Ancient Friends in Utah's West Desert
Rain lightly vibrates on the nylon sheet stretched overhead. The glow of an awakening sun peering through clouds and over mountaintops brings a dull gray to the black of my closed eyes. Tapping from the rain echoes in my ears as a telegraph, the message is clear, it is time to wake. I cracked the heavy lids forcing my eyes to adjust to a new world born of the new time. Stretching my arms overhead I rock and my hammock sways. I lift my down blanket and cool air rushes through freshening the stagnant sleep. Creatures scurry in the brush, twigs snap, birds chirp, and my stomach rumbles adding to a symphony that declares war on the night.
A few more stretches and some determination to find my boots leads me from my nest and out to the fire pit. As with most trips, I failed to cover my tender and kindling. So to the tree bottoms I go searching for the sheltered twigs and grasses remaining dry and those that will take my spark. It doesn't take long and it is an exercise that I find amusing. After a brief moment my fire is crackling and the morning trickles of rain have vanished.
With breakfast finished I fill my hydration bag and toss a few essentials in my day pack. My spotting scope, a water filter, my tripod, camera, and some lunch just to name a few. I'm probably overthinking things and packing a little too heavy, but I can use the exercise. The sun is now ripping clouds and shining through the tears in the cotton-like blanket that covers the sky. I tighten my bootlaces, snugging the bungees up, throw my pack over my shoulder, and grab my trekking sticks. My quarry awaits.
Wild horses? The name is as hotly contested as the management of populations and rangeland. Being descendants of domesticated Spanish horses, feral horse may be more appropriate, but it is nowhere near as American. America's Mustang is resilient and free, much as the men and women who forged the frontier. To this day this beautiful creature still embodies what we as Americans cherish in our history, fitting within our desire to explore and traditions of camping, backpacking, and hiking.
Over 40,000 animals roam free in the Western United States while another 40,000 live in captivity. Historically a quarter million animals have been placed into private care. I have been fortunate enough to live in an area within the range of these great creatures. Adding to the beauty of majestic snow-capped mountains, Mustangs roam freely and unmolested. Spending many a day hiking the desert plains and hillsides, watching and photographing with my wife, I have come to appreciate and admire the strength of these animals. We have camped within their homeland able to observe unnoticed from afar generating memories, and a relationship with nature.
As the original home of the equine species, North America has proved a successful environment for Mustangs for over 57 million years. The ecology in North America of both plant and animal has evolved with horses creating a reciprocal relationship. Unfortunately, the relationship is not always synergetic with range requirements or weekend recreation. This competition with modern lifestyles has led to some conflict. The circumstances surrounding the availability of feed for both domestic and wild animals is always cause for concern, and thus a little education on our part is required.
Current herds trace their ancestry on this continent back to the 1500s and European explorers and colonization. The conquest of the American continent brought with it many new arrivals including pioneers with the need for transportation. Equids soon ran free across the continent proving themselves useful to indigenous tribes. These fine animals changed the face of trade, agriculture, and war in North America. With the idea of the wild west and pony express fresh in your mind, it is easy to loose oneself in the luster of a cinematic fantasy among the blazing background of a sunset and an expansive herd of formidable mustangs.
On any given camping trip to the West desert of Utah your chances of seeing a Mustang are high. Many can be viewed from the front seat of your SUV as you travel the Pony Express Trail. I have found great pleasure in quietly watching from camp relaxing in my hammock while savory fumes of dinner deliciousness waft from my Dutch oven. Binoculars and a good camera are a great way to interact at a safe distance for the animals.
Although it may seem tempting to approach, it is best for all concerned if we keep our distance. Wintertime, breeding times, and foaling leave some horses in a distressed manner. With the scarcity of feed and water, the addition of human interaction and harassment can have grave consequences. Keeping your distance can result in hours of viewing natural interactions of the herd. The games, frolicking, and social behaviors of these horses are magnificent.
Pack up your gear, your RV or a tent. Do a little research at BLM.gov and head out on an adventure. Bring plenty of water (a filter might be a good idea as well) and food to cook around the campfire. Spend a weekend in the quiet, watching horses, listening to coyotes and enjoying the beauty of the great outdoors. If you happen to see me, stop by and say hello!