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Chasing the Wild Mustangs of Nevada

January 30, 2018

Mustang mare  | Nikon D750 + Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR

Having left work early on a Friday afternoon, Stephen asked me; "Well, what would you like to do this weekend?" After a long pause I replied; "Don't know. I was thinking I could go to the wetlands." By the look on his face, he didn't seem satisfied with that answer. "We have the whole weekend. We could go somewhere. Where would you like to go?"

As hard as I tried, I struggled and honestly couldn't think of anywhere within driving distance I'd want to go,... not when I'd have to be back to work on the following Monday morning. Being the persistent person that he is, I knew he wouldn't let up until I gave it further thought. The rusty wheels in my head began turning and suddenly I remembered I had always wanted to photograph the wild mustangs of Nevada.

I imagined myself out there with my camera and lens getting amazing shots of galloping or rearing mustangs, free and wild, and it got me super excited. I figured it would only be a five or six hour drive, perfectly do-able, so I shared my thoughts in a somewhat reserved manner. Stephen said; "O.K. go pack your bags!" I couldn't believe it. We were going to do it!

I knew the best way to go about it would be to book a tour with one of the mustang guides, but I conceded that it was probably too late for that now. "That's alright," Stephen said. "We can find them ourselves!" "Hmm... this is crazy, but O.K." I replied.

We quickly packed our two dogs, blankets, water & food into the Jeep and set off on our search for wild mustangs.

According to my limited 10 minute internet research, the place to go was the Virginia Range in Nevada. Turns out it was a lot farther than a five hour drive, but by now we were sitting in traffic and very committed. The plan was to go into their place of business and ask some questions about the mustang herd. We hoped that they'd be willing to disclose a few good locations we could drive ourselves to without getting into too much trouble. 

Nikon D750 + Nikkor 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G

After what was a very long drive, we got to Mono County in Northern California at midnight. It was too cold for camping, so we stayed in an Inn, in a small town called Bridgeport. We woke up early in the morning and I went to pick up some free breakfast at the tiny Inn office.

The Inn-keeper (or is it "hotel manager"? Inn-keeper sounds cooler) said hello and asked what we were up to today. I told him we were looking for wild mustangs. He perked up and said; "Some people spotted a herd of mustangs right off SR 120 just a couple of days ago." and showed me a picture from a newspaper of horses crossing the road.

I told him we were headed to the Virginia Range. He looked puzzled, said he had never heard of it and wrote down the cross-roads off SR 120 on a piece of paper in case we wanted to check that out instead. SR 120 was about an hour behind us. We wondered if we should abandon the idea of the more distant Virginia Range and pursue something closer.

Stephen and I decided that we'd keep heading to our original location first and then hit SR 120 on the way back home. Once again we were off and crossed many landscapes ranging from snowy mountains to the sprawling flat ranges of Antelope Valley. We were amazed by how much the landscape changed from one hour to the next!

Nikon D750 + Nikkor 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G

Three hours later, we made it into Nevada and headed toward the historic mining town called Virginia City. We were only a few miles from our final destination and got a boost of confidence when we saw a couple of horse-crossing signs along the road. We kept our eyes on the surrounding landscape, in case there were any wild horses roaming nearby.

The original plan was to stop at the Virginia Range office to ask for more information about the mustangs, but this historic little town was filled to the brim with weekend visitors. Finding parking was going to be a challenge. Neither one of us was ready to deal with it, so we drove right through and into the hills toward Carson City, NV. We figured we'd try our luck at finding them on our own rather than look for a parking spot. In retrospect, maybe that wasn't the most intelligent decision. 

We drove down windy roads through the hills of the Virginia Range and scanned the landscape for any wild animals. Driving down the steep highway, the snow-capped mountains above Carson City were quite the sight. We did not see any mustangs, but I had to pull over and take pictures of the landscape before us, because it was quite amazing.

Nikon D750 + Nikkor 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G  |  Photography by Stephen Nowak.

I got back in the car, we pulled away from the turn-out and as we were heading down the hill, I turned around and spotted what looked like grazing horses.

- "Look! There they are!" I pointed excitedly toward the hill behind us. We nearly drove right past them! They were invisible to us while driving down the hill, because they were located on a grassy hill, deep below the road. They were just barely visible on the ridge to those traveling up-hill.

Unfortunately to me it looked like it would be very difficult to get to. I was 100% ready to give up on these mustangs in search of a more accessible point, but Stephen wasn't having it. He convinced me that of course we'd be able to get to them. He pulled a quick u-turn, headed their way and parked on the side of the road as much out-of-the-way of other cars as possible.

We got out of the Jeep and crossed the two-lane highway, trying our best not to get run over. The next challenge was to crawl down the steep grassy hill with loose rocks and dirt to get closer to the horses. I worried that if I crawled down there, I wouldn't be able to get back out. Stephen was the first one down of course, and talked me into carefully scooting down the hill. I did just that, using my butt to slowly and safely slide down the grass and rocks.

Nikon D750 + Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR

Man am I glad I let him talk me into everything!

We moved toward the horses as slowly as possible, but kept a good distance. These were wild animals after all, and since neither one of us had been in the presence of wild horses before, we decided to play it safe.

At first they seemed slightly alarmed by our presence, their heads popping up out of the grass, but when they saw that we posed no danger, they returned to their grazing, moving from one spot to another.

The next two or three hours were amazing. Though the light was not perfectly golden as it was still far from sunset, the mustangs were at ease with us and let us take as many pictures as our hearts desired. We sat in the grass, slowly moved around them and watched them do their mustang things.

Nikon D500 + Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR

The winter weather in Carson City is not as forgiving as Southern California. After an hour or two of shooting and trying to withstand the cold wind, Stephen and I decided to get back in the car to stay warm and wait for better light. We wondered if we should keep shooting here, or try our luck looking for a bigger herd elsewhere. After some thinking and as the light fleeted, we decided that three horses in our hand are better than a herd of them in a bush... or however that saying goes. 

I got back out there and sat in a place where the sun was to my back, illuminating the horses. I spent about another hour watching them interact, when I noticed that one of the stallions was getting curious about all the clicking.  He was grazing closer and closer to where I was sitting.

Nikon D500 + Nikkor 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G

I didn't think much of it. I figured the horses now seemed more comfortable in my presence. But when he suddenly stopped grazing, lifted his head, locked eyes with me and began walking over to me, my adrenaline definitely kicked in.

Should I stay or should I go? I didn't know how to feel about it. On one hand I was only a couple of feet from a large wild animal, which was very exciting. On the other hand, I was TWO feet from a large wild animal, which was terrifying!!!

He stood there towering over me, just quietly looking down at me, trying to figure me out. I remained as still and non-threatening as possible. The Darwin awards immediately came to mind. I was almost certain that I'd probably end up receiving one, once this wild and unpredictable horse was finished pounding me into the ground with his hooves.

Luckily I had watched a documentary called "The Horse Whisperer" long ago and remembered a few things; keep your fingers folded in and watch the ears! I paid close attention to the direction of his ears, very slowly reached my hand out toward his nose with a closed fist and let him sniff me.

At first he jerked his head backwards which was a bit frightening to me, but then he slowly came right back, sniffed my hand, moved closer, sniffed my head and tried to chew on my hair. Having long blond hair, maybe he confused it for grass, who knows. I stayed very still, tried to speak very calmly (no idea what I said) and let him figure out that I wasn't a threat.

Now,... it's possible that this mustang had human interaction before and wasn't frightened or intimidated by human presence, but to me it was an amazing moment being able to experience this connection with a wild and free animal. I decided that maybe it was time for me to leave on a good note, so after about five minutes, I slowly stood up and walked away toward the car.

I climbed up the hill, ran across the highway back into the car and told Stephen what had happened. It's too bad he wasn't out there to see it! Luckily I had pictures to prove it.

Nikon D500 + Nikkor 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G

Now it was time to move on. Saturday was nearly over and we still hadn't seen any mustang herds. I mentioned the mustang sighting and directions to SR 120 that the Inn-keeper gave me, so we set our GPS to our next destination and headed out of Nevada, back to Mono County in Northern California.

The Inn-keeper mentioned "Sagehen" and "Oak Mill Rd." that I could not locate on the GPS, so I simply set it to SR 120, figuring we'd drive down the route until we saw something that sounded familiar. I didn't give it a second thought.

Nikon D500 + Nikkor 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G

We drove for about three hours before we finally reached SR 120. It was dark, cold, and we were exhausted. We decided to find a hotel room somewhat close to our final destination and get some rest for the night.

The next morning upon checking out of our hotel, Stephen wanted to know exactly where we needed to go. The Inn-keeper's directions seemed legitimate, but since we couldn't find it on the GPS, at some point during our hotel stay he decided to take it upon himself to do some research. He found a place called Dobbie Meadows Rd.

We entered the proper destination into the GPS and received a shock. Although we didn't encounter any dangerous driving conditions even while traveling through the snowy mountains, SR 120 (which would have led us to Dobbie Meadows Rd.) was partially closed for the winter. If we wanted to get to our destination, we would have to drive for five and a half hours, going back up North through Nevada and make a loop back into California. Basically we drove three hours the night before, just so we could stay in a hotel. Now we needed to return to Carson City, NV, in order to get around the road closure and reach the herd. 

As usual, I was ready to give up and go home. Five and a half hours of driving before having to drive another six hours to get home that night seemed brutal. I was happy with the fact that I got to see any mustangs at all, but once again, Stephen was up to the challenge. We would try to find this Dobbie Meadows Rd., a place where wild mustang herds are known to frequent.

Dobbie Meadows Rd.  | Nikon D500 + Nikkor 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G

Five hours later and passing the enormous Mono lake, we arrived on Dobbie Meadows Rd. I half-expected a green meadow, but what we got instead was a 20 mile stretch of dirt road and sage brush. We were very thankful to be driving a Jeep with a full tank of gas and plenty of water. Neither one of us had any cell phone reception and we never did pass another human being the whole way.

We headed down the road and kept our eyes on the landscape. Looking down, we found a large number of horse tracks, as well as horse droppings. I've never been so excited to see droppings in my life! As we drove farther, the vast stretch of land surrounding us was intimidating. These mustangs could be anywhere!

Nikon D500 + Nikkor 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G

As hard as we tried, unfortunately we never did see any horses off Dobbie Meadows Rd. Despite the hoof tracks and droppings, we drove the entire stretch of road without a single horse sighting. 160 acres, dirt roads, no reception, setting sun, getting hungrier by the minute and needing to be back by Monday morning, the odds were stacked against us.

Stephen wanted to give it one last try. He was not completely ready to give up, so we drove down a long stretch of windy road, made a right turn at the next crossing and headed down another dirt path that led to Topaz Lake.

Nikon D500 + Nikkor 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G

We did not have any luck finding wild mustangs on the way to Topaz lake either. We knew it was time to give up and begin the long drive home.

Though we covered a thousand miles and still couldn't find them in California, we realized that our lack of planning was the obvious culprit.

We learned a lot from this spontaneous trip. First, have a more defined goal in place. Second, talk to some locals and get the scoop on where herds have been seen in recent days. Third, make sure to check for road closures! Booking a tour ahead of time might have been helpful as well, but being spontaneous doesn't always play nice with last-minute plans.

All in all we were extremely lucky and grateful to have found any mustangs in the wild at all, not to mention being able to interact with them! We also got to see a lot of beautiful scenery along the way (twice!), so I guess I could say that to a large degree this trip was a success. :-)

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