Madeleine Pickens moved to the wilderness from the thoroughbred side of the racetrack. She is best known as owner of Cigar and several other champions. In the 1990s she could be found in the owners enclosure at the Curragh with Vincent O’Brien and John Mangier.
She is closely associated with the campaign to pass the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act in the USA.
And now she is laughing against the Nevada sun, driving a four by four through the dust as she circles a herd of magnificent wild Mustang, the last chance to save, unmolested and undomesticated, a peculiar breed of horse.
As any conquistador could tell you, the horse is not native to America. They were first released after the Pueblo revolt of 1680 when native Americans got their hands on horses and began to trade directly with Shoshone Indians.
The horse has been part of the Nevada landscape since. “this is an endangered species this is like going to Africa and seeing the zebra,” says Madeleine.
* * * *
Back in her ranch (“NOT a dude ranch”) the silver tack shines in the sunlight where it hangs.
“I came here because it has land,” she says. “In Nevada 87pc of the land is owned by federal government. We have 900 square miles here which enabled us to rescue 600 horses.”
She has assembled a hospitality team to look after guests in her lodge. Robert Macbeth the chef is from Arizona. We ask him if he is good with the knife (he has only heard it 2,794 times before).
The lodge offers American western cooking by Robert McGrath. Western dining? Surely some mistake? He says “dining is all about balance, we have nice beef and then some berries to balance it. Because of where they lived their food was not contrived: beef, bison, elk, all low on fat, fish are indigenous, and the grains and corn are all very healthy., When you try too hard you lose track of your culture butters and creams don’t s settle well.”
Historian Brandon Ross talks tribal history: “Tonto in a loin cloth is more attractive than the Lone Ranger with a mask.” He describes the call of the landscape, “vast silence and breath taking stars.”
Travis Jackson agrees: “we work in the white world we lose our culture so I left the white world.”
He says “she had a cause and I believed her – there is nothing greater than to feel a wild horse nibbling at your fingers.”
* * * *
The landscape performs in every direction. “Rattle snake country,” says Tom Lester as he brought us high into the Lemoille canyon. There is snow in the mountains around us and that spectacular clear desert air means you can see for miles. “Just look,” he says. “In Tennessee an overpass is a mountain.”
We stop at a crossroads church in Lamoille with a congregation of 12 and little hat holders under the pews. “There is no room for cowboy hats we can always tell when the pastor is going on too long. Everyone starts flapping their hats” says Sandy Wilmot.
In Wendover they moved the time line three miles so they could operate on mountain time. Another community called jackpot also operates on mountain time without being federally sanctioned.
* * * *
At the California Trails centre Mike Blunk tells me about the wagon trails that headed west from the 1840s on. His visitor centre tries to recreate the sights, sounds, even the smell that greeted the tens of thousands of hopefuls who crossed here en route to the gold fields. “That,” says Mike, “is the stench of death.”
Surprisingly, the wagon trail was a middle class migration. The poorest could not afford to go. About 10pc of them never made it, dying of disease, drowning and (the third biggest killer) accidental gunshot wounds. “Rivers took them. Nobody knew how to swim.”
It took us 40 minutes to cross the arid 40 mile stretch of desert, it took the California bound wagon trails three days.
“It was impossible to get lost,” Mike says, “all you had to do was walk on all the bones.”
The terrain was hostile, and empty. Nevada had no rural towns until the mid 1950s. When they reached a plain that looked like snow it turned out to be alkali salt.
We travelled out into Bonneville salt flats, most famous for its land speed record attempts, to be blinded by the white light.
“The women made more money than the men,” says tour guide Joan Stratton. “All they had to do was smile. A pretty smile will get you a lot of gold.”
* * * *
Eoghan Corry was hosted by travelnevada.com.com. He flew to Las Vegas with Aer Lingus and Jetblue transferring through their shared terminal at New York JFK airport Terminal 5.
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