At Home on the Range with Madeleine Pickens at Mustang Monument
Posted on November 5, 2012
Turn off Highway 93, a straight stretch of rural road 25 miles from Wells, Nevada, and you’ll come upon an almost mythical sight: more than a dozen teepees dot the range ringed by the Ruby and Spruce mountains, and in the distance, hundreds of wild mustang, once headed for slaughter, roam free.
Madeleine Pickens greets us, wearing cowboy boots, riding pants, and a camp shirt the color of the dust devils whipped up by the winds on the plains of Northern Nevada. The philanthropist and animal rights advocate is petite, but with a powerful presence, and a clear passion for a creature she considers an endangered national treasure: the wild horse of the West.
Four years after founding Saving America’s Mustangs, the nonprofit foundation dedicated to protecting the horses, Pickens is moving ahead with plans for a wild horse eco-resort and preserve. By late spring or early summer, she hopes her sprawling ranch will be ready to welcome tourists from around the world, as well as here in the United States.
Called “Mustang Monument,” the project is monumental not only in its sheer physical size but, perhaps equally so, in its audacity. Not only has Pickens bought up vast tracts of Nevada range land for the sanctuary, she’s taken on powerful cattlemen who view the wild horses as “desert cockroaches,” competing with cattle for limited grazing. Her ultimate goal is to provide a home on the range for thousands of wild horses throughout the West, rounded up annually by the Bureau of Land Management to control the population, and housed in short and long-term holding at taxpayer expense. Five-hundred horses have arrived at her ranch in the past year. Once owned by the Paiute Indians, they were sold for slaughter until Pickens, figuratively at least, rode up on a white horse. While her proposal to save more horses undergoes environmental assessment, a process that could take two years, Pickens is applying for building permits and moving ahead with plans for her eco-resort — not at a gallop, exactly, but at a steady gait.
Peek inside a teepee, and you’ll get a sense of Pickens’ vision for a resort where you can rough it as much — or as little — as you like. In one tent, for instance, the Old West meets Marrakesh. At its center is a comfortable, queen-sized bed piled with pillows covered in embroidered fabrics, with kilim rugs on the floor. There are leather chairs for loafing, lanterns that cast a glow, baskets, and a wrought iron coat rack where you can hang a pair of plush robes.
Larger and more luxurious is a safari tent straight out of (South) Africa, elegantly furnished with a Ralph Lauren poster bed, along with wicker chairs and leather trunks. Pickens has ordered 40 of these pricey tents in all, tailored for couples, families, and corporate groups. Pickens plans to promote American safaris, customized tours that might include riding the range by horseback or jeep, exploring abandoned mining towns, and camping in the mountains, complete with storytelling by the fire. “We’re giving people an opportunity to go back in time,” says Pickens, “but with their families of today.”
Mustang Monument will also offer day trips, pre-booked bus tours, during which guests can see the horses and learn about their history, tour the ranch by horse-drawn wagons, lunch outside, and shop for Native American crafts. Pickens says the response from tour operators, who have visited the ranch, has been enthusiastic. “They have something colorful to sell here,” she says. “We’re selling a story. We’re selling history. We’re selling something everyone has a soft spot for — wild horses.”
Pickens, the daughter of a British soldier and Lebanese mother, was captivated by the old westerns she used to watch as a child while growing up in Iraq. She envisions her eco-sanctuary as a “living museum,” a unique opportunity to teach visitors about the American West, and the wild horses she hopes will ride free. Our legacy, not hers, she insists, is ensuring that these symbols of the West will always have a home on the range. savingamericasmustangs.org Andrea Naversen
Photography by Michael Partenio, Kristi Johnson, and Jo Danehy