The last week of August, hoping to find a lot
of flat territory to gait through someplace that was not too hot, Jean and
I and Margareta and Traveller trailered east on I-80. After nine hundred
miles we hit the 6,000 foot intermountain basin of the Rockies. Passing the California ag inspection station on the way out reminded me
that lots of states, including California, want to see a Coggins certificate. We ran the
Nevada, Utah and Wyoming checkpoints.
The first town at the edge of the basin is
Green River, in the southwest corner of Wyoming. We stabled the horses at Mark and Christine’s ranch in Scotts Bottom
alongside the river and commuted from a motel in town. In the morning,
Sunday, I found that T was limping badly, like he had pulled a muscle. We
caught a vet in his office in Rock Springs, the next town east, and picked up some bute. On Monday we went back and
got a thorough exam, “K-laser” acupuncture treatment (to curry favor
with the vet I was agreeing to everything) and a hundred dollar tub of
private label anti-inflammatory and painkiller, to be administered one
scoop twice daily, each consisting of 3.6 g aspirin, 1g phenylbutazone,
.38 g isoxuprine and 2.35 g CaCO3. Essentially Alka Seltzer plus bute;
from what I can tell the isoxuprine falls into the kitchen sink category.
All inbound California traffic is stopped by the inspectors and there are no back roads through
that part of the Sierra, so the vet FedExed blood test samples to the lab.
The dope he gave us worked, by evening T
seemed fine, so we all cruised Scotts Bottom riverside park. The river
meanders through aspen and tall grasses between wide canyon walls striped
yellow and pink. Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, Hugh Glass, Ute, Crow and Sioux
Indians, grizzly bear encounters, massacres and fur trade rendevous are
not such distant memories here.
The next day we set out for some real riding.
Just north of Rock Springs (a Butch Cassidy retreat), the Killpecker Creek [sic] valley extends for
30 miles between two dramatic parallel scarps. The valley floor, cut from
the bed of the huge lake that covered this whole area 60 million years
ago, is laced with jeep trails of generally excellent packed dirt footing,
and we gaited and walked for 18-20 miles every day for four days. From the
bluffs above one can survey the entire Green River Basin, an area bigger than
Massachusetts, and the leagues we travelled barely sampled it.
On this open landscape the riding strategy I
used was to pick a possible destination by guessing from maps, brochures,
Google, and suggestions from the locals what might be out there, and then
scouting with binoculars for an interesting landmark or vantage point.
Marking our trailer on the GPS, we’d set off, picking our way in
accordance with the terrain as we found it, keeping generally to one side of our tentative objective so that our return route would
likely be far enough to the other side to be different. If our attention
was attracted by anything unexpected along the way, we would gladly be
diverted. After eight or 10 miles it would be time to loop across for a
couple of miles before pressing the “go to” buttons on the GPS and
navigating back towards the trailer.
Halfway up the valley are the White Mountain
petroglyphs. Inscribed horses, some with spear-brandishing riders, some
simply in iconic silhoutte, attest to the natives’ appreciation of their
transfiguration of the digger economy. Another five miles up the valley is
Boar’s Tusk, the stripped-away core of an ancient volcano that rose from
the lake bed. It is now a spectacular ruined column we first made out from
fifteen miles away, more awesome to sight and imagination than if it were
the Queen Mary driven bow-first into the ground. We approached and circled
it almost hesitantly, as if it were the redoubt of Cyclops safely away
with his flocks for the summer. Beyond, the Killpecker sand dunes are a
white stripe across the head of the valley and the limit of our three
days’ riding there.
But the transcendent presence in the valley
is the bands of wild horses that had so transfixed the Indians. The first
day, looping back from the petroglyphs, across the valley floor we saw
some dark spots at the limits of discernability. At first I thought it
might be a few of the wiry trees scattered among the low shrubs and sparse
grass, clumped around a spot that gathered water in the rare rains, or
maybe (horrid thought) some 4-wheelers assembling before setting out. We
gaited closer. The spots resolved into a band of seven horses, all fillies
or young males, led by the largest, a white mare. When they noticed us
they swung to face us. We looked at each other. We walked slowly towards
them, and they pivoted and cantered around us in an arc, first one way
then the other, stopping each time to consider us uncertainly, advancing a
little closer. We watched in fascination. Traveller snatched at the scanty
yellow grass, perhaps testing the practicalities of independence.
Margareta, more suspicious, kept her eyes and ears on them. Eventually
they decided our two bands were going to neither fight nor join, and moved
on over a rise and out of sight.
In the next two days we encountered a pair of
wild horses, one of which threatened us with a rearing, pawing display
before they cantered away over the ridge when we were not deterred.
Farther up the valley we spotted another band of mostly darker mares and
yearlings. They eyed us indecisively until the lead mare nipped and pinned
her ears at them and moved them over the ridge at a dutiful trot. We
gaited away at right angles to their line of travel for a half a mile and
then circled around parallel to the direction they had taken, a low ridge
between us and their route. Sure enough, once they had put us out of sight
they put us out of mind and were jolted from their grazing when we
reappeared from an unexpected direction.
Now they really treated us to the sight of
some lovely running. The high desert ground is covered half by tough
little shrubs no more than twelve inches high, in clumps and singly, and
half by the yellow dirt floor showing between in an irregular mosaic. The
human mind cannot make decisions quickly enough to pick a gait-speed route
through it, and even at a walk one’s path becomes an erratic zigzag. Yet
the native horses canter and trot in lines and curves as graceful as if
they were sailing over something as smooth as desert salt flats, drifting
across the desert with their manes and tails aripple, exactly as evolution
or God made them to do. This time they ran and ran, arcing toward the
horizon miles away, until only their dust cloud could be seen, and then
not even that.
Margareta threw a shoe on the third day, so
we stopped off at the vet’s and got the phone number of a local shoer.
The Coggins certificates were back. The farrier, a former pro bronc rider,
rebuffed Jean’s suggestions regarding heel preservation with typical
farrier irritability and regaled us with stories of the worst horses he
had to deal with, sheep horses. He said the sheep horses were only mean
because the sheep people were mean to them. Though he used ace on his
reining horse to take the edge off before competitions, for sheep horses
and the like he carried some much more potent pharmaceutical of the sort
permitted in California only to vets, the name of which I forget.
When we had arrived, Christine told us that
the day before she and Mark had had to round up the free-running herd his
brother uses for packing into Yellowstone, but they had “crossed the river.” To my far less experienced mind
such a pursuit seemed like a major adventure that would be unlikely to
actually succeed. But Christine said they pretty much knew where the
horses were likely to be, and rattled the grain can at them and they came
– mind you, these are not Pasos – and as she put it they find being in
the pasture about as interesting as being out of it.
Midweek Mark stopped by to drop off a couple
of fresh bales and to pick up money, and I got a chance show an interest
in any tales of horses and wildlife he might care to offer. He has a day
job as an emergency medic, and as he said, he does a lot of stitching. A
little while back his big white thoroughbred got jumped by a mountain
lion. As the horse lept away, one claw raked one side of the horse’s
back, leaving a couple of feet of parallel slashes. On the other side the
claw got a purchase and tore back a good chunk of flesh. All told, it took
more than 200 stitches. “You just get some sail thread and a big needle
and start stitching.” Given that the lion must have slid off the back of
the bolting horse, he expected it would have been kicked to kingdom come,
so he spent some time looking for a dead lion but never found it.
He said that grizzlies were common near Yellowstone, where he and his brother also had a couple of cabins, and that he had
spent some time up in trees as a result. I asked him what then happened to
the horses, but he said when you’re riding, the horse senses the bear
before you see it, and starts snorting and whuffling, and you can turn
around and get out of there before anything happens.
We spent the last full day gaiting up and
back a 10 mile stretch of the Green River–South Pass stagecoach road where it winds along the Alkalai Creek canyon below Pilot
Butte, famed landmark to a high proportion of the Conestoga immigrants.
Most of the trail is double-track dirt packed by 4-wheelers. For long
segments, though, only one of the tracks is really clear, beaten down by
the horses. At intervals there are substantial piles of dung, pale and dry
at the bottom and darker and fresher at the peaks, territorial markers of
stallions. Traveller seemed to find them informative. We may have been
fortunate not to have sighted any herds led by stallions on this trip, as
some of the locals told us they could challenge us aggressively.
On all of this riding, 75 miles or probably
more, we ran across only two people. One was a rancher checking a
solar-powered well pump near Boar’s Tusk. We encountered the other along
the stage route, some kind of retiree-type desert rat with an ATV in the
bed of his recent 4WD, who said he had spent years going all over the
area. After we spoke he got out of his truck to gauge whether it would
cross a gully, which he then did. I looked, and if it had been me I
wouldn’t have given it more than a glance before searching for a long
On the way back to California, I-80 took us
through the Great Salt Lake in Utah, and then alongside the Bonneville
Salt Flats. Westbound, there is a rest stop at the south edge of the
flats. It was close to sunset and there was a thunderstorm in the
distance, but we had to check it out.
The surface was perfectly smooth, firm but
not rock hard, frosted with loose salt. In other words, mathematically
perfect for gaiting, for miles in all directions. The horses seemed
nonplussed to be on footing to which they had to pay absolutely no
attention, but after a few yards they were doing figure eights and
loop-the-loops like exhilerated figure skaters. The sky was dark steel
blue, the mountains paler grey, some lit golden by the setting sun, and
the salt flats gleamed silver-white, against which we and our horses stood
out midnight blue. When we came back to land, a woman watching us from a
rest stop bench said we were beautiful. I told her yes, we were.
The California inspection station officials waved us through.
For pictures, go to
2008 slideshow. For videos, click here.