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Author Kathryn Wilder's instincts steer her toward a beloved landscape where she first discovers the wild mustangs that help her find herself
I take to my truck one fall morning and drive away from the problems I’m creating. Three border collies on the folded-down seat behind me, a long empty highway under my tires, I drive. For miles. Hours. A memory drifts in through an open window: sitting on a slab of red sandstone watching boaters run Class IV rapids. Years and deaths have dulled the picture but ponderosa pines and redrock show through. Several times I turn off the highway in search of the place but each turn I take does not get me there.
Then I feel it. A shimmer. I know the Dolores River is running along somewhere below the vast mesa, know that even though it’s flowing north-northwest it’s going in the right direction because it will empty into the Colorado River, and I know just where. I leave the highway again, turning right toward the river.
Turning right is the rightest thing I’ve done in a long time. A wrong time. Heading across a tabletop of farmland, miles of plowed fields framed in big sagebrush and spreading toward horizons everywhere, distant island mountains jutting up here and there, I can feel the redrock and pine trees clutching my heart the way their roots clasped the canyon walls and I keep driving, sensing I’ve been on this road before.
Glimpses through piñon pines and Utah junipers show a red sheen to the earth; beyond that, a big valley and distant mountains. And then, boom, the world falls away, the way it does when you approach the Gorge Bridge outside of Taos and find yourself suspended hundreds of feet above the Rio Grande, or follow 89A toward the Vermilion Cliffs and the Arizona Strip and suddenly you see it beneath you—the Colorado River deep in Marble Canyon, prelude to Grand Canyon. Out of the farming fields I go, a slight drop in elevation, redrock visible on the far reaches and then, there, the world drops off, the serpentine road coiling somewhere below, just me alone with the dogs and the gods in a truck on a road that disappears beneath us as we face the edge of a world gone away. My heart fills and soars as the valley grows beyond redrock layers and I do the only thing I can think to do—pull off the road and stop in red dirt, to find and follow my heart.
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Cojo can leap into but not out of the truck. I lift him down. Bow, now three-legged, can jump out but I will have to lift him back in. Reed, a new border collie cross, can leap anywhere. As the dogs head into the redrock world on parallel adventures, I bend beneath juniper branches to follow a shallow arroyo toward a lip of red cliff that overhangs the valley below.
Natural etchings in the floor of the wash indicate that heavy summer monsoons have repeatedly scrubbed it clean. The wash itself meanders like water through rock, heading ultimately downward. I want to bathe in its red dust as if it were a river. Instead I rub a wet finger on redrock and grains of fine sand find my tongue. Gritty and salty sun-warmed silt.
Sunshine on my back, the desert on my skin, hair catching in juniper branches, piñon pine needles and basin big sage brushing familiar scents over my shoulders and shorts, I do not think of Andrés. I do not think of my sons. The dogs moving at their different paces, we continue toward the edge until finally I realize that the bursting within is not my lungs filled with warm autumn air but that muscle of heart hammering through me—the Colorado Plateau.
I call the dogs and we turn back to the truck and the road. A two-thousand-foot descent takes us through layers of geology that tell stories I can’t remember or never knew. Slowing for the hairpin turns around great chunks of sandstone, we head toward the valley below—a vast shadow between far mountain peaks, cliff faces lining an interior perimeter. Piñon and juniper punctuate rock, roots chasing moisture through stone for so many years that stones and trees have become inseparable. Indian ricegrass waves delicately in the wind.
At the bottom of the switchbacks stand empty corrals, long stacks of one-ton hay bales, and a low stucco building. Cattle and horse smells come in through the windows. And there is the Dolores River, the water not high, not low, just a slow meander around a bend and away.
Beyond the bridge the five-dollar-a-day parking lot for boaters launching at the Slick Rock put-in is fenced off and locked up, the faded, hand-painted sign still there.
No other vehicles behind us on the potholed two-lane highway—I’ve seen but two in the last hour—I stop near the river, the dogs weaving through coyote willows to get to water that foretells the changing seasons: summer monsoons past, winter approaching. Bow takes his river bites while Cojo laps at the edges. Reed leaps across but makes it partway, splashing to the other side and back. They all smell like wet dog now and I could put them in the bed of the truck on this isolated stretch of road but I want their company. They usually want mine.
I’ve missed the sought-for canyon and keep going. In earlier years I didn’t see this valley beyond its river and now I follow the road instead of the river and then make another right turn. Another right move.
Unsure if I’m trespassing, I stop to look around. The redrock through which I drove as I made the sharp descent stops at the valley’s western end, the giant sandstone blocks and massive rounded boulders evidence of a geologic phenomenon I have yet to remember. Though clues lie around me like potsherds from my past I do not see that the valley mirrors, in geologic history if not the same geologic formations, two Colorado Plateau valleys in which I previously lived. Only the words Mancos Shale come to mind.
Fall’s yellow grasses, some salt-desert shrubs, and a few junipers speckle the grayish soil. White mineral and salt deposits line old puddles. Rabbitbrush blooms bright yellow along drainages. Green mountains line the valley’s southern flank, long and flat like the hay bales and building we just passed. Aspens grow up high, their leaves turning in groves, as do ponderosas, the darker conifers underscored by the burnt-orange hue of fall-touched Gambel oak. Near the valley’s eastern end, random cliffs tower over ash-colored slopes of Mancos Shale.
I decide to do something conservative: I look at a map. Follow the route I’ve taken. Hawai`i and California on the perimeter, Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico part of the spiral, I am in southwestern Colorado. A Dolores River Guide, purchased some twenty years before and hastily stashed with the map in my truck, says the Dolores changes from a “fairly clean” river to one of the Southwest’s dirtiest after its confluence with Disappointment Creek. When living in Utah before Hawai`i I had watched the Colorado River change color with the inflowing Dolores at the confluence above Dewey Bridge. That that color comes from a tributary draining a valley in which I find myself these many years later—now that is magic, the lives flanking Hawai`i suddenly connected, bridged by a river.
Map and memories in my lap, I look at the rise of mountains to the west. If the Colorado River is just over there, 130 river miles away, that spine of mountain peaks is . . . La Sal Mountains! The same island mountains I looked upon each morning as I awoke in a Utah valley in that other life, a big yellow wolf-dog sprawled across my bed. I’m just on the other side.
Driving on up the gravel road, the current dogs panting behind me from enthusiasm not thirst, I pant, too, wanting to stick my head out the window and wag my tail. I don’t know how that feels to a dog but I can feel the wag all through me—a buzz, an energy wanting out. Having a tail would help. My heart thumps instead.
We cross some dry creekbeds and round a bend. An old log house appears near a barn and panel corrals and I think oh! and maybe say it aloud after a sharp intake of breath the way I did as a kid when I saw a dog I wanted—which was any dog—and my mother would scold me for scaring her, but now only the dogs I have hear me as I covet the ranch house nesting near giant cottonwoods and drive on, dried grasses and rabbitbrush bright with color along the road, cottonwoods just barely yellowing marking the creek, the backdrop of rimrock and promontories and distant mountains shifting and changing with perspective. The valley grows more rugged, arroyos and ridges crisscrossing as the piñon pine and juniper woodland thickens, maybe indicating a rise in elevation, possibly in precipitation.
A couple of miles farther, a blur moves into the middle of the view.
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It’s a movement of color not gray and muted green like the valley or the dark green and orange of the autumn mountains or watery blue like the desert sky but dark and sharply contrasting light. It steps slowly into my vision, slower still into my brain. Again I stop the truck. Right there in the middle of the road. Not looking behind me or caring if the third car of the afternoon evolves in my dust. Without taking my eyes from the black-and-white movement on the gray hillside I reach for my field glasses.
The dogs clamor to the window, noses aquiver. I turn off the truck, slowly open the door. Standing with elbows braced against the window frame to steady my vision, I bring the binoculars to my eyes.
Across the road, on the other side of a barbed-wire fence, on the other side of a broad arroyo from me: wild horses.
They tell their wildness in their arched necks, lithe bodies, and the way they look askance—at me, my truck, the dogs at the window?—nostrils wide, testing, not like Fubar, afraid, but like deer, wary. Prey animals alert to danger.
The pinto stallion, black and white and wild, stops and sniffs the air, snorting as he stares across distance at truck dogs me. He shakes his head and moves on at a brisk trot over the chalky gray hill, nose up, his tail a banner of color. A bay mare follows with her pinto colt. A long yearling, dark bay but for white streaks on his withers and flank, and two pinto mares follow the first mare and colt. Truck motor ticking, the breeze holding my breath and theirs, I stand in the middle of an empty road in the middle of a huge no longer empty valley in the middle of my life watching wild horses until even the dust from their hooves on the powdery gray trail disappears.
Kathryn Wilder’s work has been cited in Best American Essays, nominated for the Pushcart Prize and other awards, and has appeared in several publications and anthologies. A graduate of the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Wilder was a finalist for the 2016, 2019, and 2022 Ellen Meloy Fund Desert Writers Award; and 2018 finalist for the Waterston Desert Writing Prize. She lives among mustangs in southwestern Colorado, where she ranches with her family in the Dolores River watershed.
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