Wild Mustang Country

Debbie Madison 


© Copyright 2005 by Debbie Madison 

Photo of petroglifs.

     The brochure read: Travel by horseback through the Sierra Mountains.  Surround yourself with crystal clear lakes and pine trees, as you follow and photograph a herd of wild mustang horses in their natural habitat.

     I was sold but my husband wasn’t.  “Are you crazy?” he said as he shook his head back and forth,  “Horses bite and kick!  And when was the last time you slept in a tent?”

    The more he tried to talk me out of the trip, the more excited I got.  I glued my eyes on his face and pretended to listen to him as he went on and on about the dangers of the High Sierras and horses.  Then I smiled at him as I picked up the phone and made a reservation for only one person, just me.

     I was headed to the Montgomery Pass Wild Horse Territory. An area on the northern borders of Nevada and California, that encompassed almost 200,000 acres of pristine land. And it is on one of the highest mountain ranges in North America.

     The trip included a horse, all the food I could eat and a tent.  All I had to do was to figure out how to get all of my belongings inside a small black duffle bag. Nothing I tried worked.  I punched, sat on and pushed my cloths into the very fibers of the duffle bag.  I downsized and undersized everything I owned, but the zipper refused to cooperate with me.  I finally gave up and went to plan “B” and bought a much larger duffle bag.

     My adventure began in Bishop, a sparsely populated town in Northern California. Stories of cowboys and mountain men lined the town’s colorful windows. And their tales still echoed around and caught your eye in the shadows of the rustic buildings that lined this sleepy town's main street. The only sign of Corporate America that I could see was a brand new Starbucks, which the locals were quick to point out and brag about.

     I wanted to join them and listen to the folklore but my bus had already stopped across the street and opened its doors.  It was quickly filling with excited voices and colorful cowboy hats.

     Our horses were waiting for us at an old stagecoach stop, called River Springs about an hour and a half away, north of town.  I eagerly joined my newly found friends. Our bus carried us up a fertile valley of thick dark green alfalfa.  Then it took a sharp right turn down a rock laden dusty road that blinded our view as we sped down it.

     When we finally stopped and the dust settled we were surround by blue skies, rocky hillsides and sand.  The ground around us was hot and the soft dirt gave way as we plowed through it.

     A dark blue pool, a small oasis of water was bubbling up from a sandy knoll a short distance away. It was out of place and at first glance, I thought it was a mirage.  Dense layers of green grass and brown shrubs encircled it almost hiding it from view, as though protecting it from the harsh elements and heat.

     Just past the small oasis was a flat clearing, where a string of horses were tied and saddled.   While we hid in the shade of the bus, tall well-built wranglers walked over and introduced themselves to us. Then, one by one, they walked us over to the horses checking each horses cinch and almost methodically told us, “mount-up.”

     In a matter of minutes we were in the saddle and lined up like ducks in a row.  We followed the wranglers up and down a series of gently slopping hills.  At the bottom of the second hill three wranglers held their hands up, high in the air signaling for us to all stop.  There, they separated us into three smaller groups. Then, one by one each of our groups headed out in different directions.

     A tall, young Texan led my group higher and further, up into the hills. He frequently glanced back at all twelve of us and was constantly giving hand signals to a portly female wrangler who was riding a long legged mule and was bringing up our rear.

     Our path was covered with thick, dense sagebrush that had a hint of greenery mixed in it.  Most of the horses stepped on the bushes, not bothering to walk around them.  They seemed quite at ease with the crunching noise below their hoofs, as they plowed through it.
      I tried to steer my horse around it, left, right, then to the left again.  After about twenty minutes of snaking back and forth I gave up and let my four-legged friend choose his own path.  He immediately joined the rest of the horses and stomped on and through the dense brush, as though it was just some overgrown thick grass.

     Earlier today in the shade of the bus we were lectured about snakes and what to do if we were to get lost or fall off of our horses.  No one had mentioned anything about clouds of thick, choking dust that our horses were churning up as they walked.  The further back in line you were the more dust you ate and ate and ate.  My horse and I were at the very end of the line, which we quickly realized was a very, very, dusty mistake.

     Most of the day everyone in our group remained fairly quiet as we soaked up our surroundings of endless blue skies and snow-capped mountains. As we followed each other’s horses up and down vast wide-open spaces.

     By late afternoon we had made it to our base camp.  It was a welcome sight. We were all hot and dusty along with being tired and parched.

     Our camp was nestled at the base of two cliffs, at an elevation of about ten thousand feet.  It was almost invisible, hidden by overgrown shrubbery, steep canyon walls and thick green pine trees. A natural warm springs meandered throughout it, feeding fresh water to our horses and to three flimsily built outdoor showers.

     Colorful dome tents had been erected and were sprawled out all over the area. Most of them were unnoticeable. Hidden in and around overgrown foliage.  I found an empty one, threw my duffle bag into it and crawled inside.

     I was covered in layers of dust and I desperately needed a shower.  But by the time I got settled in, a chilly breeze deterred me and a loud clanging noise was calling me to dinner.

     We grabbed metal plates and filled them with barbeque chicken and fresh corn on the cob. It was exactly what we all needed to refuel our tired bodies. In between each mouth full we laughed and took turns talking and sharing stories about our ride up the mountain today.  By nine o’ clock dusk was upon us and a very cold breeze was doing its best to put out our bonfire. Most of us called it a night and retreated to the warmth of our tents.

     My group had been the only one lucky enough to have spotted and photographed a herd of wild horses today.  But one of our riders had gotten lost earlier this afternoon. The vast open spaces that we plowed through all day had swallowed her up. Fortunately she was found safe about an hour and a half later.

     Sunrise came too fast.  The clang of the breakfast bell along with a whiff of  fresh bacon frying  helped to motivate my weary bones.  My eyes were swollen and bloodshot.  I struggled to get my contact lenses in.  When I finally succeeded I looked down and realized that I was sitting in a pool of spilled contact lens solution.

     Outside of my tent my eyes were immediately drawn to a dazzling display of fiery colors. As the sun rose it splashed a rainbow of colors on everything it touched. It was reflecting off and around out tents and the steep canyon walls around our campsite.   I took a few pictures but I knew that my camera couldn’t do this vivid display of colors justice.

     By 7:30 am we had eaten breakfast, made our own, “brown bag lunch” and we were already in the saddle heading out for another days adventure.

     The woman wrangler on a mule, whom had brought up our groups rear yesterday, was now our leader today.  Without hesitation I wedged my horse directly behind her mule.  I was now first in line and after my dust bath yesterday, I intended to stay that way all day.

     They say mules are sure-footed animals.  Her mule proved this time and time again, all day long. He effortlessly climbed up steep embankments then without hesitation he calmly walked straight back down on the other side.  The way he was blazing trails I knew that neither man nor beast had been there before.

     My horse wasn’t as sure footed.  He tripped and slid, as he went up and down the mountainous terrain.  All I could hope for was that no one saw the terrifying expressions, frozen on my face, as my horse followed her mule, up and down the steep countryside.

     Plants, flowers and trees changed with every new valley.  One area was blanketed in yellow daisies and soft green grass.  The next was dry, dusty and barren, with only an occasional spray of tiny white flowers.  We rode through miles of endless grassy knolls, bubbling springs and water holes.

     The higher elevation gave us a reprieve from the heat and the dust.  This is where the Paiute and Shoshone Indians had hunted buffalo.  We visited some of the rock sites where they had painted stories about their lives and buffalo adventures.  We ate fresh pine nuts and rested under the cool arms of soaring pine trees, just as they had.

     We were in wild mustang country. It’s filled with unbridled natural beauty and is rich in American history.  Herds of wild horses have been seen in this region since the late 1800’s.  No one is sure how they got here.  One theory is, as money dried up or became scarce in the numerous mining towns that flourished during the 1800’s, horses were set loose to forage for themselves.  Others believe that many horses were lost or left for dead, as they were lead across these treacherous mountain ranges, while being driven to Arizona and Texas in the late 1800’s.

     I caught myself daydreaming time and time again, thinking about the old west and wild horses.  I half expected Indians to come riding over a bluff or see a stagecoach roar past us, down an embankment.

     Our days were long, exhilarating and fatiguing.  We were in the saddle just past sunrise and we didn’t return back to our base camp until late afternoon.  What amazed me was that no one complained about their bottoms or any other body parts hurting.  I had never been on a horse, day after day, for this length of time before. Yet I wasn’t sore.  Maybe it was the high altitude.  Maybe it was the excitement or maybe the breathtaking scenery.

     In the evenings, after dinner, we shared and discussed our daily observations with each other.  At sunset we were joined by, a feisty mountain man or a crusty old timer, that had been raised in this wilderness area.  They told us stories about the old west and they shared books, maps and their imaginations with us.  They heightened our awareness about the wild horses in this area and other areas scattered all across America.

     In the four days we had been in the saddle we had seen numerous small herds of wild mustangs.  We had counted each herd’s new foals and we had watched and studied the pecking order and incredible social behavior of these thousand pound animals in their natural habitat.

     When it was time to mount up and go home a feeling of tranquility blanketed us, one by one as we headed back down the mountain. We all remained very quiet. I don’t know what everyone else was thinking, but I knew that part of me wanted to stay up here forever, to disappear, into the dust and become part of the legends and free spirits of the wild mustangs.  The other half of me was focusing on a very hot, very long shower.  On our six-hour journey out of the mountains our entire group watched and calmly passed by a fast moving rattlesnake and a large brown, jumping hare.  None of us panicked or even hesitated, our horses and the spirit of the mustangs had trained us well.

     We dismounted and said goodbye to our horses and the wranglers. Then we all piled back into our small bus and headed back to Bishop.

     Debbie Madison has a passion for horses and has plans for traveling on horseback all over the country. She has finished and published a  called, “Rider Down” based on one of her longer and crazier horse trips.  

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