Mustangs

I have been piecing together hints of a spring in a remote canyon on BLM land outside Death Valley. It fascinated me with mention of the ruins of a ranch, petroglyphs from at least 1000 years ago, mustangs who would water there and then retreat to the relative safety of the high country.

This week I made the leap from researh to being there in person. Was eager to see if my research had paid off. So I found myself clambering up a sandy wash strewn with boulders between cliffs that rose hundreds of feet on either side. Pinons and Joshua Trees dotted the route.

At last the walls opened outward into a splendid valley and immediately I noticed water trickling down toward me. I pushed further in and saw the tumbled down stone walls that had been the ranch house, its wood mantle still clung crazily to the wall above the fireplace. A couple rusted bed frames and chair still stood within the confines of the walls. As I stood there happy that I’d found the place, I had the sudden feeling something was watching me. I turned around and on the ridge 150 yards from me I saw a dark head peering over the crest. I took a couple steps forward and the shape crested the ridge. Before me was a beautiful stallion. It regarded me for a moment and then trotted downslope and disappeared. I fumbled with my pack to get to my other camera with the 150-600mm on it and began walking quietly in the direction the stallion had gone.

He hadn’t seemed unduly alarmed by my presence and I had seen a watering hole in that direction. Figuring he’d gone down for a drink, I had an idea of where I could get a shot of him. When I approached the hole, I couldn’t see him but as I took another step there came an explosion of hooves on rock. Whinnying and snorting, he exploded out of a thicket near me and climbed the hillside opposite me. He stood there, snorting and pawing, expressing his displeasure at my presence. Glorious thing.

We talked a bit, I told him how beautiful he was and he snorted derisively at me. Having enough of my intrusion, he trotted off, up and around behind me which didn’t make a lot of sense until I saw why. Two other horse heads were peeking over the hill at me. One was a bay, the other dark - was hard to make out since I was looking east into the sun.

Clearly this was the stallion’s herd and he had been evaluating the danger I posed. All at once the trio wheeled around and disappeared behind the hill. I stalked up it, hoping to get some shots of all of them but when I made it to the top, they were gone. Still, they couldn’t have gone far - it’s relatively open country, so I ascended the slope to the north. Nothing. It was as though the earth had swallowed them up. I didn’t see them again the entire time I explored the area.

Magical, beautiful experience I will never forget.