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/

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

Myths and Facts about Wild Horses and Burros

Burro - Photo by Rylee Isitt

Article from: https://awionline.org/content/myths-and-facts-about-wild-horses-and-burros

Myth: There are too many wild horses and burros on public lands and their numbers must be reduced.

Fact: The opposite is true—there are too few wild horses and burros on our public lands, and unless their numbers grow, the survival of these special animals is in jeopardy. During the 1800’s, it is estimated that there were more than two million wild horses and burros roaming the West. These animals, along with countless wildlife species ranging from bison to wolves to prairie dogs, were the victims of ghastly extermination efforts, primarily to make way for private domestic livestock grazing. Today, there are fewer than 30,000 wild horses and burros remaining on millions of acres of our Western public lands. Tragically, the interests of these “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West” are being forfeited for those of the livestock industry and other commercial operations.

Many wild horse and burro herds are being managed at such dangerously low numbers that their long-term health and genetic viability are seriously imperiled. In 1999, the federal government sponsored a wild horse and burro population viability forum in which several leading scientific experts including Drs. Gus Cothran, Francis Singer and John Gross, participated. One of the main issues discussed was that smaller, isolated populations of fewer than 200 animals are particularly vulnerable to the loss of genetic diversity when the number of animals participating in breeding falls below a minimum needed level. This scenario sets the stage for a host of biological problems associated with inbreeding including reduced reproduction and foal survival, reduced adult fitness and physical deformities. Only about one quarter of the herds under active management have a population objective of greater than 150 animals, much less 200. Numerous herds are being managed at levels between 40 to 70 animals and some even fewer. Either geographical or artificial barriers isolate many of these herds. Rather than address this grave problem by increasing population targets for these animals, the agencies charged with their protection, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the United States Forest Service (FS), have decided to further reduce wild horse and burro numbers by half to a shocking 22,000 wild horses and 2,700 wild burros.

Myth: Wild horses and burros must be rounded up to save them from dying of starvation or thirst.

Fact: While the BLM argues that wild horses and burros are being rounded up for their own good to keep them from dying of starvation or dehydration in areas affected by fire and drought throughout the West, animal advocates have frequently found that herd areas stricken by so-called “emergency conditions” weren’t nearly as bad off as the BLM claimed. Not only were wild horses and burros doing just fine, but livestock often remained in the same areas or were returned to the areas in short order. Of course, once the wild horses and burros are gone, they are gone for good—moving in the direction of achieving the overall objective of drastically reducing populations as quickly as possible. By attempting to justify extra removals as “emergencies,” the BLM is able to tap into emergency funds from other programs and go over and above their allocated budgets to meet this goal.

Tragically, many wild horse and burro herds suffer needlessly due to the fact that they have been unable to roam freely throughout their entire herd areas because of fences and other impediments that have been constructed to accommodate livestock. Hence, they are unable to access forage and water to which they are legally entitled. Wild horses and burros have survived droughts and fires in the past and will survive them in the future, just as do other wild animals, if they are treated as wild animals and left alone.

Myth: Wild horses and burros are destructive to the environment and must be removed in order to protect ecosystem health.

Fact: Wild horses and burros, like any wildlife species, have an impact on the environment, but due to their natural behavior, their impact is minimal. In fact, wild horses and burros play a beneficial ecological role, for example, by dispersing seeds through elimination, thereby helping to reseed the landscape. They also blaze trails during heavy snowfall and break ice at watering holes, helping weaker animals to survive during harsh winter months. Wild horses and burros can also serve as food for predator species such as mountain lions.

That said, if BLM and FS officials would have the public believe that they are genuinely concerned about ecosystem health, then they must refrain from conducting business as usual—viz., turning a blind eye to the indisputably overriding cause of habitat degradation: livestock grazing and public encroachment. For years, the agencies have permitted extremely high levels of livestock use on public lands, resulting in soil erosion, water contamination and depletion, as well as deterioration of vegetation. While wild horses and burros may be blamed for these problems, the agencies’ own data indicate otherwise. Little has changed since the release of the 1990 US General Accounting Office Report, Improvements Needed in Federal Wild Horse Program, which concluded  “… the primary cause of the degradation in rangeland resources is poorly managed domestic (primarily cattle and sheep) livestock.” Unlike cattle who tend to congregate and settle in riparian areas, wild horses and burros are highly mobile, typically visiting watering areas for only short periods of time.  To make matters worse, livestock are concentrated in grazing allotments at artificially high densities during the critical growing season when vegetation is extremely vulnerable to permanent damage. This overgrazing sets the stage for habitat degradation that may not be immediately apparent, but can cumulatively cause massive vegetation die-off.

Myth: Wild horses and burros are an exotic or a feral species and must be removed to protect native wildlife.

Fact: Not so. The paleontological record shows that the cradle of equine evolution occurred in North America, beginning more than 60 million years ago. Conventional theories postulate that horses introduced by the Spanish more than 500 years ago were a different species than those horses who existed in North America prior to their mysterious disappearance approximately 10,000 years ago. However, mitochondrial DNA analysis of fossil remains indicates that E. caballus, the “modern” horse, is genetically identical to E. lambei, the most recent equine species to evolve in North America more than 1.7 million years ago. Hence, it can plausibly be argued that the Spanish actually “reintroduced” a native species, one which evolved on this continent and which has adapted and flourished both biologically and ecologically since its reintroduction. Interestingly, some scientists question the theory that all horses became extinct 10,000 years ago. They are only now beginning to analyze fossil remains that may eventually support this hypothesis.  

Moreover, simply because horses were domesticated before being released is biologically inconsequential.  Observing horses in the wild demonstrates just how quickly domesticated behavioral and morphological traits fall off. According to Dr. Patricia Fazio, “The key element in describing an animal as a native species is (1) where it originated; and (2) whether or not it co-evolved with its habitat.” By virtue of their evolutionary history, biology and behavior, these animals are native wildlife. In addition, the 1971 WFHBA rightfully recognized them as an “integral part of the natural system of the public lands.”

Myth: Ranchers depend upon livestock grazing for their livelihood and wild horses and burros are creating an undue hardship on their operations.

Fact: While some small family ranchers do depend upon livestock for their primary source of income, the top grazing permits on our public lands in terms of numbers of livestock are held by corporate interests including the Hilton Family Trust, Anheuser-Busch, Inc., Nevada First Corp., and Metropolitan Life Co. In 1992, the General Accounting Office reported that just 16 percent of the approximately 20,000 public lands grazing permittees controlled more than 76.2 percent of forage available on BLM lands and most of these were either very wealthy individuals or big corporations. These wealthy corporate interests are much more concerned with paper stock than livestock, and with preserving their tax write-offs than a way of life.  For the most part, removing wild horses and burros translates into just one more form of corporate welfare. 

Studies indicate that most ranchers are choosing to diversify their sources of income. Today, less than 3% of our nation’s beef is produced on public rangelands. Ranching on both public and private lands accounts for less than 0.5% of all income by Western residents. In 1994, the Department of the Interior concluded that the elimination of all public lands grazing would result in the loss of only 0.1% of the West’s total employment.  Changing times and demographics, not a small number of wild horses and burros, are responsible for the decline of the ranching industry’s importance in the West. The time has come to help wild horses and burros and to assist ranchers who want to voluntarily transition from a profession that is taking its toll on their pocketbooks.

Myth: Without the federal grazing program assistance, ranchers would be unable to carry on a cherished family tradition and way of life.

Fact: Small family ranchers, just as small family farmers, have far more to fear from corporate interests than they do from responsible federal lands management policy. In fact, about 70% of cattle producers in the West own all the land they operate and do not rely on public lands grazing whatsoever. It can reasonably be argued that those ranchers who benefit from ridiculously cheap public lands grazing fees and other government subsidies associated with federal grazing permits have a distinct advantage over those who do not. Many of these ranchers who now fancy themselves as modern day “cattle barons” are millionaires and billionaires who made their fortunes in other businesses—e.g., Texas oilman, Oscar Wyatt, Jr. former chairman of Coastal Corp., the late McDonald’s French fries supplier John Simplot, and Mary Hewlett Jaffe, daughter of William Hewlett of Hewlett-Packard fame. The top 10 percent of public lands grazing permit holders control a striking 65 percent of all livestock on BLM lands and 49 percent on FS lands. The bottom 50 percent of public lands grazing permit holders control just 7 percent of livestock on BLM lands and 3 percent on FS lands.

Because public lands grazing allotments require ownership of private base property and wealthy individuals and corporations own more private property (i.e., base property), they wind up with more federal grazing allotments. Hence, these wealthy operations benefit from numerous taxpayer subsidies, while small family operations struggle to make ends meet. These “cattle barons” and corporations are increasingly buying out small ranching operations—acres at a time. With rising operating costs and mounting debts, most small family ranchers are looking for work outside the ranch and a way out of ranching. 

Some ranchers have expressed an interest in a proposal that would provide for their needs as they transition into other lines of work. If a rancher voluntarily relinquishes his/her federal grazing permit, the government would compensate the permittee $175 per animal unit month (the amount of forage necessary to graze one cow and calf for one month). Not only would such an arrangement help ranchers and be a huge cost savings to taxpayers (see last myth), but it would also allow forage to be reallocated to wildlife including wild horses and burros. 

Myth: Removed horses and burros are adopted to loving homes through the government’s “Adopt a Horse or Burro Program.”

Fact: While the BLM has an obligation to ensure that the persons adopting wild horses and burros are “qualified” adopters, many people do not fully understand the responsibility and commitment that are required to care for an adopted animal, thus setting the stage for failed adoptions. Rigorous screening of potential adopters, education and monitoring are critical to the success of any adoption. Sadly, the BLM has failed in all of these areas. In 1997, the Associated Press uncovered enormous and egregious abuse within the adoption program, including the revelation that many individuals were adopting large numbers of wild horses only to turn around and make sizable profits by selling them for slaughter. To make matters worse, The New York Times reported on a Justice Department investigation that revealed that BLM had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on this issue, and that in fact many employees were well aware that adopters intended to sell horses for slaughter after receiving title. Only after being sued by wild horse advocates did the BLM agree to adopt measures to stem the tide of horses going to slaughter, but even then, countless horses fell through the cracks. 

Of immediate concern is an amendment to the WFHBA that was slipped into the Interior Appropriations bill in the last Congressional session, requiring horses 10 years-of-age or older or those who have not been adopted after three attempts to be sold at auction without limitation. Such “sale authority” will open the floodgates of wild horses being sold to slaughter for profit. More than 8,000 wild horses may immediately wind up on the dinner plates in fancy overseas restaurants, and countless more will follow unless legislation is swiftly enacted to repeal this ill-conceived amendment. HR 1018, introduced by Congressman Nick Rahall (D-WV) and Congressman Ed Whitfield (R-KY) in the House of Representatives, passed the House on July 17, 2009 to restore the slaughter prohibition for wild horses and burros. H.R. 503, the Prevention of Equine Cruelty Act, reintroduced by House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) and Representative Dan Burton (R-IN) and in the Senate by Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and veterinarian and Senator John Ensign (R-NV) as S. 727 will ensure that no horse meets this appalling fate. 

The 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act and its legislative history make it clear that Congress, with overwhelming public support, intended for wild horses and burros to be protected in the wild, and removed only when necessary, and if removed, guaranteed humane treatment. They were never to be sold for slaughter.   

Myth: With thousands of wild horses and burros awaiting adoption, the program is too costly and the only solution is to either sell or destroy “excess” animals who haven’t been adopted or are deemed “unadoptable.”

Fact: In 2001, the BLM adopted a reckless strategy to reduce the numbers of wild horses and burros on public lands by more than half by the year 2005, without any environmental review whatsoever. Up to that point in time, adoptions had kept pace with removals. Increased removals resulted in a backlog of animals awaiting adoption. Many animals were automatically shipped to long-term holding facilities and never even put up for adoption. With more than 20,000 animals languishing in holding facilities, costs for the inflated number of removals and the animals’ care have mounted—all directly attributable to BLM’s own misguided strategy.  BLM’s FY 2005 budget for administering the program was $39 million.

However, if the BLM were genuinely interested in fiscal responsibility, the agency would provide the public with a detailed analysis of the full costs of administering its livestock grazing program. A recent analysis of the budget records concluded that the net direct loss (calculated as the Congressional Appropriations for the program less fee receipts to the Treasury) of the livestock program was at least $72 million for the BLM and $52 million for the FS; the full costs are likely to be three to four times these amounts. However, with the multiple taxpayer subsidies ranchers receive ranging from below-market-value grazing fees to fire and weed control to predator and “pest” control to range improvements, to price supports, to the regular removal of wild horses and burros, etc., it is certain that the agency loses hundreds of millions of dollars each year.   Removing livestock instead of wild horses and burros would indeed be the most fiscally responsible action the agency could take.

Source: https://awionline.org/content/myths-and-facts-about-wild-horses-and-burros

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

A Different Kind of Beauty

Terlingua, Texas Backroads.  The Big Bend of Texas.  Chihuahuan Desert.

Standing tall in defiance through shades of red and black, rocks surround.  Watching my every move.  Silhouettes of Ocotillo stretch across the sky, thorns hidden in their softness. Riding Terlingua backroads, a yucca stands sentinel along the way.  Wind dips down from the mesa and I tip my hat to save it. 

As birds surf above, a fly buzzes in my ear. The sounds of my horse relax me.  The steady clip clop of his feet, the saddle creaking.  Shifting clouds bring a reprieve from the heat. 

These roads are traveled but unknown.  I am reminded how much there is still to learn, even as of yesterday.

Ambitious and complex, this desert does not mold itself to fit in.  Sometimes dry and brittle, sometimes full and lush.  Sensitive, yet hardened.  A mismatch of misfits, one shape colliding into the next.  Yet undeniably attractive.

Full of resilience and persistence, the plants, animals, and people here survive.  The desert breeds appreciation coupled with authenticity.

I am beautiful here.

We are beautiful here.

Footprints in the Sand: Horseback Riding White Sands National Park, New Mexico

Blinding white in all directions.  Footprints erased by wind.  Every route the same.

Driving south from Lincoln National Forest, New Mexico the land greets us with open arms.  Ranges and ranches go on for miles.  I can breathe.  I can see. 

The chaos of Alamogordo gives way to White Sands National Park, sitting pristine at the northern end of the Chihuahuan desert in the Tularosa Basin.  Shining clean and bright, like the full moon against dark skies.

Once a lake, the Tularosa Basin is now home to 275 square miles (176,000 acres) of beautiful, white gypsum dunes in the form of a national park.  Gypsum draining from the surrounding mountains, nowhere else to go but into the basin.  Turning this ancient lake into fields of white over thousands of years. 

But gypsum is really a clear substance, only appearing white as the grains collide and reflect the sun.  The air and sun bake, and unlike sand on a beach – the ground here remains cool.  Conflict and abrasion come out clean and beautifully blinding.

There are no horse trails at White Sands, so keeping direction in mind and park road to the right, I ride this sweeping face.  Each dune looking like the last. Weaving my way out and back again.  Cell phone overheating in my pocket.  Polarized sunglasses glued to my face, threatening blindness with each slip and readjustment.

A seemingly endless stream of waves.  However, blank slate this is not. 

Once a lake the size of Rhode Island, the Tularosa Basin looked very different 12,000 years ago.  Lush, green landscapes flushed with life, including mammoths, giant sloths, ancient camels, dire wolves, and saber-toothed cats.  White Sands contains the largest collection of ice age fossilized footprints in the world, including the longest fossilized human trackway.

Spectral signs of the past.  Almost a mile of an out and return journey.  Disappearing then reappearing, as the landscape alters.  Hidden under layers of sand.  Unrevealed to the casual observer. 

Crossing this bleached ocean, I am reminded of my vulnerability… of what matters.  Drama has no place here.  The air can be dangerous, the sun merciless.  Death quick when water runs low and heat is high. 

But a different type of beauty lives among these dunes, a private affair between white sheets of gypsum and ancient lives.  A secret between the two. Unknown, but always present, just beneath the surface.

For information on day rides at White Sands National Park:  https://www.nps.gov/whsa/planyourvisit/horses-and-other-pack-animals.htm

https://www.nps.gov/whsa/learn/news/nr100920.htm

To follow Shannon’s horseback stories and more, visit http://www.confessionsofasaddletramp.com or find her on facebook @ConfessionsofaSaddleTramp