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Sentimental Journeys : Members of the Trailblazers say they joined to support the Gene Autry museum, share a love of cowboy heroes and indulge a taste for chili.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Marnell Jameson is a Sherman Oaks writer</i>

Whoopee ti-yi-yo, git along little . . . Trailblazers? That’s the name of the group that rounded up at the Bar S Stables in Glendale one recent Saturday morning to hit the dusty trail. Billed as “young professionals who share a love of the West,” the group of supporters of the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum was raring to go riding through the Hollywood Hills behind Griffith Park.

The group developed to fill a baby boomer fantasy. “I had a feeling there were a lot of people like me who grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s whose heroes were cowboys, yet the museum’s membership didn’t reflect that,” says Ross Goldberg, 41, one of the Trailblazers’ four founding members.

A cowboy wanna-be who works by day as a vice president for CareAmerica in Woodland Hills, Goldberg was onto something. The group, which formed in August, 1993, now has 120 members.

“These are people who grew up idolizing Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and Hopalong Cassidy,” Goldberg says. “We are not the gray and rich. The museum doesn’t even look to us as a fund-raising arm. They just want us to attract young interest.”

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Although Goldberg insists that the group is not for cowboys, many in this morning’s group are serious riders. One couple pulled a trailer in with their own horses for the ride. Others had clearly spent time in the saddle, although still others were obviously not at home on the range. Their limp legs and slack heels gave them away.

Spurred on by Bar S head wrangler Mary Jane Krause, a no-nonsense horsewoman whose fringed leathers matched her palomino, the riders headed out Skyline Trail in the northeast corner of Griffith Park--some at a poke, some at a canter--and rode back on Oak Canyon, which is just southwest of Skyline Trail.

Krause’s main objective was to make sure that everyone had a good time. “I size them up,” she says, “then give them as much horse as they can handle.”

Regardless of riding ability, all Trailblazers looked the part. Wearing flannel shirts, boots, bandannas and Stetsons, the two dozen members who turned out for the trail ride could have passed for a Jesse James posse. Afterward, they hit the Gene Autry museum restaurant for a chuck-wagon breakfast.

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Besides hitting the dusty trail, the Trailblazers hold two other events a year and gather at the museum the second Friday of each month for a Western movie and chili dinner. Other special events have included a trip to Tejon Ranch and a visit to the rodeo.

The Blazing Saddles Chili Cookoff was what first attracted Trailblazers member Tracy Harbur, 46, a home products salesman from Azusa who doesn’t miss an event. Moreover, he says, “If you’re a member, you and your guest get to go to the museum for free.” Depending on how often you go, that alone could cover the $60 annual membership fee. (Museum admission for adults is $7 per visit.)

Bronwyn Dawson, a veterinarian and veteran horse rider, and her husband, Ken Yapkowitz, were museum members before they learned about Trailblazers. “Then we heard there was a group that got together to watch Western movies, ride horses and eat chili, so we joined,” says Dawson, 35, of Los Angeles. “The chili sealed it.”

Although some members are truly city slickers who suit up all week and turn up only for the chili and Western flicks, others really have a cowboy burr under their saddle. Goldberg, for example, devotes one of the bedrooms in his three-bedroom house to his Lone Ranger memorabilia collection. “A guest could stay in that room, too,” he concedes. “I don’t want you to think my priorities are out of line.”

And Trailblazer Carl Walper of Newhall does cowboy shooting. Using either a shotgun, lever-action rifle, Colt peacemaker or single six-shooter, Walper, 50, mounts a fake horse and shoots still targets in a saloon-style shootout once a month at Raahauge’s Shooting Enterprises in Norco. His wife, Andree Walper, 47, is also a cowboy buff and serves on the board of the William S. Hart Museum, the silent Western film star’s onetime home. Andree likes the Trailblazers, she says, “because it gives me a chance to wear my Western clothes.”

Yapkowitz, 43, an interactive multimedia consultant, appreciates the tie between the cowboy club and his other hobby, playing in a jug band. The band plays washboard, ukulele, banjo, harmonica, washtubs, kazoo and bells. Yapkowitz himself plays jugs, spoons and bones.

Despite their divergent Western pastimes, Trailblazers members all share one Western passion--chili. “It’s not just the chili that’s excellent; all the museum food is great,” says Walper. “On Western movie nights, if the movie is bad, the dessert always gets you through.”

WHERE AND WHEN

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What: Trailblazers.

Location: Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles.

Hours: Meets second Friday of the month. Tonight, 6:30 chili dinner, 7:30 screening of “Stagecoach.” Reservations required.

Price: $60 individual membership, $70 per couple. Film screening and dinner $10 for group members, $15 non-members.

Call: (213) 667-2000, Ext. 301.


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