Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Thursday, June 03, 2021

No Sir, I Did Not Molest That Horse

 Memorial Day weekend. I wanted to have an adventure. I settled on backpacking a loop of about 18 miles in the Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Area in western CO. In this natural area live actual wild horses that you can actually go to try to see. And I had never tried.


Unfortunately, I was feeling poorly on Saturday so I didn't leave till about Sunday midday. I wouldn't get to do the whole loop. But I'd get to hike in and camp for the night.

I debated not going at all, but the weather was going to be miserable in Denver, with chill temperatures and lots of rain. Out on the west side of the state, the forecast was sunny and 80 degrees. So I drove across the state. I didn't escape the bad weather though--I got slammed by a hailstorm halfway there.

Unfortunately the bad weather seemed to follow me. When I arrived at the trailhead the weather was nice, but as I started my hike it shortly it turned to rain, then pouring rain, then hail. When I got tired of being pelted by tiny rock-hard peas I backed into a tamarisk and waited. So much precipitation issued from the skies, I was nearly soaked through by the time it stopped. I'll need to re-waterproof my rain gear.

Cactus flowers!

It was pretty exhilarating. And when the storm stopped, the canyon smelled so strongly of sage it was like I'd put my head in a blender of it. This was a huge improvement on before the storm, when the scent of the canyon could charitably be described as a delicate blend of horse urine and half-dried manure. There are worse smells, but I wouldn't pick it out of a catalog.

I continued to hike along, soggy track shorts clinging to my butt. The dry creek bed in the canyon had filled with a good quantity of chocolate milk.


There were some nice flowers blooming. Cactus, yucca, globemallow.


Then I found some horses, grazing on the slopes of debris below the canyon walls. They even had a foal with them.



I did not go close. When viewing wildlife, you're not supposed to disturb them. Basically, if the animals react to your behavior, even to the point of simply watching you, you're too close. The trailhead signs are adamant about this, and exhort visitors not to approach the horses, touch them, or ride them (???).

So I stayed far away and took pictures. After a while it got pretty dull because wild horses eating grass aren't all that different from tame horses eating grass, and neither one is what you'd call thrilling.

I hiked on.

Strolling along with my head down, I happened to look up to see a horse only about twenty feet of me, to the side of the trail. I froze.


It gave me a fright, that's for sure. The horse glanced at me, then went back to feeding. Didn't snort or walk away or so much as keep an eye on me. Figuring I wasn't disturbing it, I stood there taking pictures like a tourist. He was a pretty boy with a white star on his head--though he'd recently rolled in the mud--and I admired him. I haven't seen a lot of horses up close.

The horse started to walk toward me.

I freaked out. Internally, of course. Knowing that one mustn't run from bears or mountain lions, I guessed the same could be true of horses. Who knows? I stood completely still as it came on, until it lowered its head before me and sniffed at me, mouth an inch from my hand. My heart was clawing its way into my mouth. This thing was wild. And it was big. It could bite me or trample me.

I didn't grow up on a farm, okay? I don't know horses.

Its eyes were big and brown and liquid and gentle, just like they say in books. It passed around to my other side and sniffed the back of me too, then continued to wander into the grass on the opposite side of the trail. When it passed--its body six inches from mine--I reached out and touched its side, just barely. It didn't react.

Yes. I touched a wild horse. Just what I was supposed to not do. But I did not molest that horse. I did not even approach the horse. That horse approached me.

In truth, I don't know if I could say it was really a wild horse. I wondered if people had been coming in and feeding the horses, having contact with them.



He hung out for a while. A mare and foal were around too, though they kept their distance. Here is the foal looking at me. I didn't want to bother them, but I did need to go past them to get down the trail.


It began to look like it might rain again. I found a nice campsite and set up my tent.


Thanks to the dry air, my clothing had mostly dried. I finished eating and read my book for a bit, and decided maybe I ought to pack things up and get them into the tent. Just as I thought it, it started to rain again. I tossed in the things I had hanging up and climbed in to read.

I read about 3 hours before falling asleep, as the rain pattered. That was pretty great. I woke up too early--5am--and read for another 3 hours until I heard a horse whicker outside the tent.

That convinced me to get up. I got my stuff ready for a day hike further up the canyon.


This little guy lost his tail.

As I hiked on, the trail became less-used, more overgrown. I was pushing past sagebrush and tamarisk everywhere. It didn't take long to find a tick on my leg.

In a review, I'd read that the canyon had a lot of ticks, but I hadn't thought about it until now. Now, as I walked along, I looked at the fronts and branches hanging over the path and saw ticks every few feet. Some had their little legs extended. That's what they do. They're blind, you know. But they sense vibrations or carbon dioxide, then wave their little legs in the air trying to find an animal to cling to. I know this because I spent a summer working as a tick collector.

Here's one.


Well. I went up the trail about an hour and a half, but it was hot and very ticky and I decided to turn around. The experience made me a bit glad I hadn't been able to do the full loop. I'm not sure it would have been a grade-A experience.

Back at the site, I enjoyed writing and reading for a couple hours, then headed out. So many cactus flowers were in full bloom.




I saw another horse who didn't seem concerned by my presence, a very glossy one. This one also turned and started to walk toward me, but he came on quite a bit faster than the black one had, and I got nervous and walked away. He followed me a bit. I just have no idea how to tell if a horse is being aggressive or hoping for a treat. Or maybe just wants to go in the same direction.


I headed back to the trailhead, taking a moment to snap a shot of one of the massive piles of horse manure that are everywhere in the canyon. These are apparently called "stud piles" and are left by stallions, and are effectively the equivalent of a fire hydrant for dogs. This one sits along the trail, as if it were marking the way. Just like a cairn, but made of poop instead of rocks.


I said goodbye to the canyon and climbed over the final hill to my car as afternoon drifted into evening.


That was when the real adventure began. Going 70 down the highway, my car began to shake badly and start thumping. It was like riding a washing machine on spin cycle and was very alarming. I slowed down, urging the car to make it to the next exit, which took forever to come. I pulled off and parked at a gas station.

The tread on one of the front tires had split and was pulling away, exposing steel wires. The part of the tread that had pulled away had been thumping against the edged of the wheel well. It was still holding air.

I thought about things for a bit. By now it was 7pm, and there was no chance of popping into a tire shop and getting a new one, and there was no way to get back to Denver without taking the highway, which seemed like a sketchy thing to do on a spare tire, especially since the drive was about three hours.

My phone told me there was a campground three miles away. I tried calling but couldn't reach them.

My backpacking food was pretty much gone, so I went in the gas station and bought $17 of overpriced food for dinner and breakfast. They didn't have much I could eat--almost everything had wheat or dairy in it--so dinner was a Slim Jim and Fritos. Then I drove very slowly to the campground.

They were open. I took a lovely tent site on a rushing creek for a low rate that made me very happy.


I was massively relieved. First that the car problem had only been a tire, and that it hadn't killed me, and secondly that I had a place to spend the night. I no longer had cell service, so I borrowed the campground office's phone to call my friends and let them know where I was. Because like a good backpacker, I'd told them where I was going and when to expect me back.

After that, I had nothing to do but relax and wait. I read my book.

In the morning I drove very slowly to a nearby tire place. Here's an unspectacular shot of what happened to my tire.

Going on trips, a part of me always worries that I'll have a car problem somewhere hours from home and will have to figure out how to get off the road and get to a shop and find somewhere to stay, and miss work and all that. In 23 years of adventuring, it's never happened. This weekend it did. And everything was fine.

It took the tire place hours to fit me in but as afternoon came I was driving home on four new tires, munching on Fritos, exhausted and several hundred dollars poorer but still very glad I had gone.

And that was my weekend.

Sunday, May 09, 2021

Welcome Back to Moab

"Everyone knows that yellow, orange, and red suggest ideas of joy and plenty. I can paint you the skin of Venus with mud, provided you let me surround it as I will." -- Eugene Delacroix

Welcome back to Moab.


I decided to do something different for my spring Moab vacation this year, which was to take 6 days instead of 5. I did this because, on the fifth day, I always wish I had more time. Other than that, it was much the same as previous trips.


I left after work on Wednesday, driving four hours to crash at a free campground on the Colorado/Utah border. Arriving at about 11pm, I found it was full. Why! Why is this campground in the middle of nowhere full on a Wednesday night?

I found a side road with a blue school bus parked on it, and slept in the back of the car, waking at about 5am to drive the rest of the way to Moab.


I have been to Moab many times now and done most of the trails within an hour and a half drive. These days I try to do a combination of old favorites and new trails, always preserving something un-hiked for the future. Here are some shots from some trails in Canyonlands NP that I had not hiked in a while.





I stumbled toward the end of the last hike and ended up with a nasty-looking cut on my knee. It embarrasses more than it hurts--as if I ought to have been paying better attention.

I had found a nice campsite, but in the morning was awakened by a new neighbor. Let us say his name was Jeff. He was blaring music from his car--oddly, it was gentle feel-good hits such as "Kiss Me" from Sixpence None the Richer--and sipping on a Busch Lite. This at about 7am.

Of course I don't have anything against drinking Busch Lite at 7am, though I might choose a different beer. But I come to nature to get away from man-made noise. We talked for a bit. He said he was hoping to find a better campsite, and I said quite honestly that I hoped he managed it.

Then I went to hike Fisher Towers.




These towers are larger than they look in the photos. If you click on the above photo, then right-click (or control-click) to open in a new tab, and zoom, you can find human figures in the lower-right section.


When I returned, my neighbor Jeff had indeed found another site. His place was occupied by a couple of young women, one of whom was at her computer on some kind of conference call. It's amazing what technology will let you do these days.

It can be difficult to find a really good campsite. In the past I have been hampered by a definitive need to hammock on my vacations, and thus the need to find a site that had two trees, perfectly spaced. To prevent being hampered again, before this trip I chose to purchase a portable hammock stand. It was an excellent choice. Here I am hammocking under a nice shade tree, but the hammock is actually suspended from the stand. (And, indeed, I was able to compose this blog entry in part from my hammock, set up in the living room.)


One of the new-to-me hikes was Jeep Arch. I chose to do this at noon on a 90-degree day, for no good reason. The bare rock radiated about a billion degrees of heat back at my sunburnt skin.



Above is a picture of ichnofossils. These are fossilized tracks and traces--in this case, traces of burrows. Below are other fossilized traces, maybe of plant roots, or perhaps ancient mud cracks.



Jeep arch does in fact look like a jeep.



Above, a shot from within the culvert that forms part of the Jeep Arch trail. This was the only cool place in the entirety of Moab that day.

Below, sunset from the campground.



In Hunter Canyon I found some nice globemallow flowers to photograph. I wish all my pictures turned out this well.


I tried the Red Onion Primitive Loop, another new trail. Here were some more nice ichnofossils. You can very clearly see the preserved burrows in the sandstone.


A bit of burrow had fallen out and was lying on the trail. This is, obviously, actually the cast of a burrow--the burrow itself is the mold. After the animal moves on, sand fills the borrow, and eventually cements carried by groundwater glue the sand together.


The next several pics are from Arches NP.






Sand Dune Arch is a lovely place to sit and do some people-watching. And also do some brainstorming for a story, in my case.



Below is the amphitheater at the campground in Arches. No programs are being held due to the pandemic. The empty amphitheater made me a bit sad. Perhaps in the fall there will be programs.



This rock lives on the box.


The next morning, I was able to take some photos of animal tracks in the sand near my campsite.




I returned to Arches, and sat for a while at the magnificent Delicate Arch to do more people-watching and brainstorming.


This raven was very interested in what people were eating.


It was truly delightful to have warm afternoons to spend relaxing in the hammock, reading or writing. The portable stand was a great purchase. And of course, the view couldn't be beat.


I did have a day and a half of "bad" weather. But out of six, that's not so terrible. Anyway, hiking is a lot more comfortable when it's cloudy and 50 degrees than when it's sunny and 70.

Mountain biker in the sunset:




That's it for this trip. See you next time!