Travel Writing

– Big Country –

June, 2014

“Walk trot gallop?” Lawrence, my Navajo cowboy guide asked me.

Sitting awkwardly, high up in the Western saddle with the desert grit whipping my pale English face, I felt a giddy kind of excitement. The sun had been up no more than an hour, and there was a chill damp breeze blowing through Monument Valley. Overhead, I could see little wisps of pinky cloud scraping the tops of the chiseled monoliths, reminding me of tombstones; it was both eerie and beautiful at the same time.

I hesitated then replied, “No. Just canter please.”

Ten days into our ‘Canyonlands’ road trip and I was about to act out one of my childhood fantasies: a sunrise horseback ride through the desert, cue ‘Western Themes’. But canter? Did I really say that? This was John Wayne terrain – no half measures here, pilgrim – and I was feeling like a complete fraud. A wannabe cowgirl who’d only ever ridden riding school ponies in her summer holidays, and I’d never quite progressed to galloping.

Lawrence remained silent, but I swear I could hear The Duke, rocking in his celestial golden saddle, laughing at me.

It’s not hard to feel the spirit of John Wayne when you’re staying at Goulding’s. His presence is everywhere. The lodge itself had started as a trading post back in the 1920s by Harry and Leone Goulding. Then, when the Great Depression hit in the 30s, a savvy Harry took a $60 trip to Hollywood and pitched Goulding’s and the nearby Navajo reservation as the backdrop for John Ford’s classic western, Stage Coach.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Sideburn, my new four–legged friend, snorted his disapproval at me and grabbed a mouthful of sagebrush. He munched slowly, giving off a vaguely roast chicken dinner waft, and we waited for our guide to tack up his horse. Stetson in place, Lawrence swung a Levi’d leg over the high backed saddle and we were off, heading out on the trail toward the towering buttes.

As we picked our way down a bank of loose shards, I gingerly eyed the ground beneath me. We’d been given gloves, but no hard hat, and my skull was starting to feel slightly naked. In front of us, a fat Humpty Dumpty with cracked-drippy-egg-yolk-sides skipped over the bank as Sideburn followed, wobbling all the way to the bottom. Finally, we levelled off and found ourselves in a vast carmine landscape of sandstone, tumbleweed and cacti. It was breathtaking.

Lawrence led the way, with Sideburn in tow, stopping every few paces to yank up more of that sweet smelling sage. It seemed to grow in abundance here. Each time, his head would shoot down or swing violently to the side, and my arms would be wrenched out of their sockets, winding me against the pommel in the process. I’d grunt and Lawrence would turn in his saddle and gently chide me for my soft approach to horses.

After several more attempts at schooling, Lawrence stopped, turned his horse around to face me head on, and gave me a slightly over-theatrical ‘How To Whip Your Horse’ display. He cracked his reins from side to side in a perfect arc and his mount jumped to attention.

“You gotta be firm with them. Show’em who’s boss.”

I weakly imitated, tickling Sideburn’s muscly chestnut sides. Nothing. Head down. More munching.

Realising he was on a hiding to nowhere, Lawrence pulled his horse around and rode on, telling us stories of each gigantic sacred mesa we passed beneath. He spoke of his ancient people, the Diné, who lived here on the reservation. Of the subtle changes in the seasons, the desert flowers in spring, the snow in winter, the places to find water. He told us about the government mining, the officials who came and went, the rocks they left behind – still full of uranium, still leaking. He seemed to have a stoical resignation to it all, and yet also a deep contentment that’s hard to put into words. The folk singers had got it all wrong. This land wasn’t their land. This Land Was His Land.

By noon, we were at the Mittens, and it was time to take the tourist selfies with the famous Utah hands waving behind us. Shots done, and feeling almost at home in the saddle – cradled in this epic landscape I’d only ever seen in the movies – we turned and headed for home.

An hour or so later, and we were back at the final stretch with the corral in sight, just over the lip of the rocky slope we’d slid down a few hours before. This part of the bank was sandy and peppered with cacti, and looking just as insurmountable.

Lawrence’s horse began the climb; tired hooves slipping, flanks quivering, then with one last push, his horse was up and over.

Sideburn, sensing imminent abandonment, began the climb quickly and clumsily. As he tried to skip up the bank, he lurched backwards and my life flashed forwards – to a vision of me underneath a horse. My foot went through the stirrup, my body swung to the side; I was heading straight for a cactus bush. Somehow, at the very last second, I managed to get a hold of the pommel and hung there like an idiot in aspic for a moment. Sideburn, miraculously stopped. We righted ourselves. We were good.

With both feet now back in the stirrups, and hands hugging the pommel, we began the ascent, but slowly this time.
As we reached the summit, I could see Lawrence slightly ahead of us, breaking into a slow trot. Then, with no warning at all, he was gone, thundering back in a cloud of red dust.

I braced myself, feeling the surge in Sideburn, his coiled muscles asking for release. I leaned in, gripped hard, flicked the reins and we were off. For the first time that day, horse and rider finally in sync together, galloping in one easy motion to the cascading strings of Jerome Moross’s ‘Big Country’.

Overhead, I swear, I could hear The Duke laughing.