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The Cosmos of Us- Riding Palo Pinto Mountains State Park

My time on a horse has been short compared to some. Before COVID, I always rode with a group, surrounded by the comradery of equestrians who knew more than me. A community willing to assist if needed, and they did. Many of my first rides took place within this safety net. They helped me learn and know horses, which in turn helped me learn about myself.

My fellow riders were there when I took my first fall on an old asphalt road from the back of a borrowed mare. They helped when I took my first horse to Bandera, only 2 ½ years old, nosing him up against the back of a wagon so he couldn’t run from what was surely monsters at every turn. When I didn’t know how to slow my second horse down, they helped again, and we rode backward through much of that trail ride. It seemed to fix the problem.

But in 2020, COVID reared its ugly head, and for a minute, my equine community was scared to be together, even in those wide-open spaces. State parks closed their doors, trail rides were canceled, and businesses shut down. Many horses and trailers sat idle.

As a self-proclaimed expert “Googler,” in the spring of 2020, I came across an invitation to ride the up-and-coming Palo Pinto Mountains State Park – a ride advertised by “Partners of the Park” across what would eventually be the newest Texas state park in over a decade. I couldn’t have salivated more if I was Pavlov’s dog.

For two years, I carried a Texas State Park brochure, tucked snugly in the dashboard of my truck like a good luck charm, highlighting all the parks that allowed horses. And I kept dreaming about my adventure. A month on the road, chasing my goal of riding all the Texas State Parks I could. Excitement built as I mapped our route. In September 2020, I finally went. In one month, horse, dog, and I rode and camped at fourteen different locations across Texas, as well as New Mexico and southern Colorado.

You get used to being alone. After that month on the road, I was different. My horse was different. He and the dog were my herd now, and I theirs.

Slowly replacing the family, I knew before. A family now in transition. In a lot of ways, I found it easier to be with my animals during that time. Riding alone, there is no one to catch you if you fall, but there is also no one to drop you; No one to tell you how to park and where, but no one to fall back on, and no one to blame except yourself when things go wrong.

The Palo Pinto ride was delayed twice that year, but I stayed in touch, and eventually, it took. Still natural and raw, the only excursions allowed were those orchestrated by the Partners of Palo Pinto Mountains. I joined immediately.

You can’t throw a quarter northwest of Dallas, Texas, without hitting a well-groomed lake or park but drive seventy-five miles west, and you’ll see nature at its finest. The unopened State Park sits just south of Possum Kingdom Lake and includes close to nearly 5,000 acres of plateaus, vistas, canyons, and creeks. An undeveloped sanctuary is an easy a day-trip from the Metroplex.

But riding with others now felt new to me, although I’d done it a million times in my prior life. True to typical fashion, I pulled in and found parking in relative isolation. Enough to require a stroll through the prairie grass to check in and socialize, allowing myself a place of retreat, if needed, back to my herd.

A low, cuesta-like range of hills, the ridge of Palo Pinto Mountains extends fifteen miles across north Texas. This is Cross Timbers region, an area of Texas known as a barrier to travel back in the day. The live oak, honey mesquite, and juniper are dense here. Difficult to penetrate and easy to go astray, even for those who’ve been here before.

Keeping to myself that first night, I set up camp against an orange sky fading into dark. We woke to an icy blanket of frost coating the field. Grass crunching underfoot, only rays of light penetrating its crisp demeanor.

Our group was mostly women that weekend, quiet at first, but even so, I was welcomed. Only one man among us, an old cowboy ponying a new ride. Down a dappled trail we rode that day, a railroad in the distance, part of the long-standing Texas and Pacific Rails, no doubt. A view reminiscent of the old west as we traveled horseback beside it.

Our lead rider had covered ground here many times and confidently guided us along an unmarked trail to the perfect lookout. I sat in awe of these ladies, many of whom lived and breathed horses their entire life. Me, a newbie, riding only these last 20 years. I was flattered to be asked how I tied my wild rag or where I found my hat. As the conversation around me continued, my shoulders slowly dropped, and my smile surfaced. In quiet, I rode, tucking my scarf and lifting my face, breathing in the smell of cedar.

We had one rodeo on the trail that day, but it was a repeater. Twice, the cowboy’s pony fell behind and ended up with a lead rope under his tail. As the horses circled desperately and confused, those nearby jumped in and did what riders do – they helped. Resulting in only one unplanned dismount that day.

Around the campfire, as dusk settled, the park Superintendent arrived with a guitar and a voice. And as the milky way spread her wings above, he sang. His wife accompanied in perfect tune, soothing the babies in her lap. Bonded together over their love for this land, it was clear. Wisps of smoke floated into the stars, the fire burned, and I melted with it. I admit I had trouble walking away that night.

"I have always felt more at peace with nature than people. In commune with her voice, feeling her beauty even with my eyes shut, surprisingly, I find, by acknowledging this truth, my community has grown. And me with it."

As I made my way from Palo Pinto to Fort Richardson and then Lake Arrowhead the next day, it occurred to me, from the first whisper of solitude in my ear, I had been searching for this. Having taken care of my mind and well-being, I was now ready to be part of the whole - the interconnectedness of others.

On this ride, I showed up as a new self, one I slowly tempted from the nest, and my solitary journey turned into laid-back comradery. And really, maybe I was never alone after all.


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