Saturday, June 13, 2009

Lajitas Horsewoman Linda Walker

Deborah Voorhees

Astride a feisty black mare, Linda Walker explains that her job has two requirements: the ability to "shoot bull and ride."

This red-headed wrangler and former team roper can surely shovel and ride with the best. At her stables in Lajitas, Texas, Ms. Walker runs horseback trips that can last up to five days through the Chihuahua desert of Mexico and Texas. The windswept, wide-open vistas are as much a part of her as the octillo and cholla are a part of the landscape - a desolate stretch along the Rio Grande.

"This big, unpeopled land is essential to my well being, " says the 43-year-old Ms. Walker. "It takes away the layers of the onion and leaves no place to hide. "It's being able to see yesterday going and tomorrow coming."

Few folks have the disposition to live in Lajitas, one of Texas' last remaining outposts. It takes the likes of Ms. Walker, who has the heart of a hippie and the soul of a wanderer. She doesn't see isolation or emptiness as she looks out over the sandy hills and desert mountains.
"It looks vast. It looks like opportunity, " she says.

These days she gets paid to do what she grew up doing. Her earliest pack trips started while she was a youngster in Colorado, where she'd hunt with her father. They stalked deer and elk for food, not sport.

"Given the choice of shooting a spike (a young elk with just one fork on his rack) and an 8-point bull, my father would tell me to shoot the spike. They're much more tender. The older bucks are tough and not as tasty."

When not in school, she'd ride and work with her father, Billy Walker, who in his day managed several ranches in Colorado. Her chores ran from working cattle to something "as benign and wonderful as going out and pulling our own carrots and as realistic as butchering cows and chopping chickens' heads off."

By age 15, entertainment meant gathering a few friends and riding into the wilderness for days at a time, packing in food and supplies. Linda was as comfortable sleeping under the stars as most are snuggling in their beds.

All this became the groundwork she'd need to run her own string of horses, learning many do's and don'ts along the way. "I've been in more physical scraps than I can shake a stick at." To name a few: She has had horses roll off mountains ("taking them where they don't belong"). She's been dragged across rocky terrain with her spur caught in her stirrup. She's been thrown a few times. A couple of hard hits gave her a concussion and a broken back.

The latter happened during her first month running Lajitas Stables, her home for the past 10 years. "Right out of the box, I had a runaway."

That morning she had sent 10 guys out with a wrangler on an all-day ride. Concerned some might want to bail, she had planned to meet them for lunch. Her first mistake, she says, was letting a novice with horses hook up her wagon team. Her second was having him fix the bridles he had improperly put on the horses (he had placed the bit under the chin rather than in the mouth). Instead of keeping hold of the horses, he took the bridles completely off the horses, and the newly freed animals bolted with Ms. Walker on the wagon."I rode it for a quarter mile, maybe a half. The wagon started fishtailing and I was afraid it would roll so I jumped off the side. I flew with the greatest of ease but didn't land so well."

This was a harsh welcome for a newcomer who wasn't at all sure she even wanted the concession. Friends of her grandparents asked her to take over the stables after hearing she, along with her sister, Debra, used to run seven- and 10-day pack trips, mostly for groups of women, into the wilderness of Colorado (where she also worked as a vet assistant at a clinic in Durango).

She turned the offer down. They asked her to make an offer. She did. "Much to my surprise they took it, " she says. "What they didn't know is I didn't have a clue how to do an hourly trip. I had never even been on an hourly ride. I came in real green."

By year two, she added pack trips to her repertoire, becoming one of the few - if not the only - to regularly offer multi-day horseback wilderness adventures in Texas. Her next bold, which came seven years ago, was to ride into Mexico. At the time, she didn't even speak the language. The trips have become some of her most popular. Initially, she would run six or seven trips a winter. Now she leads that many a month.

Much of her success on the border is her respect for Mexico's culture.To gain permission to cross Mexican landowners' property, she sends a male delegate to negotiate. In the United States, she's accustomed to bargaining for herself. Plus, guests have to understand the town of San Carlos, designated as Manuel Benevides on many maps, which they'd often pass through, is not a border party town.

Few norteamericanos ever come through here, she says. "You have to act like you're a guest in someone's home - be on your best behavior." Women are not allowed in the bar, and Ms. Walker asks the men to stay away also. "The combination of drunk Americans and Mexican bravado can be volatile. We have turned many of Mexico's border towns into sideshows. We do things in their front yard we wouldn't do in our backyard."

Border trips are a tough sale during the summer, when desert temperatures are like standing next to a blast furnace. To keep her string of horses earning their hay, she hauls them north during the hottest months. Some of her horses give hourly rides on a 3,000-acre ranch just outside of Canyon City, Colo., and others join her for pack trips in Taos, N.M.

For her, it's the perfect set-up. For a few months, she enjoys the restaurants and chamber music of Taos and Santa Fe, and then the rugged beauty of the Big Bend country the rest of the year.
When Ms. Walker left her Durango, Colo., home for Lajitas, her family thought she had lost her mind - especially her mother. As a young woman, she had lived in this town when Ms. Walker was just an infant. Her father had gotten a job on a seismic crew. "When my mom got there, all there was was a trading post and three adobe houses - no running water and no one spoke English . . .

"Lajitas is either a place you really like or really don't." Her nieces and nephews call her "crazy old Aunt Linda." Her siblings, who have 9-to-5 jobs, have a hard time understanding her choices. Ms. Walker doesn't.

"If I fell over dead tomorrow, I could honestly say I've lived my life fully. I haven't put off until tomorrow to live.

"I have friends who think they're going to make their stories tomorrow. I have great stories today."

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