High in the White Mountains of Eastern California,
Way up in the sky, among the sweet-smelling sage
With those scattered old trees—Bristlecone Pines—
There roams a solitary one:
They call him CAMPITO…
Wild Horse of the Whites…
We’ve heard that, briefly, there were three. Sometime in the late ‘90s they just…appeared. Then there were two: a “white” one (maybe palomino?) and an almost-black bay. This white horse was with the bay some while—perhaps for a few summers—then just up and vanished… leaving Campito all alone. And you can imagine how lonely a lone horse would be.
Nobody knows how he got a name that stuck so well. Anyone who calls him anything calls him Campito. Every spring he arrives with the greening, often while there’s still a few patches of old snow, and spends summer through fall grazing out on those open sagebrush flats, nibbling little clumps of grass and sedge that grow among the gray-green brush. All…by…himself, just below timberline, under the blue-blue sky with a kind of wind that knows how to blow. He stays up there even after snow comes again. A friend told us how one dry December, roads still passable, she saw the stalwart horse—still there—searching for any shriveled bits of dry grass he could find. Think about him: standing out in the open at 11,000 feet during those long, cold nights. At some point, something calls him and he reluctantly wanders down the mountain; probably down its eastern slope toward some valley beyond. But…nobody knows where Campito goes to weather his winters.
Every spring, though, back he comes. Those few people who live and work in the Whites, and all the regular summer visitors, look forward to seeing him again (like they do the returning alpine wildflowers). There he is! It’s Campito! He’s back! You can see him from a long ways away—a tiny, dark dot on the mountainside—but, often as not, he’ll be standing right near the road, going about his business. Which is eating grass. Seeing him again (especially that first time in the spring) always brings up bittersweet emotions and unanswered questions. Where did he come from and where does he go? How can he stand to be so alone? Is he an outcast or just an old grump? What does he think about all day? Whatever, whichever: seeing Campito makes you glad. And sad. At the same time. As the years have gone by, he’s become a legend, a symbol, and remains an enigma. This tale is just one version of what little we think we know about him. And that’s a part of Campito’s mystique: who knows who really knows his story?
Campito was once tamed but was born wild and remains mustang at heart. He has a “freeze-brand” on the left side of his neck—all captured mustangs, whether they like it or not, receive a unique identifying mark and stallions are gelded. (The special branding iron, which can be adjusted to make patterns of parallel lines with varying spaces between, instead of being pulled from a bed of red-hot coals, is taken from a big thermos-type bottle of liquid nitrogen. It doesn’t hurt but the horses’ hair thenceforth grows in white. So Campito has what looks like a white bar-code on his neck just under his rangy mane.) It’s quite likely that he was first captured at the north end of the Whites, where herds of mustangs still thrive. So he may not be that far from the land of his birth and, though doubtful, he could possibly winter somewhere over there.
He was adopted by a local outfitter who owns and operates a pack-station in the Sierra high-country west of Bishop. More than likely, Campito was trained as a pack horse—too wild to ride—but for a time he could’ve been going on trips into Kings Canyon National Park, hauling freight for dudes on vacation. They named him “Charlie.”
Problem was: Campito had his Wild Heart and was not so compliant as some horses— even mustangs—who want more than anything to be part of the herd. He proved to be an escape artist. We were told that the pack station owner chose not to chase Charlie down that last time he broke out of jail…just let him go. (As for Whitey and the even-more-mysterious “third man”: did they all break out together? Meet up later? These are some missing puzzle-pieces.)
Just last summer the Forest Service ranger told us that this outfitter, as it turns out, lives on a ranch down in Chalfant Valley (which is right near the base of White Mountain Peak) and it’s where he keeps his livestock during their off-season. We were sorry to learn this as it removes a very romantic element from Campito’s story: an imagined scene of him and his fellow-escapees heading for freedom, across Owens Valley from way over in the High Sierra. This odyssey capped by a mad midnight gallop, across Highway 395 through the headlight beams of oncoming semis, before wearily making it up into the Whites at last. Nooo…it was most likely just the long climb up one of those endless ridges that started only a couple of miles from that outfitter’s ranch. Maybe they reached the crest near his namesake meadow, where Campito (we’ve always assumed he was ringleader) informed his steadfast companions, like Brigham Young did his fellow pilgrims when they entered Salt Lake Valley, “This is the place.”
Campito’s summer range is surprisingly small. He has several distinctly favored hangouts and is virtually never seen except at one of three locales, spending the most time in Campito Meadow. Once used as sheep pasture by Mexican herders, it’s an acre of gently sloping greenery watered by a spring and surrounded by sagebrush, beneath a round-topped mountain of the same name. This spot (less than a mile from the turnoff to Methuselah Tree) is where he’s commonly seen ambling around, often right near the road—a real tourist attraction.
One mile south, in the vicinity of the road leading to Crooked Creek, is Big Prospector Meadow, (not named for a large miner) which isn’t as meadowy but also has a little spring that flows until mid-summer…or used to. It’s been dry for several years now so, to get a drink, Campito has been walking down into a nearby creek-bed that has its own, more reliable spring.
His third haunt is a mile east of Big Prospector in another lovely, spring-fed meadow out on Sagehen Flat. One small area to the side of this little meadow (whose spring has also been dry the last few summers) is strewn with manure in a concentration you’d only expect to find in a small corral. It’s evident that Campito has spent more nights sleeping peacefully in this one little spot—his querencia, or, “safe place”—than any other, by far. From the summit of Blanco Mountain, a prominent local peak with sweeping views, you can easily see him when he’s down in that meadow, a black speck in a tremendous spread of mountainous terrain under almost too much sky. It’s a moving site that truly puts his world—and yours—in perspective.
Lots of people stop when they spot the wild horse and get out of their vehicle for a better look and to snap photos; some try to approach him. Each and every one of us who are acquainted with Campito secretly long to be the one and only person he’d let walk up and pet him. He “knows” humans and displays obvious curiosity when someone is slowly walking toward him; he’ll stop grazing and watch their approach with mild interest, then resume feeding while keeping a wary eye on them.
If you try it, when you’re within a hundred feet or so he’ll begin to amble off. If you stop, he’ll stop, and turn to look you over. The two of you can happily enjoy one another’s company from this distance, and it’s only if you keep trying to get closer that he’ll finally become annoyed and run off. He often demonstrates his irritation in dramatic fashion by arching his neck down, nose almost touching the ground, while unloading a sky-ward, double-barreled kick. After galloping off—a joy to watch—he’ll stop and turn to look at you quizzically. We’re probably just imagining it but there’s something in this open gaze that seems shyly friendly.
Campito knows what carrots are, oh yes. The ranger, a very kind-hearted man, used to try and lure him with this well-known form of horse-candy. No luck…but when he’d leave them behind and check next time he came through, the carrots were always gone. Now he just leaves them—not as a treat, but as a gift. (And since they’re a gift, expecting no favor in return.)
So that’s about all we presently know about “our” wild horse. He’s in fine condition; trim but well-fed, and to all appearances in tip-top health. His coat gleams. But he’s not getting any younger. Campito’s been up in the Whites now for going on twenty years. (And, of course, we have no idea how old he was when he arrived; probably not very.) He’s in remarkably good shape and is a beautiful, noble creature with loads of equine charisma.
But how’s his mental health? In one of his journals, nature-writer Edward Abbey wrote, “All solitude, too long endured, leads to madness.” (Cactus Ed stole lots of other authors’ aphorisms and reworded them a little…this sounds like one he maybe “borrowed.”) But it’s true. Most horses could never stand to be all alone like Campito; many will go berserk if suddenly separated from their herd and will jump fences or crash through gates to get back with their amigos. He doesn’t have to be alone—Campito could surely find other horses if he felt the need. No: the reclusive Campito wants to be a hermit-horse. He seems completely self-possessed and contented; not at all forlorn or dejected. And this is why we care for him so very much, are concerned for his welfare: we admire the loners who exist on society’s fringe, who live by a code all their own…who have few needs beyond a little something to eat, a place to sleep, and their freedom. We may feel something akin to envy for that sort of fortitude. It’s a rare quality, and getting rarer. Or maybe it always has been.
And, speaking of Ed Abbey: in his book, Desert Solitaire, there’s a chapter entitled, “The Moon-eyed Horse.” (A moon-eyed horse is one that has a minor, but striking, physical flaw: some white around the pupil of their otherwise-black eye.) Ed himself is the “solitaire” of the book’s title but this chapter—many readers’ favorite passage in Abbey’s masterwork—is about a lone horse who roams a remote box canyon somewhere in the Utah red-rock country. Abbey, who has seen him before and knows something of the outsider’s story, is out helping a rancher-friend gather lost cows, spots “ol’ Moon-eye,” and resolves to capture the horse (who isn’t a mustang) and take him back to civilization. For the old horse’s sake, of course—why would the dang fool want to be all by himself? Predictably, Ed fails. But it’s a poignant story and obviously intended as a parable; Abbey’s heroes were always loners.
Desert Solitaire is ostensibly a work of non-fiction. What people don’t know is that this story is at least partially, perhaps mostly, made up. There may or may not have even been a Moon-eyed horse. (Many Abbey fans would be disappointed; Ed, in his writings—if not his personal life—was big on honesty.)
But this Wild Horse of the Whites, Campito, is no fictional character. No.
Better than real: a true western legend in the flesh.
In the cage there is food.
Not much, but there is food.
Outside are only great stretches of freedom.
©2013 Tim Forsell 6 Dec 2013