Shannon King and her husband lived a cozy, peaceful life in Leander, Texas. They loved the outdoors. Together they camped, explored and took on projects together – even once building a cabin from scratch for their kids.
“I thought we would grow old together, and raise our kids together,” Shannon says.
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.
In 2017, everything started to fall apart. Shannon and her husband disagreed on how to handle her stepdaughter’s depression. Slowly, the relationship between Shannon and her husband eroded.
“I became very scared of what was happening with our family and the marriage, and I overcompensated by trying to control that and make things perfect,” Shannon says. “That, of course, just always backfires.”
Shannon King and her horse, Dex
One day, Shannon’s husband packed up all his things and abruptly left. Seeing their 8 years of marriage end so suddenly left Shannon feeling completely lost. She had no idea what do next – but knew she couldn’t continue on the way she was. Somewhere along the way, she’d lost her sense of self-worth and self-confidence, and she wasn’t sure how to gain it back.
She eventually came up with an idea – she was going to leave everything behind and set out on a journey. Alone.
“I wanted to come back a different person,” Shannon says. “I wanted to come back so confident that I'd never let myself go again.”
Shannon thought about the person she wanted to become and decided to get to where she wanted to be, she would tackle her longtime goal of riding through all the state parks in Texas on horseback. She’d done a few with her husband but had 18 left to go. It would be a long trip – and she would be all alone, camping in the wilderness.
“I felt, really, a lot of guilt coming out of the marriage, justified or not. And I think I needed to feel like I could accomplish something, and I wasn't a bad person. That had to start with me.” Shannon says.
Dex, Shannon’s companion for her solo trek through the desert
So, Shannon prepared to set out on her month-long journey. There was just one thing she needed to find before she could start the trek: the perfect horse.
In this episode, hear Shannon’s story and how one horse and a month in the desert started her on a journey of self-discovery and healing.
Learn more about the host of Home. Made., award winning journalist Stephanie Foo on our host page.
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STEPHANIE FOO: Suburban life in Leander was good. Shannon King and her family lived in a cozy little farmhouse on seven acres. It was a good amount of land really close to Austin, Texas. With two horses in the back field. And baby foxes and rabbits scampering around the property.
SHANNON KING: I grew up going out to my grandparents' farm and ranch in East Texas, and I think that's where I always felt the happiest as a kid. So, when I had the chance to get a little bit of land around me, I jumped at it.
STEPHANIE FOO: One time she and her husband built a cabin for the kids, from scratch. They were a good team. She designed it, he built it.
SHANNON KING: I thought we would grow old together and raise our kids together and then see them out on their own while we were still in Leander, giving them a place to come back to for Christmas and holidays.
STEPHANIE FOO: But then, in 2017, Shannon and her husband started arguing over how to treat her stepdaughter’s depression. Shannon wanted to tackle the issue head-on. He didn’t.
SHANNON KING: I became very scared of what was happening with our family and the marriage, and I overcompensated by trying to control that and make things perfect. That, of course, just always backfires.
STEPHANIE FOO: In 2019 on the 4th of July, Shannon’s husband suddenly packed his tools, some clothes, and left. After 8 years of marriage, Shannon was lost. As things had worsened at home, she had stopped doing the things that she loved. Hanging out with friends, riding her horses. The things that made her Shannon. She needed a reset. She didn’t know what that would look like, but she knew where it couldn’t happen.
SHANNON KING: I couldn't do it in the house.
STEPHANIE FOO: This is Home. Made. An original podcast by Rocket Mortgage about the meaning of homes, and what we can learn about ourselves in them. I’m Stephanie Foo. In this episode: a woman who goes looking for herself in the Texas desert.
STEPHANIE FOO: Shannon’s house was full of bad memories, sad memories. She couldn’t sit there and process the past couple of years. So, she decided to leave for a month. It was a good time to go. The kids had left for college. She just didn’t know where she wanted to go. But she did know how she wanted to come back.
SHANNON KING: I wanted to come back a different person. I wanted to come back so confident that I'd never let myself go again.
STEPHANIE FOO: As Shannon thought about where she might go, and what she might do, she thought back to all of the fun she used to have camping with her now ex-husband.
SHANNON KING: I learned a lot from those experiences. He was an expert camper.
STEPHANIE FOO: What did you learn?
SHANNON KING: There's little things that are not as obvious when you camp. For example, which direction to park in order to block the wind so that you can have a fire, how to build a fire, right, what things to bring so that you don't suddenly find yourself without a tool you need.
STEPHANIE FOO: But as things got bad over the years, they stopped camping as much. Now was the time to make up for all of that. She didn’t have her ex’s survival skills anymore. But she figured she’d picked up enough of them over the years. She wanted to go out into the wild for a whole month – on her own.
STEPHANIE FOO: Why did you want to do it alone?
SHANNON KING: I mean, when you're alone, there are no distractions, so you have to really get to know yourself well, and you have to face whatever demons might come out and learn how to work through those emotionally. I felt, really, a lot of guilt coming out of the marriage, justified or not, and I think I needed to feel like I could accomplish something, and I wasn't a bad person. That had to start with me.
STEPHANIE FOO: One day, she came across an old brochure in the glove box of her truck. A list of all the state parks in Texas. A few years before, she and her ex had visited four of them on horseback. They rode their horses on trails for several hours, camped for a night or two, then rode out. Shannon had dreamed of one day riding and camping in all the Texas state parks that allowed it but had never gotten around to it. She had 18 left to do. This was the perfect time.
STEPHANIE FOO: Why horseback riding?
SHANNON KING: They have a way of healing you.
STEPHANIE FOO: How?
SHANNON KING: Horses are a mirror of ourself, and so, a horse can read you without you saying a word. They can feel your emotions: if you're angry, if you're scared, if you're confident. So, in order to bond and train and work with a horse and feel comfortable with the horse, you have to get a handle of your own emotions first. Otherwise, the horse won't respond the way you want them to.
STEPHANIE FOO: Shannon just needed to find the right horse. Shannon’s horses, Keeper and Drago were too old to go on this kind of trip. Shannon needed a younger, stronger horse. One day, Shannon got a random call from a neighbor who had a horse he thought she might like. His name was Dex. A tall quarter horse. About 5 feet tall. Dappled gray with piercing, speckled blue eyes.
SHANNON KING: Oh, my gosh yes. I would say in my heart, the second I saw him, I knew he was the fit.
STEPHANIE FOO: When she met him, Dex was biting on the fence and sucking air. It’s called cribbing. Horses do this when they’re stressed.
SHANNON KING: I wouldn't say he was neglected, but he wasn't being allowed to live his full life, and horses need a job. So, I think I related to him in that way.
STEPHANIE FOO: Right, in that, you felt like you also weren't being … You weren't living up to your full potential.
SHANNON KING: Exactly. I was definitely not living up to my full potential.
STEPHANIE FOO: So, you guys were in the same place.
SHANNON KING: Yeah. We were in the same boat.
STEPHANIE FOO: Shannon and Dex took short rides at first. Just the two of them, building the rapport they would need to ride the demanding trails in the state parks. At the same time, Shannon geared up for the trip. She packed a tire repair kit for her truck and the horse trailer. She gathered emergency supplies, mapped everything out and booked camp sites. And then she bought some extra protection: a pistol and a concealed gun license. A bit of insurance against wildlife and unwanted visitors. When everything was ready, Dex stepped into the trailer and Shannon and the dog piled into the truck. First stop on the month-long trip: Cooper Lake State Park, northeast of Dallas. When they arrived, Shannon and Dex stood for a moment at the entrance.
SHANNON KING: I'm thinking, we're going to do this. We're going to keep it short and sweet and try to avoid any situations that might result in an accident. That's what I'm thinking.
STEPHANIE FOO: Can you tell me about the sensory experience of riding a horse?
SHANNON KING: Oh my gosh, so first of all you have this massive animal underneath you. You can feel his muscles. You can feel his rhythm as he walks, and your body moves with that swaying kind of side to side. And I think when you ride a horse, for me, it's a way to become very in the moment, because you really have to be aware of what's going on around you. Ideally, you want to see that before the horse does so you can help the horse be ready for that. What do you hear? What do you see? What could be around the corner that you can't see? And it clears your mind from everything else.
STEPHANIE FOO: That's really mindful.
SHANNON KING: Very mindful. Yeah, you don't need an app for mindfulness on a horse.
STEPHANIE FOO: The next day, they came across the lake. Shannon rode Dex in for a swim. It was his first time in water, and he was a little hesitant. But after a few minutes, Dex got the hang of it, and he headed for the middle of the lake. Shannon struggled to get him back to shore, but she did.
SHANNON KING: One of the things I love about Dex the most is even when he encounters a new situation, he's willing to tackle things, tackle his fear, tackle things that make him nervous. And then he comes back more confident after that, and that’s where I think I am … learning how to tackle my fears with courage and integrity.
STEPHANIE FOO: Shannon and Dex rode hundreds of miles together in remote areas of Texas. Places like Hueco Tanks State Park, Palo Dura Canyon, Seminole Canyon. All over. In time, Shannon and Dex fell into sync. Shannon swaying on his back. One eye in front, looking down the trail. Another looking back, coming to terms with what went wrong at home in Leander.
SHANNON KING: Me expressing displeasure or a need for something was often met by argument and so over time most people would probably stop expressing them, I continued to hit my head against the wall. So, I ended up in this situation at home where I just couldn't be myself without justification and without explaining it or without tiptoeing, and that led to me not feeling liked. It led to me not feeling welcome, at least by him.
SHANNON KING: The control issue for me, the need to control comes from a place of neediness. It comes from fear. So, one of the things that I had to think through was why, why was I operating that way? Another thing that I had to get my arms around for myself mentally was simply why had I stayed when it was just hurting me over and over and over?
STEPHANIE FOO: Shannon and Dex kept riding, and Shannon kept processing. But it was Dex who helped her reach a breakthrough with her need to control.
SHANNON KING: When you're on a horse, you can't craft the story because the horse has a mind of their own, just like people do.
STEPHANIE FOO: Yeah.
SHANNON KING: A great example of that with a horse, actually, is say you're riding at a walk and the horse decides to kick it up into a trot without you asking for it. Well, there could be a lot of reasons that they do that. Something spooks them. Maybe they're just feeling a little fresh because it's windy. You can't prevent the trot on the first step. It actually works better to let the horse trot it out a little bit and then take him back down to a walk. I think to me, that's a great example of like adapting and going with the flow of a situation. And you're also working with the animal in a way that lets him get that little bit out of his system, collect himself and come back around to you.
STEPHANIE FOO: Shannon says she also found that the more relaxed she became thanks to the mindful process of riding Dex, the easier it was to let go of control.
STEPHANIE FOO: And when you're alone, I mean, did you get bored? What do you think about, do you talk to yourself? What do you say?
SHANNON KING: I talk to myself all the time. I talk to my dog; I talk to my horse. I sing when I ride the horse sometimes, alone, sometimes to entertain myself. Sometimes to spook out any animals that might be in the brush nearby, so they don't startle the horse.
STEPHANIE FOO: Back home, Shannon had lost her ability to take care of herself. On the trail, she found it again. There was the first time she ever changed a flat tire – in the desert at dusk, coyotes howling nearby. Then, there was the time she learned how to jump her truck battery with a portable charger. And the time Dex and Shannon were in Big Bend Ranch State Park. This was big sky country. Dry. And dangerous. Rattlesnakes. Scorpions. Wild boars. Shannon underestimated the mileage of a ride and three hours turned into a full day on uneven terrain. The water ran out, and while riding through tall grass, Dex became antsy. Like, really antsy.
SHANNON KING: I felt like he just wanted to explode under me. The only thing I could think was that there was a big cat in the brush somewhere. It was dangerous to try to ride him at that point because he was in a panic. So we made our way to the top of a small hill and I got off, tied him, and I sat there with my pistol next to me thinking, if there's a cat or a bear, I would rather see it coming.
STEPHANIE FOO: Shannon sat on high alert, ready to fend off a big cat. Dex continued to buck and snort. But:
SHANNON KING: Nothing ever showed up and eventually the horse calmed down. But I believe to this day that we had a stalker on that ride.
STEPHANIE FOO: So, Shannon holstered her pistol, climbed back on Dex and rode off.
STEPHANIE FOO: The most challenging moments of Shannon’s month-long trip happened at Monahans Sandhills State Park, thousands of acres of desert next to the Texas oil fields. When Shannon arrived, she found the horse pens weren’t fully enclosed, so she put up a hot wire to contain Dex for the night. If he tried to break free, the electrified wire would give him a small zap. Then Shannon set up camp and crashed for the night. When she woke up, Dex was gone, and she panicked.
SHANNON KING: We had already formed such a bond that I woke up that morning and seeing that he was gone, it felt like looking down and realizing I had lost an arm. So definitely like losing a family member. And for me, it wasn't even about the logistics of continuing the trip at that point.
STEPHANIE FOO: Dex must’ve gotten spooked and broken through the hot wire. Shannon raced up to the top of the sand dunes. She worried he might’ve headed to the highway or the train tracks. She called the park ranger. They showed up, and Shannon was frantic. They told her to just stay there and wait. They’d find Dex.
SHANNON KING: It drove me nuts. I realized that nobody was going to dedicate themselves to finding this horse like I was. I would stay there until I found the horse. So, I went to his last identified location based on his prints. And I started tracking him myself.
STEPHANIE FOO: Not easy given how sandy this park was. But Shannon figured out how to track hoof prints.
SHANNON KING: And through this entire exercise, I had stayed very focused, very serious, very intent, thinking through it. What do I need to look for? Stopping with the truck, checking his tracks, moving forward, going to the next road.
STEPHANIE FOO: It was slow going. By this time, Dex had been out there for two days with no water, in 100-degree weather. Shannon kept tracking him. The game warden and the ranger eventually joined her. Together they came to a long fence line. Shannon scanned it and then, far in the distance, she finally spotted the outline of a horse. Cribbing on the fence. Anxious. Shannon hit the gas and raced to him.
SHANNON KING: When we found Dex, I just about lost it. It was everything that I'd been holding onto for the last day just wanted to come rushing out. And I started shaking. I was so emotional and happy to find him. And I feel like he was too, the way he came to me, that he was so happy to be found.
STEPHANIE FOO: Aww …
SHANNON KING: It was amazing.
STEPHANIE FOO: When Shannon started her adventure, back near Dallas, she and Dex took short rides at first. She was cautious. Gradually, their backcountry trips went further and further afield. But it would make sense if Shannon pulled back a bit after losing Dex. That’s not what happened. She took even more risks. Riding to more isolated campsites. Ones without cleared areas for camping and potable water. Well away from other campers and park rangers.
SHANNON KING: I think that represents a shift in my confidence level in myself, just my security, feeling of security in myself. That I was ready to step away from the support of the state parks and be more on my own out with the horse in nature.
STEPHANIE FOO: And when you did step away, what did you find?
SHANNON KING: I like being alone.
STEPHANIE FOO: And what do you like about it?
SHANNON KING: It brings a balance to my life and that changes the way I address everything else. I'm calmer, I'm more open to others and more loving when I am around people. I had surrounded myself with the trappings of suburbia or things in my life, accumulated things, things that weren't real. So being alone out in nature really brought me back to what felt real in life.
STEPHANIE FOO: By the end of their month on the road, Dex and Shannon finished up with a ride at San Angelo Park, a few hours from Leander. They had traveled 3,000 miles. And that was just in the truck. Shannon doesn't know how many miles she rode on horseback in 14 different state parks. She had four more to go but she decided to pick those off on weekends.
STEPHANIE FOO: How do you think this healed you from your marriage?
SHANNON KING: I think it healed me in a few ways. Probably one of the biggest was being true to myself. Knowing that I can rely on myself to think through things. Learning how to think through things and not panic when something goes wrong was huge.
STEPHANIE FOO: Now, it was time to go home. At least, that was the plan.
SHANNON KING: When my son went off to college and then I found myself in the house alone, I didn't really feel like there was anything holding me there anymore. But I don't think I really truly believed I could up and move until I happened to be talking to a friend about my favorite places in that trip, which was West Texas. I was saying something to the effect of, "I wish I could have a place there." And I think his question was, "Why don't you just move?"
STEPHANIE FOO: So, Shannon and Dex rode back out for a look-see, out to the Chihuahuan Desert in an area of West Texas between Alpine and Terlingua. Terlingua is a town of just over a hundred people. The landscape is kind of desolate – a vast, empty expanse of rocks and sand. Perfect, Shannon thought. She bought a camper sitting on a remote 10,000-acre ranch. Just the camper not the ranch. She’s out there now full time, Shannon and Keeper and Drago, and Dex.
SHANNON KING: It's beautiful, surrounded by mountains and canyons with desert in between. You can see for miles here, and there's a security, in that openness.
STEPHANIE FOO: Yeah … I just realized that I've actually driven through Alpine on my way to Marfa. Yeah, and the thing that struck me was that you could see a storm coming from 10 miles away.
SHANNON KING: Oh my gosh. Yes, it creates a wall of dust, almost a complete 360 view around my place and you can see that wall of dust just moving towards you and it never quite gets to where I’m living.
STEPHANIE FOO: Oh, it's one of the most beautiful places I've ever been, the sunsets.
SHANNON KING: Oh my gosh … The sunset here throws color across the sky, over to the east creating just waves of purple and pink and orange and red. If I'm lucky, I see an elk crest the hill headed down towards a water trough I set out or down to the creek, or a coyote. That's probably my favorite sound here, sitting outside in the evening and listening to the coyotes howl, making their music.
STEPHANIE FOO: What does it smell like?
SHANNON KING: In the summer, it smells like sunshine and sweat.
STEPHANIE FOO: The camper had plumbing and electricity, but there’s no well. She has to drive a mile down the road and pump 500 gallons of water from a ranch tank into a tank on a flatbed trailer. She uses it for showers, dishwashing, and the horses – but it’s not drinkable. For portable water, she also has to buy five-gallon water jugs. Shannon juggles the everyday chores of rustic living like this with her remote tech job. She’ll spend all day on conference calls then haul water or fix a broken pump or a busted heater or toilet. She says that whenever she craves company, she’ll drive to the community center in town. They have concerts and other events. She made a few friends, some of them women also living off the grid like she is. They share stories and bond over the lives they once had.
STEPHANIE FOO: Shannon writes for different magazines about horseback riding. She also keeps a blog about life in the desert - Confessions of a Saddle Tramp. Once in a while, Shannon’s son comes to visit. The two of them are closer than ever now. He says she’s much more open, accepting and calm since she moved to the desert.
STEPHANIE FOO: Has this experience helped you believe that you're a good person?
SHANNON KING: Yes, definitely. I realized along the way that the negative talk in my head was a form of me abandoning myself. Now the way I live here is authentic to myself. I talk to myself, I tell myself, I love myself. I won't let that happen again.
STEPHANIE FOO: Shannon doesn’t need anyone to affirm her worth. She knows it, even though she is alone.
SHANNON KING: I don't feel lonely, partly because of my work. I speak to people off and on all day and then there's a community out here, like nothing I've ever experienced. I know my neighbors, even though they're further away, I know them better than I knew my neighbors in Leander. The people here all know what it takes to live here, and they know that when something goes wrong it can be a big deal. Sometimes it can even be life or death, so everybody helps everybody.
STEPHANIE FOO: I think it's interesting that you used to be in a much bigger city in a house full of family and you feel less alone now than you did back then. What's your relationship with your horses now?
SHANNON KING: Well, every morning when I get up, they come up to the camper and stare at me through the windows. I'm pretty sure they're just waiting for food, but they know when I'm up and they are literally face into the window watching me, waiting for me to come outside.
STEPHANIE FOO: Shannon reminded me that horses are herd animals. They’re social and tend to live in groups. But Shannon says Dex is the horse she rides the most. And they ride alone. She says that makes her the herd.
SHANNON KING: That creates the kind of bond where, say, he's tied to the trailer and I walk around out of sight and he nickers for me like, where are you? You're not leaving me here by myself. Are you? So, you start having this interaction with the horse that you don't get when you don't live with them, or even when they're just constantly in a bigger herd and they're acting more natural and instinctual.
STEPHANIE FOO: That is really, really cute.
SHANNON KING: But, really Stephanie, if I could answer your question in one word, they've become my family.
STEPHANIE FOO: You’ve been listening to Home. Made. by Rocket Mortgage. My name is Stephanie Foo. You can reach us at rocketmortgage.com/homemade. Thanks for listening.
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