I began my day in the middle of nowhere. The nearest town slept forty miles to the east. The next nearest town slumbered blissfully forty miles to the west. My survey followed a dirt road nearly arrow straight to the south across the playa, a broad flat valley bottom flanked on the east and west by high desert ranges. This is fierce country, hard and unforgiving. When God was done creating the world, this is where He dumped all of his left-over dirt. When the winds roar visibility drops literally to zero and the dust can suffocate a man. Happily the weather was mild and I had the valley entirely to myself.
My survey was finished by mid-morning. I began to explore the mountains to the west, terra incognita for me. The roads were graded and dry and by lunch-time I found myself in the saddle between two peaks, looking west into Nevada. At 8300′ I had a commanding view, interesting, and beautiful, but a bit pedestrian. I found myself wanting the road less traveled and soon I found it, a rough narrow two-track heading north across the mountain face.
As I carefully negotiated the rocks and the ruts, I spotted a bit of bright brown on the distant hill before me. I assumed I had found an elk, given the elevation. I stopped and checked through my spotting scope. A horse was reclining on the hillside. It watched me as I approached, alert but without moving.
There are numerous herds of wild horses in Utah and Nevada. They are usually found in Great Basin valleys and their foothills, the progeny of horses abandoned, stolen, or lost by ranchers, Indians, the army, and the Pony Express. However, the herd in this particular range has a different background. They are the descendants of Spanish horses, a very old breed and very rare.
The trail ended about one hundred yards south of the horse and while alert, it still had not moved. I feared it was injured, or worse, the victim of a “sportsman” who could not resist the “challenge” of putting his high power rifle to the test. Poachers are common in this remote area and I had encountered one during the pre-dawn hours. I exited my truck and begin to walk toward the animal, filled with apprehension. All I had with me was a tube of neosporin and some clean towels. I did not know how I could possibly help a seriously injured animal.
At fifty yards the horse stood. It did not run or show any signs of injury or nervousness. It calmly watched me clumsily picking my way across the hillside toward it.
At twenty-five yards I slowed. After standing the horse had not moved, but it now took several steps toward me. I have no experience with horses. I did not know what to do. I don’t know why, but I lowered my head a bit, spread my arms slightly, palms opened and outward, and spoke softly to it, like I speak to stray dogs. “Hi, skinny horse. What a beautiful place you live in.” And so on. We continued slowly toward each other, one hesitating step at a time, as I continued to speak softly to it.
I ventured too close. At about fifteen yards she suddenly wheeled and trotted away from me, up the rocky slope. She paused near the crest, looked at me for a few moments, and then continued over the ridge. I followed, curious and out of breath.
The view from the ridge was marvelous. Skinny Horse stood calmly, twenty-five yards beneath me, watching me. I enjoyed the view and I spoke to her as I basked in the sunshine and the glory of the world around us. I did not try to approach her again. I did not want to stress her. More to the point, I recognized the potential harm of habituating Skinny Horse to a species as dangerous as my own. For nearly fifteen minutes we shared the top of the world together. Then I said my good-byes, turned my back on her, and walked away. Who could ever have thought that the road less traveled might lead to an experience so unexpected but sublime?