I'm wanted in three counties, dead or alive. An outlaw on the run. A renegade. I'm gunning my way up to the Wild Horse Sanctuary in the dusty-red foothills of Northern California's Lassen Peak, where a weekend of moseying on horseback under the big sky and crooning by the campfire awaits. Sure, we'll be on the lookout for mustangs, not galloping alongside them. Still, this two-day guided trip is the closest I can get to fulfilling my ultimate cowgirl fantasy.
I wanna be a cowgirl
I pull into the ranch in the early morning, the sun rising over the horse paddocks and a buzz of activity outside the main house. Twelve wannabe cowboys and girls are here for the weekend, from a suburban mom and her horse-obsessed teenage daughter to a retired businessman from Maine who's brought along a harmonica. And me: a fake-blond city girl wearing shiny red cowboy boots purchased from a San Francisco boutique.
Standing before us is an equally motley crew of trail horses, and my new idol: Dianne Nelson, a real, live cowgirl and cofounder of the Wild Horse Sanctuary. She's been running the ranch for 30 years as a home for hundreds of wild horses to safely run free and avoid population control on public lands. With 5,000 wide-open acres and plenty of hay bales sprinkled around the property, this is pretty much Palm Beach to a mustang.
Dianne introduces each of us to our horse for the 16-mile journey to camp, where we'll be met by our bags and spend the night in cabins. (A bit cushier than cowboys had it on the Rio Grande, but still rustic.) "This is Bud," she says. It's like a disappointing blind date. He's about my height, going gray (or maybe he always was?), and two minutes into it, he already looks tired. Bud isn't exactly the stallion of my dreams, but, hey, I'm not really his type either.
The horses know the drill; Bud seems mildly bored by it--not to mention unimpressed by jagged Lassen Peak looming in the distance. I, however, am mesmerized. And admittedly uneasy--it's been eons since I was last on a horse. We fall into line and clop our way through the shrubby brush and red rock, dusty remnants of Lassen's past volcanic eruptions.
The trail, Dianne tells us as we amble along, has been blazed by mustangs. There are 300 of them roaming the sanctuary, and Dianne knows their favorite hangouts. It shouldn't be too long before we spot a few. Still, the summer sun is intense. My designer jeans are sticky. But I quickly learn that my red bandana is not just for show--filling it with ice is the Wild West equivalent of AC.
Wild, wild horses
After a brown-bag picnic lunch under the shade of an oak tree, it's back in the saddle. We ramble on and the incline grows steeper. As we approach a clearing, Bud comes to a halt. C'mon, old guy, I think to myself. But then I see why he's stopped: Scattered in a field, no more than 20 feet from us, are 30 or more mustangs. Twenty feet! Their whinnies are startling this close-up, and their ears flick as they adjust to our presence. The herd gazes back at us curiously. They're smaller and leaner than our barn-fed domesticated horses, and they move more spryly and with more spirit.
Dianne steers us away from the nearest herd so we don't rile the stallion--he's got a six-mare harem to protect. I find it hard to imagine that this guy feels threatened by the sorry looks of me and Bud. I lock eyes with another stallion whose flaring nostrils give me the shivers. Danger! (Okay, moderate danger.) But it's thrilling, nonetheless. This is what I came for!
Round the campfire
After five hours in the saddle, I'm sweaty, dusty, and now bowlegged. Reaching camp is a real hallelujah moment. And the clang of the dinner triangle is even better. We gather at picnic tables for platters of campfire-grilled tri-tip with sweet baked beans and hot rolls. Ted, Dianne's husband and the first real cowboy I've ever met, hands me a frosty beer. He stokes the fire as he rattles off stories about bandits (no joke) while I roast marshmallows. The businessman busts out his harmonica and I kick back. Looking up as it grows dark, I can see the celestial smear of the Milky Way for the very first time. Ever.
Looking down, I notice that my red boots don't have quite the same gleam as they did when I started. A little scuff and dust is all in a day's work for this cowgirl. Yee-haw.