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Ants in a Jewelry Box

Destination: Big Bend Ranch State Park

By Susan L. Ebert

Travel time from:

  • Austin - 12 hours /
  • Dallas - 14 hours /
  • Houston - 14 hours /
  • San Antonio - 10 hours

We greet the predawn in the Sauceda Lodge mess hall. Strangers when we met yesterday, the prior evening’s camaraderie and a good night’s rest has relaxed us all.

Now, with a hot breakfast, steaming coffee and the anticipation of the two days ahead, we’re getting downright amped up.

No one lingers over breakfast: We came to ride. Not just to take a little trail ride, but to spend six to seven hours each day riding across part of the 267,000-acre expanse that is Big Bend Ranch State Park. At the corral, outfitter Linda Walker and her wranglers, Missy Sutherland and Gary Sutton, are saddling up the remuda. Depending on the horse’s build, they fit some with breastplates and cruppers, rigging to help keep a saddle in place during steep ascents and descents. As the wranglers ready the horses, the riders gather up the prepared lunches and water bottles for the day’s ride.

Walker, who has already queried each of us on our level of riding skill, casts an appraising eye toward our waiting group. Glinting above her fringed chaps is a large oval Team Roping Champion belt buckle emblazoned with her name. I raise my eyebrows in admiration: That’s not a belt buckle one can buy; it can only be earned through soaking wet saddle blankets and years of hard work. Yep, this gal’s the real McCoy. No wonder she’s the only horse outfitter that TPW allows to operate out of Big Bend Ranch. The deft, gentle handling of the horses by Walker and her wranglers demonstrates both their experience and their love for their charges.

"Denise, you’ll take Fancy. Susan, you’ll be on Little Red," she says, matching each of us with the saddle and the horse she deems is the best fit. "Actually, anyone in the group could ride any one of my horses," confides Walker later. "They’ve all been raised in the Big Bend, either north or south of the border, and they’re used to the terrain and to going out more than 300 days a year. Many of them I’ve raised from my own mares."

It’s April, and thanks to plentiful spring rainfall, the Chihuahuan Desert is aflame with flower. There’s barely more than a horse’s hoof gap between the blooms festooning the desert floor. Riding just behind Walker as our group heads up the north trail away from the Sauceda, I twist in my saddle and look back over Little Red’s rump to the string of riders winding their way behind us. Diminutive in the vastness of the mountain ranges falling away behind us, we riders appear as tiny as a trail of ants in a jewelry box.

I fall in with TPW interpreter Bill Broyles, who can handily identify the 300-plus varieties of cactus indigenous to the ranch, now in full bloom. I recognize the spindly ocotillo (not a cactus but in a family by itself), with its startling flame-orange clusters of blossoms that tower over our heads even on horseback and the giant yucca with tree trunk-sized stalks and creamy white blooms. Three varieties of prickly pear grow here - the Engleman prickly pear, the spineless "blind pear" and the showy purple prickly pear. Broyles points out rainbow cactus, button cactus, strawberry pitaya cactus, claret cup and more - each in vivid bloom. Creosote bushes and candelilla punctuate the lower level of blooms. Three mule deer peer at us warily from atop a ridge and bound away. A hawk surfs the thermals overhead.

The Climb

Today’s ride takes us through the drainage area below Ojo Escondido Springs, where a giant cliff looms overhead. "That’s where we’re going," says Walker, pointing to the top of the cliff. "We’ll eat lunch up there." I scan the intimidating sheerness of rubble and rock for a trail, but my eye cannot pick one up. But soon, in a series of switchbacks, we are loosening our reins to let our horses put their heads down and work their way up a tiny rocky trail. To our left are giant looming boulders; a foot to the right of where the horses are carefully planting their feet, the rocks drop away to the valley below.

The word "breathtaking" has just taken on a whole new meaning for me. The silence of my saddlepals is tacit agreement.

At the top of the hill, I express my appreciation to Little Red with a series of pats, head scratches and murmured endearments, and my companions (who have also regained their voices) are doing the same. We dismount, and pull out our lunches, water, cameras and binoculars as the wranglers secure the horses. The landscape sweeps away from us in every direction as we slake our thirst and fall greedily on our lunches.

The afternoon ride, on a different route after we work our way down the steep trail, takes us on a big loop back to the ranch by late afternoon. Tired and exhilarated, we have time for a brief rest and shower before a fajita feast prepared by the TPW staff. Then we watch the sunset over the Bofecillos Mountains and a meadow of stars blooming in the darkening sky.

Down in Below

The next morning, we are at the corral even more promptly. Denise and husband Ralph, who rode the previous day, are volunteers with the Korima Foundation (see "Around the Bend," November 2000) and have stayed behind today. Walker offers me the chance at a new steed, and I quickly agree. Not only do I love the opportunity to try a new mount, I’m already envisioning sharing this experience with my son and daughter, and want to check out Walker’s horses. Different in gait and personality, Fancy is every bit as enjoyable as Little Red.

Whereas we had climbed the day before, today we ride in the arroyos, washes and gullies in the riparian zones. The wildflowers and blooming cactus are just as present, with the addition of willow and cottonwood in these more verdant areas. We startle a longhorn cow with two calves among the tangle of grasses. Quail dart through the understory. The ranch dog, Paco, chases jackrabbits until they outrun him and he returns, heaving and lop-tongued. "In his dreams, he catches them," says Walker with a smile, adding, "We all deserve to catch our dreams."

Our first dismount is mid-morning, with a short hike up to an overlook into a steep canyon with Cinco Tinajas (Five Little Pools) below. We continue down the dry riverbed to another big cluster of rocks, where cliffs and cottonwoods offer respite from the midday sun, and deep chasms are carved into the rock from centuries of raging torrents. "This is Los Baños," says Walker, "the bathtubs." We lunch in the cut between Los Baños, as ghosts of Comanches loom over the cliffs above, the deep pools reflecting their images and my thoughts.

El Despoblado, this land was called, the desolate and inhospitable place. Although the Chihuahuan Desert has encroached upon this land, and the prairie grasslands have given way to brush, even then it was a vast, empty land. The natives who lived here, from the Archaic Indians to the more recent Comanches and Kiowas, were hunter-gatherers and some all-round tough hombres to make a life in such a rock-encrusted, ruthless land.

Still, as I lay on my back near Los Baños with my horse grazing nearby, I could see the sense of it: Living on the high outcrops, there was safety from predators, flash floods and hostile intruders. At nightfall, one could slip down to the riparian zone with an atlatl (a primitive slingshot) when the animals came to drink and climb back up to the safety zone with both food and water to get you through the next day.

The afternoon ride takes us to a cave overhang with pictographs 1,000 to 3,000 years old drawn by Archaic Indians. "Some archeologists think this is possibly a birthing cave," explains Walker, "as the pictographs seem to show women in childbirth. Even more puzzling are the chevrons and crosses, nearly identical to those found in Australia and Africa. The stains should never be touched in any way; these paintings have survived more than a thousand years and are here for us to marvel and learn." Above this Archaic site, Walker and Broyles point out a cluster of metates, where women ground corn and other grains, and most likely watched over children while younger women and men hunted and gathered grain. "These indigenous people did not live long," says Broyles. "Most likely, the stone pebbles ground into their food wore down their teeth, and by their late twenties or early thirties, they were no longer able to eat."

Later that afternoon, we linger at the corral, reluctant to say goodbye. Strangers two days before, we are now saddlepals - the youngest, 16 years old and the oldest pushing 60 from one side or the other. Sun-bronzed and pleasantly saddle-sore, we embrace, take a few pictures and talk vaguely about meeting again.

Perhaps, like Paco finally catching his jackrabbits, we will ride together again in the dream world that laces thousands of years of human life together in the Big Bend Country.

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