A True Adventure
A trip to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota introduced me to America’s wild mustangs, and I fell in love. A band of wild horses racing across the plains is the embodiment of freedom. When I learned I’d be spending a week in southwest Utah, I immediately looked for the closest wild horses.
Wild Horse Tourist is a comprehensive website that I consulted about Utah’s wild horses. I was familiar with the iconic, highly photographed Onaqui herd (450+ horses), but they are up near Salt Lake City, four hours from my location in St. George. Luckily, I found the Escalante Desert Loop just a 45-minute drive away. It’s a 130-mile loop (allow three hours “actual driving time”) that passes six Bureau of Land Management Herd Management Areas (HMAs) “suitable for the family sedan” as long as it’s not wet and features mustangs, pronghorn, eagles, and more. Although there are two HMAs closer, those directions include phrases like “four-wheel-drive necessary.” So in my trusty Honda Fit, with its six-inch ground clearance (a generous estimation), I headed to Cedar City to begin my adventure.
Several miles outside Cedar City, the route turns off the highway onto a well-maintained gravel road. Looking to the Chloride Canyon HMA (74 horses) hills on my left, I creep along looking for horses while listening to a radio station playing all the nostalgic songs of my youth. I pass a sculpture surprising in its location and then get out to photograph a soaring prairie falcon. It’s late morning and a comfortable 75 degrees. A sign tells me I’m on the Old Spanish Trail. Over a lavender lime beer (do not recommend) at the end of the day, I’ll learn this is a 700-mile historic trade route from Santa Fe, NM to Los Angeles, CA, first traveled by native Americans and later Spaniards.
Curving back around to Highway 56, I drive along the North Hills HMA (64 horses) which is seven miles south of the road. “The odds of spotting mustangs from the highway are minute.” My route really only passes five HMAs; this one is just a technicality.
At Modena, I’m back on a smooth gravel road, casually driving along the southeastern edge of the Mount Elinore HMA (25 horses). A sizable herd of pronghorn is in the distance. Exotic-looking pronghorn are related to antelope and America’s fastest land animal. When I stop the car, they all look up. Passing vehicles are okay. Stopping is suspicious. I get a couple of pictures before they begin to flee. They are immediately at ease as soon as the car moves again. I notice they’ve already settled back into grazing as I drive past.
An Unexpected Development
Next, I’m traveling thirteen miles along the southern edge of the Tilley Creek HMA (276 horses). Numbers-wise, this seems my best opportunity for an encounter. The road branches and my directions say to stay to the left which is a two-track rocky “road” with vegetation growing along the center hump.
At this fork, there’s a sign about the ATV route. I double-checked my map. Yep, this is the route: “take the left branch when the road forks…stay on the main road and keep an eye on the slopes to your left.” Main road. Funny! My little Honda Fit was not made for this kind of main road. The family sedan probably has a little more than six inches clearance.
I’m a hundred yards down this road when I get to a dry wash. I see why you’d need four-wheel drive if it were wet. It’s a steep but shallow dip in the road. I’m concerned that the car’s front will hit the upslope before the backend clears the back slope rendering my tires non-functional. I stop and consider my options. I think about going back to the flat road I was just on and abandoning the loop. I checked my phone. I have cell service. I have plenty of water. If my regular travel companion were here, he would turn around (well, back up because there’s no place to turn around). In my mind, I hear my cousin remarking about how adventurous I am, an adjective I wouldn’t have used to describe myself at the time. My plane doesn’t leave until tomorrow. I get out to have a closer look at the wash, move some of the bigger rocks out of the way and go for it. No problem! Didn’t even scrape a bumper. I have to drive at the edge of the tire ruts (left tire near center, right tire just at the edge of the track) to keep the car’s underside from scraping on the vegetation growing on the hump in the middle. I’m on constant watch for rocks in my path that I have to dodge. I occasionally stop to look for horses. I have twelve miles to go on this road.
I pass through several more dry washes, all with slopes gentler than the first, and sail through these without hesitation. A pair of northern shrikes hop-scotch along the fence, continually trying to get away from my approach. They could choose another path. I am committed to this course. Perhaps they feel the same about me.
I’m tense. This road is distressing. I don’t know what lies between me and the maintained road ahead. I decide the less time I spend here, the better.
The Watering Hole
Sweet relief! My trusty car and I rumble across a cattle guard delivering us to another broad, smooth gravel road that snakes gently up the mountainside. At the spur to a watering hole, the road becomes hard-packed sand. The presence of dune buggy tracks is a bit unnerving. Deep breath. Onward. There are only two relatively short stretches with soft, loose sand. It’s like driving in snow – as long as I keep my momentum, I slide on through.
The watering hole is in the Bible Springs HMA (62 horses). Hoof prints completely cover the surrounding earth. There are butterflies in the greenery surrounding the pond and a lot of trail cameras, but no mammals. I walked around the pond and vogued for the cameras before leaving.
At Last, Wild Horses!
Backtracking to the main drag, I’m soon on the comfortable, gravel ground again. Before long, I’m passing the last of the HMAs; Four-Mile (72 horses). I paused to photograph a few cows grazing at the edge of the road, thinking if I don’t see horses, at least I’ve got something. Then, around the next curve, there’s a band of horses on the hillside.
I stop the car, and they all stop grazing to look up. If I get out, they will spook. I open the window to photograph them even though they are quite far off. They are what I’ve come for, and I’m delighted that this at-times-stressful adventure has paid off. The horses relax and resume grazing, occasionally stealing a glance in my direction.
The horses slowly wander off over the hill with one last quizzical look from (likely) the herd stallion. In wild horse bands, the dominant mares usually guide the way while the stallion brings up the rear.
Less than a mile down the road, I see a few more horses! I pull to the left side of the road when I notice an oncoming pick-up truck. I moved back over to the right side of the road to let them pass. Two older men in straw cowboy hats stopped alongside me to ask if I was okay. I have my window down, binoculars hanging on my neck, and my camera in my hand. “Yes, thank you,” I replied, thinking it was obvious what I was doing out here. “Are you sure you’re okay?” was his response. I know they’re looking at me in my little matchbox car thinking there’s no way that she’s okay out here in that car; she just doesn’t know it. If they only knew where I’d come from!
These wild horses are even further away, so I didn’t linger long. Around the next hill, I see the rest of the herd! These mustangs didn’t react at all when I stopped. The sagebrush is sparse enough that I can easily walk through it. With my camera in hand, I headed out.
Out of the Car, Into the Desert
There’s some sort of heated discussion happening between a paint (black and white) and a buckskin (tan-colored). The paint is striking at the buckskin who seems to be hoping her assailant will go away. A third horse casually walks over. And then it’s all settled and the three rejoin the group.
Three bays (brown) were grazing off to the far right and rejoin the group. They’re heading to the paint that was causing trouble earlier. I’m ready for some drama, but it’s a peaceful greeting.
There’s some grazing and socializing and then, suddenly, they’re all running. Straight towards me. Full gallop, dust flying, the whole band.I am far from my car. “Who’s ever heard of anyone being attacked by a band of wild mustangs?” I think to myself. They are the stereotypical “flight” in “fight or flight.” The horses are hundreds of yards away, but they’re closing the distance fast. I continue to shoot.
I drop my camera from my eyes and decide to move laterally to maybe get out of their path. Before I can take a step, they all turn abruptly 90 degrees and trot off over the hill. The entire encounter from when they first started running toward me to when they turned off lasted less than 60 seconds. Time slowed down as it does in moments of high stress, so I am able to savor the memory as a much more significant encounter.
It is only now that I notice dark specks near the far hills. More horses.
This HMA is only 40 miles west of Cedar City. But if I hadn’t driven the first 85 miles of the Escalante Desert Loop, I’d have missed the whole adventure. What an invigorating day.
Now to wash and detail the car before I return it.
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