Keep It Wild
Photography and Story by Marie Thorne-Thomsen
It’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon and I’m about 4 1/2 hours in on my five hour drive from San Francisco to Virginia City, NV. I’m nervous and excited. During my drive I listened to a recording by Nora Herold, a trusted advisor and spiritual guide. The primary message was to allow our dreams, desires, intentions and manifestations to happen. By allowing our way through obstacles or projects even our lives, we create instantaneously and effortlessly.
These recordings are always inspiring and I was in the perfect window of opportunity to put this into action. My quest for this journey was to take photos of the Wild Mustangs in the Nevada ranges in an effort to create fine art as well as bring awareness to their conservation efforts. I had been following a fellow photographer named Phillip Adams on Facebook, dropped him a message to see if he would be able and willing to take me out to some of his locations, and made a connection. I had one day scheduled with Phil and the rest was up to me.
After researching the many managed herd ranges of Nevada I chose to stay in Virginia City as it looked like it was smack center with lots of back roads to explore. I began my ascent into the Virginia range and remembered the concept of allowing and said to myself, “I allow the mustangs to come to me, to speak through me and to allow me to be with them”. I blinked my eyes and glanced off to my left as I winded around a bluff. There they were, a band of six. Two pregnant mares, two babies, one year old colt and a stallion. I swerved off the road, could hardly breath and had tears running down my face. I grabbed my camera and hiked in as close as I could without chasing them off.
I decided to hang out about 20 yards away for a bit and let them get used to me and the sound of the camera. They watched me and waited till they knew I was not going to eat them. A connection had been made. They went back to their grazing while keeping an eye on me. As I made slow and gentle movements around them they then became more curious. I felt as if I was underwater. All I could hear was my short breath. Every time I would take a shot I would stop breathing. I started to focus on my breath more and realized I was in some altitude and hiking on rough terrain but it was still quite difficult to breathe with all the adrenaline running through me.
At this moment, everything was quiet. I sat on a rock and realized I was in no hurry. I had arrived. I was here. Tears came down my cheeks again and I was overwhelmed with gratitude, love, grace, nature, beauty and these incredible animals all around me, wild yet so mellow. The message of allowing it all to happen and then it happening had me beyond bliss. I chewed on every moment and just observed the horses, taking photos all the while.
Finally, I decided to move closer, and a little closer, and then a little closer until I was uncomfortable. I talked to them like I would my own pets and they seemed to like it. Soon one of the spotted babies and his mamma decided they wanted to get a better sniff of me. They moved in while snacking on grass. I was taking the Robert Sturman approach to photography and laying on the ground so that I could get some of the incredible sunset and sky. The horses loved this and gave me some great poses.
The sky was turning into bright oranges, purples and pinks shading the landscape and painting the most incredible pictures. “Thank god I can press a button to capture this beauty” I though to myself. At this point the horses and I were friends. I felt comfortable and they did too. I kept my respectable distance but felt so close to them. Every movement they made was part of a larger whole, the herd. Every look, every nudge every tail swish had a message, a communication between them and their environment. It was like communicating in a dream where the information is being passed but no one is really talking.
My light was getting low with the horses and as I moved around I noticed all sorts of other animal poop. “What kind of animals were these?” I thought to myself. I realized I had a little hike back and started back to the car before the other animals decided to come back and eat me. As I said my farewell to the beautiful band of mustangs I thanked them for their time and hoped I would see them again someday. I also prayed for their safety as I knew the BLM had been rounding up these horses and then selling them off to slaughter. How could this be? Anger and sadness began to slip through me but I kept to my bliss and on my mission of finding the timeless beauty in these horses and their environment.
I made it back to the car without being eaten by a bear or mountain lion and continued on to my hotel, my haunted hotel.... The Gold Hill Hotel which happened to be the oldest hotel in the state of Nevada and I had the oldest room in the hotel complete with slanted floors, antique furnishings and it’s own resident ghost. I was secretly hoping for something haunting to happen until I went to the lobby at about 8pm for some water and realized I was the only person in the hotel that night. A note on the counter said “Call Jenny at 555-555-555, she lives down the road if you need anything”. OMG! I looked out the window into the parking lot, the only car was mine. I did not sleep a wink that night.
The next day was with Phil. We met at 8am, hopped in his jeep and headed towards the back country of the South Eastern ranges close to Reno. It was there that reality set in. Industrial America from Walmart to FedEx had built gigantic industrial buildings, parking lots and highways. Spreading deep into Mustang territory and rangelands. These roads and structures are often between grassland and water sources. Horses are seen hanging out on the roads and roaming in peoples backyards and parking lots. For many folks the horses pose as a menace.
The state of Nevada has most of Americas wild horses. No doubt the BLM has its hands full. Regardless, we are human beings and we need to find a humane solution to managing Americas Wild Mustangs. They represent our spirit of freedom, they work for us, sport for us and love us. I liken them to the whales in our oceans. They need our protection and guardianship and we must stop the slaughtering plain and simple. Americans voted to ban the slaughter of horses several years ago. Currently issues are at hand regarding the reopening of American slaughter houses and the shipping of American horses to Mexico and Canada to face their horrifying death.
After hanging out with the corporate mustangs Phil took me a little farther into the back country and away from the harsh reality of urban sprawl. We found lots of horses, all grazing and trying to get fat for the winter. Tons of great photos as well. By noon I was feeling exhausted and Phil was ready to adventure to the next range. I hung in there for one more herd but then felt as if I was in a dream. Everything sort of blurred and I became very sleepy. I called it a day and drove back to my hotel, spying mustangs everywhere on the hillsides and valleys along the highway. It was as if they were coming out of the woodwork. It was like Mustang Soup. Again, I could not believe how many were around. Why had I never seen this before?
I arrived back to The Gold Hill Hotel, showered and went down to the restaurant to eat. I don’t think I ate anything all day and I was ready to nourish myself. To my pleasant surprise, there was a wedding party having dinner and several rooms filled with more guests. The hotel felt alive and I imagined it was the 1800’s somewhere back in time. After consuming a full course dinner, desert and wine it was time for bed. As I laid down I could hear the party just getting started. It was like a sweet lullaby. My human herd close by and awake, keeping the ghosts at bay. I slept like a baby that night.
The next morning was me on my own adventure and then a drive back to San Francisco to pick up my girlfriend and head home to Santa Barbara. I wondered if I would see my first herd, I hoped actually. On my way out of Virginia City I found a back road that looked interesting. Off the path I went and after about 1 mile I found a herd, pulled over and hung out. It was easy to asses the dynamic, find the stallion, make peace and then take pictures and just be with the horses. One mare had a horrible eye injury and infection. She seemed agitated but was eating well. This was my last stop. I did not want to leave. Every time I started to think about leaving one of the horses would start doing something cute so I would stay a little longer.
Finally, I did have to leave. I said my farewells, thanked the horses for their time and prayed for their safety. I got back in the car, activated the map on my phone and rolled into the world ever so lightly. I cried again on the way home. A deep sobbing cry. I have not cried like that for a long time. There was a million reasons to cry and a million reasons not to. I let myself go since it was just me and I did not have to explain myself to anyone. It felt good, like I was crying for the world, the horses and my own personal sorrows. Taking the I-80 I reached the peak of the Sierra Nevada’s. Beautiful vistas, remnants of glacier lakes and crisp clean air. The Mustangs were gone though. Out of sight and out of range. I felt my adventure ending, like waking up from a dream that you feel is real. I was left with an incredible sense of bliss, grace and sorrow.
I met up with my girlfriend and she seemed so foreign. I’ve known her all my life but I had changed and how was I going to explain my incredible adventure with all it’s due respect and experience? How do I convey the unspoken communion, the incredible peace, the power of being in the moment with these horses in their world. I showed her some photos that I took and she loved how “pretty” they were. I was disappointed though. There was so much more to it than a pretty picture. There are horses lives at stake, there is a human consciousness that needs to be shifted, there are government entities that pose gigantic threats to the animals and their environment. How am I going to convey this through a photograph?
Thus, my story ends here in the hope that someone can see more than just a pretty picture. When the opportunity comes to vote, speak your truth and stand up for a just cause, we as a collective of human beings take action for what we believe in... In this case, Peace In the Wild.