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

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

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