy Hartman.

Like many Americans, Nichols watched on television as the second terrorist plane crashed into the twin towers and as rescue workers rushed into the burning buildings on Sept. 11, he said.

"They have a lot of nerve, guts and courage that I don't know that I would have had in that situation," he said.

Reports that people were afraid to travel, along with personal challenges, spurred the 41-year-old horse trainer from Celeste, Texas, to start his road trip, he said. A local saddle company donated the $4,500 saddle and his trip became a fund-raiser, he said.

"I looked at Sand Track (his horse) and said, 'We have a job to do,'" Nichols said.

He left Texas in November and expects to ride into New York City on July 4, he said.

Nichols, who grew up on a 200-acre cattle ranch, said he rides about 15 miles a day on trails, highway shoulders and back roads during his cross-country trip.

His horses are well-trained and remain calm around traffic, he said. For safety reasons, he does not ride at night or in bad weather. Sundays are usually his day of rest, he said.

In Memphis, Tenn., Nichols hooked up with Donald Peterson, a retired farmer who read about his trip and was inspired to join him.

Peterson, 78, of Shenandoah, Iowa, rides some of the way on a mule and does his part by caring for the animals.

"I've met the sort of people that make America great," he said.

Nichols said he's collected flags from every state and would like to have them displayed at the twin towers site when he arrives in July.

He said he doesn't know how much money he's raised to date because the funds are sent directly to the New York police and fire departments.

Weary but determined, Nichols talked enthusiastically about the people he's met while riding through Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia and Maryland.

"They've treated me like part of their second family," he said.

Stopping at nearly 150 fire stations along the way and meeting the people who risk their lives on a daily basis for the public has renewed his spirit, said Nichols, whose plans to work in the military, police or fire department were dashed when he was a youth by an accident that damaged his eye.

The journey has helped him heal from the effects of Sept. 11 and he said he hopes it does the same for others.

"If this skinny old cowboy can ride his horse across country, anything can be done," Nichols said.

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