In May 2012, Diana took a horse-packing trip to track Mustangs in the wilds of the Nevada mountains.
Mustangs in the Wild
It was a hot, sunny Friday in Los Angeles and the start of Memorial Day weekend, as we sat on the runway at LAX and waited to take off. Our flight was delayed because of… snow. Yes, snow. It was snowing at our destination, Mammoth Lake.
I hadn’t seen snow since I’d left Pittsburgh more than 15 years ago. Now, I was praying. If our flight was cancelled, I’d miss out on a trip I had wanted to take for over a decade: tracking Mustangs in the mountains of Nevada.
I’d expected to fly in a jet (I don’t know why). This was no jet, but a large, high-winged prop plane, and it had a full load of passengers. The pilot kept us apprised of the weather reports coming in from Mammoth. His last announcement to us was something like this: “The latest report says the weather is lifting. We’ve got a window of opportunity here, and I think we should go for it.” And go for it, we did.
After about an hour’s flight, we crested snow topped mountains and caught the updrafts from Mammoth Lake. There was considerable turbulence on the descent, so we all took a collective sigh of relief as we finally touched down on the tarmac at the tiny airport.
It may have been in the middle of nowhere, but there was cell phone service. I collected my duffel bags and called my beau of the time to let him know I’d arrived safely. While I was talking to him, I located the shuttle driver, Scottie, who was to take me to my hotel in Bishop. As we drove away from the airport, I described the beautiful setting to my friend: the wide open sky; the impressive mountains and the snow, most of which was only on the mountain tops.
About a mile down the road, Scottie interrupted to let me know that I would lose cell service soon. Within a couple of minutes, I lost the signal. I didn’t have connectivity again (not even in Bishop) until I returned to Mammoth airport at the end of my trip.
As we came into town, we passed the Bishop fairgrounds, the location of Bishop’s annual Mule Days celebration. Scottie dropped me off at the Best Western just past the fairgrounds, where I stayed overnight.
Early the next morning, a woman from the Frontier Pack Train picked me up and took me to the ranch where we would begin our journey. Including myself, there were ten tourists. Dave Dohnel, the pack train owner, was our guide, along with two of his daughters.
We had a protein-packed breakfast and made sack lunches, which we put in saddlebags. Then we piled into several vehicles and followed two big horse trailers into Nevada.
The snow-topped White Mountain Peak, the dividing line between us and Death Valley, accompanied us on our drive. Part of the Inyo-White Mountains, it’s the highest peak in California and the highest outside of the Sierra Nevada range. We could see it from nearly every vantage point for the next four days.
After more than an hour’s drive, we pulled onto a gravel access road, where the horses were unloaded from the trailers. Dave paired us up with the mounts that we would ride for the duration of the trip. Mine was a 16-hand, quarter-draft horse named Custer.
It was snowing lightly as we began the three-hour ride up the mountain to base camp. Mid-way, we stopped for lunch and a bathroom break that consisted of squatting behind a bush or small tree. There was no toilet paper, unless you brought your own.
The cook and her boyfriend-helper met us at base camp with our gear (they drove up in a truck), and we were shown to our tents. I had one by myself that was big enough to sleep three people. Through the open flap, I could see the ever-present White Mountain Peak, the top nearly obscured by dark, snow-laden clouds.
Once we arranged our gear, we gathered under the canopy of a make-shift kitchen and warmed ourselves with coffee. The snow turned to sleet. As it hit the sagebrush, it released oils from the leaves and filled the air with the magical scent of sage
In addition to the rustic kitchen, our camp had an authentic outhouse and a spring-fed shower. The shower structure was on a wooden platform with metal poles wrapped in blue plastic tarp and a flap opening on the back side.
Before dinner, we hiked with our guides over a ridge and down into a lush meadow fed by springs. We saw lots of hoof-prints, but no Mustangs. We returned to camp for dinner.
For the next three nights, we all gathered around a campfire to keep warm as we ate our dinner and shared stories. The air was cold, but the hearty meals warmed our bellies and our hearts. One night, the cook baked a peach cobbler in a Dutch oven, buried under the coals of the campfire. It was extraordinary.
The first night in base camp, I didn’t sleep much. My sleeping bag was only rated for thirty degrees, and the temperature that night was closer to zero. It didn’t help that I used a foam pad underneath that pulled the cold right up from the ground. The next two nights (which were a little warmer), I put a couple of horse pads and a horse blanket under my sleeping bag and another horse blanket on top. That kept me warm.
Day two was our first full day on the trail. We rode for over nine hours, climbed rugged hills, spied mountain lion tracks, a bleached out horse skull and a dead Mustang. Dave commented that mountain lions were the Mustangs’ only natural predator. But the horse most likely died of old age.
Dave was extremely knowledgeable about the ways of the Mustang and had an intuitive knack for finding the animals. From the top of a ridge that overlooked a vast plain, he spotted a herd of them. They were quite a distance away, but he hoped we could get closer.
We rode down the rocky ridge toward the plain. It was slow-going and difficult to navigate. At one point, my horse Custer decided to leap from the ledge we were on down to the next ledge. It caught me by surprise and scared me a bit. But he was so sure-footed and powerful, I learned to trust his judgment. He knew what he was doing.
Down on the plain, we tied our horses to sagebrush and walked as a group toward the herd of Mustangs. Dave explained that if we moved as a group, the Mustangs couldn’t tell what we were and perhaps thought we were another herd of horses. We were also down wind of them, so they couldn’t smell us.
As we drew closer, the stallion who led the group of mares would stop grazing and look at us. At that point, we would stop until he went back to grazing. Then we’d move forward again. We continued in this manner until we finally got too close for comfort. The stallion led his mares up a ridge away from us. When we started up that ridge, they took off across the mountain.
We returned to where we’d tied up our horses and had lunch. I had packed an extra apple and some granola bars for Custer. He took these treats from my hand so gently and seemed grateful for my companionship.
After lunch, we headed back toward camp. Along the way, we spotted more Mustangs on a ridge. We took a detour up a gravel road to try and get a better look at them. One of our horses, Radar, whinnied and called three Mustang bachelors down to us. Bachelors are the stallions that do not have any mares. These horses were curious about us and less cautious than the previous herd. They stayed near us for a long time and gave us a great photo op. Then they took off down the ridge.
We mounted up and headed back to camp. By the time we finished our ride, the air was pretty warm, so I decided to brave a shower
The shower fixture itself was a garden hose with a flat spray nozzle on the end that turned on and off with the press of a lever. The water source was from a spring. If you know anything about springs, you know they’re damned cold. I wet down, soaped up and rinsed off-– oh, and bit my tongue. The water was so cold I thought I’d cry out. Although I felt great afterwards, I decided I’d stay dirty after this and take a shower at my hotel in a couple of days.
On the second full day of riding, we were in the saddle over thirteen hours. The terrain was even more rugged than on the previous day. We saw some Mustangs at a distance but were not able to get close to them.
At one point, we rode down a nearly vertical dirt bank. When riding down a steep hill, the rider needs to lean back to help the horse keep his balance. I leaned so far back on Custer, I was nearly laying down on him, yet I was standing up vertical. It was definitely the roughest riding I’d ever done. I was used to riding on groomed trails, not up and down cliffs.
We continued through tangled underbrush with low branches everywhere. One of the ladies almost got swept off her horse by a branch. She lay back to pass under the branch then bounced up like one of those blow-up punching clowns.
The trip was more than I ever could have dreamed it would be. This was some of the most beautiful country I’d ever seen, with magnificent mountains, vast plains and endless sky. The snow-capped White Mountain Peak was ever-present. Each day, the snow on it seemed to melt just a little more. Each day, our ride was just a little warmer. By day four, it was down-right hot.
On that day, we packed up our gear and had breakfast. Then we saddled up and headed back down the mountain to return to our civilized lives, not quite the same now.
There is something elusive in that rare western wilderness, something in it that frees the soul. It calls to you like the voices of pioneers and cowboys who passed through so many years before. You can’t put your finger on it, nor can you ever own it. But once you’ve been there, it owns you for life. I hope one day to return to that place.
To book a horse packing adventure, contact Dave Dohnel at Frontier Pack Train, (760) 648-7701 or (888) 437-6853, or visit www.frontierpacktrain.com.