Exploring Dead Horse Point
Beating the Dead Horse
Text and Photographs by Anna Brandt
In the summer of 2015, my grandfather, Pa Fred, and my cousin, Rachel, rolled his RV out of his South Carolina driveway on a quest for the Golden State with Pa Fred’s heart set on the Sierra Nevada and with Rachel’s mind set on San Francisco. About two weeks later, I joined them in Farmington, New Mexico, or as we later deemed “the Armpit of the West.” For the next forty-three days, we navigated the twisty highways of the rural West in that trusty motorhome, stopping at every campground with an open camper space.
Shortly after we left New Mexico, Pa Fred snagged a spot at a KOA in Moab–the adventure capital of Utah. Daredevils and extreme sport enthusiasts alike seek it out for the chance to mountain bike or off-road the esteemed Slickrock Trail, to illegally scale the red cliffs carved by the mighty Colorado River, or attempt to navigate the river’s treacherous, green-brown rapids by kayak or raft. Even lower level adventurers from across the world flock by the thousands daily to Arches National Park for the scenic hikes and stunning rock formations of red-orange sandstone such as the Delicate Arch or Double Arch. Why all of this appealed to a seventy-nine-year-old man I’ll never know.
We explored and conquered Arches and the town of Moab in about two days, but with another day left, I insisted upon visiting the next closest state park–Dead Horse Point. The curiosity sparked by the name alone convinced Pa Fred to take us there at the crack of dawn on our last day. Compared to the crowds of Arches, no one visited Dead Horse Point State Park. The first people to walk into the visitor center that day were an over excited teenager and an unimpressed eleven-year-old with their bow-legged grandfather decked out in his bucket hat and massive black sunglasses from his cataract surgery earlier that year. Rachel drifted to the tiny gift shop while Pa Fred and I browsed the park’s small, one-room museum and listened to the park ranger’s spiel.
Back when cowboys dominated the West, they would use the steep buttes of the area as a natural corral for the horses they wrangled. After separating the strong and healthy horses from the weak and sick, the cowboys would take the superiors with them and leave the inferiors there. With the barren landscape and the sharp cliffs hindering them from the water below, the abandoned horses would perish, hence the name. Thankfully after the state acquired the land and deemed it a state park, the park rangers haven’t had to worry about any sort of horse homicide. Ever since then, the park has attempted to popularize itself under the slogan “like the Grand Canyon, but without the crowds.” Pa Fred and I surveyed the empty visitor center. They were indisputably right about the crowds.
Once Rachel returned from the gift shop with her sulky report on its lack of stickers, we followed the asphalt path up the hill to the top of the ridge. Pa Fred headed the expedition with a slow pace not so much due to his age but rather his desire to keep his new black Velcro strap shoes clean of the red-orange dirt. He insisted that with his leadership, not a plant, rock, or lizard would miss our eyes. Rachel and I just kicked a gravel rock back and forth to each other. It wasn’t until that rock bounced off his shiny Velcro strap shoes did we realize he had stopped, and we soon understood why.
From the top of the ridge, we viewed what the guidebooks deemed the Canyonlands. The Colorado River snaked through the valley, exposing the layers of varying shades of red and brown in the cliffs. This same river holds responsibility for the Grand Canyon masterpiece of Arizona, and it was clearly evident here in splendor and majesty. The only green vegetation within miles bordered the shores and bends of the muddy water. Despite the wonder and beauty of the view, tragedy lay there. What made the sight impressive had also created a grave yard for hundreds of horses.
I began to wonder if this meant that the river was heartless? Did the water only care about carving a path out of the desert to reach the body of water hundreds of miles south? Perhaps the twists and goosenecks before us showed a sadistic side to the river as it sought to destroy the smooth landscape by cutting into the weak sandstone, relentlessly deepening the gash until the water reached earth’s core. Why not just go straight across? The buckles and bends ensured the most disfigurement as it optimized the surface area within its reach. It was just a bonus that the river’s ruins could be utilized by the cowboys as a death trap for the wild mustangs. Compared to the life and strength of the river, the horses were trivial. Did that mean this seemingly glorious view actually represented the arrogance and cruelty of the savage water below?
But how could something this awe-inspiring have been brought on with such wicked intentions? Perhaps the river felt guilt over the destruction she knew she would inflict with her crossing and the canyons she carved were her version of restitution. The curls and twists that unfurl across the land display the river’s form of an apology. She uses her powerful water steadily working against the layers of the sandstone to expose the beauty hidden beneath. It is through the bends of the river that the rustic stripes of color along the canyon walls are made visible. She carries the fertile silt of the Rockies for thousands of miles so plants can spring forth amid the dessert land. She intended to bring only life, but man manipulated her gift to bring death.
For whatever the motive behind the sight before us, it possessed the power to leave us awe struck. Rachel’s phone, Pa Fred’s memories, and my expectations seemed insignificant to this hidden gem before us. After all the years of nature, horses, and cowboys, this unusually named park still possessed the power to leave a lasting impression on two young girls and their grandfather.
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