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The wild horses of Coyote Creek

Abandoned years ago in the rugged Anza-Borrego, the elusive horses have made it their home.

In the spring of 1986, BLM estimated there were forty horses living in the northern portion of Anza-Borrego, in the three tributary canyons of Coyote Creek: Horse Canyon, Nance Canyon, and Tule Canyon.
In the spring of 1986, BLM estimated there were forty horses living in the northern portion of Anza-Borrego, in the three tributary canyons of Coyote Creek: Horse Canyon, Nance Canyon, and Tule Canyon.

The first time I met Vern Whitaker, two years ago, he was celebrating his seventy-third birthday in the back of a camper parked beside a horse corral in the Anza-Borrego Desert. The camper looked about what you’d expect the home of a seventy-three-year-old bachelor cowboy to look like. There was a pile of dirty dishes in the sink, a pot of coffee strong enough to float a horseshoe boiled on the stove, and the little camper, not quite high enough to stand up straight in, smelled of dust, leather, and stale horse manure.

Vern Whitaker: “It was during World War II, when young fellas like yourself figured they could go into San Diego and make more money than they could out here on the ranches. They turned their horses loose in the canyons."

Somebody had given Vern a pink birthday cake that day, in the shape of a voluptuous female nude, and when he cut the cake for his guests, he awarded me with one of the cherry-tipped breasts. It was so large it made the paper plate buckle. I considered Vern’s generosity a fine display of Western hospitality and ate the whole piece, though it took a second cup of his awful coffee to get it all down.

Wild horse roundup. “Some people call them horses up there ‘mustangs,’ but that ain’t right."

When I got around to seeing Vern again, in October of this year, he still hadn't washed his dishes. He lived in the same camper, parked at the same corral at a horse camp seven miles north of Borrego Springs. Vern lives there year-round, managing the camp as a volunteer ranger for Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. It was a quiet morning — no one was staying at the camp except Vern — and I found him sitting alone in the back of the camper staring west out the open door toward the mountains.

Upper Coyote Canyon. I was the only human in the canyon that night — probably the only human for ten miles in any direction. When the moon rose over the Santa Rosa Mountains, I heard a wild cow bawling up Tule Creek.

“Vern,” I said, interrupting his solitude, “I was hoping you might be able to tell me something about these wild horses that live up the canyon.”

Vern was recovering from a bout with the flu, and he looked a bit worn. So far that day he’d gotten around to pulling his boots on, but he still hadn’t put in his front teeth. He pushed aside a cup of chicken noodle soup he’d been stirring without interest. Talking about wild horses seemed to be something he had an appetite for. “I’ll tell you whatever I know,” he said.

“Them Indians up there would just as soon shoot you as look at you."

Vern had been chasing wild horses all his life, in Texas, Oklahoma, and now California. There weren’t many wranglers who knew more about the subject of wild horses than he did — and none who knew more about the herd on Coyote Creek. He has spent much of the last ten years riding through the canyons of Anza-Borrego, observing the horses’ habits and the places they go for water and feed.

“I just inventoried that herd up in Anza-Borrego about five, six months ago."

“I’ll tell you when the trouble really started,” Vern said, talking in barely a whisper. “It was during World War II, when all the young fellas like yourself figured they could go into San Diego and make more money than they could living out here on the ranches. They turned their horses loose in the canyons — didn’t want ’em anymore.”

“The studs have been stealing mares. I just got a call the other day from some people — the Tweedies — who live up on Table Mountain. They lost a mare."

Vern considered it an injustice that the ranchers would abandon their animals, a violation of the terms of a very old bond between man and domestic animals. But as he said, pointing out the window, up Coyote Creek, “Mother Nature give everything the ability to survive on its own, and that’s what those horses did.”

The federal Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the public lands north of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, estimates there may be as many as 44,000 wild horses on the open rangelands of the West. In California there are about 3000 wild horses, most of them in the northeastern corner of the state. There is a herd of about a thousand horses in the Mojave Desert, near Ridgecrest, but the only wild horses in the southern third of the state are in the Coyote Creek area of Anza-Borrego. The BLM’s most recent survey of the herd, done in the spring of 1986, estimated there were forty horses living in the northern portion of Anza-Borrego, in the three tributary canyons of Coyote Creek: Horse Canyon, Nance Canyon, and Tule Canyon.

The BLM says nobody really knows where the wild horses of Coyote Creek came from or how long they’ve been there. Apparently, though, their origins aren’t as old as some of the wild horses of the American West. “Some people call them horses up there ‘mustangs,’ ” Vern said, shaking his head, “but that ain’t right. A mustang is a little bitty animal that’s lived wild for generations. These animals are all pretty good lookin’ sorrels that were tame just fifty years ago.”

Some of the wild horses in the western United States are descendants of horses introduced by the Spanish more than 300 years ago. For the last 150 years. Western horsemen like Vern Whitaker have been capturing these wild horses to be tamed for domestic use on cattle ranches. The wild horses were valued for their sure-footed sensibility and great reserves of stamina, though they lacked the highly developed conformation and athletic ability of the finely bred domestic horses. In captivity, the wild horses were bred with the domestic horses, and sometimes the cowboy “mustangers” would turn loose domestically bred studs to improve the wild herds.

After the turn of the century, the need for ranch horses began to decline, and fewer wild horses were captured and domesticated. Left on their own, the wild horses continued to reproduce prolifically, until some cattle ranchers in the West decided the wild herds had grown too large and were competing with their cattle. Some ranchers then shot or poisoned the wild horses by the thousands. At other times, the horses were captured and sold to slaughterhouses, where they were butchered for dog food.

In 1971, in response to highly emotional public outrage, Congress passed the Wild Horse and Burro Act, which protected the wild horses as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.” Though private cowboys are not allowed to capture the wild horses anymore, the BLM has set limits on the numbers of horses allowed to run wild in specific areas, and to meet these goals, the BLM has begun capturing wild horses. The BLM’s management plan for the horses in Coyote Canyon calls for the complete elimination of the herd. The major reason for this is to protect the peninsula bighorn sheep, an endangered species, which the BLM’s resource managers believe must compete with the horses for forage and water.

In addition to the problem with the bighorn sheep, the BLM also believes the wild horses of Coyote Creek have been a nuisance to nearby horse owners in the Anza Valley, about thirty-five miles east of Temecula. Wild studs tend to seek out and control as many mares as they can, and it seems the Coyote Creek studs have been making raids on the small horse ranches of Anza to steal domestic mares. “There’s a pretty little paint mare in the herd right now that the studs stole from the Tweedies, up on Table Mountain, just a few months ago,” Vern said. “They may never get her back; it’s hard to say.”

As for the BLM’s plan to capture the wild horses in Coyote Canyon, Vern says, “There’s good and bad to it, just like everything.” But he doubts that the horses are a threat to the bighorns. “The horses ain’t hurtin’ anything in the park. Nothin’ else gonna live in that country. And if the people up above would fix their fences right, the wild horses wouldn’t get in their corrals in the first place.”

For the time being, the BLM has no immediate plans to act on their goal of eliminating the Coyote Creek herd. Capturing wild horses can be an expensive proposition, and capturing that particular herd would be especially difficult since the territory they roam is so remote. “They never would catch all of ’em anyway,” Vern said. “Not in that country. It’s too rough.” As an old mustanger, what concerns Vern most is animal husbandry — improving the quality of the herd. “If you ask me, what they really oughta do is turn some studs loose into the herd now and then. Some of them are getting kinda jugheaded from too much inbreeding.” Vern said he believed the small herd in Coyote Canyon would be increasing by three or four horses a year if it weren’t for horse thieves who make raids on the herd. Apparently the horse thieves drive as far as they can down the rough dirt roads south of Anza, then ride into Coyote Creek on horseback. “They’d have a pretty hard time trying to steal the full-grown horses,” Vern told me, “so they go in and rope the young foals.”

The Cahuilla and Santa Rosa Indian reservations border the BLM lands where the wild horses roam, and Vern says the Indians have taken measures to discourage the thieves from stealing the wild horses. “Some of the horse thieves got their vehicles shot up not long ago,” he said with a smile, indicating his appreciation of justice.

Whether the wild horses are stolen by horse thieves or captured and removed by the federal government, their future in Coyote Creek seemed to be an uncertain one, and I had decided sometime ago I wanted to see them before they were gone. “Vern ” I said, “if somebody wanted to go up there and look for those horses, what kind of advice would you give him?”

Vern frowned at the thought. He didn’t know me well enough to judge whether or not I was a horse thief. “Them Indians up there would just as soon shoot you as look at you,” he warned.

“All I want to do is see them,” I said.

That seemed to satisfy Vern, and he considered my question again. “Well, you won’t get too close to ’em.” (Great horse trackers didn’t usually come from San Diego, he seemed to be thinking.) “Your best bet would be to stay up high on the ridges and see if you can see them down in the canyons. Those horses don’t have much use for people. That’s why they’re living clear up there the hell and gone.”

After the passage of the Wild Horse and Burro Act, the numbers of wild horses on public lands grew for several years. Between 1974 and 1978, the wild horses increased from about 45,000 to 57,000, before diminishing to about 44,000 by 1986 as a result of their capture by the BLM. That figure is still considerably higher than the BLM’s estimated appropriate management level of about 22,000 wild horses on public lands. In California the total number of wild horses on public lands remains at about 3000, even though 1600 horses have been captured in California since 1974. (By comparison, the number of wild horses in Nevada has increased from 21,000 in 1974 to more than 30,000 in 1986.) To the BLM’s frustration, the wild horses in California are reproducing as fast as they can be captured.

Once the wild horses have been caught, federal law requires that they be fed and cared for by the BLM until they can be put up for “adoption” by the public. The current fee for “adopting” a wild horse is $135, and after caring for them for a period of at least one year, the new owners receive title to the horses. If the old, sick, or deformed animals are deemed unadoptable, the BLM has the authority to have them destroyed, but in 1981, due to public outcry, the BLM placed a self-imposed moratorium on destroying any of the captured horses. Since then the number of unadopted horses has grown to more than 10,000 animals, which the BLM must maintain in government-contracted feed lots at a cost of about $2.25 per animal per day, or nearly seven million dollars per year. The BLM is aware that public opinion will not allow them to destroy these captured horses, even though the number of both wild and captured horses continues to grow. Meanwhile, the BLM is conducting research on fertility control of wild horses in hopes of reducing the wild herds in that way, and they are promoting their wild-horse adoption program to reduce the number of captured horses.

A few days before my conversation with Vern Whitaker, the BLM held a wild horse and burro adoption at the rodeo grounds at Lakeside. I put on my denims, cowboy boots, and the most Western-looking surfer shirt I owned and went for a look.

There were maybe a hundred captured horses there that day, ranging in color from bay to sorrel to gray. They stood in the corrals with their heads down and their ears slouched back in boredom. Most of them were small and not what you could call pretty. Their many scars and deformities indicated that life in the wilds had been hard on them. They lacked the heavy muscle development and fine sheen of grain-fed domestic horses, but their lackluster appearance was partly due to the stresses of domestic life, which they weren’t accustomed to. As Vern told me later, “You get ’em out of them corrals and they look a lot better.”

The two men responsible for capturing most of those animals, BLM wranglers Art Di Grazia and Rick Ekwortzel, were there to answer the questions of prospective horse adopters. Art sat on the fence railing, while Rick sat astride his horse, looking as comfortable as if he were at home in his favorite easy chair. They were both good-natured fellows, and had reason to be. Very few wranglers ever found work as steady or high-paying as they had with the BLM, and the only concessions they had to make to a BLM uniform were a green silk scarf around their necks and a BLM patch on the shoulder of their denim jackets.

“I just inventoried that herd up in Anza-Borrego about five, six months ago,” Art said, motioning for me to climb the fence railing and sit beside him. “We found forty some-odd horses, most of them in that Coyote Creek country.”

“How’d you get in there?” I wondered, knowing the roads were bad, even for a four-wheel drive.

Art looked embarrassed and glanced at Rick. “Well, we cheated,” he said. “We used a B-2 helicopter.”

So much for the romantic notion of the cowboy relying on his instincts to outsmart the wild horses, I thought. Wrangling ain't what it used to be.

“How’d the horses look?” I asked.

“They were in pretty good shape. There’s a lotta feed in there. They’re not real big horses, but they’re good and fat.”

“I heard they were getting in trouble with the landowners up in Anza,” I said.

“There has been some trouble with that herd,” Art nodded. “The studs have been stealing mares. I just got a call the other day from some people — the Tweedies — who live up on Table Mountain. They lost a mare, and when we gather up those horses, they wanted to be sure they got their mare back.”

“How exactly does a stud go about stealing a mare?” I asked, knowing I was risking ridicule with the question.

Both wranglers looked down, trying not to laugh. It was the kind of question they might have expected to hear down in the big city. “Aw, hell,” Art finally said, “he just goes in there and knocks the fence down and steals her. The other studs in the herd will try and steal her away, so he’s got to protect her. You can see for yourself that most of these horses here got scars all over ’em from fighting each other.”

“It’s just like a buncha young fellas in the bar fighting over some gal,” Rick said, matter-of-factly. “Same thing.” His face was shaved unevenly, as though shaving was something he didn't do very often, and then, by feel.

“How do you go about catching a wild horse, anyway?” I wondered.

“Well, we pick a trail they use to go to water,” Art said. “Then we build a big trap enclosure, with big wide wings leading into it. Sometimes we cheat and use the helicopter to herd them into it. We also use what we call parade horses, kinda like Judas horses. We hold them a hundred yards or so outside the trap, and when the wild horses get close, we turn these parade horses loose and they run toward the trap. The wild horses just follow ’em on in.”

The system seemed to work. All the horses in the corrals that day had been captured that way — most of them in northern California, near Susanville. “None of these horses look like they’re ever gonna become show horses,” I said.

Art shook his head. “No, there’s not a lot of feed out there where some of them come from, so they’re not going to develop like a domestic horse. And it isn’t always the best breeding situation out there, either. You might have this big ol' stud breeding this little bitty mare. So what comes out is maybe a roller coaster [sway back], jughead [head too large for the body], pig’s eye [small and squinty], upside-down neck [U-shaped], bench knee, sickle hock — you name it. But when we come to these adoptions, we try to pick horses with good conformation. We don’t bring anything that we know isn’t gonna get adopted.”

“Does a wild horse have more common sense than a domestic horse?” I asked. I’d heard that the old mustangers used to breed the wild mustangs with their “hot-blooded” domestic horses to tone them down a little and get some natural savvy back into their animals.

“They definitely do,” Art said. “Out in the country, they gotta find feed and they gotta find water. Ain’t nobody throwing hay at ’em every day. They gotta know the country they live in. They gotta depend on themselves, and to survive, their instincts have to get sharper than a domestic horse.

“They do have some predators out there,” Art went on. “Wild cats [mountain lions] will take a foal — in fact. I’ve seen that happen, up on Hunter Mountain [in Inyo County, near Death Valley]. But mostly, the only predator a wild horse has is man.”

“Do ranchers have much interest in adopting these horses for work horses?” I asked.

Rick nodded. “Some of the big ranchers are interested in adopting them for their circle horses. Say a cowboy’s gotta ride a big route through the rocks and hills. Well, these horses are the best you can have for a job like that. As a general rule, a domestic horse has about a quarter-inch wall on its foot — pretty thin, really. But one of these wild horses will have a three-quarter-inch wall. They’re out in the rocks all the time, so their feet just get tough. They have the best feet of any horse in the world.

“If I was bringing a cow off that hill,” Rick continued, pointing to a rocky knoll east of the rodeo grounds, “I’d just as soon be riding one of these wild horses. He knows the rocky country, and he pays attention to what he’s doing. These wild horses are the best damn rock smashers there are.”

“You guys sound like you’re kind of fond of them.”

“Well,” Art said, “after a while you learn to have a respect for them. They didn’t ask to go to that desert country. Somebody turned them loose out there, and now they’ve made it their home.”

“I consider them survivors,” Rick agreed.

“If somebody wanted to go out to Anza-Borrego looking for that herd,” I said, “somebody without a helicopter, would you have any advice for them?” Art sucked in his breath and folded his arms across his chest. “If I was you, I’d go talk to Vern Whitaker. That old boy knows more about that herd than anybody else. He’s been watching them for years.”

Most of the cowboys I’ve known, young or old, didn’t need much of an excuse to go off on a lark, and I suppose when I did go talk to Vern, I had a notion in the back of my mind that he would want to go along with me. What better excuse could there possibly be for going off on a lark than to look for wild horses? But when I saw the shape Vern was in after his bout with the flu, I didn’t even ask.

Before I said so long to Vern, I asked him one last question: did he think my four-wheel-drive pickup would make it to the head of Coyote Canyon? Vern squinted and frowned as he looked my truck over. “Might make it,” he finally said. “That road’ll beat hell out of it, though.”

Vern’s warning turned out to be typical cowboy understatement. The four-wheel-drive road up Coyote Creek followed the same route Juan de Anza and Father Francisco Garcés had taken on their journey from Sonora to San Francisco in 1775, and it seemed that was the last time anybody made any improvements on it. In several places, the road followed the creek bed, which had maybe a foot of water running in it at the time. There were narrow passages through the thick willows, boulder fields to be negotiated, sand traps, mud bogs, and steep banks. The luxury of riding in a vehicle was not worth the worry of wondering whether every turn would be the last my truck ever made. Walking would have been faster. Earlier, I had considered bringing a mountain bike, which would have been ideal for the terrain. But I had rejected the bike idea because it somehow didn’t seem like an appropriate form of travel for tracking wild horses — it would be poor style. After I saw the road, though, I realized why the BLM wranglers used a helicopter and didn’t worry about style.

At dusk I arrived at the head of Coyote Canyon, at a place called Turkey Track, where three tributaries of Coyote Creek — Tule, Nance, and Horse canyons — branch off, like the three toes of a giant turkey. It’s an area of sandy washes and cactus-covered alkaline flats, surrounded by dark, almost purple, mountains.

I was the only human in the canyon that night — probably the only human for ten miles in any direction. Before dark I walked in a circle on the canyon floor and found fresh, barefoot (unshod) horse tracks. There were also the tracks of wild cows, and later, when the moon rose over the Santa Rosa Mountains, I heard one of them bawling up Tule Creek. It was a forlorn song that lonely cow sang, one that seemed to cut through the romance of a life in the wilds and honestly assess the many disadvantages of freedom. There was no relief for either of us until sunrise.

At first light, I started walking up Horse Canyon. It was the largest of the tributaries, covering something like twenty square miles, and the only one of the canyons with running water at this time of the year. There were fresh horse tracks going in all directions, as well as many large spoor piles, some of them three or four feet in diameter. Wild horses tend to be territorial, and the spoor piles are their way of marking their territory. Domestic horses rarely leave such piles: either they have lost their sense of territory, or they are too hurried to build them, having been taught that all-too-human habit of shitting on the run. Even for horses, though, life in the wilds allows the pursuit of simple pleasures.

A mile up the canyon, the creek stopped flowing and the horse tracks began to circle back. I climbed out of the creek bed, to the cholla-covered flats above. There were probably springs farther up the canyon, where, now that the first rainfall of the wet season had come, the horses went to drink; as far as I knew, they could be hiding out at any of them. I spent the morning and part of the afternoon walking a half-circle across the canyon, hoping to cut tracks. But I found no more fresh signs. Either the horses weren’t in Horse Canyon, or they were far up in the canyon and had been there a long time.

Later that afternoon, I walked up Nance Canyon. It was much smaller than Horse Canyon, perhaps only five or six square miles, and was completely dry. I found no fresh sign of horses there at all.

For the second night in a row, the lonesome cow bawled in the moonlight. The first night it had won my sympathy, but the second night I figured it was just feeling sorry for itself, and I wished it would shut up.

As I lay there in the dark, listening to the disillusioned cow’s complaint, I wondered about the wild horses’ rights to Coyote Canyon. The BLM’s decision to eliminate them was based on the fact that wild horses are territorial and will sometimes run off intruders, such as the bighorn sheep, which they see as a threat to their water and forage. Also, the horses will remain in an area long after the best forage is gone and will continue to eat whatever forage is available until the area is damaged or destroyed. As one BLM resource manager explained to me, “Wild horses will eat almost anything except rocks. I've seen them eat other horses’ tails, just so they’d have something in their stomachs.”

But I had seen no evidence that Horse Canyon or Nance Canyon had been damaged by the horses, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the horses were getting a bad rap. There has been some concern that wild horses, burros, and cattle might pass diseases to the bighorn sheep, but it hasn't been proven that this is even possible, and at any rate, the wild horses captured by the BLM in other places had been shown to be almost entirely free of disease. While it was true that the horses were not native to the area. Congress had already determined that the wild horses were to be protected because of their historical significance to the American people. Though the BLM’s intention of protecting the bighorn sheep was an admirable one, it seemed to me that the wild horses had earned a right to live there as well. This was an animal that had been brought to the American continent as a beast of burden, and then when it was no longer of use, had been abandoned; it had found a place for itself in a very harsh environment and had made that place home; furthermore, Coyote Canyon was the last place in Southern California where they survived.

In the morning, I started walking up Title Canyon. It was a large though narrow canyon, covering perhaps twenty-five square miles. From the very mouth of the canyon, I saw nothing but fresh cow tracks. I walked a couple of miles, just to make sure there were no horse tracks too, then turned back.

By midmorning I was back at Turkey Track wondering where I’d gone wrong. There were dozens of side canyons in the area, and it would take days to explore each one of them. But an animal that weighed a thousand pounds and left a spoor pile as big as a bushel of apples simply should not be that hard to find. It hurt my pride that I had been so unsuccessful.

There was one alternative I hadn’t tried yet, though: from Turkey Track, the four-wheel-drive road climbed up out of Coyote Canyon, out of the state park, through the BLM lands on Table Mountain, and eventually into the small town of Anza. The horses could have gone that way, though I couldn’t imagine why, with sufficient water and feed in the lower and mid portions of their territory.

I walked up the road just a few hundred yards, and sure enough, found the tracks of at least a dozen barefoot horses, including a couple of foals, heading up the road. While I had been grubbing around in the cactus and sage, the horses had gone to town.

I went back for the truck and started driving up the road. The first 300 yards were so badly rutted I really didn’t think I would be able to continue. But I put the truck in low gear and barely managed to bump and scrape along.

As the road continued to climb, there were several good vistas into the canyons below, and I stopped now and then to see if the horses had doubled back and dropped into the canyons. But no, their tracks always continued on, as though they knew exactly where they were going.

After a few miles, the road leveled off a bit as it approached the top of Table Mountain. The sage and creosote of the low desert thickened into an almost impenetrable chaparral of redshank. I heard a dog bark in the distance and knew I was getting close to civilization again.

I couldn’t be sure, but I thought the first few homes I came to were on the Cahuilla Indian Reservation. After Vern's warnings about the Indians of the Anza Valley, I didn’t stop to ask. The horse tracks continued until I came to the first subdivision, where a bulldozer stood next to a big sign that read, “High Country Ranches — 5-10-20-40 acres.” At that point, I began picking up the tracks of horses wearing shoes —domestic horses — while the barefoot tracks seemed to scatter in all directions, and it became impossible to follow them any farther.

I drove into Anza and filled up the truck with gas. It wasn’t much of a town — just a few roadside businesses strung along the highway. I went to a phone booth and found a tattered old phone book, but after flipping through the pages, I saw that the name I hoped to find wasn’t there. The trail of the wild horses was fast turning cold.

I drove back out to Table Mountain and began looking for names on the mailboxes. There were a lot more people living in the Anza Valley than I would have imagined, and after about an hour of searching, I began to think my efforts were hopeless.

Then I finally had some good luck. Instead of finding a mailbox with the name “Tweedie,” I found an entire road named Tweedie, and there was only one house on it.

Don Tweedie came to the door in his socks and gave me that look country people give to strangers who have the audacity to come knocking on their door. He was a balding man in his fifties, white-skinned, apparently sober. There seemed a fair chance he wouldn’t shoot me.

‘Afternoon,” I said. “Are you the Tweedies who lost the little paint mare to the wild horses?”

“Have you seen her?” he asked.

“No, sir,” I said. “I’m looking for the wild horses. I thought you might have seen them.’’

He stepped out on his front porch for a closer look at me. He smiled just a bit, the way people do to humor children or the possibly insane. “You know,” he said, “I saw those wild horses just two days ago, right over there,” and he pointed to a brushy knoll a hundred yards from his house.

I looked where he pointed, half-expecting to see the horses.

“There were three of them,” he said, “a stud, a mare, and a little foal. The mare looked a bit thin, but the foal seemed fine. Sorrels, all of them.”

He went on to explain that the paint mare that had been stolen by the herd was named Peaches and belonged to his daughter-in-law, Kathy Tweedie, who was heartbroken over the loss.

“What happened, anyway?” I wondered. “Did the wild horses just come in and knock the corrals down, or what?”

“You know,” Don Tweedie said, “I don’t think Peaches was even inside a fence at the time. I don’t think Kathy thought Peaches would run off.”

He said he hadn’t heard of any other horse owners in Anza having trouble with the wild horses. “I did have one other run-in with them, though,” he said. “One of the studs got into my corral and got to one of my mares. She was kind of a high-strung mare,” he rolled his eyes to indicate what a problem she had been, “but she dropped a very nice little foal. So I didn’t mind that at all.”

“What about Peaches?” I asked. “Are you still looking for her?”

“Oh, I don’t think there’s much we can do,” he said. “My guess is that even if Kathy does get Peaches back, she won’t stay. Once a wild stud has gotten to a mare, that’s it, you can’t keep ’em.”

From the Tweedie place, I drove to the knoll where Don Tweedie had last seen the wild horses. As soon as I got out of the truck, I found fresh, barefoot horse tracks.

After circling around for a while, the tracks headed out the old, rutted Table Mountain Road, going south, back toward the upper end of Horse Canyon. There were moist spoor piles all along the way — they couldn't have been more than a few hours old — but the chaparral was so thick I could have walked within twenty feet of a horse and never known it. There were occasional openings in the brush where I could look into the canyons below, but the red tint of the chaparral made looking for a sorrel-colored horse like searching for a gray balloon in the fog. Most of the horse tracks did seem to continue along the road, though the size of the herd was getting smaller all the time.

After a mile or so, I came to a barbed-wire fence with a locked gate across the road. There the horse tracks began to double back and disappear into the brush. I considered my search for the wild horses nearly hopeless at this point. The day was getting hot, and I was hungry and tired.

I climbed over the gate and continued walking for another mile or so, until the road began descending rapidly. I left the road and walked through the brush until I came to a point where I could look out over Horse Canyon and see much of the land I had walked over the day before, some thousand feet below. I had nearly searched in a complete circle, and the closest I had come to a wild horse was a wet pile of turds. They had looked about like any other horse turds you might find.

I sat on a rock to rest for a while, but I couldn’t stop searching the landscape below me. It seemed as though every billow of redshank within a mile began to take on the shape of a horse’s rump every time the wind rippled through it. I had brought a pocket-size telescope with me, and I spent an hour or so using it to examine each horse my imagination could conjure.

The afternoon was so warm that I assumed any animal with any sense would be waiting out the heat of the day, and I was wondering if Anza had some dark beer tavern where I might do the same. Then my eye was attracted by movement along an old fire road nearly a half-mile away. The road was the color of yellow clay, and there were three sorrel-colored shapes moving slowly down its steep grade. They looked too small to be cattle, but I was so far away I couldn’t tell for sure. I took the telescope from my lap and tried desperately to find them. I finally was able to focus on one horse’s rump for maybe five seconds before it dropped behind a rise in the road and disappeared into Horse Canyon.

I suppose I could have pursued the horses down the fire road, but it was obvious they knew their territory a lot better than I did, and I might have followed them for another three days without getting a better look. So I decided to let them “escape.”

The Bureau of Land Management learned a long time ago that it’s impossible to try to talk logically with people about a solution to the problem of wild horses. Maybe it’s because we feel such a great debt to horses for having been our beasts of burden for so many centuries, but we simply do not seem capable of removing our emotions from any discussion about them. Before going to Coyote Creek, I had considered the BLM’s decision to capture the wild horses there a good one, a logical one, and the logical part of me still does. But another part of me hopes old Vern Whitaker was right when he said, “They never will catch ‘em all. Not in that country.”

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Fiddle music, Billy Joel, and Purcell trumpet sonata
In the spring of 1986, BLM estimated there were forty horses living in the northern portion of Anza-Borrego, in the three tributary canyons of Coyote Creek: Horse Canyon, Nance Canyon, and Tule Canyon.
In the spring of 1986, BLM estimated there were forty horses living in the northern portion of Anza-Borrego, in the three tributary canyons of Coyote Creek: Horse Canyon, Nance Canyon, and Tule Canyon.

The first time I met Vern Whitaker, two years ago, he was celebrating his seventy-third birthday in the back of a camper parked beside a horse corral in the Anza-Borrego Desert. The camper looked about what you’d expect the home of a seventy-three-year-old bachelor cowboy to look like. There was a pile of dirty dishes in the sink, a pot of coffee strong enough to float a horseshoe boiled on the stove, and the little camper, not quite high enough to stand up straight in, smelled of dust, leather, and stale horse manure.

Vern Whitaker: “It was during World War II, when young fellas like yourself figured they could go into San Diego and make more money than they could out here on the ranches. They turned their horses loose in the canyons."

Somebody had given Vern a pink birthday cake that day, in the shape of a voluptuous female nude, and when he cut the cake for his guests, he awarded me with one of the cherry-tipped breasts. It was so large it made the paper plate buckle. I considered Vern’s generosity a fine display of Western hospitality and ate the whole piece, though it took a second cup of his awful coffee to get it all down.

Wild horse roundup. “Some people call them horses up there ‘mustangs,’ but that ain’t right."

When I got around to seeing Vern again, in October of this year, he still hadn't washed his dishes. He lived in the same camper, parked at the same corral at a horse camp seven miles north of Borrego Springs. Vern lives there year-round, managing the camp as a volunteer ranger for Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. It was a quiet morning — no one was staying at the camp except Vern — and I found him sitting alone in the back of the camper staring west out the open door toward the mountains.

Upper Coyote Canyon. I was the only human in the canyon that night — probably the only human for ten miles in any direction. When the moon rose over the Santa Rosa Mountains, I heard a wild cow bawling up Tule Creek.

“Vern,” I said, interrupting his solitude, “I was hoping you might be able to tell me something about these wild horses that live up the canyon.”

Vern was recovering from a bout with the flu, and he looked a bit worn. So far that day he’d gotten around to pulling his boots on, but he still hadn’t put in his front teeth. He pushed aside a cup of chicken noodle soup he’d been stirring without interest. Talking about wild horses seemed to be something he had an appetite for. “I’ll tell you whatever I know,” he said.

“Them Indians up there would just as soon shoot you as look at you."

Vern had been chasing wild horses all his life, in Texas, Oklahoma, and now California. There weren’t many wranglers who knew more about the subject of wild horses than he did — and none who knew more about the herd on Coyote Creek. He has spent much of the last ten years riding through the canyons of Anza-Borrego, observing the horses’ habits and the places they go for water and feed.

“I just inventoried that herd up in Anza-Borrego about five, six months ago."

“I’ll tell you when the trouble really started,” Vern said, talking in barely a whisper. “It was during World War II, when all the young fellas like yourself figured they could go into San Diego and make more money than they could living out here on the ranches. They turned their horses loose in the canyons — didn’t want ’em anymore.”

“The studs have been stealing mares. I just got a call the other day from some people — the Tweedies — who live up on Table Mountain. They lost a mare."

Vern considered it an injustice that the ranchers would abandon their animals, a violation of the terms of a very old bond between man and domestic animals. But as he said, pointing out the window, up Coyote Creek, “Mother Nature give everything the ability to survive on its own, and that’s what those horses did.”

The federal Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the public lands north of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, estimates there may be as many as 44,000 wild horses on the open rangelands of the West. In California there are about 3000 wild horses, most of them in the northeastern corner of the state. There is a herd of about a thousand horses in the Mojave Desert, near Ridgecrest, but the only wild horses in the southern third of the state are in the Coyote Creek area of Anza-Borrego. The BLM’s most recent survey of the herd, done in the spring of 1986, estimated there were forty horses living in the northern portion of Anza-Borrego, in the three tributary canyons of Coyote Creek: Horse Canyon, Nance Canyon, and Tule Canyon.

The BLM says nobody really knows where the wild horses of Coyote Creek came from or how long they’ve been there. Apparently, though, their origins aren’t as old as some of the wild horses of the American West. “Some people call them horses up there ‘mustangs,’ ” Vern said, shaking his head, “but that ain’t right. A mustang is a little bitty animal that’s lived wild for generations. These animals are all pretty good lookin’ sorrels that were tame just fifty years ago.”

Some of the wild horses in the western United States are descendants of horses introduced by the Spanish more than 300 years ago. For the last 150 years. Western horsemen like Vern Whitaker have been capturing these wild horses to be tamed for domestic use on cattle ranches. The wild horses were valued for their sure-footed sensibility and great reserves of stamina, though they lacked the highly developed conformation and athletic ability of the finely bred domestic horses. In captivity, the wild horses were bred with the domestic horses, and sometimes the cowboy “mustangers” would turn loose domestically bred studs to improve the wild herds.

After the turn of the century, the need for ranch horses began to decline, and fewer wild horses were captured and domesticated. Left on their own, the wild horses continued to reproduce prolifically, until some cattle ranchers in the West decided the wild herds had grown too large and were competing with their cattle. Some ranchers then shot or poisoned the wild horses by the thousands. At other times, the horses were captured and sold to slaughterhouses, where they were butchered for dog food.

In 1971, in response to highly emotional public outrage, Congress passed the Wild Horse and Burro Act, which protected the wild horses as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.” Though private cowboys are not allowed to capture the wild horses anymore, the BLM has set limits on the numbers of horses allowed to run wild in specific areas, and to meet these goals, the BLM has begun capturing wild horses. The BLM’s management plan for the horses in Coyote Canyon calls for the complete elimination of the herd. The major reason for this is to protect the peninsula bighorn sheep, an endangered species, which the BLM’s resource managers believe must compete with the horses for forage and water.

In addition to the problem with the bighorn sheep, the BLM also believes the wild horses of Coyote Creek have been a nuisance to nearby horse owners in the Anza Valley, about thirty-five miles east of Temecula. Wild studs tend to seek out and control as many mares as they can, and it seems the Coyote Creek studs have been making raids on the small horse ranches of Anza to steal domestic mares. “There’s a pretty little paint mare in the herd right now that the studs stole from the Tweedies, up on Table Mountain, just a few months ago,” Vern said. “They may never get her back; it’s hard to say.”

As for the BLM’s plan to capture the wild horses in Coyote Canyon, Vern says, “There’s good and bad to it, just like everything.” But he doubts that the horses are a threat to the bighorns. “The horses ain’t hurtin’ anything in the park. Nothin’ else gonna live in that country. And if the people up above would fix their fences right, the wild horses wouldn’t get in their corrals in the first place.”

For the time being, the BLM has no immediate plans to act on their goal of eliminating the Coyote Creek herd. Capturing wild horses can be an expensive proposition, and capturing that particular herd would be especially difficult since the territory they roam is so remote. “They never would catch all of ’em anyway,” Vern said. “Not in that country. It’s too rough.” As an old mustanger, what concerns Vern most is animal husbandry — improving the quality of the herd. “If you ask me, what they really oughta do is turn some studs loose into the herd now and then. Some of them are getting kinda jugheaded from too much inbreeding.” Vern said he believed the small herd in Coyote Canyon would be increasing by three or four horses a year if it weren’t for horse thieves who make raids on the herd. Apparently the horse thieves drive as far as they can down the rough dirt roads south of Anza, then ride into Coyote Creek on horseback. “They’d have a pretty hard time trying to steal the full-grown horses,” Vern told me, “so they go in and rope the young foals.”

The Cahuilla and Santa Rosa Indian reservations border the BLM lands where the wild horses roam, and Vern says the Indians have taken measures to discourage the thieves from stealing the wild horses. “Some of the horse thieves got their vehicles shot up not long ago,” he said with a smile, indicating his appreciation of justice.

Whether the wild horses are stolen by horse thieves or captured and removed by the federal government, their future in Coyote Creek seemed to be an uncertain one, and I had decided sometime ago I wanted to see them before they were gone. “Vern ” I said, “if somebody wanted to go up there and look for those horses, what kind of advice would you give him?”

Vern frowned at the thought. He didn’t know me well enough to judge whether or not I was a horse thief. “Them Indians up there would just as soon shoot you as look at you,” he warned.

“All I want to do is see them,” I said.

That seemed to satisfy Vern, and he considered my question again. “Well, you won’t get too close to ’em.” (Great horse trackers didn’t usually come from San Diego, he seemed to be thinking.) “Your best bet would be to stay up high on the ridges and see if you can see them down in the canyons. Those horses don’t have much use for people. That’s why they’re living clear up there the hell and gone.”

After the passage of the Wild Horse and Burro Act, the numbers of wild horses on public lands grew for several years. Between 1974 and 1978, the wild horses increased from about 45,000 to 57,000, before diminishing to about 44,000 by 1986 as a result of their capture by the BLM. That figure is still considerably higher than the BLM’s estimated appropriate management level of about 22,000 wild horses on public lands. In California the total number of wild horses on public lands remains at about 3000, even though 1600 horses have been captured in California since 1974. (By comparison, the number of wild horses in Nevada has increased from 21,000 in 1974 to more than 30,000 in 1986.) To the BLM’s frustration, the wild horses in California are reproducing as fast as they can be captured.

Once the wild horses have been caught, federal law requires that they be fed and cared for by the BLM until they can be put up for “adoption” by the public. The current fee for “adopting” a wild horse is $135, and after caring for them for a period of at least one year, the new owners receive title to the horses. If the old, sick, or deformed animals are deemed unadoptable, the BLM has the authority to have them destroyed, but in 1981, due to public outcry, the BLM placed a self-imposed moratorium on destroying any of the captured horses. Since then the number of unadopted horses has grown to more than 10,000 animals, which the BLM must maintain in government-contracted feed lots at a cost of about $2.25 per animal per day, or nearly seven million dollars per year. The BLM is aware that public opinion will not allow them to destroy these captured horses, even though the number of both wild and captured horses continues to grow. Meanwhile, the BLM is conducting research on fertility control of wild horses in hopes of reducing the wild herds in that way, and they are promoting their wild-horse adoption program to reduce the number of captured horses.

A few days before my conversation with Vern Whitaker, the BLM held a wild horse and burro adoption at the rodeo grounds at Lakeside. I put on my denims, cowboy boots, and the most Western-looking surfer shirt I owned and went for a look.

There were maybe a hundred captured horses there that day, ranging in color from bay to sorrel to gray. They stood in the corrals with their heads down and their ears slouched back in boredom. Most of them were small and not what you could call pretty. Their many scars and deformities indicated that life in the wilds had been hard on them. They lacked the heavy muscle development and fine sheen of grain-fed domestic horses, but their lackluster appearance was partly due to the stresses of domestic life, which they weren’t accustomed to. As Vern told me later, “You get ’em out of them corrals and they look a lot better.”

The two men responsible for capturing most of those animals, BLM wranglers Art Di Grazia and Rick Ekwortzel, were there to answer the questions of prospective horse adopters. Art sat on the fence railing, while Rick sat astride his horse, looking as comfortable as if he were at home in his favorite easy chair. They were both good-natured fellows, and had reason to be. Very few wranglers ever found work as steady or high-paying as they had with the BLM, and the only concessions they had to make to a BLM uniform were a green silk scarf around their necks and a BLM patch on the shoulder of their denim jackets.

“I just inventoried that herd up in Anza-Borrego about five, six months ago,” Art said, motioning for me to climb the fence railing and sit beside him. “We found forty some-odd horses, most of them in that Coyote Creek country.”

“How’d you get in there?” I wondered, knowing the roads were bad, even for a four-wheel drive.

Art looked embarrassed and glanced at Rick. “Well, we cheated,” he said. “We used a B-2 helicopter.”

So much for the romantic notion of the cowboy relying on his instincts to outsmart the wild horses, I thought. Wrangling ain't what it used to be.

“How’d the horses look?” I asked.

“They were in pretty good shape. There’s a lotta feed in there. They’re not real big horses, but they’re good and fat.”

“I heard they were getting in trouble with the landowners up in Anza,” I said.

“There has been some trouble with that herd,” Art nodded. “The studs have been stealing mares. I just got a call the other day from some people — the Tweedies — who live up on Table Mountain. They lost a mare, and when we gather up those horses, they wanted to be sure they got their mare back.”

“How exactly does a stud go about stealing a mare?” I asked, knowing I was risking ridicule with the question.

Both wranglers looked down, trying not to laugh. It was the kind of question they might have expected to hear down in the big city. “Aw, hell,” Art finally said, “he just goes in there and knocks the fence down and steals her. The other studs in the herd will try and steal her away, so he’s got to protect her. You can see for yourself that most of these horses here got scars all over ’em from fighting each other.”

“It’s just like a buncha young fellas in the bar fighting over some gal,” Rick said, matter-of-factly. “Same thing.” His face was shaved unevenly, as though shaving was something he didn't do very often, and then, by feel.

“How do you go about catching a wild horse, anyway?” I wondered.

“Well, we pick a trail they use to go to water,” Art said. “Then we build a big trap enclosure, with big wide wings leading into it. Sometimes we cheat and use the helicopter to herd them into it. We also use what we call parade horses, kinda like Judas horses. We hold them a hundred yards or so outside the trap, and when the wild horses get close, we turn these parade horses loose and they run toward the trap. The wild horses just follow ’em on in.”

The system seemed to work. All the horses in the corrals that day had been captured that way — most of them in northern California, near Susanville. “None of these horses look like they’re ever gonna become show horses,” I said.

Art shook his head. “No, there’s not a lot of feed out there where some of them come from, so they’re not going to develop like a domestic horse. And it isn’t always the best breeding situation out there, either. You might have this big ol' stud breeding this little bitty mare. So what comes out is maybe a roller coaster [sway back], jughead [head too large for the body], pig’s eye [small and squinty], upside-down neck [U-shaped], bench knee, sickle hock — you name it. But when we come to these adoptions, we try to pick horses with good conformation. We don’t bring anything that we know isn’t gonna get adopted.”

“Does a wild horse have more common sense than a domestic horse?” I asked. I’d heard that the old mustangers used to breed the wild mustangs with their “hot-blooded” domestic horses to tone them down a little and get some natural savvy back into their animals.

“They definitely do,” Art said. “Out in the country, they gotta find feed and they gotta find water. Ain’t nobody throwing hay at ’em every day. They gotta know the country they live in. They gotta depend on themselves, and to survive, their instincts have to get sharper than a domestic horse.

“They do have some predators out there,” Art went on. “Wild cats [mountain lions] will take a foal — in fact. I’ve seen that happen, up on Hunter Mountain [in Inyo County, near Death Valley]. But mostly, the only predator a wild horse has is man.”

“Do ranchers have much interest in adopting these horses for work horses?” I asked.

Rick nodded. “Some of the big ranchers are interested in adopting them for their circle horses. Say a cowboy’s gotta ride a big route through the rocks and hills. Well, these horses are the best you can have for a job like that. As a general rule, a domestic horse has about a quarter-inch wall on its foot — pretty thin, really. But one of these wild horses will have a three-quarter-inch wall. They’re out in the rocks all the time, so their feet just get tough. They have the best feet of any horse in the world.

“If I was bringing a cow off that hill,” Rick continued, pointing to a rocky knoll east of the rodeo grounds, “I’d just as soon be riding one of these wild horses. He knows the rocky country, and he pays attention to what he’s doing. These wild horses are the best damn rock smashers there are.”

“You guys sound like you’re kind of fond of them.”

“Well,” Art said, “after a while you learn to have a respect for them. They didn’t ask to go to that desert country. Somebody turned them loose out there, and now they’ve made it their home.”

“I consider them survivors,” Rick agreed.

“If somebody wanted to go out to Anza-Borrego looking for that herd,” I said, “somebody without a helicopter, would you have any advice for them?” Art sucked in his breath and folded his arms across his chest. “If I was you, I’d go talk to Vern Whitaker. That old boy knows more about that herd than anybody else. He’s been watching them for years.”

Most of the cowboys I’ve known, young or old, didn’t need much of an excuse to go off on a lark, and I suppose when I did go talk to Vern, I had a notion in the back of my mind that he would want to go along with me. What better excuse could there possibly be for going off on a lark than to look for wild horses? But when I saw the shape Vern was in after his bout with the flu, I didn’t even ask.

Before I said so long to Vern, I asked him one last question: did he think my four-wheel-drive pickup would make it to the head of Coyote Canyon? Vern squinted and frowned as he looked my truck over. “Might make it,” he finally said. “That road’ll beat hell out of it, though.”

Vern’s warning turned out to be typical cowboy understatement. The four-wheel-drive road up Coyote Creek followed the same route Juan de Anza and Father Francisco Garcés had taken on their journey from Sonora to San Francisco in 1775, and it seemed that was the last time anybody made any improvements on it. In several places, the road followed the creek bed, which had maybe a foot of water running in it at the time. There were narrow passages through the thick willows, boulder fields to be negotiated, sand traps, mud bogs, and steep banks. The luxury of riding in a vehicle was not worth the worry of wondering whether every turn would be the last my truck ever made. Walking would have been faster. Earlier, I had considered bringing a mountain bike, which would have been ideal for the terrain. But I had rejected the bike idea because it somehow didn’t seem like an appropriate form of travel for tracking wild horses — it would be poor style. After I saw the road, though, I realized why the BLM wranglers used a helicopter and didn’t worry about style.

At dusk I arrived at the head of Coyote Canyon, at a place called Turkey Track, where three tributaries of Coyote Creek — Tule, Nance, and Horse canyons — branch off, like the three toes of a giant turkey. It’s an area of sandy washes and cactus-covered alkaline flats, surrounded by dark, almost purple, mountains.

I was the only human in the canyon that night — probably the only human for ten miles in any direction. Before dark I walked in a circle on the canyon floor and found fresh, barefoot (unshod) horse tracks. There were also the tracks of wild cows, and later, when the moon rose over the Santa Rosa Mountains, I heard one of them bawling up Tule Creek. It was a forlorn song that lonely cow sang, one that seemed to cut through the romance of a life in the wilds and honestly assess the many disadvantages of freedom. There was no relief for either of us until sunrise.

At first light, I started walking up Horse Canyon. It was the largest of the tributaries, covering something like twenty square miles, and the only one of the canyons with running water at this time of the year. There were fresh horse tracks going in all directions, as well as many large spoor piles, some of them three or four feet in diameter. Wild horses tend to be territorial, and the spoor piles are their way of marking their territory. Domestic horses rarely leave such piles: either they have lost their sense of territory, or they are too hurried to build them, having been taught that all-too-human habit of shitting on the run. Even for horses, though, life in the wilds allows the pursuit of simple pleasures.

A mile up the canyon, the creek stopped flowing and the horse tracks began to circle back. I climbed out of the creek bed, to the cholla-covered flats above. There were probably springs farther up the canyon, where, now that the first rainfall of the wet season had come, the horses went to drink; as far as I knew, they could be hiding out at any of them. I spent the morning and part of the afternoon walking a half-circle across the canyon, hoping to cut tracks. But I found no more fresh signs. Either the horses weren’t in Horse Canyon, or they were far up in the canyon and had been there a long time.

Later that afternoon, I walked up Nance Canyon. It was much smaller than Horse Canyon, perhaps only five or six square miles, and was completely dry. I found no fresh sign of horses there at all.

For the second night in a row, the lonesome cow bawled in the moonlight. The first night it had won my sympathy, but the second night I figured it was just feeling sorry for itself, and I wished it would shut up.

As I lay there in the dark, listening to the disillusioned cow’s complaint, I wondered about the wild horses’ rights to Coyote Canyon. The BLM’s decision to eliminate them was based on the fact that wild horses are territorial and will sometimes run off intruders, such as the bighorn sheep, which they see as a threat to their water and forage. Also, the horses will remain in an area long after the best forage is gone and will continue to eat whatever forage is available until the area is damaged or destroyed. As one BLM resource manager explained to me, “Wild horses will eat almost anything except rocks. I've seen them eat other horses’ tails, just so they’d have something in their stomachs.”

But I had seen no evidence that Horse Canyon or Nance Canyon had been damaged by the horses, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the horses were getting a bad rap. There has been some concern that wild horses, burros, and cattle might pass diseases to the bighorn sheep, but it hasn't been proven that this is even possible, and at any rate, the wild horses captured by the BLM in other places had been shown to be almost entirely free of disease. While it was true that the horses were not native to the area. Congress had already determined that the wild horses were to be protected because of their historical significance to the American people. Though the BLM’s intention of protecting the bighorn sheep was an admirable one, it seemed to me that the wild horses had earned a right to live there as well. This was an animal that had been brought to the American continent as a beast of burden, and then when it was no longer of use, had been abandoned; it had found a place for itself in a very harsh environment and had made that place home; furthermore, Coyote Canyon was the last place in Southern California where they survived.

In the morning, I started walking up Title Canyon. It was a large though narrow canyon, covering perhaps twenty-five square miles. From the very mouth of the canyon, I saw nothing but fresh cow tracks. I walked a couple of miles, just to make sure there were no horse tracks too, then turned back.

By midmorning I was back at Turkey Track wondering where I’d gone wrong. There were dozens of side canyons in the area, and it would take days to explore each one of them. But an animal that weighed a thousand pounds and left a spoor pile as big as a bushel of apples simply should not be that hard to find. It hurt my pride that I had been so unsuccessful.

There was one alternative I hadn’t tried yet, though: from Turkey Track, the four-wheel-drive road climbed up out of Coyote Canyon, out of the state park, through the BLM lands on Table Mountain, and eventually into the small town of Anza. The horses could have gone that way, though I couldn’t imagine why, with sufficient water and feed in the lower and mid portions of their territory.

I walked up the road just a few hundred yards, and sure enough, found the tracks of at least a dozen barefoot horses, including a couple of foals, heading up the road. While I had been grubbing around in the cactus and sage, the horses had gone to town.

I went back for the truck and started driving up the road. The first 300 yards were so badly rutted I really didn’t think I would be able to continue. But I put the truck in low gear and barely managed to bump and scrape along.

As the road continued to climb, there were several good vistas into the canyons below, and I stopped now and then to see if the horses had doubled back and dropped into the canyons. But no, their tracks always continued on, as though they knew exactly where they were going.

After a few miles, the road leveled off a bit as it approached the top of Table Mountain. The sage and creosote of the low desert thickened into an almost impenetrable chaparral of redshank. I heard a dog bark in the distance and knew I was getting close to civilization again.

I couldn’t be sure, but I thought the first few homes I came to were on the Cahuilla Indian Reservation. After Vern's warnings about the Indians of the Anza Valley, I didn’t stop to ask. The horse tracks continued until I came to the first subdivision, where a bulldozer stood next to a big sign that read, “High Country Ranches — 5-10-20-40 acres.” At that point, I began picking up the tracks of horses wearing shoes —domestic horses — while the barefoot tracks seemed to scatter in all directions, and it became impossible to follow them any farther.

I drove into Anza and filled up the truck with gas. It wasn’t much of a town — just a few roadside businesses strung along the highway. I went to a phone booth and found a tattered old phone book, but after flipping through the pages, I saw that the name I hoped to find wasn’t there. The trail of the wild horses was fast turning cold.

I drove back out to Table Mountain and began looking for names on the mailboxes. There were a lot more people living in the Anza Valley than I would have imagined, and after about an hour of searching, I began to think my efforts were hopeless.

Then I finally had some good luck. Instead of finding a mailbox with the name “Tweedie,” I found an entire road named Tweedie, and there was only one house on it.

Don Tweedie came to the door in his socks and gave me that look country people give to strangers who have the audacity to come knocking on their door. He was a balding man in his fifties, white-skinned, apparently sober. There seemed a fair chance he wouldn’t shoot me.

‘Afternoon,” I said. “Are you the Tweedies who lost the little paint mare to the wild horses?”

“Have you seen her?” he asked.

“No, sir,” I said. “I’m looking for the wild horses. I thought you might have seen them.’’

He stepped out on his front porch for a closer look at me. He smiled just a bit, the way people do to humor children or the possibly insane. “You know,” he said, “I saw those wild horses just two days ago, right over there,” and he pointed to a brushy knoll a hundred yards from his house.

I looked where he pointed, half-expecting to see the horses.

“There were three of them,” he said, “a stud, a mare, and a little foal. The mare looked a bit thin, but the foal seemed fine. Sorrels, all of them.”

He went on to explain that the paint mare that had been stolen by the herd was named Peaches and belonged to his daughter-in-law, Kathy Tweedie, who was heartbroken over the loss.

“What happened, anyway?” I wondered. “Did the wild horses just come in and knock the corrals down, or what?”

“You know,” Don Tweedie said, “I don’t think Peaches was even inside a fence at the time. I don’t think Kathy thought Peaches would run off.”

He said he hadn’t heard of any other horse owners in Anza having trouble with the wild horses. “I did have one other run-in with them, though,” he said. “One of the studs got into my corral and got to one of my mares. She was kind of a high-strung mare,” he rolled his eyes to indicate what a problem she had been, “but she dropped a very nice little foal. So I didn’t mind that at all.”

“What about Peaches?” I asked. “Are you still looking for her?”

“Oh, I don’t think there’s much we can do,” he said. “My guess is that even if Kathy does get Peaches back, she won’t stay. Once a wild stud has gotten to a mare, that’s it, you can’t keep ’em.”

From the Tweedie place, I drove to the knoll where Don Tweedie had last seen the wild horses. As soon as I got out of the truck, I found fresh, barefoot horse tracks.

After circling around for a while, the tracks headed out the old, rutted Table Mountain Road, going south, back toward the upper end of Horse Canyon. There were moist spoor piles all along the way — they couldn't have been more than a few hours old — but the chaparral was so thick I could have walked within twenty feet of a horse and never known it. There were occasional openings in the brush where I could look into the canyons below, but the red tint of the chaparral made looking for a sorrel-colored horse like searching for a gray balloon in the fog. Most of the horse tracks did seem to continue along the road, though the size of the herd was getting smaller all the time.

After a mile or so, I came to a barbed-wire fence with a locked gate across the road. There the horse tracks began to double back and disappear into the brush. I considered my search for the wild horses nearly hopeless at this point. The day was getting hot, and I was hungry and tired.

I climbed over the gate and continued walking for another mile or so, until the road began descending rapidly. I left the road and walked through the brush until I came to a point where I could look out over Horse Canyon and see much of the land I had walked over the day before, some thousand feet below. I had nearly searched in a complete circle, and the closest I had come to a wild horse was a wet pile of turds. They had looked about like any other horse turds you might find.

I sat on a rock to rest for a while, but I couldn’t stop searching the landscape below me. It seemed as though every billow of redshank within a mile began to take on the shape of a horse’s rump every time the wind rippled through it. I had brought a pocket-size telescope with me, and I spent an hour or so using it to examine each horse my imagination could conjure.

The afternoon was so warm that I assumed any animal with any sense would be waiting out the heat of the day, and I was wondering if Anza had some dark beer tavern where I might do the same. Then my eye was attracted by movement along an old fire road nearly a half-mile away. The road was the color of yellow clay, and there were three sorrel-colored shapes moving slowly down its steep grade. They looked too small to be cattle, but I was so far away I couldn’t tell for sure. I took the telescope from my lap and tried desperately to find them. I finally was able to focus on one horse’s rump for maybe five seconds before it dropped behind a rise in the road and disappeared into Horse Canyon.

I suppose I could have pursued the horses down the fire road, but it was obvious they knew their territory a lot better than I did, and I might have followed them for another three days without getting a better look. So I decided to let them “escape.”

The Bureau of Land Management learned a long time ago that it’s impossible to try to talk logically with people about a solution to the problem of wild horses. Maybe it’s because we feel such a great debt to horses for having been our beasts of burden for so many centuries, but we simply do not seem capable of removing our emotions from any discussion about them. Before going to Coyote Creek, I had considered the BLM’s decision to capture the wild horses there a good one, a logical one, and the logical part of me still does. But another part of me hopes old Vern Whitaker was right when he said, “They never will catch ‘em all. Not in that country.”

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