Every generation of Americans has a signature road trip movie or book. Whether it’s Jack Kerouac’s book On the Road defining the beat culture of the 50’s or the 1990s film Thelma and Louise giving the road trip a feminist slant or the pathos of 1930s Depression survivors driving to the promising land of California in Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, Americans identify with hitting the road. For better or worse, the highway will sort things out and--as someone once said--we will always be closer if we don’t stand still.
Horselovers have their adventure travels, too. The Long Riders Guild has created a master class for the art of long distance riding. We know the terror in the hearts of those Pony Express riders, the bravery of Paul Revere, the perseverance of the Oregon Trail wagon train travelers and the doom of the 7th Cavalry riding into the valley of the Little Bighorn.
The difference between the two is that people tend to perceive the road film and book adventures as part of our culture and the horse adventures as part of our history. Unfortunately, that is also a big part of what is wrong with horses in America: The average person thinks of horses in the past tense, or as the province of the wealthy or rural.
Horses don’t make road trips. They run in the Kentucky Derby or compete in the Olympics or offer therapeutic healing in some way. They make great commercials for an all-American beer company and fill up the Rose Bowl Parade on New Year’s Day. Americans today identify with the Griswolds’ Wagon Queen Family Truckster from National Lampoon Vacation more than they do with any saddle and bridle or carriage.
But what if a road trip book and movie was about horses? Wild horses? And young men on the brink of adulthood? What if they made it themselves?
Now we’re on to something. Earlier this winter, Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern both earned Academy Award nominations for their roles in the film Wild, based on the autobiographical book by the same name, authored by Cheryl Strayed. It even had a bit of a horse sub-theme related to Laura Dern’s character. But the story was Cheryl’s reckless but ultimately successful hike from Mexico to Canada, the length of the Pacific Crest Trail.
In a way, Wild hacked a trail for Unbranded. It showed that Americans can and will identify with a wilderness movie. So bring on the mustangs.
If you watch the little 18-minute lecture by Ben Masters at the end of this article, he will tell you much better than I can what he did, who he did with, and why he did it. In a nutshell, he and some college friends decided to ride from Mexico to Canada on newly adopted mustangs who didn’t have much people-time stamped on their passports yet.
They did it to show what mustangs can do and who they are, as animals. They did it to show why we should care about mustangs. They did it to draw attention to the plight of the mustang in America today. They did it for the future of the mustangs, and the landscape of the American West.
Maybe they didn't know all that when they started, but they know it now.
So far, all I have seen of the project is the lecture, the trailer, the Facebook page, the website and--as of this weekend--the book. And it’s all a "wow". The film is still in the future, scheduled for release later this year.
The book is the largest one to arrive at the office in a while. At almost a foot square, and 188 pages, it is a book that invites you to look, but don't stop there. Get involved. Please.
When it comes time for the movie to premiere, horsepeople will see some familiar names. Cindy Meehl is executive producer--she was behind the documentary Buck a few years ago, as well.
After the trip, one of the mustangs ridden by the author was auctioned as a fundraiser by the Mustang Heritage Foundation; "Luke" brought a high bid of $25,000.
On the surface, this book is a crazy cool adventure run that alternates adrenalin and zen: dangerous, exciting moments are backed up to breathtaking scenery and dramatic sunset panoramas. Have you ever tried to fly-fish for a trout from the back of any horse, let alone a mustang that was wild a few months ago?
And then there was the farrier who had a heart attack while shoeing one of the horses. And the day the boys decided to try riding bulls.
There are all the coming-of-age this-is-life American road trip adventure signposts that you’d like to have in a road trip movie or book, if that is the level you’d like to have it. Just place this book on your coffee table and watch people “oooh” and “ahhhh” over the scenery and the horses and the rugged young men.
But if you want something more, read this book, and look at this book as America’s shopwindow on the mustang and the soul of American horse culture. Hold it up next to On the Road, Grapes of Wrath, Thelma and Louise.
Just remember one thing: Unbranded is different in one important way: it really happened.
To order: Visit Texas A&M University Press, where the book will be available after April 11, 2015 in both hardcover and a flex edition for $40 or $24.95, respectively.
In this 18-minute video, Ben Masters describes the Unbranded trip, project and horses. Listen in to get insight to this amazing project! Ben's talk begins after a short intro about the "DO" lecture series.