After visiting the Salt Wells Creek HMA yesterday I’m starting to have a LOT of questions. It is an extremely sparse area. I only got maybe twenty miles into it south of I 80 on a dirt road used mainly by eighteen wheelers attached to oil and gas concerns there. It seems all this area is leased to them for what’s below ground, and to the ranchers for what’s above. Oil, gas (including fracking) and mining are the local industries and employers. People here can afford new pick ups and SUV’s and prices are comparable with L.A. The Salt Wells Creek area is barren with beautiful striated grey and red hills. The dust is, well let’s say my van will never be the same. I wanted a bandana over my nose and mouth like in old time westerns, and I kept my camera in a plastic bag. It was slow going on those roads for my van, but the big trucks fly down them raising enormous dust clouds that hang in the air as they slowly move east with the wind before dissipating, leaving a thick film over every surface of the van and grit in my eyes. And that’s with windows closed.
I continued to the ruins of Fort LeClede and the Overland Stage, about fifteen miles further. Saw a couple of herds of pronghorn along the way. They require much more distance than the horses do. They don’t have the horses’ native curiosity and playfulness as they are wild, not feral. Fort LeClede and the Overland Stage are indeed ruins, sandstone blocks mortared together with adobe. It must have been no more than a stage stop that needed a fort to defend it. I tried to imagine myself coming from St. Louis or ???, and either over nighting or being stationed here.
Hard to imagine anyone wanting to stay through the seasons here, but again comes my question, “What did this range look like when Euro-Americans first saw it a hundred and seventy five years ago?” Did it look like a great place to ranch with plenty of forage? Now there is lots of barren earth between the scrub and very few grasses. Then there may have even been buffalo and plentiful sage grouse which are now endangered.
The list of sensitive species in this area is long: Pygmy Rabbit, Townsend’s Big-eared Bat, both White and Black Tailed Prairie Dogs, Spotted Bat, Wyoming and Idaho Pocket Gophers, Swift Fox, Northern Goshawk, Baird’s Sparrow, Sage Sparrow, Burrowing Owl, Ferruginous Hawk, Greater Sage Grouse, Mountain Plover, Yellow Billed Cuckoo, Trumpeter Swan, Peregrine Falcon, Loggerhead Shrike, Long Billed Curlew, Sage Thrasher, White Faced Ibis, Brewer’s Sparrow, Columbian Sharp-tailed Grouse and fish, amphibians and other indicator species too numerous to list.
Continued back to the main road, the afternoon light hiding behind scattered clouds. Without any obstruction and in the northern latitude, the golden time lasts forever. It wouldn’t be dark until 8:30. I felt disappointed that I had failed once again to find horses and that this might be my last chance. Almost to the main road, off to my right about a mile away, horses! A whole herd! They were grazing on the south side of a shallow slope. If I turned right on the main road I could get above and a little ahead of them. I don’t like to approach from behind. That’s what predators do, so they just take off running. It’s better if I can get them to come to me. So I did just that.
Once I started trekking cross country I ran into a herd of pronghorn. I hoped seeing them run off wouldn’t spook the horses. Sure enough, the horses had worked their way up-slope and now were coming north toward me. Soon I was spotted by the lead mare and then, when they could see me the whole herd just froze and stared. Horses are so innately curious that their first response is to just look at me like, “What the hell is that?” The bolder ones trotted out toward me, nostrils flaring, manes flying, making themselves very big and proud. It’s just gorgeous to watch. There is a hint of aggression in it, but they are chickens at heart, so they take their shot, I turn my body away from them, and they stop and stare.
Over the next couple of hours we would play the pressure game. They move away, then their curiosity gets the better of them, they turn and stare, decide it’s okay. Then I can get some shots off.
They are very curious about the sound of the camera. Often when they are doing something interesting and I shoot, they stop to stare and I lose the shot. After a while I will turn my body away, pretend to ignore them and move a little closer. They have a definite invisible boundary. When I hit that, they spin, and circle away as one fluid entity, like a school of fish or a murmuration of starlings.
If you’ve ever seen Cavallo, the feats those horses perform are all natural herd behaviors, shaped into a breathtaking performance. Only that’s a dozen horses on stage and this is twenty or thirty on hundreds of thousands of acres. Repeatedly I think I’ve lost them, but they hit their invisible safety zone, turn and curiously stare.
This herd has fabulous colors. Palominos, greys, sorrels, roans that seem mixed with appaloosa, bays, chestnuts.
The lead stallion is a dark chestnut with a white blaze who poses very much like a gaited horse. There are several foals and yearlings in the group. The mares are very protective and keep their foals behind them.
There is also a steel grey stallion with a white mask which I saw first as he was separate from the herd and I was afraid he would tip my hand. As I watch them interact, I see that he is a young bachelor stallion either trying to join the herd, challenge the lead stallion, or both. The lead stallion, possessor of many more battle scars, chases him off repeatedly. After one chase the lead stallion leaves a nice calling card. The grey immediately goes to sniff it, and then leaves his card on top and afterward urinates on the pile for good measure.
The lead stallion also has a special interest in young bay. He chases him off and at one point they neigh and rear up, pawing at each other. Whenever there is any ruckus, the rest of the herd watches the politics intently. I notice that this pair is different.
There is more neck nuzzling and affection. Then I realize that the bay is not another stallion, but a mare that is getting special attention.
So we do our little dance for a couple of hours. Every time I think I’ve blown it, pushed too hard and they’re taking off for good, they simply circle around like a school of fish and come back to watch me. We are in relationship. I am as curious about them as they are of me. I believe their innate curiosity is part of the fondness most people have for horses. For a long while I just sit in the dirt and watch.
The red hills behind them start to glow with the evening light. I wait for the sun to drop below the clouds for one more round of photos. They have stayed, watching, interested, for two hours. As the light fades and I get up from the dirt and start to leave, they line up on a little ridge, as for a family portrait. I’ve been trying to stay distant and not get pulled into the emotion of this wild horse conflict.
Now the sadness wells up within me. I feel that if I could just sit here, that the herd’s curiosity would outweigh their fear and very quickly they would to come investigate me. But then would they still be “wild?”
Each time I start to walk away, I have to turn back and I see that they are still intently watching me. I surrender to another wave of sadness, knowing what they do not; that these are their last days of freedom, that their families will be broken, some may be injured or die and their lives will never be the same. I say a long prayer for them. I speak to them and ask of them, if you cannot escape, do not fight too hard. I ask whatever gods watch over us to protect them, ease their way and not let them be too frightened. The twilight spreads intense pinks, oranges and blues over the horizon. I wipe my tears and see cows across the road.
I drive slowly back on the dirt road. The cows move lethargically across to join the others. A coyote crosses in front of me, small, fox-like, with a black tip on his tail. Nothing like the coyotes that stroll boldly up and down the streets of Hollywood. The small creatures of the desert night come to drink from the tire ruts still filled with last week’s small rain. A dwarf rabbit looks up, frightened. It seems to me that in nearly a million acres, there might be room for 300 horses. I have questions.