The Road in the Desert

In this excerpt from her book, An Excerpt from On the Hoof: Pacific to Atlantic—A 3,800-Mile Adventure, Jesse Alexander McNeil shares a close call on part of her trek through the desert.

We just trudged sixty miles and dry-camped for two nights on the slimmest of resources. Now, sitting amidst lush grass, I admire the smallest of fertile nature: a blade of grass sprouting, the small black eyes of a frog staring back, the slender arc of hanging willows. Pepper likes it here too, her hooves planted in the clay, snatching grass to her left and right between drinks.

In the distance, about a mile and a half away, I see two long metal buildings. Surely there’s more water there, and grass, and people. We stay with the frogs and gushing water another hour and a half before making a final push to end the day.

In a half-mile a gravel road veers to the right by a sign: Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge—Dufurrena Field Station 1 Mile. We turn onto the gravel and Pepper begins limping. I check her hooves but find nothing. It must be her muscles, as she’s favoring her right back leg. I stroke her mane and massage her leg and tell her we’re almost there. We’re so close.

Pepper tries but the limp won’t quit. She wobbles after me. My heart breaks. I’m long past frustration. I’m feeling miserable that she hurts and livid at myself for putting us here on this stupid road in the desert.

I hold back tears as I encourage her.

“Just a little more, Pep. It’s right there.”

But really, it isn’t.

At an exhaustingly slow pace we eventually shorten the mile down to a hundred yards. The buildings I saw from afar are clustered with ranch houses, a barn, and fencing. Suddenly, a herd of five horses gallops across a field to a nearby gate, interested in our arrival. Pepper sees them and suddenly struts in circles around me.

“Easy, Pepper!” I can barely hang onto the rope with both hands as she pulls me to the fence.

What the hell? Seconds ago she could barely walk.

Pepper and the other horses lean in, sniffing. After a half minute I pull her away from the fence and secure her rope to a flatbed trailer surrounded with grass. I search for a spigot and return with a bucket of water, but she’s not interested. It’s the horses that hold her attention.

Photo by Jesse Alexander McNeil

I knock on all the doors, but no one answers. I return to Pepper. With two hours of daylight, it’s simply easier for someone to find us. We’re in a good place—I’d also found a giant stack of hay in the barn.

I sit in the shade and lean against a wall, tip my hat over my eyes, and finally take a rest. I wonder about Pepper. I’ve read that horses will shield an ailment to look strong and healthy when bonding with a new herd. But that was a ridiculous change.

An hour later a Department of Fish and Game truck stops at the office building. I head over and introduce myself, then ask about hay and housing Pepper.

The officer, straight-laced and expressionless, replies, “I’m just a dumb cop, but let’s go talk to Dale.”

“By the way, is there a place I could camp?”

“Yeah, there’s hot springs and a campground over there.” He jabs his finger into the distance.

“Hot springs?”

“And a bathhouse.”

In fading light, we jump in his truck and drive to a ramshackle cabin near the hot springs campground. The cabin yard is littered with broken trucks and old fence posts. A couple of frail-looking horses stand in a paddock. The officer knocks on an old wood door as I stand near the truck. A short, balding man answers. I watch the officer explain the situation as Dale glances my direction, then shuts the door. As the officer and I drive back, I learn Pepper can stay in a fenced lot near where she is now, and I can take a site at the campground.

I throw my saddle and bags in the truck bed and secure Pepper in the fenced lot with hay and water. The horse herd shares the same fence line, so I think Pepper will be at ease for the night. I watch her eat for a couple minutes, then the officer drives me back to the campground.

As the only camper so early in the season, I pick a spot close to the hot spring pool and bathhouse. By headlamp and heavy in thought, I pitch the tent. Today was a desperately close call. If a traveling partner had come along on this stretch, like Rachel, we probably would’ve been arguing most of the time. She would have been erring on the side of caution while I went all in. We’d have differed on how far to go each day, where to rest, and when to get help. A quiet discomfort would’ve grown between us. But maybe, if Rachel had joined, I wouldn’t have gone off the deep end, losing my mind and throwing rage at Pepper. It’s certainly easier to hit bottom alone.

Tiny bubbles percolate up in the hot spring pool. The bathhouse is a simple stone-and-cement-block building with two gravity-fed showerheads, blasting a hot water overflow from the pool.

I soak…. In a matter of hours, life went from desperate to bliss.

This excerpt from On the Hoof: Pacific to Atlantic—A 3,800-Mile Adventure by Jesse Alexander McNeil is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books. You can purchase the book here