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Riding the Atlantic Coast Pipeline -- on Horseback

Sarah Murphy and her horse recently completed riding the first 400 miles of the 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline route. The purpose was to bring awareness and attention to the intensely controversial project.  The pipeline would eventually carry fracked natural gas from West Virginia through Virginia, including Augusta and Nelson Counties.  WMRA’s Jessie Knadler caught up with Murphy two days before the duo finally made it back home to their farm in Afton.

It’s a brisk December morning in Swoope and Sarah Murphy is tacking up her 24-year-old Percheron/Thoroughbred cross Rob Roy for a 12 mile trek to Stuarts Draft. The day before, they’d walked nearly 30 miles from Cross Keys in Rockingham to Swoope, crashing for the night at the home of pipeline protesters.

REPORTER:  You’re almost there, buddy.

SARAH MURPHY:  I’ve been telling him that like everyday. Not quite weeks. I think I started you know a few days ago but now we’re really, really almost there.

Murphy, 35, and Rob Roy have been riding this first leg of the 600 mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline route since September 26. Murphy travels light, armed primarily with an iPhone, camping supplies, horse food and a machete.

They’ve ridden all the way to Weston, West Virginia, through rain, sleet and mud, narrowly dodging logging trucks on mountain highways. They’ve passed watchful pipeline workers and relied on the kindness of strangers to take them in.

SARAH MURPHY:  People pass me off one to the next. It’s kind of like an underground railroad.

And now two days before their journey is scheduled to end back in Afton, they’re both dead tired. Rob Roy looks underweight. Murphy doesn’t bother to ride him anymore. She instead walks ahead of him with a lead line. The day before, he laid down on the side of the road and refused to budge.

Why is Murphy doing this?

MURPHY:   I have friends who are going to eminent domain. I grew up in Augusta County. There’s a huge portion of it going through there. I grew up running through the fields, playing on the land and riding horses. It’s coming close to our farm in Afton. And we are in the process of trying to put together a vintage camper campground on the five acres to capitalize on the agri-tourism that’s happening there. And you think if something happens to all these breweries and wineries with the water source … that’s a lot of businesses.  I also wanted to see what it’s about.

For Murphy, the pipeline is personal. Still, she approaches the journey with an open mind.

MURPHY:   I mean, it got to the point where people would pull over on the side of the road and tell me their experiences. // You look at this issue and it’s so polarizing. It feels so black and white but within that there’s so much complexity and so many facets and layers to what’s happening. I haven’t changed at the heart of it, how I feel. But I’m looking at a wider range and repercussions of outcomes.

Like the woman she stayed with in West Virginia. Her husband is a crane contractor hoping to work on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in state so he can stay home with his wife and kids instead of having to travel out of state for work.

The trek has made Murphy think more deeply about a lot of things. Hiking alone with a horse for months will do that.

MURPHY:   That idea that people have it all figured out or that I do know exactly what I’m doing – I don’t. Everyday I have to figure out what’s our goal today? What’s our motivation today? I mean, I don’t know what the day’s going to bring me. I know we’re going to walk a lot.

The experience has deepened her already close relationship with Rob Roy. This is their second environmental trek together. The first was a 10-day ride from Bridgewater to Whitesburg, Kentucky to witness the devastation of mountain top removal.

MURPHY:   We drive each other crazy. We’re like an old married couple. We just get sick of each other.

Murphy says she’s learned a lot from Rob Roy.

MURPHY:   You know, I’m so focused on where we’re trying to get to for the day. He’ll just stop. And I’ll turn around and there will be like a beautiful vista—mountain beyond mountain or just something that needed to be seen that will stick with me forever. So he’s good at calling out those moments.

[fade up Rob Roy walking across asphalt]

And now it’s time to resume their journey. Rob Roy is all tacked up for the 12 mile trek to Stuarts Draft. They’re slated to spend that night with another pipeline protestor.

Rob Roy stops on the hard top, refusing to move. Murphy has to gently coax him forward.

[sound of Murphy trying to coax him forward]

MURPHY: Good boy.

It’s going to be a long day.

But Rob Roy does eventually make it back to Afton two days later. He ended up laying down in the road once.

But now he’s home, resting up and gaining back weight. They’ll resume the second leg of their trek to North Carolina where the pipeline ends come spring – if Rob Roy is fit enough to handle it.

Jessie Knadler is the editor and co-founder of Shen Valley Magazine, a quarterly print publication that highlights the entrepreneurial energy of the Shenandoah Valley. She has been reporting off and on for WMRA, and occasionally for National Public Radio, since 2015. Her articles and reporting have appeared everywhere from The Wall Street Journal to Real Simple to The Daily Beast. She is the author of two books, including Rurally Screwed (Berkley), inspired by her popular personal blog of the same name, which she wrote for six years. In her spare time, she teaches Pilates reformer, and is the owner of the equipment-based Pilates studio Speakeasy Pilates in Lexington. She is mom to two incredible daughters, June and Katie. IG: @shenvalleymag