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Confessions of a Saddle Tramp

Big Bend National Park, Texas

By Shannon King

Sometimes the land wants you. It pulls on you and reminds you of your place in this world. I was lucky enough to find my place here in Brewster County. To have the chance to become something more and the strength to do it. This journey really began in the spring of 2019 with a goal to ride all the Texas state parks allowing horses. To go it alone. Now, after twenty-two state parks, two national parks, five national areas, and numerous Army Corp and local parks across Texas - here I am. A place I’ve been continually drawn toward since my first exposure.

The desert moves me. The wide-open spaces and secret places, the animals and plants which thrive in this environment – often against the odds. It speaks to a tenacity we could all have more of. There is a conviction here that resonates. A lot of people visit the Big Bend, some live it, many get lost in it – but almost everyone who comes acquires something special. I am no different. Few, however, traverse the national park on horseback. Horse camping is primitive; only one site out of ten has a corral, and many are difficult to access with a trailer. A confident mount, sure-footed, and in good shape is required. Roads and trails are longer than they seem, 77° feels closer to 90°, and everything can kill you (ok maybe that’s an exaggeration, but then again…)

Now with my home nearby, my horse Dex and I have set a goal to ride all the sections of Big Bend National. And why not? Big Bend is 800,000 acres (approximately 1250 square miles) of perfectly uncluttered, level-setting perspective. Time slows down here. I remember myself. Follow the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (or Old Maverick Road if you like it rough) to the ghost settlement of Castolon and you’ll see proof that way hardier souls than I have traveled this land and made their life here.

Since the early 1900’s Americans have been farming and living along the Rio Grande. Braving American Indians, Mexican raiders, drought, and hardship. We are not even close to the first people here, and we will not be the last. This land is greater than us, and as such, we owe it respect. Big Bend is known for its challenging backroads, and the River Road does not disappoint. Fifty-one miles of high clearance four-wheel drive make for an all-day adventure. There are numerous primitive campsites along this route, five of which allow horses.

Parking just inside the west intersection of Ross Maxwell and River Road, we ride toward the Buenos Aires campsite. Sunset is not far behind, exploring washouts and hidden canyons as we go. We step carefully through rocks and boulders caressed by water over thousands of years. Arriving at Buenos Aires, the Rio Grande teases from below and our view wanders into Mexico. The river is protected here. Brush surrounds her forming an almost impenetrable wall. I wonder as I gaze upon her, how long does it take to heal? To become whole again.

The Big Bend area has been “healing” for thousands of years. There are the things you can see: signs of prehistoric volcanic activity, leftover effects of warring Indian tribes, Mexicans, Americans, overgrazing, and mining. And there are the things you can’t see, those less visible. Today the Rio Grande is a shell of what she once was. A result of things happening far, far away from the Big Bend. Reservoirs and diversions upstream, created to make this river our own, pull from her power. At least seven species of fish have disappeared from the Rio Grande. Yet she survives, and to know her secrets would be a gift. One hundred years ago, under the full moon, the Comanche Indians rode down from the plains each fall to raid Mexican villages - leaving a trail a mile wide in some places. Travelers to Big Bend taking Highway 385 out of Fort Stockton essentially follow this path today.

Down in the park itself, the La Clocha campsite is the general area where thousands of Comanche warriors are thought to have crossed the Rio Grande on this trek to Mexico. So, of course, it had to be ridden. Approaching now from River Road east, I saddled up and took off down the 2.6 miles to La Clocha, horse moving at a slow, easy pace - the heat stretching each mile into two. It is noticeably warmer near the rive, by at least 10 degrees. The surrounding land articulates desert at every turn, but the river is an oasis encased in thick green. I don’t want to leave. The Rio Grande is shallow here and you can easily imagine horses crossing... churning up mud and wat and splashing as they go.

Did the Comanche announce their presence with piercing war cries, or did they approach in silence, waking their victims in terror under the full moon? As we pondered this and other life mysteries, my horse drank from the river, and I drank from the can. We smiled... both of us. So again, I ask - how long does it take to heal, and how long to forget? I don’t know. I only know this desert renews. I sit in silence, and it knows me it eases my mind. This vastness filled with intimacy calms. And as this land recovers and grows, filled with persistence and wonder - I will also make my path and move on. Different, but still beautiful as the desert and river around me. And I think I will go silently and surprise you in the night.

Born and raised in Texas, Shannon has lived in central Texas for the past 31 years. In 2014, she discovered the west and our beautiful Chihuahuan desert and knew immediately this was where she was meant to be. Finally, this March, she is at home. A horse lover, Shannon has slowly built a following by riding and camping all over Texas and southern New Mexico while telling her stories as a woman traveling alone. She hopes to inspire other women to pursue their dreams and feel confident in doing so.


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