This is a story of a horse and the girl who loves him.
I lie back on the picnic bench and dip one toe into the sand tracing lines to and fro. An arm thrown over my head blocking the sun. A slow breeze rustles the strings of my cut off shorts and I can just make out the sound of waves lapping in the distance.
Above, clouds of watered ink stretch across a crisp, white canvas - shaping themselves to the contours of the land. I rise, walk the dogs out into the dunes and look toward the west. A wind comes from nowhere and takes my hat for its own. I chase it downhill sliding as I go, but this west Texas beach takes over burying my hat like old bones in the desert. Just another secret enfolded here alongside broken roads, discarded water bottles and long-ago lost wagon trains.
We wander further to find shade in the shadow of a westward dune and I wait there until the dogs stop panting. Silos full of frac sand rise above the desert to the northwest. The same place I started my search for the horse three years ago.
I can still hear the train. The growing, rumbling engine and shattering horn. The same monster that spooked my horse during the night sending him out into this wasteland. Lost for two days. You can disappear in the dunes here and he has. I wonder if he remembers.
I remember stepping into nothing where solid ground should have been. An empty pen, scattered hay and hoofprints to nowhere, the only proof of a horse there the night before. I remember driving these dusty backroads dodging pump jacks and cacti - focused on only one thing – finding my horse.
In west Texas the summer doesn’t know it’s over and September of 2020 was no reminder. For two years I’d carried a Texas State Park brochure in the glovebox of my truck like a good luck charm, all the horse friendly parks highlighted. I finally made the leap going a month on the road traveling Texas, New Mexico and Colorado. I was a bit lost in the beginning, reeling from COVID and pending divorce. But this horse propped me up and then, after 2100 miles together, I found myself casing the desert and dusting for prints like a crime scene agent.
Resting on the border of the great Chihuahuan Desert, the town of Monahans is most known for two things: oil and sand - both found in abundance. A once prosperous ranching land, the original settlement was taken over by oil in the 1920’s and is now the center of the Permian Basin - the highest producing oil field in the United States.
The workday seems to never end for many here. On the outskirts of town, trucks and machinery run all night under the watchful eye of sweating spotlights. A giant blight in the distant desert sky. But Monahans is a proud town, one of roughnecks and ranch hands, oil fields and sand plants. A mix of past and present where locals greet each other with a one or two fingered casual wave, the grocery store serves as social hour, and the lights of nearby Odessa and Midland wink from the northeast horizon.
We camped that September at Sandhills State Park surrounded by its ever-changing embankments. Part of a vast series of dunes stretching 20 miles wide and 70 miles long through west Texas into southern New Mexico. A world held in place by the occasional Shin Oak and scrub grass, where the ground leaks back the day’s heat and the sky just reaches down to reclaim it.
You’ve got to have a little stick-with-it-ness here. To survive in this parched ocean. Navigating the waves of it all. The thorns and traps. The vast expanses of directionless earth, only the scorching sun to guide you.
Searching for my horse Dex, a one-night stop turned into three. Drones, helicopters, and ATVs worked in tandem following his prints that first day - large, soft, and hollow in the shifting desert sand. Threatening to disappear each time the wind changed direction.
I spent my second day enveloped in the white dust of caliche roads, the blistering sun and 100-degree temperatures, searching for signs among the pump jacks and sand traps. Water and feed in the truck bed, dog riding shotgun. Pistol on my hip.
I followed that horse at least nine miles northwest of the park, stopping at every intersection in that empty land. Scanning the dirt for tracks and readjusting my path. Afraid I would be going home alone yet determined not to and keeping an eye out for circling buzzards along the way. Finally, his northward journey, to where I don’t know, ended. His trail blocked by fencing. My composure fell like a heavy jacket and a trembling moved through us both. I looked into his drawn, hollow eyes gaunt from two days in the desert. I’m here, I said and bowed my head to his. I’ve got you.
The town came together for me that day, local landowners, and public servants. Law enforcement, park rangers, ranchers and game wardens. Not a soul accepting a dime in return.
Sitting here in these dunes now, it’s hard to shift my gaze from those silos standing so tall in the distance. But I rise, brush the sand from my legs, and follow the sunset back to camp sinking with each step as if the ground beneath me has no end. The dogs run ahead, fading into the desert glow and I follow behind. Walking my own path. Making my own way as I always do. As I am blessed to do. The only one I really know of course.
In life it often seems looking in the mirror is harder than looking through a window. Sometimes the flaws and mistakes just don't want to be seen - to be realized and brought to life. I return to the sandhills at times for strength and forgiveness, and I lose myself there in the dunes. In this place where I learned what I am made of.
But I find myself too and I remember - that I am the girl who can track a horse through the desert. And I love him even more for that.