Siren on the Hill by Alex

If you frequent this blog, you are likely familiar with McCullough Peaks HMA and the myriad of wild horses who roam its deceptive landscape. From the vantage of a muddy two-track road, it is incredible to realize that the land, laid out so seemingly smooth and rolling, is in fact nothing such and can harbor all sorts of flora and fauna unseen. Trekking across the desert plains spotted with sagebrush and cactus, one will encounter crevasses that sweep suddenly away from underfoot, delving channels into the earth where thick grasses thrive on the runoffs of spring rain.

Such was the landscape Livi and I scoped keenly from the unrolled windows of a mud-splattered Subaru in May of 2015. A particularly wet week had left the public road mushy at best and absolutely pond-like at every turn and dip in the road. I focused on not getting the vehicle stuck while Livi rode poised in the passenger seat, ready with her camera and binoculars for any sign of movement on the plains.

I greatly appreciate the predatory traits of man when scoping out wildlife, even for the innocent purpose of photography and herd management advocacy. But today, and for several days in the Dryhead before, the prey animals were winning.

I should mention that the summer of 2015 was significant for both Livi and myself—she, looking forward to her upcoming graduation from the University of Minnesota, and I celebrating completion of my MBA and a career launch back into corporate America. During our year as roommates in undergrad, Livi would post prints around the room documenting her adventures in wildlife photography, so throughout hours of study, sleep, and other undergrad shenanigans, we had an absolute menagerie of bison, coyotes, and birds looking on. But Livi’s favorite subject to document was always the wild horses.

While horses had always played a significant role in my life and hobbies, it was during those years that Livi introduced me to the beauty of mustangs. Whether providing me reference material for drawing or spending a Friday evening watching Ginger Kathrens’s Cloud documentaries, Livi was my gateway into the world of the wild horse. As good friends may in college, she and I asserted that one day we would travel together, and then left the plans on the table. Two years later, as very separate futures unfolded before us, it became pretty clear that if we wanted to actuate any of this, now was the time.

So, with an eclectic collection of camping gear, herd guides, and the most bare-bones lodging plans I could piece together (more on that later) we set off in a packed Subaru from the Twin Cities. After a torrentially wet and windy white-knuckled drive across the Dakotas, punctuated by a brief and (surprisingly) snowy visit to Theodore Roosevelt Park, we found ourselves scoping the plains of McCullough Peaks—to no avail, thus far. The hills rolled on, and but for the occasional pronghorn, wildlife lingered unseen.

A small coffee shop in Cody served as our effective headquarters for the trip, and here we formulated our plan of attack while stocking up on much-needed afternoon caffeine. Given our poor luck scoping the range from the roadway, the obvious answer was to ditch the car and set out on foot—but where?

In a desert climate, the strategic move to view mustangs would be to position ourselves at a watering hole. However, given years of absence from the range, Livi admitted that the water hole could be one of any of the two-tracks that weaved away from the main road and into the eastern hills; further, due to frequent rains of late, many of these were flooded too severely for us to risk cementing Livi’s Subaru into a mucky quagmire. Ultimately, we decided that we’d try our luck finding a dry patch for the car and set off eastward.

Like some plans will, this one derailed quickly—but in a wonderfully unexpected way.

Heading along the northward-running road bisecting the range, I ploughed through puddles in search of dry ground while Livi scoped the easterly hills, perhaps trying to stimulate her memory of the elusive watering hole. Glancing west at the afternoon clouds, I slammed the brake and jolted Livi to attention: There, along the crest of a nearby hill, poised solidly the silhouette of a mustang, hooves planted sturdily and neck outstretched to scan the horizon.

Our first look at the handsome Navigator.

Our first look at the handsome Navigator.

The dark shadow revealed nothing from a distance—what did he (she?) look like? Were there others around? Determined not to leave our first McCullough horse unidentified, Livi and I decided the next dry patch would do, ditched the Subaru, and set out to track him down.

As suddenly has he had appeared, our mystery horse had vanished beyond his hill. Thankfully, as we moved closer in his direction, we were easily able to pick up his tracks—a beautiful, clear trail of crescent-shaped indents teasing us onward and winding steadily to and fro up to the ridge.

It is amazing to witness the adaptability of mustangs, not only to their natural environment, but to its human influence as well. When trekking across the range, one will sometimes stumble upon natural trails created by wildlife to weave unseen through declines and safely up ridges, but the horses will also use human infrastructure, including asphalt roads and worn two-tracks, to navigate easily across a sometimes forbidding landscape. For the most part, our horse had used a two-track to wind his way up the hill, with only occasional shortcuts and strays into the brush.

We were surely caught in the lure of the siren, goaded onward and into the sinking western sun. Cresting the ridge, we again caught sight of him against another hillside, and onward and onward like so we journeyed. He did not mind us there, and in fact, seemed curious of our presence, moving along and patiently waiting for us to keep up before picking up trail once more. Livi caught several shots of our mystery fellow—for we did realize after a closer look that he was a stallion, likely a bachelor.

By the time we had satiated our appetite, we noted a wind picking up in the west and could see a building storm in the distance. As with most nights of the trip, partly from frugality and partly from making the most of a buddy whom I could tolerate for days on end without a shower (roomie advantages), I had planned that we pitch the tent on the range that night. However, in the already diminishing light, Livi and I realized we did not have much time to scope out another campsite; further, we wanted to remain close to our bachelor in hopes of spotting additional horses the next morning.

Hurriedly, we bee-lined back to the Subaru and brought it up along the same two-track to find an appropriate parking site (leave no trace!), and put our campsite in order. To our dismay, nowhere could cover be found to shield us from the west, and the ground was a mushy clay with little sod to hold in our tent stakes. We decided the rain fly would do in anticipation of the storm. Already, we could hear coyotes howling from their secret desert abodes, slicing playfully through the silence of nightfall.

As we hunkered down within our tent to prepare for a cold, wet spring night on the desert hill, I noted to Livi with a tone of relief, “At least we don’t have too much wind.” I had forgotten my wind cords to stabilize the tent at home, and thus far along the trip, this hadn’t troubled us. But not ten minutes later, as we lay silent and listening to the yaps and howls of the coyotes, the wind picked up further—brushing the tent testily at first, then tugging at the edges, until finally turning to a persistent buffeting.

Sleep was not destined to come to me that night. Every blast of wind positively shook the tent, flapping it like a giant sail, and at every gusty upturn I was convinced it was going to rip the stakes from the weak clay and send us careening down the ridge in a tumbling mass of sleeping bags, poles, and tarp. Why the heck did we pitch on the ridge and not find a sheltered valley? I thought. Why did I not bring the wind cords? And, worst of all, We cannot do anything about this now. Though resigned to only hope that a disastrous fate did not await us, I lay nonetheless alert for hours on end, eyes glued skyward to the rippling and bucking ceiling of the tent.

As the storm subsided in the morning and light began to shine through the tent walls, I caught a few moments of light and peaceful dozing, still in a state of disbelief that the tent held up through the violence of the night before. Then, as though that morning were like any other, we emerged from our den unscathed and ready to plan for the next day’s search. To this day, though, I recall how unwise our decision had been, and would advise others strongly to not be tempted into a situation that could turn dangerous and irremediable. Although part of a fun and seemingly grand undertaking, I admittedly felt very poorly of a judgment call that had put myself and my friend in harm’s way.

As for our handsome bachelor, Livi had captured plenty of excellent photos and later investigated from our coffee shop base camp. Bay, star, one rear sock. “I think we spotted Navigator,” she affirmed, seemingly out of the blue, while I basked in the joy of a warm latte. Apropos, I thought. While it was an adventure well worthwhile, there was no denying that the humans had been once again outsmarted and outshone by the allure and the resilience of the wild horse, led beyond ourselves in pursuit of the siren on the hill.

Navagator as he walked off into the sunset.

Navagator as he walked off into the sunset.

* If you’re joining us for the first time, my account is of Mr. Navigator can be found here.

1 Comment »

  1. […] If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ve probably noticed that I have a healthy dose of wanderlust. I’m game for adventure, but self-preservation tells me that adventuring on one’s own isn’t always a good life-choice. I value friends that also have a desire to travel, but can also put up with my antics for the duration of a road trip. One such friend visited HMAs with me for the first time in May 2015, and I’d like to think I got her hooked. Her account of her first experiences viewing horses can be found here. […]

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