Off The Map: Week 15, dark horse

I thought my summer travels were over. I’d seen enough, climbed enough, and risked my life enough times for one season. But 24 hours after touching down in Santa Barbara, I was on the road again - this time with my partner Kitty, two dogs and a black horse named Merlin. The five of us traveled west, to the scarlet pinnacles and eroded badlands of Utah’s Red Canyon, where Kitty and Merlin tested their combined mettle during four days of endurance racing.

Their bond had developed two years ago when Kitty was recovering from breast cancer and chemotherapy. Merlin had suffered through emotional trauma and injuries after being abused by previous owners, but the horse and rider found solace in each other’s company. They healed together and eventually became a formidable team. During the Red Canyon race, the duo covered 150 miles of beautiful redrock scenery before the week was up and it was time to make the long, hot journey back to California.

To break up the drive, I suggested spending a night at Panaca Warm Springs – an oasis in rural eastern Nevada where the water bubbled up from the sand at a refreshing 80° temperature. I had fond memories of rainbows arcing over a pristine pond and children jumping from rope swings into the midst of the minnows swimming below. The reality fell far short of my expectations. Since my last visit, one grassy bank had been replaced with concrete steps, whole trees had vanished, and a depressing amount of garbage now overflowed out of three trash barrels on the premises.

I got a bad vibe while walking the perimeter, and it wasn’t just from the stench of the animal carcass rotting in the bushes. Kitty, on the other hand, was quite content with the location, because she was able to erect an electric fence corral for Merlin in the shade of a cottonwood tree. Before I could feel comfortable myself, I had to spend forty-five minutes collecting refuse that had been strewn about by scavengers and blown by the wind into the water.

At 2 a.m. that night, I was startled awake by the sound of Merlin’s hooves as he galloped past our tent at full speed. We fumbled with the zipper and rushed outside, only to find fence posts scattered everywhere and the rope of the electric fence stretched out into a straight line on the ground. Kitty immediately took to the main road and followed it in the direction she thought her panicked horse had gone. I surmised that Merlin had dragged the fence behind him for a short distance, so the rope should point towards his most likely whereabouts, or at least to a set of fresh tracks. Sure enough, I found hoof prints in the sagebrush, and by the light of my headlamp I saw that they led to another fence… a fence of barbed wire that had been bent halfway to the ground by the impact of a large animal running at full speed. Oh no.

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