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Mustang Alley

fairweather enterprises

JULIE KEYES experienced unforgettable mountain views and treacherous terrain on a horseback ride through the High Sierras. But what she learned about herself was even more stunning. 

Signed up for a four-day horseback ride through the High Sierras ( with college friends Lisa and Sue. A year in advance, the trip sounded romantic—four days following wild mustangs! But as our departure date approaches, the emails start to mention 30-degree nights, 90-degree days, rattlesnakes, and mountain lions. 

We arrive in Bishop, California, and cellphone service is history halfway up the mountain. The lack of phone service and the dizzy heights of the High Sierras—riding a horse past steep inclines—have me arrested with fear.

It’s a challenge for me to be around anybody for 20 minutes, let alone four days. It’s 8 a.m. A cowboy is talking about scorpions and making comments about New York City. Wild mustangs are in a field next to the parking lot, unlike any horses I’ve ever seen before. Absolutely aware of us, looking directly at us, and keeping their distance. And all I can think of is my lack of phone service. I must need this trip more than I thought. Mount Whitney is the backdrop each day, the tallest mountain in the continental U.S., capped with snow. We take of, mustangs on our right, the mountains on our left.

The rangers talk about the horses as if they were friends on a schoolyard. My horse is Gallo, a white angel. We ride for six hours, then stop for a snack among ancient petroglyphs. Peanut butter never tasted so good! Lying around for an hour, I kind of fall in love with Lisa and Sue all over again on a new level, saying nothing.

We ride on. When we dismount again, my legs vaguely buckle. We walk like dirty, dusty wooden soldiers to the solar shower. Then we drink hot coffee and eat cheese and crackers. Gene, the cook, is right out of central casting—tall, skinny, weathered hat, pipe, and drawl. He grills chicken, pork ribs, and steaks in his makeshift kitchen. Nothing feels more perfect. Nothing. He makes a huge fire in the fire pit and we sit around and stare at the fames with exhausted, empty minds until the stars come out.

Sleeping in 30-degree cold at night is not easy. But I find that if you put on every piece of clothing that you have, plus gloves and hats, zipping up the sleeping bag over your head, you’re okay. And by the third night I am sleeping alarmingly well.

We are about to go descend through... Rattlesnake Pass! It’s the last pass and the most notoriously steep. Prayers. Making deals with God. And, poof, it’s over and we’re down the hill and on the fat plains with mustangs and antelope, and cars looming ominously in the parking lot ahead. Civilization. After a four-day sojourn across this wild, vanishing world, I have rethought everything.