Confessions of a Saddle Tramp
Copyright 2023 by Shannon King
Photo by Tom Drewry.
Courtesy of the author.
morning, when I went outside as I always do to greet the day and
smell the desert, the full moon sat on the mesa perfectly balanced,
just touching. Like a crystal sphere on a draped table waiting for
its scryer. In a second it was gone and replaced by the
sun. Gracing my day with her blue skies - celebrating – for
today I ride in Mexico.
boat rocks as we step in and find our seat. The river is smooth this
morning and our mounts wait patiently on the other side tied to a
tall mesquite. Nearby a mixed herd of burros and horses stand
saddled under a river cane structure of stucco columns and steel
rails. The sand beneath their feet striped like a woven blanket as
the sun rises over the Rio Grande.
one hand on the saddle horn I stretch to reach the stirrup, slide my
foot into the tapadero and hoist my 5’3” frame up –
no easy feat on a horse named Long Legs - stirrups must be adjusted. My
companions now mounted, we ride toward town along gritty roads,
across the dry arroyo and up toward the stables.
lines the street in this dusty, primitive, remote pueblo cloaked in
faded yellow, green and terracotta. Paint that has lived long beyond
its natural life. We amble past tables laced with embroidered bags
and aprons, hanging like streamers of papel picado at a young girl’s
quinceaera. Hand-made ceramic mugs
with flowers and flourishes in colors of sunset. Scorpions and
roadrunners of twisted copper wire and beads rest next to woven
means “little mouths” in Spanish, a nod to the numerous
streams and arroyos cascading from the Sierra del Carmen into and
along the Rio Grande, many dry now. Although the official crossing
opened in 2013, the land here knows no border and at its lowest the
river only serves as a watering hole for the horses, bear and other
critters crossing back and forth between Texas and Mexico. At its
fullest it runs like strands of
hair, each lock fighting the other yet growing stronger with every
east and out of town the road widens into open ground. We trudge
across dunes of loose sand mixed with juniper and scrub brush,
sinking a bit with each step. The
its way behind gently pushing us forward along the path.
hearths and remnants of long-ago encampments litter the desert - the
remains of the original Boquillas town. Once an active silver and
lead mining community with a population of 2,000, now a single tram
tower across the river and dispersed foundations its only legacy. The
eye of a small cave gazes down on us from the hillside and I wonder
how many children busied themselves in that perfectly formed fort
oblivious to the demands of the adult world. More than a few, I
path narrows and we wind our way through the lacings of branches and
brush, a tangle of creosote and mesquite gasping and fighting for
moisture and root-room below, along the river edge and through a
small arroyo where we pause to let the horses drink. A breeze kicks
up and I brush the hair from my face as a monarch butterfly floats
past. A fitting tribute to the souls who used to populate this area.
More than just a surface or barren land, there is a depth here
further than the eye can see and the ears can hear.
Boquillas Canyon rock melts into water and we are flanked on each
side by the gently sloping bajada topped with steep cliffs. Limbs
reach into the narrow trail as if claiming it for themselves,
scraping my boots as we pass. I shift slightly to avoid the thorns
and the saddle squeaks beneath me.
back the reins at the base of a large mesquite tree we stop, tie the
caballos then hike our way through a waterfall of loose rock of every
shape and size to a small hollow capped in crystals. A cave
inaccessible by any other route – legally at least. A miniature
version of the famous Cueva de Cristal in Naica. Across the river,
cars slowly wind their way along Park Route 12 as travelers visit
Boquillas Canyon on the US side.
long have you been riding I asked our guide, Chalo. My whole life,
he says. We lean against the
and slide to a seat for a short break, feasting in the warmth around
us. Paying respects to the place itself. To the hard-working horses
and burros knee deep in tourists, the restaurants keeping us full,
and the shifting sands working their way through rock and scrub to
muddy this incredible river. But mostly to the people
of Boquillas - proud of their town and their way.
it’s a common theme here, not just in Boquillas del Carmen but
throughout the region. An area where people once passed freely
across the river, family and land on either side. Full of ranches,
wax mines and impassible trails. The caballos, burros and vaqueros
mingling with ranchers and homesteaders along the Big Bend building a
life where only a four-legged hooved animal could have gone before.
to town, we weave our way through the
barbeque and enchiladas. The flavor of Spanish hangs in the air like
a radio wave undulating in the background. Nearby, goats
range free and a horse stands in his trap. Children race stick
ponies across main street – the only street - and the dogs live
their own lives moving about freely and returning home each night at
will. We ride past a horse the
chocolate and marshmallow, through throngs of burros
home for the night and are overcome by the sound of cowbells and a
waterfall of tiny hooves.
came to the village a few years ago yet the closest gas station
remains 160 miles down jostling dirt roads where it can take an hour
to travel just twenty. The conveniences of modern society are simply
a fog, drifting in and out with wispy fingers leaving no trace. Instead
it’s the sweat of the horse, the smile of a child, the
heat on your face and an air of bienvenidos which draws and locks you
the day closes, I dismount and look down at hands callused from
leather reins, dirt under jagged fingernails, and I know this is life
- not the air-conditioned box or plush couch that waits for me at
home, but this. Every
scratch of a tree limb, every cloud of dust, every call of a bird
reminding me why I'm here.
By making me
less, this desert makes me real. And I want to be real.
Boquillas is a
small Mexican town on the border of Texas/Mexico, closer to Texas
than any source of supplies or community in Mexico. The
in my area support the town (Big Bend National Park) and love the
people. The sense of community is fantastic and the
border issues fade into black here - instead we celebrate each other.
I ride and write
from my home base of Brewster County, Texas.
information on visiting Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico:
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
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