I did not grow up watching western movies depicting life in America’s old west frontier. In fact, my mom was the one who introduced me to legends like John Wayne and Gregory Peck, through movies like Mackenna’s Gold and True Grit in my late teens. Ever since then, I associated America’s old west with images of wild mustangs, dashing cowboys (much to the amusement of my darling husband), and landscapes that seem out of this world.
Fast forward several decades later, I found myself exploring Utah’s desert region with a strong possibility of coming face to face with those wild mustangs of my teens. Of course, I kept the thought of possible encounters with dashing cowboys to myself. I figured it wouldn’t go so well with my husband and my kids who were travelling with me! Starting in Salt Lake City, we made our way westward with relatively vague directions from a friend. Get off highway 172, go 10 miles past the pony express signpost and turn right onto the dirt road and keep going until you see the herd, she said in her email. She assured me that eventually, I would find some horses. So, with a sense of adventure and a tank full of gas, we decided to just go find them horses.
Once we got off the highway, we came across the tell-tale sign documenting the pony express route of the 1800s. I don’t know who was more thrilled – me or the kids. I almost expected to see a John Wayne look-alike tip his cowboy hat and direct us along the next bend.
This is where things really started to get adventurous. Our directions sort of ended past the pony express sign. Ten miles in and the road opened up to an almost Mars-like landscape. After what seemed like almost two hours of driving, we finally got a glimpse of a lone horse quite a distance away from us. To say I was disappointed would have been an understatement. However, if parenting has taught me anything, it is that you never voice your frustrations in front of your kids. They latch onto any little sliver of perceived parental weakness that can be used against you for the rest of your life. So rather than backtrack our journey, we decided to soldier on and catch the interstate back about 20 miles west of where we were.
My husband saw them first. I believe he said something to the effect of “And there are your horses. Welcome to your Wild West Fantasy”. I remember doing a double take because I only saw a cluster of brown specks quite some ways away. But slowly my mind and my eyes adjusted to the possibility of seeing these magnificent animals relatively close to the dirt path we were on, as we drove closer and closer to them. I am quite sure I squealed in excitement, and as we got closer my heart started pounding loudly in my ears. There they were – beautiful, wild and free – just like in the movies I had watched with my mom so many years ago.
We ended up spending almost five hours watching these horses. The herd was about 50-60 animals strong with lots of mares, stallions and a few foals. After their initial apprehension at our car, they pretty much ignored us and continued to spend their day grazing, fighting, galloping and even mating right in front of an audience. These mustangs gave us a glimpse into the beauty of what it means to be living wild and free in the wilderness. No rules, no restrictions – just a zest for life in the open range.
There is a lot of debate here in the states about wild mustangs and their place in the western ranges and wild landscapes. Some people want to see them removed because of livestock grazing rights, while others are fighting to get them listed as a protected species under federal law because they represent a way of life that symbolizes the historic and pioneer spirit of the West. I don’t know which side will win, but I will say that spending time with these magnificent animals brought back a part of my childhood that is priceless to me; and while there soon may not be much wildness left in the world anymore, the epitome of all that is wild and free at heart still remains with these magnificent animals.
Karthika Gupta is a lifestyle, wedding and travel editorial photographer based in Chicago. Her images are fun, fresh and natural and her love for nature and cultures makes its way into most of her images. To her, photography is a way to showcase all the beauty around – whether it is in the places she travels to or the people she meets.