Black River, New Mexico

Campfire throwing shadows across my horse. Dog rolling in the hay – dirty of course. Ever searching for that last buried bone.

It’s early morning, the sun still asleep. We sit, listening to distant sounds of highway mixed with propane flames. Coffee brewing.

Color slowly unrolls to the east as I prepare to ride and move to Black River Recreation Area.

There is water in the desert. Surrounded by the rain of Cottonwood trees. The Guadalupe Mountains flank us to the west, Black River to the east. Now we ride this old dirt road along an anomaly. Just another mystery of the land we live in.

Black River, New Mexico

Deadwood and brush surround, and I’m hoping the dog spooks out any game before the horse does. A deer crosses ahead. His tracks lining the center of this road like they own the place. And perhaps he does.

But this area of New Mexico has been occupied for thousands of years. Life here began early, tucked in a hidden corner of the Chihuahuan Desert. Jornada Mogollon farmers, all the way up through Mescalero Apache, and now us.

In the early 2000’s, archaeologists inventoried the area around Black River and recorded over 900 burned rock features. Some of the earliest projectile points have been found here.

A hawk watches us pass, perched on the highest and lightest of branches. Surveying his domain.

Black River is a desert in disguise. A riparian landscape, with grasses, trees, and birds abounding.

An area once overgrazed, slowly restored to its natural state by the BLM in partnership with New Mexico. Removing brush plants and allowing natural grasses to return and thrive. And bringing the animals back with them.

Our ride short, my horse isn’t quite ready yet to return. We pass the trailer and make a short turn north up the river.

Surrounded by farmland, this area breathes of a simpler time. Local boys fishing. Wind drifting through Cottonwood trees.

Boys who look too young to drive yet jump in an old pickup truck at sunset to head home down the back lane. There is peace here.

This is Black River.

https://www.blm.gov/visit/black-river-recreation-area

For a more extensive day ride in the area, La Cueva Trail System covers approximately 2,200 acres with 15 miles of non-motorized and maintained trails. La Cueva is located about 30 miles north toward Carlsbad.

https://www.blm.gov/…/la-cueva-non-motorized-trail-system

Secrets of the Desert

There are some places kept mostly secret.  More vulnerable than others.  Not as stable as they seem.

At Big Bend National Park horses are allowed on all gravel roads, most trails, and backcountry across the desert.  In a vast land occupied by many before us, there is more to discover than most know.  But you must be willing to look.

And looking requires more than simply asking.  It requires preparation for the journey ahead. For what may be encountered along the way.  What might happen in a place so easy to lose yourself.

Weaving through a scattering of purple prickly pear, lechuguilla, and sotol we ride this desert like Charlie Prince and Ben Wade.  Fictional yet real.  He trots ahead looking for tracks.  I ride behind scanning the horizon.

And then, an old rock house and corral. There is volume in the stillness here.  And warmth in wondering what has come before.  The effort and perseverance required to build these walls.  The horses retained within.  The people who lived here.

And in this, I find intent in the untamed nature of myself.  Learning to learn beyond this moment.  Discovering who I want to be, risking vulnerability in the process. 

Returning now, at every ripple in this trail I think we are almost back. But the path keeps going and there is always one more ridge to climb. I wonder if it will ever end.  I hope not.

There is contentedness here.  A sense of being in the right place at the right time.  No longer a stranger in my own skin.  I welcome the secret of myself.  Now, more “found” than ever “lost.”

In this place I am seen.  Loved for reasons I don’t totally even understand, but slowly realizing to be me is enough.  And there is no guilt in that – there is only hope. 

To learn about horseback riding at Big Bend National Park: https://www.nps.gov/bibe/planyourvisit/bc_horses.htm

Click on “stock use regulations” for a list of campsites in the park allowing horses. Note: Not all campsites in BBN are accessible by more than a small, high clearance trailer and vehicle.

Horseback Riding Dog Canyon, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Within minutes of entering from the west I am greeted by the deep curtains of the Chisos Mountains, highlighting the center of Big Bend. One of only three sky islands in Texas, and the only mountain range in our country completely encompassed by a national park. A lush oasis soaring above the surrounding desert.

The site at Nine Point Draw just fits my two-horse slant gooseneck. Splitting Santiago and the Dead Horse Mountains, from camp you can see Dog Canyon. Named as such, according to How Come It’s Called That, because “years ago, when one of the early settlers was going through that particular canyon, he found a wagon and an ox-team with a dog guarding them. There was no trace of the owner.”


Dog Canyon trail is one way in, one way out. Yet a new canvas appears with every shift of the eye. Approaching the dry wash on horseback, I find a metate covered by brush. Apache perhaps? Comanche stopover on the way to Mexico? My imagination goes wild.


Metal shoes clipping along gravel and river rock, we ride the wash. Walls of vegetation ease their way into rock. Cliffsides and towering boulders stand like giant building blocks. Perhaps a game of Jenga just waiting for the right moment to topple. My gaze ever upward, for once this horse watches his feet.


Nervous here, my horse dances around. Not sure if he’s safe between these high canyon walls. I’m not sure either. Tying him safely, I scramble up the side for a better view. He calls for me.


I rejoin my partner for a rest, a beer and sit listening to the breath of these walls. Soaking it in, wondering what eyes are watching.


As sunset approaches, we return to camp. Leaning forward with each curve in the trail to see what might be waiting around the bend. Following horse tracks from before.


Driving home the jagged peaks of the Chisos stand in opposition to the rolling falls of the Dead Horse Mountains. A fitting embodiment to a name many believe means “ghost” or “spirit.”


The sheer cliffs of the Sierra Larga in Mexico stand just behind, peeking over Dead Horse like a curious child. Exposed by the spotlight of the setting sun.


The air is clean tonight. Whisps of cotton candy stretch across the sky as pockets of sun highlight the desert. Curves, claws, puffs of pink and orange fill the sky. The surrounding mountains fade to silhouette. Ushering in a silence and sense of awe.

This land can put you in your place fast. And I love my place.

To learn about horseback riding at Big Bend National Park and campsites allowing ponies: https://www.nps.gov/bibe/planyourvisit/bc_horses.htm

Click on “stock use regulations” for a list of campsites in the park allowing horses. Note: Not all campsites in BBN are accessible by more than a small, high clearance trailer and vehicle.

In 1859 and 1860, camel caravans of the US War Department passed through Dog Canyon. Shipped over from North Africa to Texas. Able to go 72 hours without water and surviving on creosote (which no other stock will eat). Read more about the great camel experiment here: https://armyhistory.org/the-u-s-armys-camel-corps-experiment/

Why are Desert Sunsets so Colorful?

Cover me with your wildness
Drench me in your thirst
Scratch me with your thorns
Shower me with color

Sunset over Kokernot Mesa, Brewster County, Texas

Clean air, enhanced filtering, and longer wavelengths result in phenomenal sunsets over pristine desert areas.

Big Bend National Park, Texas

“And though their warm beauty is expected, not all sunsets are created equal. In deserts, sunsets are decidedly more colorful.”

https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/why-are-desert-sunsets-so-colorful

Reflections from the west over Elephant Mountain Wildlife Management Area, Chihuahuan Desert

Moon over Desert

How do I write about you, sitting there out of reach?

So full of yourself.

An exhibitionist bold in your arrival. Wreaking havoc along the way.

Your presence impossible to miss.

Magnetic.

Glowing.

Witness to all, you are the moon.

Photo Courtesy of Matt Walter, Alpine, Texas

In the arms of Elephant Mountain

It runs without warning, this love of mine. Carving its way as it goes. Thundering falls, then quiet. I chase it but cannot see it.

View of Elephant Mountain andCalamity Creek. Alpine, Texas

The mountains and desert of far west Texas are forbidding terrain. Yet perfect for the Desert Bighorn Sheep. Almost lost forever by 1960, now restored. Texas today has eleven herds of free-ranging desert bighorn sheep, the result of restocking efforts begun in 1954 and continuing to the present time. A significant number of which are at Elephant Mountain in the Chihuahuan Desert.

“Bighorn sheep have lived in the desert mountains of the Southwest for at least 9,000 years. In less than 100 years, poaching, market hunting, net wire fencing and diseases introduced by domestic sheep wiped them out in Texas.”

“Today, some 1,800 desert bighorns roam their historic range in the mountains of the Trans-Pecos. Barring a disease outbreak, that number should increase.”

Sheep on the Mountain. Article by Henry Chappell

Elephant Mountain after the summer rains. Alpine, Texas

Elephant Mountain Wildlife Management Area is open year round except during special hunts.

Lean into Big Bend National Park: Desert Horseback Riding

Arriving at camp, time slows to a trickle. I sit in the desert waiting for the sun to lower and cool the air. Dog snapping at flies, the sound of my horse munching on hay –a Sergio Leone western comes to mind.

Views of the Chisos and Dead Horse Mountains frame Hannold Draw. Pens with hitching posts cloaked in creosote. An occasional harmony of birds chirping, reminding me there is life here.

Although not the prettiest backcountry campsite in the park, of the ten available for horse camping at Big Bend National, Hannold Draw is the only one boasting horse corrals. With no official trailhead nearby and sunset approaching, we attempted to ride the draw.

Chocked by Sotol, Greasewood, and Prickly Pear, with rocks just big enough to trip over, we quickly diverted to a higher route. Climbing through the desert pavement to a height that breathes.

In the Big Bend of Texas when the sun goes down you must look east. Reflections of the west cast watercolor across the valley. Mountains turn purple with shades of orange, trapping you in their gaze.

As dusk settles back at camp, a haziness moves in and I watch my horse. Noting his ears as they swivel, ever alert to wildlife and threat.

One by one the stars appear and the Milky Way threads itself between. Smell of creosote hanging in the air. The braiding together of bodies where once were two. I relish what is not mine.

After a fitful night, I rise before the sun for an early start. Horse fed, coffee made, my dog Kona lays with head hanging off the bed watching. Waiting for belly rubs no doubt.

View of Santa Elena Canyon through the Chimneys

Riding the Chimneys Trail, purple and green prickly pear surround. Not a spineless one among them. Ocotillo standing tall like leafless finger oaks of the desert.

The figure eight of a sleeping rattlesnake, dodged in the nick of time. Suddenly that coffee I didn’t finish this morning kicks in and I am reminded to stay in the moment at hand.

At just under five miles round trip, the Chimneys trail is one of the easiest in Big Bend National park. Leading to a series of rock formations with petroglyphs. West Texas, including Big Bend, is said to have more native rock art than anywhere else in the Americas – yet this remains a language we have yet to fully interpret.

On the return trip, I ride now with sleeves rolled up – the sun on my face. Head tilted high, removing my hat I let the wind move through my hair, now damp with sweat. At peace in this moment. Letting go of the need to control. Riding with my legs long.

And suddenly I realize… I sleep now without covers. Vulnerable and comfortable at the same time, and I love it.

Read more stories like this one at: www.confessionsofasaddletramp.com or on facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/ConfessionsofaSaddleTramp

To find out more about horseback riding Big Bend National Park: https://www.nps.gov/bibe/planyourvisit/bc_horses.htm

Art of the Desert

Chihuahuan Desert Views travel beyond imagination. 

Studies have shown that most people look at artwork in a museum for somewhere between 15-30 seconds.

I invite you into my world.  To wander.  Visually explore every curve, texture, and color.  Stare.  Listen. Engage in the dialogue.  And mostly, to surrender.

Watercolors of sunrise reflect on the mountains like a set of Prismacolor pastels.  Drifting chalk lines in red, yellow, brown, and white.

Mosaics of rock, shards growing out of the ground like broken glass.  Leaded windows next to lattice work.  A gravel lined arroyo.

Lanky arms of Ocotillo hug mesquite and creosote close, only the clothing of candelilla in between. 

Velvet slopes and desert waves.  What’s horizontal becomes angular and the jagged edges of mountains appear.    

Out of stillness comes the steady flapping of wings.  The sound of footsteps, rock crunching underneath. The earth hums.  

Low clouds this morning, drifting from above to meet the fog.  A ribbon of sunlight between.  The musk of greasewood at dawn.  Just let me breathe the air.

In the silence I hear music.  Elk bugling, coyotes yipping, barking, birds chirping. 

And then there is light.  Limestone roads glowing under a full moon.  Blinding white in the summer sun.  The dunes and pavement of the desert baking. 

As my horse moves side to side riding this desert, I close my eyes.  Hips shifting in syncopated rhythm with his.  I reach out, caressing the wind and slide into the depths of my mind.

Stay a while.

Desert Beauty: Living Rock Cactus

Look closely at her secrets.  Buffers of creosote between thorny arms of mesquite and the spines of ocotillo.  Plants intertwine but like an iceberg, there is much more beneath the surface.  There is beauty here. 

In the fall, glimpses of fuscia mark my path.  Gone as quickly as they appear.  A flower appears from rock.  I kneel to look closer. 

A protected species, native only to the Chihuahuan Desert in Big Bend and northern Mexico, Ariocarpus fissuratus, also known as the Living Rock Cactus, is a cryptic little plant hiding in plain sight.  Stems typically flush to the ground and well camouflaged, blending with the surrounding mosaic in shape, color, and texture.  Shrinking in times of drought, kept alive by the unseen, yet substantial taproot.

Shying away from the world, in her quiet and unseen way.  I feel special to know her. 

Almost invisible, yet a few days each year she lifts her head up in all her beauty for me to see and blooms.  Growing slowly over decades to maturity.  Because of her rarity, she is coveted by collectors and transported by smugglers over thousands of miles.  Leaving the desert wanting for more.

She needs a hero.

Note:  The Chihuahuan is the largest desert in North America, extending from the southwestern United States into Central Mexico.  Threatened today by an ever-increasing human population, water misuse/management, overgrazing and a general lack of knowledge.

Considered at least partly a “rain shadow” desert, the Chihuahuan is impacted by the effects of mountain ranges on either side, blocking moisture from coastal storms.  Plants can take years to reach maturity here and replenishment is slow.  The living rock cactus takes eight to ten years to reach maturity and reproduce – and that’s if it makes it.  Many plants in the desert also serve the food chain, something scare already.

To learn more: https://texashighways.com/things-to-do/parks/big-bend-is-ground-zero-for-a-thriving-black-market-for-native-plants/

To get involved:

https://www.worldwildlife.org/places/chihuahuan-desert

https://www.nature.org/en-us/get-involved/how-to-help/places-we-protect/chihuahuan-desert/

Desert Treasure

Caballo Lake State Park, Caballo Mountains, New Mexico

The land here in southern New Mexico is harsh and gentle at the same time. You see this most clearly if you follow the Rio Grande north from Texas.

A ribbon of green snaking along the valley, flanked by desert mountains. Mountains which look soft from a distance – but in this we are fooled.

The Wild and Scenic Rio Grande

Caballo Lake State Park sits on a reservoir built in the 30’s, back when we decided to make this river our own. It is a popular park with a limited number of horse trails and nice covered pipe corrals. Most come here for the lake, but from across the river these mountains called me – Caballo (pronounced “ka-vhah-yoh”) – “horse” mountains.

Caballo Lake State Park

I scouted the route beforehand by truck, casing the joint you might say. Open range may be a thing of the past but here ranches and public land merge, and the views go on.

An old corral, loading chute and a long, lost horseshoe yield to weather and rock. I stop to say hello to the rancher.

Now, horse next to me… I stand outside the truck weaving my belt through its loops and holster. Looking across the mountains, sun warming my face. Breathing.

I travel down an old ranch road (a VERY old ranch road), thru valleys and across dry creek beds. It’s rained here recently and looking down I see fresh cat tracks on the trail. I am glad to have trusted my gut – I did not bring the dog along this time.

Riding without the distraction of others allows my mind to wander. Thoughts surface which otherwise might not. Sometimes self-doubt creeps in. I apologize to myself.

Caballo Mountain Trail, Bureau of Land Management

And in this, I learn from nature – who has no self-doubt. Nobody taught her to question. She isn’t focused on meeting expectations, on success or failure. She is only concerned with the journey… this is why I love her. This is what makes me want to be with her.

Many explore Caballo Mountains, searching for hidden Spanish treasure. But I think they are missing the point of this desert in New Mexico. For there is much more than just buried gold to chase here. These mountains give unto us, they make us better with their dignity and that is the real find.

As the Little Prince says, “it is only with the heart that one can see rightly…” And so my heart sees, my journey becomes more clear. I reflect, I grow and come out better – more authentic. Every. Single. Time.

To find this and other NM State Parks allowing horseback riding: http://www.emnrd.state.nm.us/SPD/horsebackriding.html