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A thousand miles from nowhere

Jenny Johnston

Anyone who knows me knows that I have an uncanny knack for meeting colorful characters in my life, usually at the most serendipitous of times. From old prospectors and Explorers to shamans and real deal ol’ cowboys, these characters have colored parts of my life into masterpieces that will forever hang as memories in the gallery of my soul.

From the prospector, who showed up at a time when I needed to find myself, to the explorer who appeared when I needed to discover new horizons, to the cowboy who has taught me to savor moments of coffee and conversation and now I find myself crossing paths with someone on an incredible path of his own, over 7,000 miles long.

I am presented with the opportunity to consider journeys, what it means to make one’s way, to wander with intention, to explore with a purpose and learn along the way; to truly accept that it is the journey and not the destination that ultimately matters.

These colorful characters have appeared like droplets of paint on a palette in my life, coloring the landscape surrounding me. This latest addition to the palette was a combination of yellow ochre, the color of tumbleweed, a dark midnight blue, the perfect hue of a pair of well-worn Wranglers and a bit of dusty cowboy brown.

I heard about Jake Harvath, the young man traveling 7,600 miles in the expanse of one year, on horseback across the country. But to meet him and his three horses face to face painted a different picture altogether, as he stood in front of me. Jake is traveling across 30 states, come hell or high water in an effort he has aptly coined, “A Year of the Mustang,” to raise awareness to save the wild mustang.

Documenting his endeavor on social media as he traverses the back roads on horseback, hoping to bring awareness front and center in the form of National attention to his cause, it becomes a conscious melding of the new world social media and the old Western ways of America.

I took my children with me to meet Jake and his three mustangs, Bella, Denver and Eddy on day 42, 450 miles into his Western odyssey. As this tall drink of water stood in front of me, I could sense greatness and authenticity, the same way a horse can sense a rider’s heartbeat from 4 feet away. When you can witness determination, passion and true grit come together; it’s a rare person capable of attaining all three and an even rarer chance to get to celebrate it.

Jenny Johnston and her children, Reese Johnston and Soren Johnston Yarbrough, with Jake Harvath and his three mustangs Bella, Denver and Eddy. (Courtesy of Jenny Johnston)

He was the bona fide kind of cowboy I wanted my children to meet and even more so, to understand that it’s as much the horse that makes the cowboy as it is the cowboy who makes the horse. I wanted them to meet someone who has the endurance to ride across the country on horses that some deemed unworthy and to understand the magnitude of the worthiness of the undertaking and what this young man and his horses are showing the world that they are capable of.

Like the great American West, mustangs are vanishing at the hands of man, a disappearing trick that happens right before our eyes and simultaneously at our very hands. The wild horse population in the United States is estimated at 83,000. The wild horse and burro population has become a point of contention in the battle to preserve the Western landscape between the wild horse advocates and the Bureau of Land Management who see their numbers as a nuisance and in need of containment.

To contain something wild seems contrary to its very existence and this is where the battle line is drawn for many. But there has to be some form of herd management to prevent the wild mustangs from the effects of overpopulation. The modern world doesn’t afford these horses the grazing land and resources they need to maintain and sustain their numbers so the BLM rounds them up and offers them for sale or ushers them to permanent holding facilities to live out their lives.

Sadly, an undeserving number of these once free creatures are killed, either in the process of the actual roundup or by disease after being contained and held in close confinement. There is an alternative to this and it is to adopt.

What Jake wants people to know is that they are worth saving. With some effort and training, they can become some of the finest horses a cowboy could ever want. So fine, that a man could ride these once wild and untamed steeds across the entire United States of America.

While people often think these horses represent a dream of what remains of the great American West, we all have the opportunity to chase the cowboy dream, to celebrate the wildness that these mustangs bring to the landscape, to take a moment to make a difference and let that moment hang in the gallery of your own memories. Take Jake himself, a self-proclaimed “self-made cowboy.” He did not grow up on a ranch or with horses, but he dreamed of becoming a cowboy and he followed his dreams and became a hell of a horseman, cowboy and now, a representative of the wild mustang, continuing to chase those dreams mile by mile, state by state and showing the world that dreams come true and horses like Bella, Eddy and Denver are worth being saved.

You can follow Jake and his Western odyssey on Facebook, YouTube and Instagram by searching for “A Year of the Mustang.”

Jenny Johnston is a fourth-generation Durango local, part-time rodeo announcer and full-time wrangler to two wild buckaroos.