Wild horses, part three: The land of second chances

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Colton Whiteside, Justin Balderama, and Curtis Gabriel train horses in Florence, Ariz.

Colton Whiteside, Justin Balderama, and Curtis Gabriel train horses in Florence, Ariz.

Cinders from a campfire pop and explode like fireworks somewhere in the desert outside Yuma. They trace arcs toward an infinite number of stars in the ink-black sky above, each its own possible world, an infinite number of futures spinning out of reach in dizzy orbit. The sparks turn to ash, then fall to the ground.

Beers empty, and bottles of vodka and wine make their way around the fire through the crowd blowing off steam between tours of duty. One has already left, not long after 10 p.m. Things don’t go well when Marines and booze mix, he says.

Colton Whiteside slips into the driver seat of a white 2012 Chevy Silverado pickup because he needs to drive out into the desert because his damn phone doesn’t have any damn signal and he just wants to get some girls to come out to this damn sausage party.

He’s drunk. I’m OK, I’m not that drunk. Don’t fuck anything up, alright? I won’t.

Think about what you’re doing.

Kurt Allan Schenker climbs in the passenger seat next to him.

Do you trust me?

Kurt doesn’t know Colton well, but they’re Marines. They’re brothers.

Yeah, man.

The white Chevy Silverado roostertails in the dirt and swirls up a cloud of dust before it dissolves into the dark, far away from the glow of the birthday bonfire as Colton follows along the Gila Gravity Canal. Water rushes high. A foot and a half of moving water can pick up a truck and never let go. A release has swollen the canal to nearly three fast-moving feet.

A final swipe across the dirt pushes one tire over the brink, and it trips, and it slides, and it begins to sink. As the water rushes up to the windows, an empty beer plays a wobbly round of spin-the-bottle on the floor of Kurt’s side of the truck. It slows to a rest, and makes its choice.

* * *

At 10:06 p.m., when he cannot hold his breath anymore, Colton slips out of the truck’s open window and fights his way to the surface. The truck’s headlights shine up and out of the water.

By 10:08 p.m. his fellow Marines appear out of the dark, one by one, strip and dive into the water as Colton shouts from the banks of the canal. He’s still in there! One pulls Kurt out of the driver side window, up to the side of the road. Another calls 911.

At 10:22 p.m. Colton kneels beside Kurt and cradles his head as a police officer presses the man’s chest. Oh God please save him. Please save him. Let him be OK.

At 10:38 p.m., Kurt’s ambulance speeds toward Yuma Regional Medical Center. Colton’s ambulance screams after it. His numb haze recedes behind awful clarity. He knows what has happened, and what will happen next. 

* * *

Trainer and Pinky, Florence, Arizona.

Trainer and Pinky, Florence, Arizona.

By seven in the morning the sun has shot over the Superstition Mountains. Hard-edged rays frame Pinal Peak, and mirror those drawn on the Arizona state flag. They put Top-Of-The-World, a hamlet at the top of the ridge, on slow boil.

Florence sits at the base of the ridge, split north-south into two by Pinal Parkway. To the west traffic buzzes with the usual morning rush hour, give or take thirty degrees. Men and women gas their cars in uniform, wave good morning in uniform, fix their coffee in uniform. To the east the uniforms change color, from browns and greens to high-visibility orange.

Florence is a prison town, one of the most heavily guarded places in America. Nine different incarceration facilities sprawl east of Pinal Parkway, over thousands of acres. The first was built by inmates in 1908; the grounds were laid out, a pretty Spanish-style building rose within, and then the inmates built the wall around themselves.

Florence housed prisoners of war during WWII. It houses the state’s death row inmates and its death chamber, though it last executed an inmate in 2014. Today, the Arizona Department of Corrections incarcerates nearly 4,000 inmates inside its chain-link fences, behind high walls and coils of razor wire so long they disappear at the horizon.

The prisoners form the largest labor force in town. Arizona Correctional Industries operates bakeries, a welding and metal-fabrication shop, and a wood shop. As a part of the prison-industrial complex, Arizona inmates can learn to make things and do things, all to prepare for the world outside.

They can even learn how to break wild mustangs, and train them for a new life back in the free world. The horses come from Bureau of Land Management property, gathered from the scrublands of Wyoming, California, and Nevada. The BLM trucks them to ranches like the one in Palomino Valley, Nevada, where they’re housed, cared for, and adopted out. A lucky few go to prison—to Florence—to earn a new version of freedom.

Unlike the wild horses at Palomino Valley, the Florence mustangs have names. There’s a Pinky, an Alex, a Bourbon.

Unlike Palomino Valley, in Florence, the men don’t save the horses. The horses save the men.

* * *

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