Janice Curtis-Drennen couldn’t sleep. She weighed too much. She was eight months behind on her rent, and the power company had cut her electricity.
At 58 years old and unemployed, Curtis-Drennen faced another crossroads. Stay stuck in her rut? Or take the journey she had dreamed of for decades?
The Oakville resident chose the journey back to Montana, the state of her childhood. But she wouldn’t go alone.
Curtis-Drennen is headed there on horseback. She left mid-week after July 4 on Nickers, a 15-year-old flea-bitten gray gelding. Koko, a 17-year-old bay gelding with splashes of white, is her pack horse. And there’s Koby, her half-Dalmatian, half-Australian cattle dog.
She’s only just begun, but her journey has already changed her life.
“I lost the weight. I lost the stress. I’m thoroughly enjoying myself,” said Curtis-Drennen, who stayed in the Nile Valley with Joyce Graff and her daughter, Sherri Whiley, last week.
Born in Seattle, Curtis-Drennen was a toddler when her family moved to Fort Benton, Mont. They lived there for nine years, then returned to Washington, settling in Longview. That’s where she graduated from high school 40 years ago.
“I missed my reunion for this and it’s worth it,” she said Thursday.
The mother of two daughters and two grandchildren, Curtis-Drennen married twice. She divorced both.
Her relationships with family members have ebbed and flowed over the years, too. Curtis-Drennen isn’t close with her siblings and didn’t get along with her dad, Carl Curtis, for years. But that changed in the five years before he died in 2005.
“Dad said to follow your dream. If you get the chance, don’t go to your grave not doing it. At least try,” she said.
So in April, the former in-home caregiver started making plans. She wanted to leave shortly after her birthday on May 15, but a few pieces had to fall into place before she hit the road in early July.
Her journey started off a little rough.
“I got lost the first night and couldn’t find my tent, so I stayed in an outhouse,” Curtis-Drennen said. “It was nice; it even had tile on the floor.”
That was the only outhouse she slept in, though she’s used a few. “Sometimes it’s much nicer than using the woods,” she said.
Curtis-Drennen follows no plan as she heads along roads, using trails when she can.
“I make it up as I go. I figure it out from others,” she said. “... It just happens.”
Koby wears a little cowbell that jingles a lot — when he’s running through the grass, dragging a great big stick or rolling over at Curtis-Drennen’s command.
“It’s to know where he is, but also to warn off bears,” Curtis-Drennen said of the cowbell.
She hasn’t seen any bears, or any other big predators. The wildest animals she’s seen so far were elk near Goose Prairie. They didn’t give her a hard time, but some humans have.
“People have told me that I’m mentally unstable,” she said cheerfully.
Drivers have honked and flashed their lights at her. “I just kinda blow it off and keep going,” she said.
Others have expressed concern about the animals. Only Koko has shoes, and only on his front hooves. She hopes to get them both shod at some point; the horses are working hard, there’s no doubt about that. After starting out at making 4 miles a day, they’re traveling about 8 miles a day, and Curtis-Drennen hopes to increase that.
For the most part, Curtis-Drennen is finding support. People along the way donate dry goods and let her stay on their land. Donors contribute to her YouCaring fundraising page. They follow her journey on Facebook.
“Most have been fantastic. Most want to be in my shoes but are scared to, ... It’s something similar to what a lot of people want to do.”
Graff and Whiley were happy to help. Curtis-Drennen rode into their driveway early Monday afternoon, hoping to water her horses at the Naches River behind their house.
“It was hotter than hell. (Whiley) had heard the horse across the road whinny. She said that horse never whinnies,” Curtis-Drennen said. “They invited me to stay the night.”
The invitation extended through the week and has come complete with homemade food including shepherd’s pie and a nice, shady corner of the property for her horses.
Both are rescues. Curtis-Drennen got Nickers — her very first horse — in February 2002 when he was a skeletal 16-month-old. They said he may not live, and if he did, they doubted she could ever ride him.
“They’ve been eating like crazy here,” Curtis-Drennen said. “They were on the verge of founder. ... This is the best they’ve looked in years.”
Mother and daughter were glad to be part of her journey.
“We’ve never met strangers, just people we haven’t shaken hands with,” Graff said. “My daughter saw her coming down the driveway and she knew I wouldn’t be happy if she didn’t extend hospitality to a person in need.”
An accomplished seamstress, Graff gave Curtis-Drennen a pair of Rustler jeans that had belonged to her late husband, David. She dressed them up by embroidering tiny dogs near the hems and flowers and butterflies on the pockets.
“I’ve just fallen in love with these ladies,” said Curtis-Drennen, who wore those loose-fitting jeans, a red checked shirt and a belt that’s almost too big for her.
She started losing weight before she left and hasn’t stopped. After reaching 165 pounds, she’s down to 123, which fits well with her height of 4 feet, 11 ¾ inches.
“I used to be five feet,” she noted.
Originally planning to be in Eureka, Mont., by winter, Curtis-Drennen knows that won’t happen. She hopes to make it to Moses Lake to ride out the cold, snow and ice.
“Now I won’t get there till summer. I’ll find work over the winter. I won’t live in town; I’ll find a place where I can have them,” she said, looking to Nickers and Koko.
Eventually, she will return to Washington. A friend is keeping her car, and a daughter has her truck. Her other two dogs and her cat are staying with a vet tech acquaintance.
“I’ll come back to pick things up,” said Curtis-Drennen, who hopes to eventually move to Snowflake, Ariz.
She also hopes to someday check a couple things off her bucket list — take a balloon ride and go hang-gliding (though she’s unsure if she will be brave enough for that).
Before that, Curtis-Drennen plans to accomplish her lifelong dream. So far, so good.
“It’s been awesome,” she said.