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By KIM BRIGGEMAN of the Missoulian | Posted: Tuesday, August 18, 2009 11:45 pm | 1 Comment Font Size:Default font sizeLarger font size Phil Dawson stands at his Missoula camp with appaloosa mare Chip while mule Copper Penny scratches his back. Dawson is some 1,500 miles into a record-setting packing trip.
..Summer's getting on, and Phil Dawson's beard is getting long.
He casts a worried eye south to the cloud-shrouded Bitterroots, as so many horsemen have done this time of year over the centuries.
Almost 500 miles to go.
Dawson is packing the West with a couple of sweethearts - an appaloosa mare he calls Chip and an engaging young pack mule named Copper Penny.
Some 1,500 miles into a record-setting trek, they've stopped in Missoula, where an infection in Chip's hind leg is under treatment by Dr. Rollett Pruyn at Blue Mountain Veterinary Hospital south of town.
Dawson has vowed not to shave or get a haircut until he's home again in Hagerman, a town of 775 on the Snake River in southern Idaho.
The beard "gives a visual of how long we've been on the road," the affable 58-year-old horse trainer said.
Missoula was always on his scheduled route, which started in Hagerman on May 1 and wound south into Nevada, west to California, north through eastern Oregon and Washington and east across northern Idaho.
His goal is twofold: to set a modern pack record and to raise money for children's organ transplants through his Web site,
Dawson and his string arrived here last Friday after a three-week trek over Lolo Pass from Lewiston, Idaho. He's not yet sure when they'll get the vet's OK to resume the journey through Stevensville and Hamilton, at their customary clip of 10 to 15 miles a day.
"I'm at a point now where any more delays and I'm looking at snowfall," he said.
That's especially true since his route veers over the Bitterroots and high into the Idaho Sawtooths via Sun Valley, where he plans to visit Bruce Willis' Mint Bar in Hailey, with Chip and Copper along, too.
Dawson is living the nomadic life of a 19th-century packer, with a few 21st-century intrusions. He sleeps in a tent, eats mostly beans and bagels, fights the elements in desert and high alpine terrain, and battles the occasional rattlesnake and semitruck and trailer.
He looks the part, even in camp, with a single-action U.S. Army Colt Peacemaker on one hip and a cell phone in need of a charge on the other.
His trek has drawn attention from local media outlets along the way, as well as the likes of PBS, which has done a couple of eight-hour shoots with Dawson, with plans to do one more.
Dawson's trail has wound through 9,500-foot high mountains, dangerous bogs in northern Nevada, desert, wide-open prairie and, most recently, along the Lewis and Clark Trail from Kamiah, Idaho, over Lolo Pass and into Montana.
Dawson has twice called on the pistol at his side. As he rode Chip into Paradise, Idaho, with Copper trailing behind, they encountered a rattlesnake near a cattle guard.
"I thought, 'Well, he'll take off,' but no he coiled. It took me two shots, but I got him," he said.
In a cow pasture along a fork of the John Day River in northeastern Oregon, a 3-foot-long snake came slithering toward Dawson as he sat on his panyards eating a can of beans.
"He didn't even realize I was there yet," Dawson said. "I reached for my gun - had it on the top of the saddle - and hit him right behind the head and about cut him in two.
"I love the desert but it takes a while to grow on you," Dawson said. "Eastern Oregon ... I loved eastern Oregon, and Nevada, and the open range. The people ... you've got a lot of people that are used to living close to the land and they fell in love with me."
People have offered their barns and backyards for Dawson, Chip and Copper. Chip, a steady 16-year-old mare, had to bow out for a time in Burns, Ore., after an encounter with a cattle guard. Dawson waited for her daughter, 3-year-old Pepper, to replace her, then lost Pepper's services in Clarkston, Wash.
A semitruck whipped by within feet of the small pack train.
"Could have slowed down. Didn't. Could have moved over. Didn't," Dawson said.
Pepper jumped and hit the rough-brick surface of a sign post foundation, severing an artery in her leg. Dawson applied a tourniquet and dumped blood coagulant in the kerchief he wrapped around the wound. Within 10 minutes a local veterinarian was on the scene. Between the first aid and the quick medical response, Dawson figures they saved the horse's life.
By then, Chip had recovered in Hagerman and was ready to rejoin the crew. Her current malady came about when she became entangled in Copper's rope on the night last week that they stayed at Lochsa Lodge in Idaho.
"It just nicked the tendon sheath and started getting infected," said Dawson.
The 100-year record for miles packed with a horse and mule is already in hand.
"The documented record at this point and time is only 700 miles, but I know of somebody who's done 1,000," Dawson said. That was a ride from Washington state to Salt Lake City.
Dawson broke the 1,000-mile mark somewhere in Oregon.
But he said the attention should be focused on the children and their families he's out to help.
The mission stems from his bout with cancer three years ago, after nearly a lifetime spent training and shoeing horses. Recuperating from a couple of operations gave him time to think, assess his life and map out what he wanted to do with the rest of it.
The father of two boys, he decided "to put kids and horses together, the two things I love in life," Dawson said. There are a number of organizations helping cancer victims, so he looked elsewhere and learned about children's organ transplants.
"What I'm shooting to do, if I can get 5 million people to hit our Web site and donate $2 each, they can feel like they've done something good for these kids," he said.
The cause wasn't a big moneymaker last year - "Nobody knew who we were," Dawson said.
He and his wife, Patty, didn't have a SPOT satellite tracking unit to keep others apprised of their progress across the United States, as Phil does on his solo journey this year. Patty is at home in Idaho, holding down a daytime job and keeping up the Web site that allows visitors such as the schoolchildren he spoke to in May to click on "Spot Phil 2009."
The Dawsons have built a growing support network. is linked to the Georgetown University Hospital Transplant Center for Children in Washington, and a friend's accounting firm in Boise is handling all the donations. Dawson has attracted dozens of sponsorships, for his camping gear, clothing and pack gear, etc.
"Sometimes people think you're getting a big paycheck," he said. "I haven't got a paycheck yet."
Indeed, he said he dipped into his pocket to write a check for $80,000 last year to help the family of an Atlanta girl saddled by medical bills after she received an organ transplant. Dawson sold his home to help pay for the program last year, and he and Patty spent the winter in his live-in horse trailer, stationed at a state park where he worked part time.
Nonetheless, he maintained, "I'm out to write a million dollar check."
Dawson already has next summer's adventure in the works. He's calling it the Ultimate Pack Ride - 20 packers on a 1,000-mile ride from Valdez to North Pole, Alaska, under the guidance of a 30-year bush pilot and guide.
Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at

Posted in State-and-regional on Tuesday, August 18, 2009 11:45 pm Updated: 11:35 pm.