Nevada’s Wild Horses

It was a crisp July morning, and I was counting steps in the Mountain View Cemetery in Reno, Nevada.  Or rather, I was counting plots.  Forty six plots down from the end of the row, and about five plots back from the road.  This is what the guy at the office told me, when he went over the cemetery map with me.  He had highlighted the road and the closest tree to use as a landmark, and in the blank space at the top of the page for the person’s name to be visited, he wrote “Wild Horse Annie” instead of Velma Johnston.

“Everyone knows who that is,” he said.  Everyone around here, probably.

It was a little harder to count the plots than what I anticipated.  In this cemetery, there were no headstones.  It was just plot markers, some covered over so that I had to use my shoe to clear the weeds to be able to read them.  There were some kind of animal feces everywhere, was literally over almost every step or near every plot, which surprised me.  It looked like a small dog had free run of this place for years without pickup, or perhaps it is some kind of wild animal with dog-looking scat.  It took me some time to finally find it, the grave of my idol.

I sat on the grass beside the plot, paying my respects.  I pulled out the poem I had written for her twenty years ago, after reading a newspaper article about the Bureau of Land Management turning a blind eye to their own people doing the very thing that was prohibited in the legislation Velma helped to pass: adoption of mustangs in order to sell them to slaughterhouses.  I want to say that the article at that time stating that some BLM employees were adopting up to 100 mustangs a year to turn around and sell for meat on the hoof.

Now there is a different kind of battle being waged over the mustangs, and as I read the poem to Velma’s grave, I realized I should have made some kind of nod to that in this poem as well.  Honestly, I thought I would be overwhelmed with emotion reading the poem to her, but when I was done, it felt pointless.  I did not feel her spirit here.  I was just reading a poem to a flat plot stone on a hillside cemetery.

After this, I got in my rental car and took the Pyramid Valley exit off of Highway 80, heading towards the Palomino Valley National Wild Horse and Burro Center. The landscape along the way seemed very familiar to me.  Perhaps it used to be the way home when I lived near here.

I think I was expecting something fancier when I pulled up to the holding facility.  There was an area at the front entrance that had three information boards posted.  A big building containing hay and some equipment was right inside the fence, and there was a sign on the entrance gate that said “Check in at office”.  I went inside the brown office building to the right of the entrance gate.  There were a handful of offices, but just one person appeared to be there, a long rangy cowboy type of guy.  He got up from his desk in a back office when I came in, and I told him I was here to check in.  “You’re checked in”, he said, and waved me off.  “Can I drive around, then, and look at the horses?” He said no, I had to walk from here (although I saw two other cars that had driven down to the paddocks), and that they just ask that people be careful of the equipment and watch where they were going.

So I took a walk.  It was the middle of the day and a bit hot.  It was dry heat, and the dust from the paddocks added to my feeling of being dehydrated.  I forgot all about creature comforts, though, once I got my first look at the beautiful horses in the pens.  Pen #10 was the first one I came to, and it had mares and foals of every color.  I counted about 100 head in that pen alone.  There was another pen of mares and foals around the corner, maybe another 50, and then there were smaller pens of what appeared to be two year old mares, yearlings, one dun male (maybe a young stud) by himself.  Altogether, I saw over two hundred horses out here, but there were more paddocks further off, although they appeared to have smaller numbers.  In my estimation, there were probably close to three hundred.

 I wanted to judge for myself the body condition of these animals, to determine if the horses really were starving up there on the range.  All the animals had plenty of hay to eat here, though, good alfalfa, and I have no idea how long they had been at the holding facility.  A few animals seemed thin, but a few animals seemed fat, and for the most part, they were in normal body condition.

One thing that struck me about these horses was a reminder that they really are wild.  Think about how close you can walk to a domestic horse, even a mare with a foal or a yearling.  What is the normal flight distance for a domestic horse with little human experience?  These horses kept surprising me with how great their flight distance was.  For some of the mares, it was one hundred feet, and for the more brave, it might have been six, but on the average, it was about twenty feet.  If I was closer than twenty feet, like when I started to approach the fence to take a picture, they would run off to the other side of the paddock.  When I stepped past their hay manger and they caught a sudden sight of me,  I spooked the whole pen of young mares.  I sneezed once, and heard hooves fleeing the general area.

However, there were a few that really wanted my attention.  In one of the paddocks, two sorrel mares caught my eye, and then started walking briskly towards the fence line towards me, even sticking their faces out of the poles and trying to sniff me.  I did allow them to smell me, even though there were signs saying “Keep away from fences”.  I thought about how it would feel to give them a good curry, to put a saddle on their back, how they might be to ride.  They were on the small side, maybe 14 hands.  Most of the horses out there were not very tall.  One of the yearling fillies, a grey, was taller than the rest of her cohorts.  was also very curious and she really wanted my attention.  She kept putting her face outside the fence and I really wanted to pet her, but I was a little concerned she might bite.

On the way out, I stopped to see the two pens of burros.  There was this baby burro that was the cutest thing I had ever seen.  It was the size of a dog, and it had this little tuft of a forelock that was blowing in the breeze.  My heart just melted, and I walked closer to get a better look.  As I approached, I heard a sound in the air, something that sounded a bit like Native American flutes and a twinkling.  For a minute, I felt like something magical was happening, but then I realized it was the wind whipping through the pipes of the corral gate.  Or, maybe this was Wild Horse Annie’s spirit.  It would make more sense for her spirit to be watching over these descendants of the Virginia Range herd that she committed to protecting, rather than that turd-covered graveyard, right?

I watched the baby burro and his mom for a bit, then I walked to my car, the pipe music still in my ears and tears running down my cheeks.  I was overwhelmed with emotion, then, thinking about the House Appropriations Committee’s vote last week (July 18) to allow these surplus animals to be euthanized.  Up to 92,000 mustangs will be in danger of dying, including animals like these ones I saw today, if the Senate makes the same decision after their August recess.  I imagined that grey filly with a needle in her neck, injecting her with Euthasol.  I thought of that baby burro, dying for no reason other than there are too many wild horses and burros, and not enough range, not enough adopters.  Memories of euthanizing horses while working for vet clinics filled my mind.  Even though it could be worse – the government could be allowing them to go to slaughterhouses – it still sucks that so many can die.  I cried for that baby burro and all those beautiful horses all the way back to Reno.

Later that afternoon, I took a drive down south to see the range and try to find some horses in the wild.  I saw about five bands of horses, a total of probably fifty animals, but I also saw a lot of range not occupied.  Sometimes we think it is the greed of the ranchers that is causing this to happen, that it is because they want grazing rights instead of allowing the mustangs to have the land.  I did not see any cattle, and the only sheep I saw were contained on their own property.  The range land that I saw was rough.  There was little grass, but a lot of rocks and sagebrush and small mountains to climb up and down from.  I realized that is probably why they needed helicopters to round them up.  The mustangs were probably surefooted out there and were used to it, but regular horses might have a hard time on that landscape.

I talked to a local when I stopped to buy my kids some candy.  She said that sometimes they were shipping off small bands of the wild horses to places like Montana and Wyoming, where there was more grass and predators to control the population.  She wished that they could dart the stallions and make them sterile.  The basic problem is that the horses keep breeding and there is not enough predators to keep the population down, nor grass to keep them alive.

I don’t know what the solution is for the wild horse.  I know the ideas we have come up with are not working.  I know that I don’t want them to die, and I still want them to range free, somehow.  It makes me very sad, and I wish I could save all of them.  I feel Wild Horse Annie’s passion tugging at me to take action, but I am not sure how yet.  The only thing I can think is to put pressure on the Senate not to accept the mass execution of the surplus horses.  But what, then?

Krause Springs

Krause Springs is not for the weak.  It is not for the very young, or the very old.  It’s not handicapped accessible, or even that easy for those with balance issues.

There are slick spots.  There are sharp spots.  There are shallow parts and there are deep parts.  In order to get to some of the good spots, one might have to walk carefully over algae covered rocks, delicately walk across a balance beam-style concrete ledge, walk across fine little pebbles that cut into your feet, and dance around cypress tree roots.  You might have to lay down on your belly and climb up along rock faces, scramble a bit for good footing, which is what is going on in the picture above (no toddlers were injured in the making of this picture, although it seemed likely at some points).

In order to get in the water, you might have to carefully feel your water across the roots, and perhaps suddenly slide into spongy vegetation on the river bottom.  Or perhaps you might be standing on a rock ledge, then take a step further and sink into an abyss of unknown depth.  Perhaps, if you are very brave, you might get into the water by swinging off a rope from the top of the ridge, after having to climb your way up there along rocks and stand in a long line of others trying to prove their mettle.  If you are interested in a further challenge, you might enter the cold river by throwing your body off the ridge, slightly higher up.  The fact that we didn’t see anyone get injured this way is a testament to how deep the water is in certain parts.

For those in the 5-35 age range (with no physical handicaps), this place is great fun.  The kids in our group had a great time.  The two of us who were parenting a toddler were experiencing some stress trying to keep him safe.

Initially, I took him down to the river access area on my own, while my friend and her husband where with the older kids and my husband was still getting dressed.  I went for the obvious choice on where to enter the water – the first area you come to as you come down the steps on the far left, which looked fairly shallow.  I even asked some folks how deep it was and they said it was shallow there.  I got in first, and then stepped back a foot to allow the toddler room to follow me.  Only, it turns out I had been standing on a ledge that only extended about that first foot, and suddenly I was flailing a bit as I sunk into questionably deep waters.  My toddler, showing some good sense here, stepped back and said “No like river!” and then refused to come in, even when I got back in control and on the ledge.

After this, we tried the swimming pool area.  The pool is fed by the natural springs, and is very cold!  It has a gradually increasing depth, being about 2″ deep on one side and possibly 6-8″ deep on the other side.  On the deep side, kids lined up along the rocks forming the back ledge and jumped into the water, sometimes one at a time and sometimes in a group.  There are two ladders into the pool, and other than that, the whole surface is straight concrete and rock base.   We tried to cajole the toddler into the pool, but he dipped his feet in, felt the temperature, and said, “I no like pool!”.

We eventually got him in both places, but only for short times. A nice picnic was had by all parties. Some resting might have occurred by various parties while I was chasing the toddler around the grounds. He made friends with a three year old girl in the gazebo, although he might need a little work on his game (she had a scratch on her face, and his only lines he could come with were “Hi” and “You have owie on face. Are you okay?”). We admired the interesting features on the stone benches and planters (squirrels harvesting acorns and lion’s faces carved into them). We experienced all the grounds, including the incredible butterfly garden at the entry way when we arrived.

It was a very pretty place, although quite crowded on a summer Saturday.It was a good place to experience, a place we would go again, but probably not until several years from now, when little Sebastian is not so little and the place seems a little less fraught with danger.

SMTX: Ringtail Ridge Natural Area

There is something exciting about following a path, not knowing where it leads you to.  Sometimes, you find something interesting along the way, something that sparks your curiosity and imagination, something that connects you to the past but then also makes you wonder about the future.  This is how we felt about the unexpected encounter with this tipi.

However, if you had been Todd (my best friend’s husband), you might have been prepared for this sight, because you would have looked at the trail map ahead of time and seen the tipi marked on there.  I wasn’t doing such things, but instead had, of course, loaded up a geocache on my phone for us to find.  And no one was surprised about that part.  There is something comforting about hanging out with people who really know you, know all the things that motivate you.

It was Todd’s idea that we check this place out after dinner, because he knew that exploring a natural area is something that our family (or at least the two parents) would be completely interested in.  Our littlest one had some fun finding sticks, of course – this is what he is completely interested in.

It was a neat place to check out, although I was starting to suspect by the end that it might have been a better idea not to go right after dinner, or on a day when we had two meals so close together.  We had a late lunch in Luling at the best BBQ in town (City Market), then had chased that with a pizza dinner at a place in San Marcos with really neat pizza (Pie Society).  We kind of lost some impetus at the end because I wasn’t feeling great, and we had allowed the toddler to be loose and explore, and he kept stopping to look at every rock and crevice.  We were much faster when Jason carried him on his shoulders (we had not packed our Osprey for this journey).

It is nice, though, that San Marcos has these kinds of natural places to go explore.  The city does a good job, from what we have seen, of allowing pockets of wilderness to exist within the city.  We were surrounded by apartments, but on the trail, you could easily pretend they didn’t exist and just focus on the shrubs, cedar, and stones around you.  This kind of focus allows your mind to wander into a more primitive place, a place I like to go because there, I can leave all the other things behind.  In this place, there is nothing but being aware and present, and taking the trail one step at a time.

 

 

Spring Creek Reflections

Last night I took a walk with a friend in Pundt Park.  We experienced some of the trails, and then ended up over by the canoe launch.  We decided to walk down to check it out.  When we came down the sandy embankment and found ourselves face to face with Spring Creek, I was filled with this childlike desire to go play in the water.  I told my friend, and she was feeling the same way.

We took off our shoes.  I rolled up the legs of my jeans and walked slowly in.  Looking around the creek, standing there with my feet in the water, brought back so many memories of my youth.  There was a time where the best friend of my youth and I spent hours exploring and swimming in Cypress Creek.  We made up little stories about who we might have been in a previous existence, or what life would be like if this wildness is all we knew.

This night as we walked, the best friend of my adulthood asked me if I ever looked at the landscape and imagined what it would like to be experiencing it as a native american.  I do that often, particularly on long hikes or long drives where my mind begins to wander.

These thoughts led me to reflect on why wildness resonates with us.  Sometimes it is because the history of our species, some innate ongoing connection to the land through ancestral memory.  Sometimes our connection is born through a personal memory that means a lot to us, like the one of my friend and I playing in the creek.  Because of that, I am more interested in seeing these greenways between Cypress and Spring Creeks play out, because others might also build their own meaningful connections with this area.

Many times, for me, the wild areas remind me of Scout Camp, which was a place I felt happy.  My sense of discovery and excitement over learning about nature was probably born in that place.  When I am walking in a forest, I remember Scout Camp and this memory is connected to the bliss I feel in the present.

How will the children of this current generation learn to value the wilderness?  I imagine my children’s reality is similar to most of their time, where video games have replaced going outside, and kids know more about Minecraft building than fort building.  There is a book, Last Child in the Woods, that explores that theme more thoroughly.  I do think outdoor education and experiences are important for children to build that connection, and I try to give that to my kids, but my older children sometimes make me feel like I am torturing them with it.  Also, I am one person, one person who cares very deeply for the wilderness and actually spends quite a bit of time there.  What about most families?  Are they providing their children with meaningful outdoor experiences?  Will children of this Generation Z or iGeneration have enough of those experiences to feel willing to protect it?

When I start going down these mental roads, I feel comforted by a couple of things.  One, you do see families out at these places enjoying them, and with the investment of communities into places like these, there will be more access to those experiences.  Two, despite my children whining about having to go hiking and camping, they have picked up on a skill set along the way.  My teenager is almost at the point where I feel like he might be able to survive a weekend camping trip with a peer.  Finally, outdoor camps and recreation areas are still getting booked up in the summer, so interest in these areas is not dying off.

This night, we witnessed a family at the creek bank getting maternity pictures taken of the mom.  We saw a man playing with his dogs, who were swimming in the creek water.  We observed a girl sitting alone on the bank, pensively reflecting on her own thoughts before disappearing around the bend.  We saw many people playing with their dogs in the dog park and walking along the road or greenway.  This park is full of people like us, creating memories on a warm summer night.