- Wild Horses, America, and Me
It is important that we find animals to love.—Thomas McGuane
I’ve been missing get-togethers. The day after a neighborhood poker game, I learned that my friend Tim had asked about my absence. “Where is Hanson?” In response, my colleague, Brad, sang a line from a song by Jonathan Richman: I ain’t seen him much … since he … started with horses. It is true. During the past three years, I’ve spent my spare time on the prairies of Wyoming with a camera pointed at bands of mustangs. Sometimes I go by myself. Other times I travel with my wife, Lynn. Either way, if there’s a blank spot on the calendar, I don’t have to think about how to fill the days. I load the car and drive to places where I’m likely to find horses.
Wild mustangs are not my first obsession. I spent two decades flyfishing for trout in a fashion that felt essentially out of control. At one point, I also thought I would retrace the canoe routes of the French fur traders and explorers. I paddled a lot of water before I gave up on that ghost. I became a bird watcher. In my late thirties I invested in a pair of binoculars and a bookshelf full of field guides. Over time my home became a warehouse for equipment that I take with me when I leave home. That’s typical. American lives, more so than most, unfold in the form of arrivals and departures. We wander to a degree that can feel nomadic.
In the middle 1900s we left the era of agriculture. By the end of the last century, few of us lived on farms. The production of food had become an industrial process along with manufacturing. In the past, we put more into our land when we wanted to get ahead. Today, we move to find new opportunities. Our careers keep us in motion. Then—when we are free of our responsibilities—we go. We take a vacation.
Some of us leave in order to escape. I know families that take annual trips to Walt Disney World in Florida. I can’t think of a better way to take [End Page 45] flight from contemporary life. The attraction is the absence of reality. Critics charge the Walt Disney Company and its customers with living in denial. They accuse Disney of providing a distraction from the injustices that we perpetuate as a nation, but the Disney critics miss the point. The purpose of a trip to Disney World is to take a break from wrongdoings and injustice. It’s the “Magic Kingdom.” It is not the “Kingdom Where We Give Thought to the Sober-and-Sometimes-Sad Reality of Life in a PostIndustrial Society.”
The culture that we live in makes us feel like escaping, but we travel for reasons other than to flee. Americans are seekers, too. We search when we travel. Many of us put ourselves in motion as a way to make a “pilgrimage,” whether or not we use that word to describe our journeys. As opposed to tourism as a diversion from the day-to-day, the pilgrimage offers a way to add a meaningful chapter to what, eventually, becomes a life story. We set the largest share of our chapters at home. We connect our identities to the places where we live, but travel-as-search allows us to expand the edges of the self. Away from families and jobs, we forget the memories we don’t want to recall. Then we replace them by adding paragraphs, even whole chapters, to our stories. We don’t come all the way back from a pilgrimage. We return different.
Wild horses go wherever they want to. They roam across deserts, through forests, and on top of mountains. You find them in all of these places, but they favor prairies. Horses browse. That means they can eat a range of plants, but they prefer grasses. When I watch them, sometimes I wonder what it would feel like to walk on a landscape that is edible. When they are hungry...