Monday, July 8, 2013

Wild Mustangs And McCullough Peaks

One day early last week we headed out to McCullough Peaks (an area of BLM land about 20 miles east of Cody, that is home to two herds of wild mustangs).
It was a hot, dry and dusty day in the middle of summer, and as we turned off the highway and slowly drove on sandy and gravely roads in search of our wild horses, we were quickly surprised twice in succession.
Sometimes we find the horses quickly, but there have been times when we have had to search for 30 minutes or more.
These beautiful, wild and free animals have thousands of acres of land dedicated to them.  The land is primarily flat but there are many hills, valleys, sand dunes they can wander in and around, which sometimes makes finding them a challenge.
Whenever we finally DO catch our first sight of them, the excitement we feel is always the same as it was the first time that we saw ever them, two years ago now.
I feel the same excitement when I see the horses that I feel whenever I see deer in town (including the mama and two spotted and tiny babies who brought four lanes of traffic in town to a standstill the other day, as they all slowly crossed over the paved road).
Within five minutes of pulling off the Greybull Highway we surprisingly saw the familiar shape of horses, standing on top of a hill right beside the gravel road we were traveling.  They were still a long way off, and LC and I smiled to each other as we both saw the silhouettes in the distance.
The second surprise happened as we got closer, and realized that there were a couple of handfuls of people standing on the BLM watching the horses.
We have been out to this place so many times and through all seasons of the year, and are now spoiled in that we almost always have the horses to ourselves.
Of course.  It was summer.  
There are organized tour groups that transport visiting tourists out the see the horses at this time of year.
My attention momentarily sidetracked from the mustangs, I studied the tourists and their guides and their vans for a few moments, as everyone stood watching these beautiful animals.
Be a grown-up Karin, and stop mentally whining about having to share your horses with the masses, I admonished myself.
I turned my attention back to the herd.
LC slowly pulled the truck off the road and onto the dry and dusty land, and we both eagerly climbed out to watch the horses.
A look back the way we had come, with Carter Mountain appearing as a mirage in the distance...............
There is a sign at all entrances to McCullough Peaks that warns humans to keep their distance from the horses.
I have seen signs for 300 feet and signs for 500 feet, but regardless, people are to leave them be.
We're always mindful to not deliberately move inside that circle, but sometimes the horses themselves have other ideas.
One late evening last summer, LC and I found the horses a mile or so further into BLM land than we were at this point in this trip.
The horses were all on the left side of the gravel road and we snapped many pictures of them all quietly grazing, before slowly driving past them and turning left onto a small dead-end dirt road at the top of a hill.
We climbed out of the truck, quietly closed the doors, quietly let down the tailgate, and sat on the trail gate talking quietly and watching them graze.
And then they began to graze in our direction, slowly but methodically eating their way up the hill.
Before we knew it they were right in front of us - grazing on both sides of the little dirt road, and milling and communing with each other actually on the road.
There was nowhere for us to go, and so we stayed, excitedly whispering to each other at the sheer luck of the encounter.  Worried that we would disturb them we moved slowly, talked quietly, but they are so used to people they completely ignored us.  
I managed to get wonderful horse pictures that evening and then also wonderful sunset pictures, before we eventually drove through BLM land in the dark to get back to the highway.
Our trip last week was not like that - it was not the end of the day, we were not silently communing with nature, we did not have them to ourselves.
But we again had no choice but to be "in amongst them".
We had parked in the dirt on the side of the gravel road, and could see that the tourist vans had veered onto a rutted out dirt road on the right.
All of us - tourists and tourist guides and locals stood quietly watching the horses and they slowly wandered and grazed, grazed and wandered.  There were maybe 80 in total, spread out over a large swath of BLM land on both sides of the gravel road.
Everyone was quiet.  The horses were unperturbed by everyone.  It was all very good...............
Click on a picture and it will start a slide show of enlarged pictures.
Horses up ahead, grazing on BLM land and standing alongside the gravel road..............
Suddenly two horse broke the quiet.
One began to chase another, stirring up dust.
There were brief whinnies of outrage followed by a rearing up of both horses.
The encounters were brief but a continuous series of chasing, dust stirring, whines of protest, rearing up, a settling of dust.  Rinse and repeat for five minutes until both went their separate ways.............
I remember the first time LC and I came out to McCullough Peaks.
Our frame of reference was Tennessee and Alaska - lush, green, tree filled.
By the time we made it out to see the wild horses we had already been to the Shoshone National Forest and driven up to the East Gate of Yellowstone National Park (which didn't open until mid-June that year because of deep snow and then mud slides that continually closed Sylvan Pass), so we knew that the not ALL of Wyoming looked like the barren wasteland that this place did.
But we weren't impressed.
Dry.  Brown.  Beige.  No water.  No trees. Freakin' desert. WTH??
I can easily believe that no matter how many times some people come out here, it would always look like the Afghan-Pakistani border region.
But not us though.  Somehow - at some time - we learned to find beauty in what we once found ugly.
The vastness - the appearance of flat and boring land where we have learned that it is anything but - the plants - the animals - the subtle color changes in the terrain - the ability to travel vast distances, stop whenever and wherever we want and nearly always be totally alone - the deceptive emptiness of it all.
It's not beautiful in the usual sense of the word (and I will always have a preference for water and trees) but it IS compelling...............
Every time we head to McCullough Peaks there always seems to be one horse that stands out to us during each trip.
One time it was a lone mustang found very late in the day.   He was battle scarred - obviously beaten and bruised and broken  while fighting for (and losing) dominance of the herd.  He grazed away from the rest of the herd, and as they slowly wandered and ate, he followed them in the same direction and about 200 yards away from the rest.  Still part of the herd but also separate.
Another time it was a domestic horse that had been released into the herd by some low-life.  These wild horses were born wild, have learned to live wild, and to eat whatever they could find on BLM.  Domestic horses do not have that background.  We reported him to BLM land and learned that it is fairly common for unwanted horses to be dumped out there.  
We were both surprised and disappointed to learn that those at the BLM office did not see the urgency of separating him from the herd and finding a better home from him - from a survival perspective, from a watering down of the herd during mating season perspective.  It was disappointing on a number of fronts.
The little spotted foal we saw when the horses were grazing close to Greybull Highway.  On that evening we pulled directly off the highway and onto the shoulder, and then walked to the fence to watch them.  Including new momma and way-cute little foal who stayed close.  Also including battle scarred mustang from a previous visit.  He was doing OK.  Good deal.
On yet one more visit, it was the string of mustangs who belonged to the herd.  Who stayed together and close to (but separate from the herd).  They OWNED the land and the herd.  Everything about the way they moved told me that.  They were the kings of their domain and they knew it.  Unbelievably majestic.
And then this horse.
No interesting stories about him on this day, aside from the fact of his physique.  A huge, powerful, dominant, incredibly beautiful male.
The aura of power in that body was the most compelling thing about him.  It could not be denied..................
Another beauty..............
LC and I had been parked in the same spot for a very long time.
My Mountain Boy had remembered his camera (and some of the pictures are his), and we had spent all this time wandering around and around the truck furiously snapping pictures and watching these sweet creatures.
I snapped the picture above of the horse crossing over the trail, and as I wandered around the side of the truck looked to my left and saw a lone antelope walking across the desert land.
Meeting up with LC again by the tailgate I silently pointed towards him.  He wasn't that far away from us, and I was afraid that any sudden movement or sound would send him into a run and he would be gone.
I turned on my camera but didn't move.
We watched him take one step towards the road and then another and then another, certain that he would be running full speed at any moment.
Surprisingly - very surprisingly - he didn't.
He got to the road, stopped, and turned to look at us.................
Tentatively he walked into the middle of the road and stopped to regard us, yet again.
Aside from a quick picture, we made no movement and made no sound.
We looked at each other not believing that he was so calm.................
As he walked down the hill on the opposite side of the road, LC and I finally found the nerve to walk to the edge of the road to see where he was headed.
He walked all the way down to the section of the herd that had split off and was grazing in a bowl hundreds of yards away from us.
What the heck was going on with this guy?  Why was he alone?  Why was he walking - these guys NEVER walk   for that length of time.  They were built for running and that is what they do.................
Antelope stood on the outskirts of the herd looking around, and seemingly uncertain where he was supposed to go.
We can only guess that he had separated from his herd at some time and for some reason.
A helicopter had been circling when we first arrived.  
I think (although I don't know for certain) that the chopper was another tourist-deal, and it is possible the antelope got separated because of the noise.
We have seen four wheelers chasing the horses to force them into a run (and the BLM woman - who saw no reason to hurry to remove the domestic horse last summer - told us that she believes pregnant horses have miscarried due to the stress of being chased by..........fill in the blank with your own denigrating description here).
It is only speculation, but after walking from our left, crossing over the road, walking down to the horse herd, and then standing and seemingly indecisive for a few minutes, our lone and lost antelope turned and walked back towards us.
This most unusual of antelopes wandered around sage bushes but moved directly towards us, before unexpectedly disappearing in a dip in the terrain.
OK............it was time to move on................
After climbing back into the truck (and feeling very pleased with the way we had just spent the last hour) we slowly drove further down the gravel road and took the next road to the right, heading in search of the other herd that was out here "somewhere".
We never did find it, but did see other interesting sights as we slowly drove BLM land all the way to the outskirts of Powell.
Another blog for another day....................

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