Sunny Khalsa longed for the Ladies of the Canyon — their collective courage, ambition and adventure. So she took matters into her own hands and decided to forge her own symbolic journey.
When our Creative Director approached me about reaching out to Sunny, who was about to embark on a road trip on a horse…with a camel possibly in the mix… I kind of stopped in my own tracks. I mean, who actually DOES this? This woman has got to be a touch crazy, or cool, or both?
Both, it seems.
Sunny was born Satsunderta to a pair of hippie parents, her youth replete with horses and unbridled learning. She studied yoga, meditation, and sword-fighting while schooled in India, and found herself either in front of or behind a camera upon returning to the U.S. (Is it already pretty obvious that Sunny does not succumb to fear?) Our introduction, a call that traditionally lasts about 15 minutes or so, carried on for more than an hour. At that time, Sunny was mapping her route for this upcoming trek, one that would see her leave the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado and head for the Grand Canyon’s southern rim — in Arizona. That’s a 600+ mile trip, on horseback. With a “borrowed” camel, Meshach, in tow. Oh, and that would all go down in 30 days. NBD, right?
“I began contemplating this ride in Spring 2018, when my then three-year-old untrained Arabian horse,”El Markeyn,” arrived from Missouri. At the time, I was working as a wrangler at a northern New Mexico ranch. Part of my job there was to inform Ghost Ranch’s guests during guided horseback tours of its history and the surrounding areas. For reference, I was given a book called “Ladies of The Canyons” which ended up consuming me. The Ladies of the Canyons — Natalie Curtis, Carol Bishop Stanley, Mary Austin, Willa Cather, to name a few — left the security of their Victorian community in the late 1800s in search of the Southwest and something as-yet unattained: true freedom. And they were all I wanted to talk about, these self-made, liberated, pre-feminist, badass women. They forced me to wonder if the world would be a different place were they still around. I longed for these women’s courage, tenacity, ambition, and love of adventure… so I took their lead and decide to follow my own dreams.
“I was fed up with the state of the world, and I landed on planning my own ride: its purpose to empower other women; to inspire compassion and connectedness; to connect with my animal companion, the people we would meet and the land we would pass through. I wanted to inspire other women to step into their own power in order to transform and create a more sustainable world, free from discrimination. After all, we are the nurturers, the peace warriors, the wisdom keepers. We can do anything with the investment of our hearts and minds.
“The Cumbres Mountain Pass and Wolf Creek Pass were not an option for our route because of heavy snow. So, in making that consideration, my itinerary now grew to roughly 611 miles of sparsely populated, empty desert. Considering that a considerable amount of food, water and gear would be needed to accommodate us, with the option of replenishment limited, the idea of bringing a camel came to mind and made this excursion logistically feasible. And through divine intervention, a young, rebellious camel named Meshach was made available to escort me on the trip.
“Our course would traverse over a few major highways, with lesser-known, smaller roads crossing through the Navajo and Hopi Reservations. I learned that, when traveling through native lands, outsiders are not permitted to leave the road or the side of the road without invitation from those on the reservation. Anticipating that my travel partners and I would be camping on the side of the highway for the majority of our trip, I felt it was my duty to unsaddle everyone’s doubts and fears by finding kindness and humanity in strangers we would surely encounter.
“It turns out, from the first day through the last, we were met with this exact kindness — strangers welcomed us to camp on their properties and even served breakfast some mornings. Luckily, we were surrounded by national forest and Bureau of Land Management property for the first 14 days of the trip, and there were able to secure quiet, hidden camping spots.
“As we moved forward, I easily took notice of my daily preoccupation with reaching a goal, an end point. So I shifted my thinking and practiced knowing each moment. The smell of El Markeyn, Meshach (which wasn’t very pleasant), juniper trees, sage bushes, the light, cloud formations, the sound of my horse’s feet on the earth, the comparative silence of Meshach‘s steps… all these things pulled me into the now. This served as a significant revelation — we so often hurry from “here” to “there” without acknowledging the moments in between, the breaths we took to reach “there.” I had no choice but to give in to the moment, as each one guided me with as much emphasis as the last.
“On the 15th day of our ride, we reached the edge of the Navajo Reservation and entered a tiny New Mexico town, Torreon. I stopped at the Trading Post to water El Markeyn and Meshach, and buy coconut water for myself. Shortly after leaving, a sweet woman in a white pick-up invited us to camp at her families’ home a few miles up the road. We were exhausted and grateful. As I set up my tent, two teenagers rode up on horseback, the younger one declaring that he was going to steal my horse in my sleep. I felt my heart sink into my stomach. I stayed up all night waiting — I was never so happy to see the sunrise that morning. After packing up and heading out a few miles, a blue sedan came up beside me. Its driver was the mother of the teenager who wanted El Markeyn. I struggled to find the words to tell her what her son had proposed to do. She laughed out loud and explained that he was actually paying my horse the ultimate compliment. So, with that, my fears of horse thieves and roadside camping suddenly vanished, and our ride through native lands became a nonstop parade. People waved and honked at us from their cars. Whenever I stopped (usually to find a bush), we were mobbed by dozens of people wanting to meet Meshach and the solo lady rider. Kind strangers followed our journey on social media, tracking our progress and meeting us with gifts, water and food. I had never experienced more generosity and support.
“We had overcome minor and major setbacks, the most significant coming 550 miles into our journey, as Meshach punctured one of his foot pads, which is similar to a dog’s, but a bit tougher. A regal woman named Myra offered us a log cabin in Coalmine Canyon to take pause. I wasn’t sure what to do — did we have to call it quits?
“I was able to secure a ride for Meshach to the Grand Canyon — El Markeyn and I would finish out our ride and meet him there.
“We arrived in the Grand Canyon on June 19th. I corralled my companions. After resting a day, I hiked to the bottom of the Bright Angel Trail, at 4am on the Summer Solstice. From there I sent prayers, collected stories from the strangers I’d met and memories of those who helped us on our journey. Despite our hardships, I was overcome with accomplishment. There is incredible power in reaching a journey’s end, though there is also a little sadness, as well… like a favorite book you wish would go on forever.
“During this trip, I traveled approximately 3 miles per hour, while a lot of the world sped past me. It made me think: what do we do with our time? How has time shaped or limited our thinking? I was on the road for a total of 36 days — each day, hour, minute and second were met with blades of grass, gentle breezes, kind faces, my animals’ characters and the surrounding sound. And yet, it all seemed to pass in an instant.
In less than 10 hours, I traveled by car what took me 36 days on horseback. That felt extraordinary to me. It made me question a lot.
“And I decided this would be the first of many journeys to come.”