It’s like stepping into a John Wayne western. On a seemingly endless stretch of road approaching distant mountains, surrounded by nothing but sagebrush and sky, a collection of colorful tepee tops appears from nowhere and ranch gates, bold and decorative, stand like open arms, announcing Mustang Monument—a refuge like no other.
The ranch, a two-and-half-hour drive west of Salt Lake City, sits on 900 square miles outside Wells, Nevada, spanning three valleys and two mountain ranges (for perspective, Rhode Island is 1,200 square miles) and is the brainchild of Madeleine Pickens, animal-rights champion, philanthropist and businesswoman. (She owns Del Mar Country Club in California and for years bred and raced thoroughbreds.) At the end of a gravel path, Pickens and Monty Heath, her director of operations, greet me casually, like we’re old friends.
The resort itself is intimate, with the accommodations (ten hand-painted tepees and ten one-bedroom cabins, all lavishly well-appointed in, what else, a Wild West motif: reclaimed wood, earthy tones, Native American textiles) clustered together within a quick walk of one another and the Saloon. Days begin and end at the Saloon with its long bar, saddle barstools, card tables, dartboards and overstuffed couches; drinks, like the Fire Water Sunset, are served in Mason jars.
It’s here, shortly after arriving, where guests from disparate backgrounds get acquainted. My group includes a well-known music producer, a Grammy-nominated singer and a mother and daughter from Texas. (We became fast friends, but if the mix doesn’t work, it could make for a potentially uncomfortable stay, as the time spent together is extensive.)
Service is informal, which, on the one hand, exposes the infancy of the ranch, which opened last June. On the other, it lends itself to cultivating a homey, unpretentious feel that levels the playing field. Here, your rank, status and sense of self-importance have no place. You’re off the grid (only those using AT & T will have service), lost in the middle of nowhere. And while it may take more time for some to decompress and accept this simplicity, it is ultimately the key to the magic that unfolds in the days to come.
Pickens is on hand—she spends the majority of the resort’s four-month summer season at the ranch; her other home is in Del Mar— eager to engage and share her vision of Mustang Monument. Born in the Middle East and raised overseas, Pickens has been fascinated since childhood by the Old West as it was depicted in her favorite movies. Those dusty films captured an untamed frontier where the cowboy protagonists used one hand to force the land and wild natives into submission and the other to rescue a damsel in distress. But Pickens (hardly a damsel in distress) turns the Old West paradigm inside out. She is a heroine of a new western epic involving wild horses, the very embodiment of the mythic West. She faces plenty of foes, including local residents, cattle ranchers and government policies that stand between her and the freedom she envisions for the mustangs.
Today there are more mustangs in captivity than on the range—only 20,000 to 40,000 remain in the wild. (These numbers are disputed and inconsistent.) Meanwhile, 50,000 live in short- and long-term holding facilities under the administration of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), an agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior that is charged with managing public lands and their wild- animal populations. The BLM claims that the wild horses are endangering the health of the range. Advocate groups, like Pickens’s Saving America’s Mustangs, accuse the BLM of misrepresenting the facts and of mismanaging the horses toward extinction. Helicopter roundups drive horses into holding facilities where, critics say, the animals live in a state of overcrowded confinement, often in abysmal conditions, while costing the BLM (read: taxpayers) roughly $77 million a year.
The complexities of the private interests, economics and politics are too complicated to be explored here now. But Pickens offered a solution to the BLM that would return the horses to their natural habitat, resolve the agency of its space crises and save American taxpayers more than $23 million a year. For seven years, she has worked tirelessly to engage the BLM in a partnership to meet this end. In November the agency rejected her proposal.
Long frustrated that the issue seems to generate scant publicity, Pickens (who went so far as to lobby Congress, even at one point alongside her now ex-husband, millionaire business magnate T. Boone Pickens) set out to raise awareness by turning to tourism, buying and combining two ranches in 2010 to create both a wild-horse sanctuary and a luxury resort, where guests can immerse themselves in western and Native Americans cultures and connect with the animals in their natural habitat. “I wanted to create a pretty picture—not to cover anything up, but to celebrate the beauty of the land and the horses,” she says.
The next three days are back-to-back activities. (While everything is customizable, the itineraries tend to be on a four-day schedule.) Ranch manager and resident real-life cowboy Clay Nannini (easily mistaken for a movie star playing a cowboy), who is by Pickens’s side (at once her real estate broker, adviser, public spokesperson and true champion of her cause), meets us, bright and early, 8 a.m., to take us via horse-drawn wagon out into a herd of mustangs. (Of the 650 rescued, 500 are fed by Pickens.) Watching them in the wild—so close that you can stroke their manes—against the backdrop of land as far as the eye can see is surreal.
A few hours later, we’re saddled onto mustangs that were pulled from the herd months earlier to be trained, and we set off on a rigorous six-mile journey to the top of Spruce Mountain. A picnic spread awaits: sandwiches, crisp green salads, fresh watermelon, cold beer and wine and delicious rich, dense brownies. (Previous riding experience is not required, but these are not the type of worn-out horses that slowly follow the designated path with their heads down.)
Sunset finds everyone back at the Saloon. Cocktails and snacks are served while the sky goes from golden to pink to purple. Dinner is in an adjacent tepee dining room. The food is simple and hearty: macaroni and cheese, roasted pork chops, baked beans, grain salads, apple crumble. Very good California wine is poured at the candlelit table. Beneath a brilliant, starry sky, Native American entertainers share vibrant dances and stories of their culture.
Day three belongs to Heath, who manages all the moving parts. With military precision—he’s an ex–Navy SEAL—tempered by his quiet warmth and ability to accommodate any request (a late-night ask to go mountain biking first thing the following morning was no problem), he conveys the bespoke nature of Mustang Monument.
Heath is also at the helm of all things adrenaline-pumping, from rappelling to four-wheeling. A 90-minute drive—where not another ranch, home or human is in sight—takes us to the foot of the Goshute Valley. Smack in the middle of the property, where the enormity of the 900 square miles takes hold, a Maverick ATV safari begins. The speed is exhilarating. The ride leads past old homesteads and original markers from the California Trail that have remained undisturbed since the last westward-bound pioneers trekked past. The stretch of blue above and the smell of sage are intoxicating. And then a dirt cloud appears in the distance—the mustangs are running. Not everyone will be close enough for their Maverick to catch up, but those lucky enough will cruise alongside the thundering hooves and massive, athletic bodies. The rush of it all comes and goes too quickly as the herd moves fast and furious and leaves you gasping in disbelief in their dust.
The final night at the ranch, spirits run high in the wake of the action-packed day, and Pickens appears deeply satisfied to see that everyone has been touched by all that she has cultivated in an isolated corner of Nevada. “I feel lucky,” she says. “I feel like I’m holding a fragile egg that I can’t drop because it’s beautiful, and I don’t want anything to go wrong.” The magic of Mustang Monument is that it is here, in our own backyard, hidden in plain sight.
Mustang Monument is open from June to September. Four-day itineraries, including meals and most activities, start at $4,800 for two people; mustangmonument.com. One hundred percent of the resort’s profits go to Pickens’s Saving America’s Mustangs; savingamericasmustangs.org.