Howard Wooldridge is the very picture of the long, tall Texas lawman: Cowboy boots, jeans with big belt buckle, mustache, cowboy hat. There is just one jarring note -- the t-shirt he wears: "Cops Say Legalize Drugs," it says in large, colorful lettering. "Ask Me Why."
A veteran of 18 years as a Texas police officer, Wooldridge, 53 and now retired, is a founding member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, the fast-growing conglomeration of cops and ex-cops who have seen first-hand the futility of drug prohibition and who are now calling for the drug war to be replaced wit h a system of regulated access to currently illicit substances. While LEAP has made a name for itself through its members' strong presentations to law enforcement and service organizations, Wooldridge has embarked on a unique effort to carry the message across the heartland, winning converts one by one out on the lonely highway, at rest areas, roadside cafes, camp sites, and watering holes.
It's not the first time for Wooldridge and Misty. Two years ago, the duo rode from Georgia to Oregon to take the drug reform message directly to the people. Wooldridge was so impressed with the results, he has decided to do it again this year, only this time he is heading from West to East.
"I'm about 10 miles south of Banning, California, right now," the lanky lawman told DRCNet Wednesday. "It's day five of the ride, and we've done about 80 miles so far," he said. "We'll be in New York City November 1, God willin' and the creek don't rise."
Reaction so far has been positive, he said. "I just sat down with nine horse women in their 40s and 50s, and they all agreed we have to treat drugs like whiskey, regulate it, and stop wasting money on all those prisons. We all get a little cynical listening to the politicians, but sit down in a café and start talking, and people almost always respond positively to my message, at least about marijuana, and most say we should just legalize it all."
Wooldridge and Sapp are not just seeking drivers, she added. "If you live in an area where Howard is coming, come out and say hello, send out the local media, find a place where he and Misty can sleep for the night," Sapp said. "What we need is food and water and plenty of attention. If there are medical marijuana patients or other drug reformers, come on out and accompany them for awhile. We had a medical marijuana patient from Washington state come down and push his wheelchair alongside Howard and Misty for a couple of miles in California. We need to see this happen all across America. People need to come out and get the media out."
"We need people from Denver on East," said Wooldridge. "Come out and come along for a day or two, or just come out with a care package and say hello; that would be much appreciated. The hardest thing is getting the horse fed, and for me, the loneliness. Misty is a good listener, but she's not much of a conversationalist."
After leaving California, Wooldridge will trek across Arizona and New Mexico before heading north into Colorado along the Front Range of the Rockies. But before that happens, he is taking a week off to fly to London, where he will be honored by the Royal Geographic Society. "Because I already rode from Georgia to Oregon, I am being recognized as a long-rider by the society," he said. "They've invited me to lunch in London, and I'm looking forward to it. It's an honor and a privilege, and I wouldn't miss it for anything."
After his brief sojourn in London, it's back to the road, where Wooldridge has some speaking engagements lined up. "I'll be talking to about 30 meetings of the Rotaries and the Kiwanis around Phoenix and Albuquerque and up the Front Range in Colorado," he said. "These are real community leaders, and you've got to get that face time in. LEAP puts all our emphasis on reaching out to these key people, meeting with the unconverted, and helping them change their minds."
From Colorado, Wooldridge and Misty will ride roughly due east across the Great Plains and the Midwest, with some detours into Wisconsin and Michigan, before cutting across a corner of Pennsylvania and winding through New York state into Manhattan. "We've got media events lined up along the way, but we need more," he said. "Let your media know something special is headed to town."
So far, so good for both horse and rider, Wooldridge reported. "Misty is doing well. She was stiff from the 1,500 mile trailer ride from Oklahoma, and we had three whole days of nothing but concrete getting out of Los Angeles, but now we're out of the city and have hit our first stretch of green." For you horse lovers out there, not to worry. Wooldridge rides for two hours, then walks beside the horse for one, giving Misty adequate breaks from the burden of carrying him. And just in case Misty goes lame, a replacement, Rocky, is waiting in Oklahoma.
Wooldridge was scheduled to sleep at a Southern California ranch Wednesday night after receiving an invitation from ranchers he met along the way. That is not unusual, he said. "This sort of thing happens quite a bit, and it is really heart-warming. To ride across America is lonely and difficult, but when I get this kind of response, I get motivated to get right back in the saddle and keep going."