Mike and Melinda Gerrish are avid “horse people” who have been traveling from their hometown of Shirley, Ind., to visit Texas County for several years running.
Active members of the equine industry, the Gerrishes have since 2002 owned and operated Cuttin’ Up Stables, a facility in Shirley complete with a motel, trail riding, lessons, horse camps and more.
Both Mike and Melinda have many years of experience working with horses. As is stated on the Cuttin’ Up Stables web site, Mike also enjoys good conversation and playing a tune on his fiddle, while Melinda is accomplished in several forms of western-style art, including barbed wire creations, silhouettes, etched glass, and wood signs.
The couple first came this area a few years ago to celebrate their marriage anniversary at Golden Hills Trail Rides & Resort near Raymondville.
While there, the Gerrishes met members of the Heartland Christian Cowboys and Cowgirls, a group that annually gathers at Golden Hills in late May. They quickly made many friends and acquaintances, and purposed to make it an annual trip as well.
But when the Gerrishes returned to Golden Hills in May of 2010, they didn’t see what was coming.
During that visit, the couple did as they had done many times before, and mounted their horses for a trail ride through some of Golden Hills’ beautifully forested Ozarks landscape. But this time something happened – something very different and highly unexpected.
“I had a vision that God really laid on my heart,” Melinda said. “I saw a trail; we were out for several hours and it just kept becoming more and more clear. Then the name Cowgirl Way came up, and it was very clear and very vivid.
“I wasn’t really sure what the purpose was, but I knew it was going to affect many people who have lost loved ones to cancer, or have survived it themselves.”
After concluding their ride, the Gerrishes went to the facility’s mess hall and shared Melinda’s vision with hundreds of members of the Heartland Christian group.
“The room was full,” Melinda said. “I told them ‘we live in Indiana, so this is not about us. This is going to be for somebody dealing with cancer who uses it for healing or helping them get through some other process. I don’t know where this is going, I’m just here to tell you what I’m seeing.’
“They latched onto the idea and had me in front of everyone telling them about the vision. People really got on board.”
Next up was finding the spot Melinda had seen in her vision. She shared the situation with Golden Hills owners Chuck and Kay Golden, and Chuck eventually suggested an area that could be made into a trail that met her expectations, with some easy sections and some and some steep and hard parts.
What he came up with perfectly matched Melinda’s vision. When she first laid eyes on the site, she felt she had seen it before.
In effect, she had.
“Everywhere we looked, it was exactly the way I had envisioned it,” she said. “It was like every tree and every rock was exactly where it was supposed to be. There was no hesitation to it at all.”
“She wanted a place where no other trails intersected,” Golden said. “And it had to be difficult in some spots, because cancer can be hard. I went out and walked the area, and it turned out great.”
Prior to her Cowgirl Way vision, Melinda had somewhat of a previous connection to cancer, but no more than many people and far less than others.
“We all know somebody who has been touched by it, and my husband’s mom passed away from cancer before we were together,” Melinda said. “But it wasn’t something I was dealing with publicly or anything like that. I wasn’t an activist.”
After momentum built to turn Melinda’s visionary experience into reality, a group of seven people cleared and cut Cowgirl Way out of its wooded location in October 2010. During that process, Mike and Heartland Christian member Dave Buckles combined to accomplish many tasks leading to the trail’s fruition, including fashioning three large crosses out of trees near the center of the looping trail.
While they were finishing the crosses, a group of riders appeared. The lead rider almost immediately broke down crying. As it turned out, the crosses were near an area where he had previously scattered his wife’s ashes.
She had died of cancer.
“It was hard to take,” Mike said. “We weren’t sure at first why he was so touched, but then he told us, and we told him about what we were doing. It was amazing.”
Mike said his time spent working with Buckles (who lives near St. Joseph, Mo.) was inexplicably smooth, as if the two were working from the pages of a manual.
“I’ve worked with a lot of people doing different projects,” he said, “and usually there are going to be some disagreements on how things need to be done. I can’t think of anything Dave and I didn’t agree on. It was always like, ‘yeah, that’s exactly how it needs to be done.’
“We were seeing eye to eye on everything. Evidently, we were fulfilling a purpose.”
“I was proud of the way the trail turned out, and I was glad to be a part of it,” Buckles said. “It’s really something.”
Purple is the color commonly associated with cancer. Directly below the location of the crosses, a purple flower bloomed in the October chill.
“There weren’t many other flowers blooming at that point in that area,” Melinda said. “That one was the only one in the area where the crosses were built.”
A photo of the crosses posted on the Cowgirl Way page on Cuttin’ Up Stables’ web site depicts sunbeams shining through the adjacent forest, and a purple glow is clearly visible just to the left of them.
During the Cowgirl Way’s official dedication last May, the Gerrishes joined several Heartland Christian members for a ride on the newest addition to Golden Hills’ 150-mile network of trails. Perhaps inevitably, something extraordinary happened again.
Prior to the trail’s dedication, Melinda had been reminding many people involved that it was not about her, but rather the edification of cancer survivors and honoring the memory of victims. Some had even suggested that the trail be named “Melinda’s Trail.”
But when the group of riders reached the entrance to Cowgirl Way’s forested location, Melinda’s horse Latigo balked and would not continue. The 8-year-old buckskin quarter horse gelding had already been on the trail multiple times, but was apparently tuned in to the present situation.
“I told everyone, ‘there, see?'” Melinda said. “That horse knew those people had to go in there without me. At that particular moment, he knew it wasn’t our time.”
“It would have been different if that horse hadn’t been on that trail a lot,” Mike said. “It was kind of ironic; some of those people were probably thinking right then that Melinda wasn’t much of a horseman.”
When the riders returned from their excursion around the two-mile loop – which not coincidently is shaped like a cancer ribbon – many expressed having been touched to the point of chills and tears.
Later the same day, Melinda took Latigo back to the trail, and he took to it without a flinch.
At the entrance to Cowgirl Way, boards have been mounted to posts on which pink horseshoes are nailed bearing the names of cancer survivors and victims whose loved ones have visited the location.
Although it’s located at an equine facility and was created by people dedicated to horsemanship, the trail is not designed for horseback riders only. The entrance can be reached by vehicle, and about a half-mile from the parking area, large log benches have been placed near the crosses, so hikers can sit and experience the site’s serenity.
But by design, reaching the crosses is not a simple task – whether on foot or by horse.
“The trail is exactly as the vision,” Melinda said. “Some of the areas on the trail are pretty easy. In a few areas, it becomes a little more challenging and a little more difficult. As the trail continues, it then gets a little easier. That reminds us that there are times in our lives when the trail is pretty easy, and there are also times that become very difficult.
“When an individual is struggling with cancer, some days will remain pretty easy and then there are some that become very difficult. Whether our journey today is easy or a little more difficult, we receive peace knowing God is with us always.”
People from many states have already been touched by visiting the Cowgirl Way, including Missouri, Arkansas, Indiana, Ohio and Wyoming. Future plans for the trail include positioning several large rocks near the crosses, each engraved with a different Bible scripture.
“I think this trail is going to impact many people for years to come in ways we can’t even imagine,” Melinda said. “We’re very excited to see how this plays out and what God’s plan for it is.”
This trail gives us peace knowing God has a plan for us. Ridethe trail or walk the trail, with peace and reassurance that youare part of His plan and He will walk with you and lead you throughthe trail of life.”