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Because of Big South

Larry McMillan has built three decades worth of memories leading horseback excursions through the scenic national recreation area
Story and photos by Chris Villines 11/15/2018

 

At his Jamestown outfitter, Southeast Pack Trips, Larry McMillan prepares to saddle horses for customers taking a trail ride through Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. Larry has operated the business for 30 years.
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When your “co-workers” are more than 20 majestic Tennessee walking horses and your “office” is 125,000 picturesque acres on the Cumberland Plateau, w-o-r-k doesn’t equate to a b-a-d four-letter word.

That’s the case with Larry McMillan. Has been for 30 years.

It was 1988 when Larry started Southeast Pack Trips, which offers custom-guided horseback rides and pack trips into the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area from its hub in eastern Fentress County. It’s been the rugged cowboy’s dream come true ever since, as he’s welcomed customers from all over the U.S. and other countries to this hotbed for horse trail enthusiasts.

“I’ve had folks here from Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Poland, England, Australia, Switzerland, Germany …” says Larry, a southern Kentucky native and Fentress Farmers Cooperative member who runs the business with the help of employee Bobby Monroe. “They don’t own horses, so they come here because they’ve heard about us and the great trail riding opportunities.”

A canoe trip first drew Larry to Big South Fork while he was a student at Western Kentucky University in the mid-1970s. He was immediately smitten with the area.

“The beauty of this place pulled me in like a magnet,” he says. “We were planning our next trip here before we even left.”

Marriage, starting a family, and concentrating on his family’s 1,500-acre row crop operation in Franklin, Ky., took Big South off Larry’s radar for a few years.

“We would go to Mammoth Cave or Land Between the Lakes to ride horses,” says Larry, now single with two grown sons. “Then I saw that article in the paper.”

The piece, which ran in the Louisville Courier-Journal in Sept. 1984, called Big South Fork the “Yellowstone of the East” and one of the country’s hidden gems with its breathtaking scenery and mile after mile of horse trails. Big South Fork has the second-largest network of trails east of the Mississippi.

That article motivated Larry to take a trip to ride there.

Then another.

Then more.

Before he knew it, Larry was hatching a business plan, buying land, and starting Southeast Pack Trips.

“Before we bought the property here in 1991, I was still farming and would commute here to meet people for rides and overnight camping trips,” he says. “I made 36 trips from Franklin [Ky.] to here that year alone, two-and-a-half hours each way, to do three-day, two-night pack trips.”

The juggling act continued until 1996, when Larry decided to stop farming and move to Fentress County fulltime. More customers were taking advantage of his excursions. The business was taking off.

“I was getting ready to have to buy a combine, which even then was a quarter-of-a-million dollars,” he explains. “If I bought that equipment, I knew where my focus was going to be for the rest of my life. So I moved here by myself and the kids would come help in the summer.”

Originally, Southeast Pack Trips was formed to only offer the overnight camping trips. But Larry realized soon thereafter that he needed to diversify his portfolio of services.

“We were shoeing horses one day and a family pulled up who had seen the ‘horse rides’ sign I put up,” he recalls. “They wanted to go on a two-hour ride, but I told them we didn’t do those. I looked at them and saw the disappointment on their faces and thought ‘What a stupid businessman I am.’ People are coming to you wanting to ride horses and you tell them no.

“The wheels started turning in my head. I asked them, ‘What would you pay for a two-hour ride?’ They said, ‘Give us a price.’ There were six of them, and I told them $30 per person because the person shoeing the six horses I had then was charging $30 an hour. They agreed to it. I paid for my shoe bill with that one ride.”

Larry points out that the camping trips haven’t gone away. In fact, he says Southeast is the only outfitter east of the Mississippi River to offer overnight trips with pack mules.

But there are a wide range of other guided horseback rides available for individuals and groups that make it a truly “customized” experience, from one-hour rides to a full day. And to keep his equine athletes ready for these journeys, Larry says he relies on Fentress Farmers Cooperative, where he purchases Cumberland Mills Sweet 10 (#CM300CO) as well as a custom blend from the Co-op.

He jokes that there are only three rules out on the trail:

“You can’t talk politics, you can’t fall off the horse, and you have to have fun.”

Besides the trail rides and camping, Southeast also offers custom hiking and backpacking tours and wedding arrangements for couples wanting to have their big day in or near Big South Fork. Larry can even perform the ceremony since he is ordained to do so in Tennessee.

And, for people who just want a different spin on an overnight stay in the area, Larry recently assembled a teepee near his property that sleeps four.

“We ordered it from the same company in Oregon that produced all the teepees for the movie ‘Dances With Wolves,’” he says. “It’s heavy duty with 17 poles, a 20-foot radius, and 440 square feet of space. There are two cots and a double bed.”

At 63, with three decades of memories from this venture in the books, Larry admits he can see the time for Southeast Pack Trips’ final ride approaching in the coming years. But what a ride it’s been.

“I don’t know anybody else who can say they’ve gotten to do exactly what they’ve wanted for as long as I’ve been able to,” he says. “It’s been such fun that I don’t consider it a job at all. How great is that?”

To learn more about Southeast Pack Trips, call 931-879-2260 or visit www.southeastpacktrips.com.

 
 
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