The Wandering Life of the Electric Horseman

With solar panels on his horses and a cat on his shoulder, Dane Hartwell wanders the wilderness, posting to Facebook.

Long rider Dane Hartwell at a California ranch with his horses.  (Courtesy Dane Hartwell)

I met the Electric Horseman on a spring day last year. He told me I could find him in Lompoc, California, where he would begin the first leg of an expedition north toward Oregon. More specifically, he told me to park my car near a playground at a trailhead and walk about a mile into the wilderness toward the Mission La Purisima Concepcion until I found myself at a very specific clearing of trees. I couldn’t miss it, he told me. It was a strange request. But, just as I began to wonder if I had found myself in the wrong clearing, Dane Hartwell, the Electric Horseman, appeared around a bend. As he approached, he beeped a car horn mounted on one of his packs.

Hartwell was aboard Sundown Baby, a 4-year-old mare, with two older horses following behind. However, Hartwell looked nothing like a typical cowboy. He didn’t wear blue jeans, a ten-gallon hat, or clunky spurs. Instead, he had long, red motorcycle pants and black leather boots. He outfitted his black bicycle helmet with a headlamp, a red bandana to cover his neck from the sun and a GoPro camera. His horses wore some unusual gear too. The packs were strapped with solar panels that powered a slew of tech equipment along with regular camping supplies. One of the horses even had blinkers installed on the back of her bags so Hartwell could use signals on the road as if he were operating a car.

He swung off Baby, shook my hand, and apologized for being late. “One of the horses spooked, a pack came loose, and fell off,” he explained. “When that happens, you have to stop to put everything back on.”

Hartwell, 51, is what’s known as a long rider, a rare breed of horseman in the United States today. Many modern long riders journey great distances to break records, and few take pack horses along. Some have sponsors to fund their rides. Hartwell has always traveled for himself and, although he does ride his horse along roads and highways, much of his time has been spent alone in the wilderness. “I don’t tell people how many miles I’ve done,” Hartwell said. “I don’t want to be competitive with people or for them to feel like they have to beat me. I don’t care about that.”

We live in an era built for digital nomads—freelancers and travelers able to work anywhere in the world with WiFi access. The Electric Horseman preceded this trend by many years and, though he has been without a traditional job most of his life, has managed to remain connected in some of the most remote locations in the country.

I helped him lead his horses further off the trail, where he tied them to trees with rope long enough to allow the horses to graze and wander a bit. The two pack horses, Belknap and Starlite, disappeared from view momentarily behind some trees while he untacked Baby. She let out shrill whinnies, worried about being separated from her small herd. Hartwell came to her and cooed as he scratched her chest, “You’re just a little scaredy, aren’t you.” He uncinched his saddle and the warm smell of sweat and hay radiated from Baby’s skin. “She’s not a very smart horse, so…” he trailed off a moment then burst out laughing. “I hate to say that, since so many people say there’s no such thing as a dumb horse. But she can’t figure anything out.”

While Baby settled in, Hartwell relieved himself of a Bluetooth earpiece and set his packs on the ground. They were filled with dehydrated food, first-aid kits, books on edible and medicinal plants, a solar shower, an air pad for sleeping, plus lots and lots of gadgets. He had a radio, a DSLR camera and lenses, a burglar alarm, video gear, and a cell phone. Strangely, he also had two laptops and a word processor. He said he carried both laptops so he could be online and watch TV at the same time. As for the word processor? He liked the calm the device brought when he wanted to write without distractions.

Hartwell with a horse named Rocky. (Courtesy Dane Hartwell)

Hartwell began living as a wanderer 20 years ago when he left his Montana cabin on horseback. He only remained in one place long enough to make money doing plumbing, ranching, or electrical work before moving on. His set-up was simple. Often, Hartwell slept under the stars on an air mattress and saddle pads, tethering his steeds to nearby trees. His diet consisted of wild plants, dehydrated food and the rare purchased item. But, though it may sound idyllic, his form of nomadism has its share of both urban and natural challenges. Hartwell has been buried in snow while sleeping in a tent in the mountains, and wild cats have attacked his horses. He has come face-to-face with grizzly bears, helped his horses give birth to foals while on the trail, and was robbed at gunpoint by drug addicts in Bakersfield. A few times, while riding through the suburbs, the horses broke loose and ended up in someone’s backyard. He’s had Animal Control called on him more than once. But, typically, the attention is positive. People are always approaching him to ask about his horses, and some even bring him supplies. Kids love the horses most. Hartwell has learned to avoid riding past schools after class is let out, or he’ll spend entire afternoons giving pony rides.

At 51, Hartwell shows no sign of slowing down. He usually styles his facial hair in goatee or long handlebar mustache, with a spray of long, gray hairs on his neck that have escaped a few rounds of shaving. His light blue eyes bug out with excitement as he talks, which he does with sweeping arm gestures. On the trail, his floppy, curly hair is pressed flat into a perpetual case of helmet hair.

Hartwell and Belknap. (Courtesy Dane Hartwell)

When I met Hartwell, his three horses included Mighty Belknap, a 17-year-old chestnut mare who has been on the road with Hartwell since she was a month old and Starlite, a 17-year-old paint with her breed’s characteristic color-splotched coat. Baby, Hartwell’s riding horse, was the product of Starlite and a mustang. A year ago, Hartwell was returning to the trail after staying at a friend’s ranch in Lompoc and working to make some cash. Baby bucked Hartwell off at the ranch and he broke a shoulder blade during the fall, which kept him out of the saddle for months. But, after experiencing the simple comforts of the modern world for nearly a year, Hartwell was back.

There was no real agenda to Hartwell’s two-decade-long travels, including this leg of his journey. “If I get an instinct to go somewhere, I go,” he said. “There’s nothing holding me back. Living simple is easier because you have less to lose.”

* * *

Above all else, Hartwell’s life has focused on survivalism. The incorporation of horseback riding and technology developed along the way.

Listening to Hartwell’s stories, it is hard not to think of them as tall tales. He has lived a peculiar life and, because much of it has been spent alone with his horses and without interacting with any one person for a long time, some of it is hard to account for. Still, much of it has been chronicled by Hartwell, who is obsessed with writing about, photographing and filming his exploits, and by the few people who trailed along for some of his journey. He kept a detailed blog before he joined Facebook, which he updates regularly, answering the frequent, often repetitive, questions he gets from friends about his travels

Hartwell grew up near Flint, Michigan, where his father was an autoworker for General Motors. Hartwell got his first taste of riding from his mother, who rented horses out of their house for $24 per day. While he learned the basics of riding, he picked up on his mother’s love for the wilderness above all else. A Native American neighbor taught him how to weave baskets and collect wild food and, by the age of 6, Hartwell was gathering wintergreen berries and making dandelion salads for his family. He would journey deep into his backyard, climbing through the thick woods cluttered with oak trees and maple. Whenever he felt afraid of the unknown deep in the forest, he decided to push himself to go farther and farther away from home. By 10, he was shooting small game with a rifle and dreaming of traveling the world. But he adored technology, too, and would disassemble gadgets in his house and try to put them back together again so he could figure out how they worked. After graduating from high school, Hartwell saved enough money to take a Greyhound bus to California. He worked part-time jobs, and preferred investing his money in survival gear—things like big knives and diving equipment—rather than paying rent.

Young Hartwell in California. (Courtesy Dane Hartwell)

He spent nights sleeping in a dumpster near his work before crafting a bamboo hut along a swampy river where some South American immigrants had also settled. His family asked if he needed cash, but Hartwell always refused. He was satisfied with his standard of living and, to him, accepting help was equivalent to admitting failure.

Hartwell’s part-time work allowed him to hone his survival skills, take surfing trips, and spend his mornings diving in the ocean. He taught his neighbors how to catch ducks with slingshots, and he searched the beach for crabs and seaweed to eat. Hartwell learned more about traditional stalking and hunting techniques of the Apache, practicing by seeing how close he could get to other camps along the river without anyone noticing, and setting spring snares to trap friends as a joke. He also began practicing some spiritual customs, like going into a freezing cold lake to meditate and learn how to accept the sensation. He began to be interested in more extreme tests of endurance, too. During his first summer in California, Hartwell hitchhiked to the desert for a survival trip and, after failing to realize how much water he would need, nearly died from dehydration. He was saved by a man who found him collapsed in the sand. The failure only egged him on. “I figure fear is calling me for something I need to learn about,” he said.

The morning after we met, Hartwell tied up his horses at a parking lot near the campsite. In between saddling the horses, he scarfed down a Jack in the Box burger he asked me to bring from town. (He may be a survivalist, but he also loves junk food.) We started riding toward the Mission Purisima La Concepcion alongside bikers, joggers and dog walkers. “How you doin’? It’s a beautiful day, huh?” Hartwell said with a toothy smile to passersby. If nothing else, Hartwell is a big talker.

When we got to the Mission, Hartwell tied his horses to another tree and took a look around. The place is rumored to be haunted by soldiers from a battle in 1824 but, by the light of day, it is an ideal place for an afternoon stroll. While we walked, the horses continued to attract attention. A couple sat on a log and took videos on their iPhones, giggling to each other. A woman had her pre-teen son in a backward baseball cap and skinny jeans stand awkwardly a few feet in front of the horses so she could snap a photo. Hartwell didn’t seem to notice.

Hartwell walking around the Mission. (Lexi Pandell)

Later, as we rode away from the Mission, the horses paused to grab snatches of grass and at a wide, muddy puddle on the trail, they craned their necks to drink in big gulps. Aside from grazing while tied up at the end of the day and in the mornings, this is how the horses got most of their food and water throughout the day. Hartwell said he never had a problem keeping weight on them. He can shoe the horses himself and uses medicinal wild plants if his horses get hurt. Of the many horses that have accompanied Hartwell on the trail—including foals like Baby, who was born in the wild—only one has died. While in Los Angeles, a horse named Gonzo fell ill, likely from tainted river water. Though Hartwell called a vet, he said he had to wait too long for help to arrive and Gonzo passed away in the night.

As he rode past a playground near the road, a kid playing baseball with his dad spotted the horses. The boy’s jaw went slack and he let his bat fall to the ground. “Hello!” the boy called out, waving his hands. Hartwell waved back. This lifestyle has become so natural to him that it’s easy to forget how much he struggled.

* * *

Years ago, after his failed desert trip, Hartwell pushed himself to go on long-distance hikes, even quitting his job so he would have more time for travel. On one of these walks, he stumbled across a Benedictine monastery. He became intrigued when he returned to town and found out more about it. St. Benedict, Hartwell says, lived very similarly to the Apache, which appealed to him. He went back to the monastery to ask if they needed any workers. They turned him away, but Hartwell returned again and again until they took him on as a carpenter.

Hartwell lived there for about seven years, taking trips into the wilderness whenever he could and worrying little about where life would lead him next. Partway through his time at the monastery, an abbot told him he was meant to leave someday. Initially, his feelings were hurt. But, he reflected on it a bit more during a hike and fast in the mountains. On his way home, Hartwell saw an owl swoop through the sky. He cupped his hands to his mouth and called to it with shrill, mouse-like squeaks. The owl looked at him and, though Hartwell thought it would fly away, it dropped through the air and sunk its talons into his forehead. The cut was not deep, but blood coursed down his face. Hartwell says he felt a surge of energy—he believes such an encounter with a wild creature is a sign that they are your totem animal—and decided it was time to leave the monastery.

On a friend’s recommendation, Hartwell had invested in an inexpensive, empty plot in the Little Snowy Mountains with cash from odd jobs, and he decided it was time to make his way there. When he first arrived, he lived in a surplus army tent while building a cabin, and was able to get work on a neighboring cattle ranch. When his help wasn’t needed there, Hartwell would travel by bike and on foot away from home, sometimes only returning for the winter. One day, Hartwell heard about a horse for sale for just a couple hundred dollars. The decision to buy the horse was spontaneous, but it entirely changed how he traveled.

He used beer coolers as packs while learning more about horseback riding. Gradually, Hartwell started riding further away from the cabin, making semi-permanent camps in the mountains. Eventually, he decided he wanted to sell his house and belongings to leave on horseback for good. He had no real destination. He started writing about his experiences and published an article about his trips with a now-defunct equestrian magazine. A few states over, a fellow rider named Gretchen read the story and got in touch with him. She had dreams of traveling the country on horseback, too. Soon, they were writing each other all the time. Mail was only delivered near Hartwell three times a week and if he didn’t get a letter from her, he’d be close to tears.

The cabin in Snowy Mountains. (Courtesy Dane Hartwell)

“We just fell in love like crazy,” Hartwell said. “We were pouring out our hearts in letters, stuff you wouldn’t say in person. We would tell our innermost thoughts. We fell in love and there was no bullcrap.”

She lived in Minnesota and Hartwell thought Fargo, North Dakota, would be a good place to meet. He boarded a Greyhound and she drove her pickup truck. He told her to look for a cowboy in a red jacket. When they met they held each other in a long embrace. They married just two months later and, after spending some time together in the cabin, the pair sold all of their belongings and set out on horseback.

In a few years, though, Gretchen would realize that Hartwell had no intentions to stop.Regular life makes Hartwell feel restless and unbalanced. “The first month is nice,” he told me. “But after that…” He trailed off.

When he lives under a roof, he eats too much junk food and drinks too much beer. He feels disconnected from nature. “I’d like to go as long as I can,” he said. Hartwell and Gretchen rode together for seven years, spending much of their time on the Pacific Crest Trail along the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges. They kept each other warm at night and Hartwell says they got along well. That’s when they began experimenting with bringing technology along on trips, too. During the summer months, solar-charged fans cooled down Gretchen’s pet chickens, which were carried along in cages strapped to the horses’ packs.

Solar-charged fans keep the chickens cool. (Courtesy Dane Hartwell)

They also started bringing electronics, including a Nintendo Game Boy that Hartwell played at night until his thumbs lost feeling. Gretchen often joked that it was his pacifier.

Eventually, the pair stopped in Orange County for a month. According to Hartwell, Gretchen didn’t want to leave. Her shoulder was bothering her, and she was ready to settle down and start a life in Southern California. Some other problems had developed in their relationship, and stopping was not a part of Hartwell’s agenda. Feeling scorned, Hartwell left Gretchen and took off to ride alone. He was gone for a year, only contacting her once by email. “I said if you’re not going to ride with me, we should get a divorce because I’m not going to stop. This trip means everything to me,” he said. “Wrong words.”

When he returned to Southern California, she served him with divorce papers. Hartwell said he probably would have quit his ride for her if he had been older. “But I was really hardcore then and there was a still a lot of stuff I wanted to see. I haven’t heard from her since.”

Hartwell continued on his own and lived in the Arizona mountains with his horses. Aside from running into about a half dozen backpackers during that time, he was completely alone. He continued to practice some extreme spiritual rituals—sleeping in a tree for days at a time, tying his arms behind his back and going blindfolded and shoeless into the wilderness to see how long he could survive, and doing vision quests where he would seclude himself in a single spot for days with not much more than water. During stops, he would set up video equipment to film his exploits. Often, the people he met on the trails didn’t understand why he insisted on staying connected to the outside world through technology. At that time, Hartwell carried a television along with his other gear and he remembered a man who berated him, saying, “I come out here to get away from that stuff.” But, to Hartwell, technology didn’t spoil nature. It entertained him during down time and helped him maintain some balance between being embedded in nature and staying connected to the civilized world. It may have even saved his life or, at least, made his journey easier: More than once, the radio he carried alerted him to dangerous weather.

Still, Hartwell missed having a companion.

He returned to Southern California, where local news anchors wanted to interview him. One of those news segments caught the attention of a horse trainer named Karin Hauenstein. She got in touch with Hartwell to see if she could talk to him about his packing techniques. He invited her on the trip and, soon, she liquidated all her assets to go with him. They started a romantic relationship, but never seemed to get along very well. Hauenstein was a brave and bold rider, but Hartwell says the pair argued and quickly became competitive with each other.

They made it to Las Vegas in 2002, where Hartwell was offered a job on a ranch working for a wealthy, middle-aged guy. The boss paid well and Hartwell was set up in his own apartment. But Hartwell’s freedom was gone. He was on call all the time, driving to get fast food for his boss at 2 a.m., or spending all afternoon on jet skis with the boss’ kids. Hartwell yearned for the open road.

Hauenstein, too, wanted to leave. But then she became pregnant. “I thought we’d keep the baby and go live on the trail and it would be pretty cool,” Hartwell said. They ultimately decided to give up the child for adoption. In hindsight, Hartwell agreed that they made the right choice. “So many people have kids and can’t take care of them and the kids have problems,” he said. “I’m not responsible enough.” Their son was born in Flagstaff in November 2003 and, by spring of the next year, they were back on the trail.

Courtesy Dane Hartwell

Hartwell and Hauenstein decided to part ways a year after their son’s birth. Hauenstein rode on her own until 2005, when she started living and working in Arizona as a booking clerk for the Yavapai County Sherriff’s Office and as a foster parent. Hartwell continued through New Mexico before coming to Arizona, too. It was there that Hartwell ran into trouble with the law. The story according to Hartwell and Hauenstein is that, in 2009, Hartwell was living on a friend’s ranch in Rimrock, Arizona. There were a few other people living on the property and Hartwell stayed in an RV, taking care of the animals there and doing ranch maintenance. Still, he was rarely paid, often only receiving canned food for his work. He began making plans to leave.

There were also kids living on the ranch, ranging from ages 8 to 12, who would bug Hartwell to play with them. “Dane is not good at controlling children, at all,” Hauenstein wrote in an email. “They would run wild all over and, when he would try to ignore them, they would shake his trailer, beat on the sides and scream until he came out. He expressed to me more than once that these kids were out of control and he would be upset about it sometimes because they broke some of his things.”

Hauenstein said she gave Hartwell a Mac laptop that she had in her home while fostering some youth in the state. Hartwell mostly used it for research, writing, and video editing, but he let the kids play with it, too. It was then that the kids discovered a Girls Gone Wild video on the computer, which Hauenstein and Hartwell said they believe was downloaded by one of her foster children.

“So, the boys found this file and were playing it and teasing the girls with it,” Hauenstein wrote. “Now, whether or not Dane told them to put it away immediately upon realizing what they were doing, or how much time had expired before Dane took the laptop away from them—that is the cause that stood alone when it came time for the prosecutor to negotiate Dane’s consequences.”

Hartwell was arrested on nine charges ranging from sexual assault to indecent exposure, which Hauenstein and Hartwell said was exacerbated by a custody battle going on between some of the children’s parents. The charges were dismissed by the court except a single count of furnishing obscene material to a minor. Hartwell spent a little less than two years in prison. Both he and Hauenstein said they believed the outcome would have been different if Hartwell had had the money to fight the charge.

Hauenstein made her way back to California in July of 2009 shortly before Hartwell was arrested, taking two of the six horses they had used on the trails. She has gone on long rides since, but for shorter periods of time than Hartwell and for the purpose of drawing attention to issues surrounding horse slaughter. She recently had a daughter named Violet.

Sundown Baby, one of Hartwell's younger horses. (Lexi Pandell)

After prison, Hartwell continued on the trail, mostly alone with his technology and his horses. As time passed, better tech made for easier riding. Online maps helped him find where he could feed and water his horses, and weather reports helped him plan out routes and timing. Being connected made for less loneliness, too.

He spent a lot of time online during downtime, where he met women who wanted to join the ride, or for him to ship his horses out to them to start a new expedition. From our conversation, I couldn’t quite tell if they were girlfriends, groupies, or just people interested in his lifestyle. There’s something unusual about Hartwell that draws people to him—maybe it’s his charisma or wildness. Perhaps some women hope they can change him, or are drawn to someone who seems so free. If he chose to, it seems he could likely start a life with one of these people. So why, in his fifties and after spending time in prison, did Hartwell relinquish a normal life to be a nomad?

It is easy to say his riding is obsessive. But Hauenstein said she thinks it might be hard for him to let go because, at this point, Hartwell is really good at what he does. “I believe that the reason why Dane continues to ride is because he can, especially in ways that very few people in the country can or understand,” Hauenstein said. “He is a student of the trail and of the natural order of things. I believe his major identity is traveling on horseback.”

After all, without his riding, what is he? A man without a home, without a spouse, without a child he can really call his own. Without much of anything at all.

* * *

About a month after our ride to the Mission, Hartwell was riding his horses north on Interstate 5 near Pismo Beach. Belknap had been kicked, and Hartwell spent a couple weeks letting her heal before they continued their journey. They plodded slowly along the highway. Drivers swiveled their heads as they sped past to watch the group.

Among the cars rushing by was a pickup truck with a Mexican native named Geraldo at the wheel. As Geraldo whizzed past, he wondered what this guy with three horses could be doing on the side of his road. Geraldo had aspirations of riding a horse from Central California to Mexico City, and his curiosity was instantly piqued. Without further thought, he made a U-turn and pulled up next to Hartwell.

Geraldo asked where Hartwell was coming from and where he was going, and then offered to buy him lunch. Over Santa Maria style BBQ, the first meat Hartwell had tasted since the Jack in the Box burger back in Lompoc, they talked about Hartwell’s life and his horses. Geraldo invited Hartwell to stay at his home, where he had pens for the horses, and he introduced Hartwell to a man named Hans who lived at a ranch and was trying to get a contract to do equine therapy with prisoners in California. Hartwell had just recently started the expedition and hadn’t expected to stay in Central California much longer. But the situation was pretty perfect, especially considering that Belknap was still recovering. He decided to stay there for a couple of weeks. Over pink lemonade at the ranch where Hans lived, the three men chatted about travel, relationships, and horses.

“Horses never cheat on you, they never betray you. They always love you,” Geraldo said, turning to Hartwell. “Where do you go if you don’t have the horses?”

“Gosh,” Hartwell said before thinking for a moment. “I don’t know.”

The conversation continued to what Hartwell’s journey meant, and what it was like to abandon the material world. “I can imagine people say [Hartwell] is a psychopath,” Hans said. “He is a guy who doesn’t want to deal with the real world. But then you have people who say maybe he’s following his dream.”

Though he had started with the intention of riding up the West Coast, Pismo Beach ended up being one of Hartwell’s final stops on his nearly two-decade horseback expedition. He met a woman online that he developed serious feelings for, and he realized that Belknap and Starlite might be ready to retire from the trail life soon. So, he left his horses with a friend in California and set off for Virginia to meet up with his new girlfriend. After a few weeks there, it became apparent that, for a number of reasons, the relationship wasn’t meant to be. He told me that he had vivid nightmares about the horses, mostly about them getting loose or lost. Every day, he said, he felt sick with worry. But Hartwell didn’t have the money to get home, and so he decided to travel down to Florida where he could do solo survival trips, perhaps by bike. He spent time there, bouncing around the homes of different friends he made along the way. Many of them were interested in nature or travel, and they all seemed spellbound by his stories.

Eventually, he made his way to the Smoky Mountains, where he said he was planning a new expedition. This time, without the horses. He was thinking about traveling by kayak from Washington to Alaska, and perhaps beyond. “I need something different than the wilderness now,” he wrote. “Been in the mountains a long time and my trails are starting to cross.”

But, not long after, he began posting a flurry of old photos from his rides on Facebook. Pictures from trips up through the mountains, of catching a wild stallion that entered his camp, and of riding through ghost towns. There was a photo of one of his horses wading through chest-high water, of all three roped in a line near a river, of Starlite with a red bandana strapped to her forehead. The Electric Horseman hasn’t seen his last ride.