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

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.

Word for the Day: Sky Island

Sometimes I lock the gate. Sometimes I leave it locked. Protecting the space in which I see and hear myself most clearly. Validation coming only from within.  My thoughts an island. 

Madera Canyon Overlook

Not the only “island” in west Texas, however, there are others.  Three others in fact: the Guadalupe, Chisos, and Davis Mountains.  Each an isolated range with peaks between 7,500 and 9,000 feet.  Each an anomaly, creating a cooler, wetter, landscape surrounded by arid lowland Chihuahuan desert.   A remembrance of what things might have looked like in this region over 10,000 years ago.

With just over 33,000 acres, plus another 102,000 in protected easements, the Davis Mountain Preserve is home to many watersheds feeding the surrounding creeks.  It provides shelter for plants and animals that could not survive in the desert below.  A place of dark skies for bear and elk to traverse without human interference.  To live uninterrupted.  Safeguarded by those who care.

Conceived the early 1900’s and realized in the 50’s, The Nature Conservancy is active today in over 70 countries and territories.  In Texas alone, TNC has protected over 1 million acres of land and more than 200 miles of rivers and streams.  This includes the restoration of native grasslands, preservation of habitats and water supplies, even the addition of 67,000 acres into Big Bend National Park – not an easy task.

At the Davis Mountains Preserve, horseback riding the 1.5 miles of Madera Overlook trail is a bit like being in a Disney film.  Birds chirping, wind blowing, rustling leaves, sunlight dappling the ground.  We work our way through the trees and suddenly the forest opens to the most wonderful surprise. We come upon a view. 

Sitting on a perfect rock bench, the sounds of a creek bubbling, a single truck works its way down the old dirt road below. Mount Livermore in the distance.  Butterflies dance around us, I breathe it all in.

This is the good stuff.

From the overlook we make our way down, past the visitor center to the Tor Peak Equestrian trail, another 3.2 miles roundtrip.  Grasses sway in the breeze, an orchestra working in tandem.  Views of rolling hills, mountains playing peek-a-boo through the gaps.  My horse, Dex, climbs… jerking me forward with every step.

Midway, I break for lunch among pinecones and needles.  Moss covered rocks scattered about like speckled eggs of every shape and size.  Trees of alligator bark.  We are not the only wildlife here.  Two bucks watched from afar, I enjoy the unveiling of it all.

They don’t allow many people in this preserve.  Reservations are limited and required.  Gates typically locked. The animals feel safe here. 

I feel safe here.

Driving home, I think about how important it is that we protect these special places.  Those untarnished in the world around us, those needing polish, and those in us.  So easy to do for others, yet so difficult to do for ourselves.  Difficult even to accept sometimes. 

And I am reminded not to turn from this world.  To hold on with arms wide open and lean in.  Investing in myself, my peace of mind, and my surroundings.  My world.

Open by reservation only, the Davis Mountains Preserve boasts close to 30 miles of horse trails with peaks up to 8,300 feet and incredible views.  To support or get involved with The Nature Conservancy or Davis Mountains Preserve:  https://www.nature.org/en-us/get-involved/how-to-help/places-we-protect/davis-mountains-preserve/

To get involved with The Nature Conservancy of Texas: https://www.nature.org/en-us/about-us/where-we-work/united-states/texas/