Horsewoman stops in Lawrence on a journey across the state

For each of the past six days, Valentina Vella has experienced the same sequence of emotions.

She wakes up in her tent, the air around her still cool in the early morning, and begins her journey on horseback with a pleasant sense of optimism.

Then the anxiety creeps in, edging out that giddy, adventurous feeling that comes with a journey west. Instead, her mind turns to survival: “Will I find water? A place to set up camp? Will the horse be OK?” she wonders. That concern only dissipates once her day’s ride is over, when she has found a place to set up camp and work on her writing, a place where the horse can graze.

Packing up her bedroll, Valentina Vella, 34, a student at Columbia College in Chicago, is on a different kind of summer vacation. She's riding a Mustang horse across the Midwest by herself, getting a feel for what things were like crossing the Plains in pioneer days. Vella stopped Friday night at Bismarck Gardens north of Lawrence, where she accepted the hospitality of Pat and Mary Ross.

To see where Vella goes next and to read a personal account of her experiences, visit her blog.

“There’s this wonderful moment of comfort and happiness and home,” Vella said. “But then at night, I’m worried again.”

Vella, a master’s student at Columbia College in Chicago, is on a one-woman journey along the American Discovery trail, a system of recreational trails and roads that collectively form a hiking and biking path across the U.S.

She has been planning the trip for the past year as an opportunity to write and take video footage in order to create a documentary, an art project.

“I’m really interested in what happens to your brain when you lead a simple lifestyle, when the things you have to worry about are food and shelter,” Vella said. “I make work a lot about solitude.”

On Monday, June 24, the day after celebrating her 34th birthday, Vella departed from Kansas City, Kan., on Ariel, a gray Mustang whom she recently purchased from a farm in Missouri. For the trip she packed her documentary equipment, a tent and other basic supplies.

The ending point for Vella’s journey is somewhere in Colorado, but she does not yet know exactly where. Her classes start at the beginning of September, so she will give herself until the end of August to get as far as she can go. Now, Vella is averaging 10 miles of travel per day.

As the end of each day Vella finds a camping spot, on the lawn of a residence along the route.

“I just look at a map or Google Earth, and say, ‘Oh, that looks fine,'” Vella said. “There’s a lot of relying on the kindness of strangers.”

On Friday evening, those strangers were Patrick and Mary Ross. On her way home around 5 p.m., Mary spotted a woman in riding pants, boots and a straw hat trotting by her home north of Lawrence. A conversation between the two women led to invitations to dinner and a campsite. Vella had found her “home” for the night.

“She’s very brave,” Ross said as she watched Vella gather her things to leave Saturday morning.

Going west

There were two factors that led Vella onto the trail: her art and her grand vision of migrating west, like so many others have before.

Vella moved to the United States from Rome in 2009. She lived in Philadelphia and New York City before moving to Chicago.

“As an Italian, that myth of the West is almost stronger than for people here, because they take it for granted,” Vella said. “For me, it’s really like I have been going west like the pioneers.”

Though she has faced some challenges — sleeping on a horse mat, finding water and grazing time for her horse, finding routes and places to sleep — Vella has had luck with many of the people she’s met along the way.

“Everybody keeps telling me how crazy I am for attempting this,” Vella said. “They say people are crazy, people are mean, this is America. But in reality, I’ve only met incredible people.”

On Saturday, she traveled through Lawrence. She wanted to meet some local artists before heading south out of town, into the country again.

Though she does not have an exact route mapped out and prefers to take it one day at a time, she was tentatively planning to travel along U.S. Highway 59 to Ottawa.

And then, well, she will see where the journey leads.