Pablo was building the fire when I wakened before dawn. The last star of the Dipper handle had arched about until it was nearly overhead. The sky of early morning is a different sky than evening, actually a preview of summer’s major billing to come. It is the second feature of a double bill which few people are awake to see.
We each cooked our own eggs. The boss had supplied us with a couple of dozen at the bridge and I shall always marvel at the manner in which Pablo can transport eggs burroback over some of the roughest terrain in America, without any casualties. Nesting them in his tall boxes of oatmeal and flour, he never breaks a one. Balancing out the eggs with coffee, pan bread and stewed fruit, we were packing camp before daylight. Rosalio was off with the sheep by the time the gray light had come. Rolling up my own blankets but leaving them for Pablo to pack on the burros, I followed.
Half an hour later the desert plants about me — the cholla, saguaro, ocotillo, and palo verde — began to green and brighten as if some strangely moistened earth were sending new life into it. That is the way the sunrise came this morning, not a burst of whiteness over the hilltop but like a seeping upward of light from the roots of the desert growth. The coyotes and Pablo had prophesied correctly; the weather had changed. The sky was finely webbed with misty clouds, which caught and restrained the light.
With sunrise came the gnats. Swarms of them appeared from nowhere as though they too had seeped up out of the rocky desert with the emergence of day. Their swirling about our faces was no more discomforting than the sharp rocks which jabbed our feet, or the cholla which prodded our legs. But facial oil is less tasty than oil which oozes from wool. The gnats belabored the sheep.
Rosalio called back to tell me that this coming of the “mosquits,” as he termed them, would soon give trouble. His prophecy materialized even more quickly than that of the coyotes for, as he told me this, the sheep began slowing to a stop — 2,200 of them —huddling in a valley to bury their faces in each other’s flanks and thus outwit the insects.
Rosalio shouted, he tossed handfuls of sticks and loose gravel above the herd, he threw his blue jacket high into the air to frighten the sheep into motion, each time catching it skillfully on his wooden crook. He signaled to the small dog, Boots, which barked sharply, adding her element of fright to a logjammed mass of gnat-pestered wool. Fifteen minutes of maneuvering put the herd into motion but, in one close-packed body, it drifted over a rock-festered hill into the next valley — and clogged again. Rosalio labored once more.
We were entering the most gorgeous — or the most awful —cactus country of the entire trek. In some few respects the cactus is beneficial to outside desert invaders, such as the sheep. These animals must be grazing almost constantly as they travel. If ground forage is lacking — and it is just that, much of the way — they nip the leaves from such bushes as cat’s-claw or similar plants. And under duress they will nibble the buds and blossoms of the cactus, many times with painful results to their noses. Sometimes a ewe would greedily shred and devour the fleshy portions of a prickly pear.
But certain types of the cactus, particularly the cholla, are bitter enemies of the sheep. As the herd moved slowly on, following their torment by the gnats, they came to the top of a ridge. Ahead of us a gently sloping hill was glowing with opulent but wicked glee — a miniature forest of chollas. The fat individual burrs stood against the sun, back-lighted, and their clusters of delicate long-tapering needles snared the early morning rays, refracting them and holding them, until each plump burr of the cactus —the whole cholla plant in fact — was clothed in a jacket of light. The same effect against the evening sky, five minutes before sunset, turns this jacket of light into a cloth of gold, so that if a poet saw it (a poet new to the desert) he would stir his pen in the fire of its beauty and make an ode to the cholla. It is the cactus with a halo.
It would be mixing metaphors perhaps (and confusing cactus with the herd) to say that the cholla is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Such a statement, too, might be a slander on the wolf. For neither wolf nor coyote actually render as much lingering pain to the sheep on the Arizona desert as does the cholla.
Its serene appearing burrs claw like a cluster of hot fishhooks into anything which touches them even faintly. But even more effectively to ensnare its victims — and for this reason it is called the “jumping” cactus — the cholla sheds its burrs on the ground, littering an area several feet around the mother plant. These burrs cling to the feet of the sheep or are kicked by the herders’ shoes up to other parts of their bodies, with every appearance of having ” jumped . “
Cholla spines, once attached, are difficult to remove. Pliers are the best bet although time, which festers each wound and softens the cactus points, is often the ultimate remedy. Cholla-land is a soft-beckoning hell.
Half an hour after Rosalio had gotten the sheep in steady motion, following their buffeting with the gnats, we came to a promontory which looked out onto a ridge ahead. Thus far the cholla had been isolated but this ridge, widespread and impossible to avoid, was a thick mass of glistening torture.
The faces of the sheep were to the ground, grazing the Indian wheat, nipping fragments of shrubs, as they progressed. The entire herd traveled as a massed unit, a protection against the gnats. The twin enemies of hunger and insects were allied with the cholla in creating the battle strategy for torment. The desert, protective of its silent domains, had maneuvered its forces well in repelling these foreign invaders. One sheep alone would have been hard put to run that barricade ahead. Twenty-two hundred of them churned back and forth in a murderous motion. The herd instinct which pulls the animals close together for protection against any danger was this time playing them false. In massed formation they headed up the ridge.
The instant of an animal’s impact with a cholla was marked by a quick stirring and churning motion out of the woolly mass. There, near the front, came a scene of painful drama. A sheep, crowded by others, filled its face with the burrs. The creature jumped upward into the air, head and front feet foremost, above the other animals. Landing back on its hind legs, wedged tightly between other sheep, it spun in frantic jumping circles. Then it dashed forward, partly running on the ground, partly clambering on the backs of the herd. Its agonies were swallowed up in the mass of dumb frightened beasts plunging and flowing by on every side.
Moments later another animal plastered its hind legs and tender rear quarters with a mass of burrs. It kicked backward madly into the air, then with its head toward the ground it was carried forward in its kicking agonies by the ceaseless river of wool.
Above those backs was the roar of battle — the ringing “baas” of pain, the plaints of the distressed, the pitiful “ma-a-as” of the few lambs in the herd. It swelled the air — a cry to heaven.
Rosalio could do little to help. I saw him once in a frantic move for which I only learned the cause when the battle ceased. He ran into the herd, parting the animals as he went, and with his heavy staff, in several careful strokes, struck at a sheep. This happened on the far side and it was hard for me to see. Afterward he told me that the animal had been pushed or had fallen directly into a bed of cholla. Too pained and stunned to move, instead of kicking and fighting its way out as the other sheep had done, it lay there paralyzed. Striking it was the only way that Rosalio had of getting the animal to its feet and headed on.
As this progressed I had a personal taste of what the sheep were suffering. Careful as I was, suddenly as if from the air, two cholla burrs hit me simultaneously in the back of the legs. I tried to stoop for some sticks which would aid me in removing them. Each needle was like a knife blade — being twisted as I moved — which seemed almost dipped in fire to intensify the pain. The sticks were of no avail. Finally grasping my heavy denim jeans with both hands, I jerked much of the cholla free. Some of the spines remained. The pain kept shouting to my senses of the more penetrating wounds, in vital parts of the body, which the sheep were receiving before me.
During this battle in the cholla the animals broke their formation and, as the hill was passed, they streamed in lanes. Probably 200 or more sheep came off that hill with chollas knifing into their noses, feet, stomachs, teats, and backs.
Just one good thing may be said about it all; the cholla is the most painful hazard of the desert but not the most deadly or dangerous. Within a few days after a herd leaves the cholla country, the wounds have all festered, the last remaining spines have come out, and few permanent injuries remain. But while the struggle was in progress it was hideous. The cholla are the guards of this desert, calling “stop” to the invader. The cholla is a delicately sculptured tombstone of Hades.
There are other guards — the rocks.
In a glacial country rocks are often smooth. Or rounded and worn. But no lake bed ever flushed this land. No river or constantly running water has worn the edges of these rocks. They are sharp, broken, rough.
My shoes were heavy, and made for tough hiking; they were miner’s shoes in fact. But immediately after leaving the sheep bridge I began to feel the prod of the sharp stones. Before the day was over, the soles of my shoes had begun to show the first signs of wear. What I did not know was that the rocks would not continue this severe for more than a few days. But now I understood why Rosalio had put in not only two pairs of shoes, but a shoe last and soles as well. I would need his services.
I looked ahead at the coming canyons and mountains of thisland called Arizona. Dinosaurs and other land giants used to graze on the lush hills that make this state. What the hills were at that time I do not know; perhaps green and moist, perhaps genuinely friendly. But earthquakes broke the rocks, droughts laid low the trees, fires seared the valleys and the grasses, time squeezed the moisture and the ooze away. If one were writing in the language of symbols, as some poets reconstruct nature, one would list these giant saguaros as vegetated reincarnations of the dinosaurs that could not survive. The saber-toothed tigers which once haunted these hills would be the chollas which so gently conceal their teeth and daggers today. The wild beasts of a nameless age have become the wild rocks of a nameless desert. The saguaros and the chollas and the rocks are the only reminders of animate giants of those other times. The greatest beasts of earth could not survive this and. Today the tiny lizard, harmless as the broken stick which it resembles, has taken their place. The meek shall inherit the earth.
At length the sheep, plagued by gnats, lamed by chollas and boulders, refused to move. Pablo, having packed the camp following breakfast, came up with his burros and met Rosalio in a rounded grassy valley. The herder motioned instructions where to pitch noon camp ahead, which would be our “shading up” place for the heat of the day. It seemed endless time since morning. I looked at my watch. It was 9:00 A.M.