Blue horses: riding on moonlight


I step out of my shack beneath a waxing half moon. Milky light pours down on northern Arizona. Scattered ponderosas march across the bunchgrasses of Government Prairie, casting oval shadows to the west of each tree. As usual, my walk takes me along the fence line.

A cloud shutters the moon. Across the barb-wire, two huge silhouettes emerge from a clump of pines: horses. Big, solid geldings. Sorrels, I think. But in the gauzy moonlight you can’t really tell. The grass is silver, the trees black; a star on the bigger horse’s forehead seems to be a watery yellow. The horses’ bodies appear a vague, pastel blue.

Blue horses in moonlight. They consider me from the edge of the trees, then walk to the fence. One shoves its great blue head toward me. The other tries to move close, but gets pushed away. They smell like horses: dried sweat, leather, and damp sweet-grass. That scent carries memory:

It is sunrise on the first day of June a decade ago, at a place in Wyoming called Blackrock. Twenty miles to the west, the saw-tooth profile of the Tetons shines platinum in the brand new day. To the north, the blocky Absarokas are silver and white with snow.

I am walking the south bank of the swollen Buffalo Fork where it loops around the bunkhouses and barns, the pasture and corrals of the Forest Service compound. I am hoping to spot a moose, or maybe a grizzly. It’s my second day on the district.

The morning will be warm, but for now the mud underfoot is still frozen. Two sand hill cranes rise from the willow bottom on six-foot wings. Their ratcheting voices sound like dry tree branches rubbing together.

I climb up out of the riverbed into the pasture, strewn with purple larkspur and yellow balsamroot. White phlox blossoms fleck the new grass like patches of snow. Suddenly, without warning, comes that cliché: thundering hooves.

A hundred yards away, a stand of lodgepoles seems to part like some wild-west version of the Red Sea. Out of the breach come fifty horses: bays, buckskins, sorrels, pounding the ground at a dead run. They bob shoulder-to-shoulder across the meadow, fleeing with one mind. I can see the whites of their frightened eyes.

Three crazed border collies work the herd from the sides, funneling them through a wide metal gate, into a chute that leads to the corrals. Bringing up the rear are two black-hatted cowboys, whooping and spurring. I do not care about horses, yet it is impossible to not be stirred by this sight.

Later today the wranglers, Jack and Bill, will teach me to saddle a horse. In the years to come, I will learn a few other things: to avoid a horse's deadly hooves, to pack loads that will ride twenty miles, to keep my broad-brimmed hat on in a windstorm. I’ll lope across summertime meadows, drag a string up over Two Ocean Plateau in a snowstorm, and get bucked into Soda Fork Creek by a paint mustang named Kid. I will get back on the horse.

The Wyoming summers will come and go. Without bothering to consult me, the future will become the past. I'll move on. I stroke the gelding’s withers, breathe in that unutterable fragrance, and remember. Blue horses carry me back.

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