by Melanie Alberts

Photography by Amanda Calkins

Photos taken on a trip by West Texas Adventures

We arrive at Lajitas Stables for the first trail ride of the day. The cool canyon air is layered with alternating scents of horse dung and saddle soap, fueling my anticipation to ride again. Kellie, a long-legged cowgirl in fringed chaps, greets me and Chris. Soon, Mike pulls into the parking lot. A young man who’s traveling solo across the country, he tells us he pledged to do something he had never done before as often as he could along the way. Today it was horseback riding in Big Bend. Mike’s well-prepared, dressed in a high-viz yellow long-sleeved shirt, matching socks, and pristine hiking boots.

late April

horse’s tail swats

a memory

Kellie quickly sums up our skill levels as she brings over our mounts. Mike gets the gentle Shrek, Chris is on the wide-backed Geronimo, and I’m matched with Duncan, who is light and lively. After adjusting our stirrups and girths, Kellie and her mare Sophie lead the way. Mike’s right behind in case he needs Kellie’s help. Kellie instructs us in the basics of how to let our horses know when to stop and start, when to lean forward, when to lean back. Then, we wind up a hill in the desert.

our legs send

signals, tongues click—

invisible barbs

I think back to one trail ride I took as a teenaged riding student that ended badly. Just in the final stretch, a horse near the head of the line ridden by a ten-year-old bolted for the stable. The startled girl slid off, but with her foot still caught in the stirrup. Oblivious to her little body crashing through the muddy field as she was dragged along, the horse was eventually stopped by the riding instructor.

This image plays in my mind as we move through the harsh terrain softened by pastel hues. Falling off here—or being thrown off—might mean cracking a rib or two. As I lean forward in the saddle, rocks scatter off the narrow trail. As we climb higher, occasionally Duncan’s hooves misstep, and I sway in my seat. The trail takes us up to a viewpoint where we dismount to have a drink. By now I’ve taken off my cardigan; we're all feeling the late morning sun. Mike looks pale. Chris and I enjoy the expanse across the Rio Grande, but quietly discuss how perilous parts of the ride have been.

distant rows

of ridgelines fade—lean

into another Land

Heading back down, I try not to think of how close to the edge we’re riding, or a possible wild gallop toward the stable. I focus on Duncan because his nose keeps getting distracted by tufts of fresh grass. I think, Duncan, I’m with you. I trust you. Keep me safe. Thank you. Instantly, Duncan’s ears twist up; glancing back, he does the horse equivalent of a double-take. I repeat my affirmation, patting his neck, and I feel both our bodies relax. We have the stables in our sights as Kellie points out flowers at our feet, juicy purple cups of strawberry cacti aching to be seen.

Writer and psychic artist Melanie Alberts works at the University of Texas at Austin. Her work has appeared/is forthcoming in Prune Juice Journal, Sleet Magazine, Failed Haiku, Drifting Sands, Texas Poetry Assignment, Ransom Center Magazine, Borderlands, bottle rockets, and others. Follow Melanie on Instagram or on Twitter @NaturalMedium

Amanda Calkins, also known as The Texas Tumbleweed, is a documentary photographer focusing on telling stories of the lives and legacies of fellow Texans. At a crossroads in her life, she felt called to take a solo trip out West, seeking solitude and clarity. The area had fewer travelers back then and phone reception was almost non-existent. The untamed and vast landscape left her feeling vulnerable yet at peace, bringing about a profound and unexpected spiritual awakening. Grounded in wilderness, inspired by the textures of the terrain, enchanted by the colorful sunsets over the Chisos, and drawn to the lifestyles and stories of the locals, the area instantly pulled her in. The Big Bend region remains the place where she feels deeply rooted. You can follow her visual storytelling via Instagram @BigBendForever or website Amanda is Big Bend Literary Magazine's Photography Editor.