Campsite nestled in the White Mountain Wilderness
Unexpected Invitation: A Cowboy’s Proposition
“Hello in there,” a man’s voice hollered from outside. I was snuggled up under the covers in my Airstream. Soft honey morning light dripped in around the edges of my closed window shades. I was boondocking in the White Mountain Wilderness of New Mexico.
The day before, I’d hauled my trailer nine miles up a dirt road that dead ended at a national forest campground. There were 12 campsites spread around a half-mile loop but just one other person in the whole area, a seasoned cowboy from Montana in his truck camper. We’d spoken briefly just after I arrived; he said he was boarding his horses for the winter. My spidey-sense was on high alert. It was 7:15 a.m.
“Hello, are you awake?” the voice said. “Come on out.”
I slinked out of bed and snuck a peek out the kitchen window. The Montana man sat on a blond horse, which was all gussied up in saddle bags. Still in my long johns, I cracked open the door and squinted out.
“Good morning! I probably should have given you a heads up.” A black rope stretched from the blond horse to an auburn one, which also sported saddle bags. All three of them stared at me. “I was wondering if you’d like to ride up to the ridge.” With his eyes and a lift of his chin, he pointed to the mountains behind my trailer. “I’m going hunting for elk horns.”
“Ummm … hi.” I had a whole day of tax prep and catching up on emails planned and I didn’t know this guy from Adam. I gave the one excuse my morning brain could come up with. “I don’t know how to ride a horse.”
“Layla will teach you.” He nodded with a gentle smile and dip of the head, cowboy style, toward the auburn horse. “Get dressed, grab some food and water. We are wasting daylight.” The sun peeked through the pinyon pines behind him. “We’ll be back by sundown.”
I looked to my right, up to the ridge and wondered how the heck we’d get all the way up onto the snowy peaks and back in one day.
Wade read my mind. “We’ll stay out of the snow, too cold all the way up there. Put some thick jeans on and saddle up.”
Kristy and Layla — notice the jeans
Riding into the Wilderness: A Journey to the Ridge
Within 10 minutes I was swooped off into bliss by the rhythmic clip-clop of hooves, bellow of breath, and heat that radiated from my graceful steed. As we began our ascent, Wade shared that elk shed their antlers each spring and searching for “sheds” is one of his favorite pastimes.
Forty-five minutes into our ride, the sound of water rushing over rocks drifted into my awareness, and grew louder as we traveled deeper into the forest. We came to the edge of a steep drop into a ravine packed with massive boulders and fast-flowing water hidden below. The climb up the far bank looked even more treacherous. I’d never imagined a horse could traverse this type of terrain. “Trust her, she knows what she can do,” Wade said. “Relax into her and hold on.”
I gripped the slick, leather saddle horn with both hands. Layla lurched down, danced across and bounded up while I held on for dear life. Poor horse, she must have thought she was toting a drunken woman. It took me hours to get the hang of riding and in the meantime we rubbed trees, whacked through bushes and scraped against a barbed wire fence, which ripped my jeans open. Now I knew firsthand why cowboys wear chaps!
We continued up. The campground we started from was at about 6,500 feet of elevation and our destination was at almost 10,000 feet. The environment transitioned from woods to shrubs to arid desert with cacti. For the most part, there were no trails. I imagined this must have been what it was like to cross North America hundreds of years ago. I was in pure awe and my face ached from smiling for hours on end.
Wade and Duke walking a ridge
Challenging Terrain: Conquering Obstacles on Horseback
Layla did her best with a rookie driver, but I brushed up against a six-foot tall cactus with quills the size of toothpicks. I’m not the swearing type, but when that cactus smashed against my leg, an F-bomb flew out in a screech, and I writhed in pain. From ankle to just above the knee, my left leg was covered with quills of all sizes. I sat with my throbbing limb folded up on Layla and plucked out as many as possible with my Leatherman tool. Layla, Wade and Duke all waited patiently while I yanked and squirmed.
We carried on, out of cactus land and into an open area with views for miles.
“Is that White Sands National Park?” I asked, pointing to a gleaming pearly swath in a sea of beige and green. I had explored and sledded down the park’s otherworldly colossal dunes the week before. White Sands covers 275 square miles, and from here it looked so small.
“Yup, that’s it,” Wade said. “Puts things in perspective.”
After that we entered a forest so thick I could not see the sky. That’s where we hit the steepest part of the ride. I was in awe the strength and endurance of these animals. Every few minutes we’d stop and rest the horses. After a bit, Duke, Wade’s blond horse, let us know he’d had enough. He refused to budge.
“You’re gonna have to lead.” Trees rustled, creaked and groaned overhead. “Duke has a stubborn streak. Layla will carry on and Duke will follow her.”
I clicked my tongue and nudged Layla to step around and take the lead for the first time. I was still not good at “driving.” Within a couple minutes Layla stopped, nodded and neighed.
“She is confused and wants direction,” Wade said. “You have to take charge. Be direct. Tell her where you want to go; that’s what she is asking for.”
I did. This was a turning point for Layla and me. Even though we were a half-day in, she became energized and full of vigor. We climbed and climbed until nature transitioned back to rocks again. The weather had gone from cool to warm to freezing cold with blustery wind. I have a new understanding of horses: Unbelievable strength to climb and climb; incredible agility and grace in navigating fallen trees, boulders and ravines; the stamina to cover such distances; their intelligence and their intuitiveness. I was — and sill am — in awe.
Layla having a snack mid-ride
Lessons Learned: Trusting the Journey and Embracing the Unexpected
To cut to the chase, Wade and I searched for elk horns the entire ride and never found one. Although we saw elk wearing their horns, and another elk horn hunter with a bounty tied to his back.
Wade kept his promise; we strolled into camp as the sun was about to dip behind the mountains. This was one of the most stunning one day adventures of my life. Photos don’t do it justice. I had both hands on the reigns in the super cool parts, so no proof, but do know this: it was unbelievable, breathtaking and amazing.
A funny side note: For months after the ride, every now and then I’d get a raised red bump or feel a tiny sharp bur poking out of my left leg. No joke, the cactus quills continued to work their way out. I loved all the little lasting reminders of the incredible day with Wade, Layla and Duke.
Several times during that ride my emotions overflowed as I soaked in the rawness of nature and the quiet of the nothingness and allness that is everything. I wondered, “How the heck did I end up here?” “Here” as in on this horse seeing the wilderness in a way I’d never dreamed. And HERE, as in on this meandering journey of life where I get to know so many curious humans, experience the best of nature and plunge headfirst into the adventure of life. Not long ago I lived an average life in a normal house and went to a job with a timeclock. I could have done that forever and instead I took a giant risk. Now I live a life wilder than my craziest dreams.
Life asked if I wanted to go for a ride and a voice deep within whispered “Yes.” Much more often than not, “Yes” is my answer, even when it seems impossible or a bit nuts. Yes to the road less traveled, yes to living in the wild in a tin can on wheels, yes to experiencing all the myriads of wonderment, and yes to the wake-up call of a timeworn Montana cowboy. None of this was part of my plan. I have no idea how I fell into this outlandish life. What I do know is: there is something special in the possibility of “Yes.”