At first, the salt stretched out into pools of white, turning pink with a violet shadow and evaporating into the sky. The salt made sense, as did the lake, those two words giving rise to the name of the place where we’d landed.
But then the salt stopped shining, the earth reasserted its dark chocolate tones amid scrubs of green that flew past the road as the silhouettes of mountains rose up on the horizon.
America is a big place. I think we all know that.
But spinning from Salt Lake City on to Mustang Monument in Nevada, the size of the country itself seemed to grow and grow and grow.
I was heading to the Wild West. Or the luxurious eco west, as it would perhaps be more accurate to say.
I was travelling in search of the Mustang, a word that had threaded through my travels and the tapestry of American history for me this summer (The U.S doesn’t just have enormous geography, its history is plentiful too: we drove past the airfield that launched the Enola Gay.)
All of a sudden, Mustangs seemed everywhere. They whined and shuddered forty feet above me at the sobering World War Two Museum in New Orleans.
They lit up the Ford Archives in Detroit, all “hot steel, fine leather and gasoline.”
And now, those weighty emblems of American transportation revealed their namesake: the beautiful, untameable wild mustang horse.
Mustang Monument itself is a sustainable resort and reserve for wild horses. The wild horses are Mustangs but after a round of gentle and more direct questioning, I still can’t tell you what the Monument part is about.
Another term might be “Luxury American Safari.”
In an area of 900 square miles (that’s about the size of London, all zones 1-6 and the suburbs beyond included) of almost nothing, the raw, rugged and restlessly beautiful Nevada countryside kicks up its feet and crosses its legs.
The hotel part, if we can call it that, occupies less than half of Hyde Park. Smoky bare wood cottages ooze with luxurious simplicity (yes, I know, but trust me, both coexist.) Brightly painted tipis, meanwhile, await those with a sense of adventure (they’re stunning inside but a little on the cool side when the evening breeze swirls in.)
Breakfast is served in a communal farmhouse, where dogs lick and sniff about, coffee percolates and plans for the day are made.
But the real joy of the “hotel complex” is the saloon bar, with stars and stripes on the wall and lasso lessons outside.
Dinner arrives here, or in the tipis, and drinks arrive around crackling, spark tickling fires. Mingling with other guests, we hear tall tales and watch chaps-wearing cowboys ride off into the sunset.
And for all the beauty of this luxurious Wild West, the highlight, of course, is the horses.
Not those who pull the wagons, all stately strong and jet black reliable.
No, it’s those skittish, chestnut brown mustangs.
The word mustang itself forms a puzzle, deriving from the word mestengo in Mexican Spanish, which means “an animal that strays.” There is speculation that it’s linked to the word mestas (meaning uncertain ownership.)
Today, ownership seems no less uncertain.
It’s clear who Mustang Monument belongs to, that’s for sure. It belongs to one impressive woman, Madeleine Pickens, who gives a first, second and third impression of being born and bred in Nevada, complete with cowboy boots and hat.
It comes as a surprise, therefore, to learn that she was born in Iraq, of British, Lebanese and Syrian descent.
“I emigrated for freedom,” she says. “And I cannot understand why people do not want the same freedom for these horses.”
But things aren’t that simple. Or perhaps they could be but they aren’t.
Many local ranchers aren’t happy with the horses, viewing them as pests that steal the grass from their cattle.
There are disputes and endless deliberations regarding grazing rights and water rights and ranch farmers’ rights. “Excess” mustangs are rounded up and sent to the slaughterhouse, unless someone like Madeleine intervenes.
But yet, and here’s the strange things about politics, population numbers are falling, and falling rapidly.
And according to Madeleine, without urgent intervention, these magnificent creatures face extinction. And what will that say about the role of freedom in modern America?
“We built our culture, Western culture, on horseback,” says Clay Nannini, ranch manager and rodeo champion, in reference to the 650 or so wild horses they’re trying to preserve.
“You should be proud of your heritage,” says Madeleine to us all. “If you don’t preserve it, there’ll be nothing left.”
She talks, of course, about the Native American heritage that history has abraded over the years. But also about the history of the pioneers and the great outdoors of the here and now.
Mustangs may not, technically, be native to the land (they descend from the Conquistadores’ escaped horses) but they are more, not less, symbolic of modern American because of it.
(And, frankly, trace any of us back far enough and we end up in East Africa in the cradle of the Rift Valley.)
So what’s the solution? As with endangered animals in East Africa itself: make them more valuable alive than dead.
Or, in other words, come and enjoy the sense of romance – and then feel good about yourself by the end.
As the sun spreads its longed-for golden warmth across the dry and brittle land, I ease myself from my snugly rustic cottage and walk to join the wagons.
Beneath the gaze of the cold sun and staunch mountains, the great plains of America unfold before my eyes, like falling sets of dominoes in a mesmerising blur.
How can there be so much land in the world, so vast, so flat, so empty?
How can hundreds and hundreds of wild horses just shimmer and appear from the deceptive ripples in this golden ground?
Want to see what that looks like? Watch the video here.
I visited as a guest of Mustang Monument. All views, opinions and looking for the word mustang everywhere in American history remain my own. Apart from the ones quoted and credited to other people of course ;-)
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