It's 6:15 on a chilly morning in the desert. The smell of coffee brewing and sausage cooking on an open grill wafts through the camp as the horses chomp on a breakfast of hay and grain. The rising sun exaggerates the desert's colorful face, turning rocks red and the hills orange, creating a multitoned earth.
Yup, this is the life: snake holes, pricker bushes and the smell of fly spray. Camp Med for the Wild Bills and Calamity Janes at heart. And you don't have to be familiar with the desert or the mountains to experience it. That's what trail guides and trail riding clubs are for.
This particularly isolated campsite belongs to the Happy Hoofers. The Blythe, Calif.-based equestrian group sponsors a three-day trail ride each year to raise funds for its rodeo performances.
The campsite is on a private ranch just over the Arizona border in the high desert. Though the ranch is only about 240 acres, the surrounding government land--taking in the Bill Williams River and Buckskin Mountains--is accessible to horses and riders and offers seemingly infinite views of red-rock mountains and wide-open desert.
"You can see things you can't see from a car," trail guide Ralph Goleman says. "There's no civilization."
Goleman and his wife, Billie, of Blythe were hired to lead one ride each day for the Hoofers. Their group takes a four-hour excursion across the Bill Williams River (in an area where water is scarce and neighboring towns have long battled for the rights to the river) up into the Buckskin Mountains, where mountain lions and bobcats share the wilderness with the monarch butterfly.
The rules of the trail are simple: Stay behind the trail boss; faster horses to the front, and no running (the terrain is the challenge, not the speed).
It's important because of the rugged terrain, says Billie Goleman, who rides "drag" behind the group, to "make sure you don't get yourself in a position where you get hurt or get your horse hurt."
While the riders are a mix of veterans and novices, most of the horses seem to take the adventure in stride--at least until the first obstacle.
Just 15 minutes into the ride, the narrow Bill Williams River literally separates the true trail horses from nags that are strictly show-ring material. After most of the horses stomp ungracefully, though confidently, through the shallow water, one horse refuses to take the plunge, reacting as though he's been asked to jump Niagara Falls.
After numerous tries and as many suggestions on how to coax the animal, the horse is finally led across by a halter, trotting on his way.
Following trails forged by wild burros which make their way from the mountain grazing grounds to the river, the riders navigate narrow ledges on the steep slopes of the canyons, the ground sometimes crumbling under the horses' hoofs. So the guides don't get lost, Goleman says a trail boss "picks certain landmarks and keeps them in view so you know where you are."
But on this ride, rarely does there seem to be a "trail" visible. The horses trudge along nevertheless, through river beds thick with dust, over the winding burro paths through the rocky canyon.
Signs of life along the trail are limited to the inevitable vultures circling, though snake holes and feathers and other signs of wildlife are everywhere. The only sign of humans, however, is the skeleton of an abandoned mine shaft clutching the side of the canyon.
"You never litter--whatever you take in, you pack it in the saddlebag and bring out," says Ruth Harness, a veteran trail rider. "We all like to see a clean desert, so we want to keep it that way."
Whether riding in the desert or mountains, it's a challenge--and a historical experience. Riding the trails with nothing more than a horse and the supplies that will fit in a saddlebag, riders get a feel for the Wild West that pioneers confronted a century or more ago. But part of the thrill of trail riding is discovering parts of that era that still exist.
"People who ride trails are out to enjoy the unblemished scenery, the country and the companionship of animals," Ralph Goleman says. "It's a challenge to find different areas like this to ride."
At the halfway point, the group stops for lunch in a canyon lined by shade trees. The canyon floor is covered with rocks which settled as the rushing waters disappeared decades ago. The riders tie their mounts to trees, but veteran trail horses will stay put with nothing more than a rein secured under a rock the size of a basketball. After settling in the shade with their lunches, the riders trade stories of the trail.
Once a month, Bonnie Ghianni of Alpine, a member of San Diego's Las Damas riding club, makes a six-hour drive to Wickenburg, Ariz., for the monthly ride sponsored by the Phoenix Las Damas.
"I go over on Wednesday, ride Thursday and go home on Friday," she says. "And when we're not riding, we shop."