Recent rains have greened the valley floor. We cross miles of slow curves before we spot in an approaching hillside, spherical gauges the color of dried blood: blunt features in an otherwise blur of sameness that distinguish the canyon entrance. Inside Rosebud Canyon walls grow around us, gradual in slope. Flaxen grasses ruffle the road’s edge. This place has a soft yieldingness, despite jagged outcroppings in split-apart mountains strewn with shadowy shards.
We begin to look intently for signs of wild horses.
A few miles into the canyon, we spot a familiar well which supports a willow. Further on the entrance to Painted Canyon is hidden from this approach but we stay alert for it and crane as we pass it, searching for movement but there is none. We roll on, bearing right at Rabbit Hole Spring past a small white stone structure with a single window and no roof.
The road alternates between gravel and bug dust, a fine alkaline powder. In some areas of this region, the bug dust is deep enough give the wheels a good tug for a quarter mile or more. But we cross without a hitch. As we round a hill, seven pronghorn antelope glide through a meadow. “On your right,” I tell Jeff, when three of them break toward us. Single file, they float across our bumper, brandishing their white haunches like sheets in the wind. We continue for a few miles onto a well-maintained gravel road which runs from Winnemucca to Gertlach. We circumvent a mine with pink layers carved into the mountains.
When the sun breaks through we stop for lunch, giving the dogs a chance to stretch their legs. Behind us the Kamma Mountains catch burly black clouds. To the west Black Rock is dwarfed by columns of ice-blue rain.
We backtrack and catch a narrow road that passes over the range. As we mound a low peak I point to three horses in a gully on our left. I take a camera with me and cross the road. The horses break into a brief trot before turning in a triangle to face me. They wait. They stare. They size me up. I make cooing sounds. I begin to snap pictures.
A broad grullo with a luscious mane blocks for a filly. A well-proportioned ginger with a white blaze and white socks starts to graze. The filly wears a bemused expression. The grullo and the ginger appear tall, alert, muscled, and deliberate. The grullo has scars on its hind legs, one deep, alluding to the shape of a hoof. We have never before seen these particular horses and I watch them for about 20 minutes before returning to the Land Rover. On the drive home Jeff and I are quiet. We had hoped to see more horses; it is still early in the week.
Kamma Mountains Day 2: The temperature is not cleaving to the season change. I put on silk leggings, a camisole, t-shirt, sweater, jeans, wool socks, fleece-lined boots, a down jacket, and a hat. I check my pockets for gloves, wondering if on this trip we will enjoy even an hour of warmth. I acknowledge to myself my fear of not finding a familiar band of horses we expected and hoped to see. We last viewed them in November when we witnessed the effects of an August 2013 BLM round-up which targeted, among others, the Kamma wild horses. The Kamma Mountains are a Nevada desert wilderness and part of a portion of Pershing County’s public lands to which the BLM alludes as the Blue Wing/Kamma Complex for purposes of managing the range.
Snow has fallen and by noon most of it has melted. We scan the quiet miles of the Rosebud Canyon before stopping at Rabbit Hole Spring. The water levels at Rabbit Hole are high, helped by the run-off from the snow-capped peaks. We note the conditions and continue on, bearing right before venturing onto a crude road that heads west. Within a couple of miles, we spot mustang droppings. We grow anticipatory as the concentrations bloom. But the signs fade.
After lunch we roll speculatively onto a rutted road that traces Lava Bed Creek through a valley; it doesn’t pay off, and all signs of the horses vanish.
Kamma Mountains Day 3: Our third day in the Kamma Mountains produces a small reward: three mustangs graze in front of a mine northeast of Rabbit Hole. After photographing them we drive many miles to the Lava Beds. We wind into a canyon and stop at a spring next to a ram’s-head shaped butte. The dissonantly angled canyon floor is creamy yellow with seeding sage.
The Lava Beds are also a part of the Blue Wing Complex. During the round-up last summer, many wild horses living in this area were captured and removed.
We spot mustang droppings but neither see nor hear horses.
Kamma Mountains Day 4: At Rabbit Hole this day I have a hunch. I ask Jeff to bear left instead of right. Our elevation rises slightly and he points, “There they are.” I share the excitement that infuses his voice.
The horses become aware of us and pull away from the road. They remain in sight so we confine the dogs and remove two chairs and our lunch from the Land Rover. Jeff gets the binoculars, I bring a camera. Neither of us have powerful enough lenses; we strain for an hour studying the band. We count seven or eight mares. And it has been a fertile spring–we “ooh” and “aah” at three foals.
I record our sightings on the back of an atlas. “There’s a black stallion,” Jeff says. My pen bounces on my lower lip. Was it possible that the lost-looking youngster we saw at the other end of the Kamma Mountains in November, actually won over this band?
But we remember another black stallion, an older, more regal horse who headed this family when we first came across them two years ago. We couldn’t find him last November and feared he had been captured.
To our delight, two colts, nose-to-nose, cavort. We also saw them during our initial encounter with this band two years ago. They are siblings, growing up together. It is a comfort to find them both; in November we saw only one.
Kamma Mountains Day 5: We arrive at Rabbit Hole, optimistic that we will visit the large family band again but they have moved–likely into the mountains to hide the foals.
We spot a pair of horses we last photographed in November near the Painted Canyon. This time as we drive slowly past they flee. A few minutes later, on the back side of the canyon we glimpse them again. I take a good look, knowing it will be too long before we are able to return.
Back in California, I pore over my notes and my photos. In the photos I struggle to make out details we might have overlooked when seeing the horses on the range, particularly the large family band. I find new software and view those images at 200%. Then I spot him: the black stallion we had feared captured…he is bringing up the rear exactly as he did two years ago when we followed him at a distance down the central road through Rosebud Canyon. I am stunned–the family is intact. Spring blooms in the Nevada desert and this beautiful band of Kamma Mountains mustangs survives.
Author’s Note: On August 2-4, 2013 the U.S. Bureau of Land Management which is charged with managing resources on the Nevada range, rounded up 203 horses in what it refers to as the Blue Wing (Kamma) Complex. The following excerpts from a BLM report indicate causes of four deaths at the scene:
“One 2-month-old, grulla-colored male was found dead at temporary holding…A necropsy performed by the on-site veterinarian confirmed the foal death was due to water intoxication… 7-year old sorrel mare…euthanized due to a fractured hind leg sustained while in the trap when another horse kicked her… 9-year-old sorrel mare ran into the panels of the holding corral and died of a fractured neck…15-year-old sorrel mare…euthanized due to blindness in one eye and was hazardous to work.”