The day we go in search of wild horses on Steens Mountain is clear and cool, a perfect morning for a hike even if we never come across anything more than hoof prints in the hard, volcanic, high desert dirt.
Scanning the hills, at first it looks like it might be a herd of cattle out there: little dots of slowly moving color in the distance.
Some of them are cattle, but mostly it's wild horses. Leaving our dusty car at the side of the gravel road, we walk slowly towards the group.
The protective father makes sure we come no closer. At the same time he remains very alert to the movement of the herd on the hillside. It's likely that he is a banished young stallion beginning his own family, watchful of everybody. With no one to comb and bathe him, he still shines like copper.
They move near one another, hide their baby in the sage brush, and decide we are no threat.
Meanwhile the herd on the hillside is aware of us, bands together, and heads away. It is the cattle, recently branded, who seem most fearful. The horses put the cows between us.
This band of mustangs is named after the lead stallion, Atlas. That's Atlas on the far left, with a map-shaped white patch on his side. The other horse in a leadership position is the pinto on the far right, maybe a mare. She probably has a name, but I couldn't locate it on the Facebook pages devoted to the 200-plus horses on Steens Mountain.
They stream over the ridge, Atlas the last to disappear into the 127,000 acres of high country where they roam. They were like a vivid dream, evaporating with time and distance... I won't see them again but can't forget what they were like.