On a bright day in mid-August 2007, Ron and Ginger Hopkins went for a drive in Nevada's high desert. Someone told them that if they turned north off the road to the Sulphur gold mine on the eastern edge of the Black Rock Desert, they could find sulphur crystals the size of hen's eggs. As previous managers of cow outfits in the desert, they know livestock and they know the country in all its many faces from bitter to benevolent.On a bright day in mid-August 2007, Ron and Ginger Hopkins went for a drive in Nevada's high desert. Someone told them that if they turned north off the road to the Sulphur gold mine on the eastern edge of the Black Rock Desert, they could find sulphur crystals the size of hen's eggs. As previous managers of cow outfits in the desert, they know livestock and they know the country in all its many faces from bitter to benevolent.
On a bright day in mid-August 2007, Ron and Ginger Hopkins went for a drive in Nevada’s high desert. Someone told them that if they turned north off the road to the Sulphur gold mine on the eastern edge of the Black Rock Desert, they could find sulphur crystals the size of hen’s eggs. As previous managers of cow outfits in the desert, they know livestock and they know the country in all its many faces from bitter to benevolent. But this outing was not about anything more than getting away from the phone and spending the night 50 miles from the nearest electric light. They were looking for peace. But they found tragedy instead.
On that summer afternoon, they drove north past mining shacks and crossed the railroad tracks. The road wound up a hill and soon the truck was pushing powdery dirt. The desert country around Sulphur, that expects no more than 4 or 6 inches of precipitation a year, knows how to live with less. In 2007, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lists Nevada, the driest state in the Union, as having the second-warmest July on record, while through the winter of 2006-2007, it set a new record low for precipitation. The local people didn’t have to be told that. March looked like July, and by August, the brush on the flats appeared to have been hit with a blowtorch.
The Hopkins were prepared to make a dry camp. Jugs of water were tied to the handles of the cold box in the back of their pickup and, with thoughts of finding saffron-colored crystals, they pushed on toward Trail Springs at the southeast edge of the Jackson Mountains. When they topped the hill, they were looking into a big open basin that ran north about three or four miles, and west into the stark emptiness of the Black Rock Desert. In the bottom of the basin, there was a round, metal trough, the kind that will hold about 2,500 gallons of water Ð if it’s full. Ron stopped the truck.
"I couldn’t believe what I was seeing," he tells me later at my kitchen table. Normally, he is full of funny stories and gossip, but today, his jaw is set and he barks with impatience at my questions. He wants to be rid of the memory of dying horses.
"The basin was full of horses, up on the hills, coming down to the trough, hundreds of them. The trough was empty and there were horses standing in it! And all around it," he said.
He spun the empty coffee cup rocking like a top, then grabbed it and set it down gently.
"Up in that basin, you could see stud bunches everywhere you looked, all coming in to water. I counted 170 head before they blew out of there to the west. It looked like an atom bomb went off."
He shakes his head remembering how the dust washed up both sides of those hills swirling in a wave that closed together at the top in a huge apocalyptic cloud.
"That was on Aug. 12; the date was on the pictures we took," he said.
The glint edge of death is what Ron and Ginger witnessed at Trail Springs. Desperate hound-gutted, hollow-eyed stallions abandoned their mares and foals to fate, and their genetic dominance to the wind, for the silvery taste of water as they crowded around the pipe, too close to block the lunge of teeth bared. They kicked and struck. A leg was broken. A mare’s neck was ripped so badly she could not raise her head. The stallion nearest the pipe pawed frantically, his lips pulled tight against his teeth to suck water from the concrete slab. Others came from behind and they reared high, legs flailing, the pop of skin pulling free from teeth. Deafening squeals. Foals flew from the fray. Mares paced and circled, hoping for a sip. Survival was the only impetus for stud bunches to chance contact. If not for their need for water, each stallion would keep his band at a distance, and wait his turn. But these horses could not trust there would be a turn. They had been living this desperation for months and were helpless with the impulse to stay alive. It went on and on, with no relief, only dull resignation, another step closer to death.
After the horses left, the Hopkins drove down to the trough to take a better look. Water dripped out of the pipe, one drop a second. Then they drove a mile up into the basin away from the trough to camp. Ron fixed their bedroll in the back of the truck. Neither had any appetite for the picnic dinner Ginger had packed. Instead, Ron took a walk along the pipeline and checked the air vents of the gravity-flow system to see if something was wrong, but there wasn’t. He could hear the whisper of water passing by.
Up to the north, horses were still coming from every direction on the side hills, or they were the same horses, circling around to come back to the trough. Their truck plus the smell of humans kept the wild horses from coming down. But through the night, there was no wind or sounds to mask the steady shuffle of unshod hooves padding down the spider web of trails a foot deep in dust toward the trough. They came from every direction like an echo in the dark. Ginger listened in anguish, asking herself, "What can I do for these horses? I don’t have a water truck to bring water out here. I don’t have a stack of hay to feed them. What can I do?"
In the morning, Ron found the trough was 4 inches of mud and manure.
"When the horses came back, how many of those hundreds of horses are going to get a drink?" he said. "Darned sure none of the babies. A cow will leave and go to feed. Horses won’t. They hang around waiting… read more