Fold mountains

Column: A mysterious mustang roams the arid landscape of the White Mountains


The horse finally has a name.

I thought about it when I realized that the iconic ’70s lyrics “I walked through the desert on an unnamed horse” were no longer quite true to me.

You see, a mysterious wild horse that I encountered several times in a distant California desert was just a nameless wonder to me for many years.

Wild as the wind, this elusive stallion wandered the arid landscape of the White Mountains for more than two decades and thus became a legend.

It was only recently, thanks to the wide reach of social media, that I discovered that this equine legend is known as Campito, arguably because he is most often seen in mugwort beds. around Campito Mountain at an elevation of nearly 12,000 feet in The White Mountains of California.

Home to ancient bristlecone pines, the White Mountains are a unique place visited only by a fraction of the crowds that swarm in the eastern Sierra. It is a true wilderness, harsh and lonely, with barren and lofty peaks that rise above the woodland line, a windswept and moon-like landscape, the oldest living things on Earth and home to a wild horse ghost.

I first encountered the mustang stallion on a cold fall day in the late 1990s while hiking these rugged mountains that lie in the eastern part of Owens Valley along the Nevada border. He was then with another mustang, foraging in the almost barren landscape near a meager spring.

They distrusted me, were on their guard and vigilant, never allowing me to come within a half mile or so.

Winters in the White Mountains often see winds over 100 miles per hour and arctic temperatures well below zero. It is a surprising place to meet a wild horse.

Since my first meeting, I have often seen Campito as a distant point, but now always alone. He keeps his distance but once allowed me to get close enough for the photos I took for this column.

I admired the solitary life this mustang enjoys. The freedom, the strength and the spirit that it embodies.

It was a social media post from Don Chambers, a resident of Bishop and president of the Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association, that first alerted me to the fact that this elusive horse had a name.

Someone posted a distant photo of the wild horse and asked if anyone knew anything about it.

Chambers told a fascinating story about Campito.

“From his freezer brand, we know he was born in 1991 and comes from the Buckhorn horse management area,” Chambers said. The gel marks are applied to the neck with a frozen branding iron instead of the traditional fire mark.

Buckhorn is a wilderness area in Lassen County, which stretches all the way to Nevada. The wild horses found there are believed to have originated from Spanish strains mixed with American ranch animals and cavalry horses before and during WWI.

Campito was captured in 1995 and adopted in 1996 by someone near Susanville, but information after that is unclear.

“There are stories and legends about Campito, from how he got to white people to where he goes in winter. I haven’t been able to confirm any of them, and sometimes legends should remain, ”Chambers said.

Oceanside resident Jim Summers had an even more personal interaction with Campito, having visited him for over 20 years.

“At first he was moving parallel to us, doing a little show while sniffing,” Summers said.

During a trip, Campito was offered an apple.

“I held him out, but he didn’t come close to get it, so I finally rolled him over,” Summers said.

The horse didn’t eat an apple then, but there were none the next day, and Summers eventually brought more apples and carrots on his trips to the White Mountains.

Summers feels like the Mustang recognizes him now.

“There were opportunities for him to really put on a show. He’ll follow me around begging for the apple in my bag that he knows is named after him, ”Summers said. “I called him by name, and he must recognize my voice after years of leaving apples for him.”

Imagine the sight of this mighty wild animal running towards you, tail in the air, shining and in great shape. Summers enjoyed the sight.

But Campito still wouldn’t be on hand, always staying at least 15 feet away.

“But he’ll walk with me, sometimes doing a show, jumping,” Summers said. “Sometimes I just can’t seem to get rid of him. He just follows me everywhere.

Campito’s story became more intriguing when Summers met a biologist from the California Department of Fisheries and Wildlife in Bishop.

According to the biologist, for a time Campito was part of a chain of High Sierra pack animals but escaped on a trip to the wilderness.

How the Mustang came to be in the White Mountains or where Campito spends the brutal winters is still a mystery. He also seems to prefer his freedom to company, perhaps enjoying the occasional apple and distant encounters with a friendly human.

The lifespan of wild horses is usually 25 to 30 years. The summers of Campito in the high country are numbered. Soon a winter will pass and his hoofprints will not return to the wise plains of the White Mountains.

The legend of the mustang will grow and I will remember having crossed the desert with a horse named Campito.

Email [email protected] or visit erniesoutdoors.blogspot.com.