Ancient horse tracks in Death Valley

There’s a place known in paleontology circles as “The Barnyard.” The Barnyard has tracks, not bones - tracks of camels and elephants and birds, but mostly horse tracks, thousands of them, coming from the past and going towards the future, preserved forever in a mountain range that wasn’t there when they were, magic ciphers embedded in a permanent and ever-open ancient scroll.

These horse tracks are on a wall in a secret location inside Death Valley National Park. They are accessible only by way of ranger-led hikes. I visited them two years ago, after reading about them in an obscure park service newsletter and making a reservation months in advance. To get there, I took an interstate to a highway to a desert two-lane deep inside the park, and then parked my car and joined a small group of pilgrims. We followed the ranger up an alluvial fan, through giant washes where tender once-a-century flowers were blooming after the recent rains. After two or three miles, the desert street began to shrink and we were on a narrow path that wound through slot canyons lined with sandstone and except for the crunching of hiking boots all was silent.

As time passed, the path got thinner still, winding along a ribbon of sand that was lined by sheer granite walls. We traversed upwards across rough desert gravel at an incline of about 15 degrees. As the sun rose to the high noon mark, we stopped for a rest, then trekked on as a stir of air came down off the higher elevations. The path emptied into a sprawling white bajada criss-crossed by fault lines and ringed by mineral-veined mountains. After awhile, we reached the far side of the bajada where the path resumed. We walked another hundred yards or so until we reached the seven-mile mark, the outside bend of a steep and craggy gypsum slope.

“Okay, everybody,” the ranger said, pointing to a wash. “This is it. The Barnyard. Put down your backpacks and go in single file. Take your time.” I was talking with a companion and my voice fell to a whisper, lest I somehow derange the invisible horses and the tracks vanish. I gingerly clambered over giant boulders and chunks of gravel as the sun – rising higher - illumined the ancient hoofprints. They were scattered across the wall of rock, equine signals that appeared to be heading in every direction, this way, that-a-way, away away home. Some of the prints faced upwards to the sky, some down, some east, others west and northwest. It was a Miocene movie, an antediluvian Western, with hundreds of hoofprints left in the dust, but no vestiges of the animals they came from – just tracks, running across a wall.

Like all deserts, Death Valley was once comprised of many lakes. In the lakes were vast islands of grass where mammals gathered to feed during seasonal monsoons – horses on the lush flora, saber-tooth tigers on the flesh of horses. As they fed, they made tracks in the mud and when the waters receded and they moved on, the tracks were preserved. This process would repeat itself over thousands of years, with animals leaving tracks in different layers of mud. As the terrain evolved and sheets of rock were thrust upwards through the earth’s crust, the tracks emerged – on slabs, creating an equine Rosetta stone. I placed my hand inside a hoofprint, the timeless cipher which would later become a talisman for warriors and barbarians of nations old and new. It was as big as my outstretched palm and many others appeared to be the same size.

The Shoshone Indians of this region may have known about this site for a long time, our guide explained, but it was officially discovered in 1932 by Donald R. Currey, the first ranger of what was then called Death Valley National Monument. So many anthropologists and paleo devotees began to visit the site that officials scheduled visits for certain days at certain times of the year, like the one I was on. With the sun rising higher in the sky, it was soon time to go.

We began to make our way out of The Barnyard, stopping for lunch – appropriately – at Carnivore Ridge, another sprawling track site. Then we packed up our gear and retraced our steps, our tracks, down the rocky paths and through the slot canyons and across the alluvial fan that led to our cars. As I later found out, due to budget constraints, we were the last citizens outside of academia or the strange and flourishing world of anthro crooks to have taken the hike - an obscure event on a park service calendar that just happened to link today to always, an expedition to an accidental stone mural upon which horse tracks, the very beginnings of the American story, are forever preserved.

Excerpt from the author's new book, Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West (Houghton Mifflin).

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