I used to wonder how I could go for days without reading a daily paper, but here on the trail I am finding substitutes enough. The red-tailed hawk starts if off of a morning by shrilling “Extra” in its squealing whistle and I have only to turn back the covers —not even go to the doorstep — to start reading the day’s events. The weather report comes first, of course; at home I always start by reading this.
That is the way my newspaper here begins. All about me are signs — as adequate as the weather reporter supplies — which tell me if I should pack my sweater, or wear it. The snap of the stars (for this paper of mine is delivered early, even before the news is made), the presence or absence of clouds, the whimsical interpretation of signs ventured each morning by Pablo. All this disposes of the weather and the percentages of accuracy are about as good as the guesses in the papers at home.
It is usual, next, to turn to the comics. Well, nothing is more amusing than Pablo’s morning search for the burros, or later, those same burros as they come into camp, trying to eat the labels off the tin cans.
The sports pages of my Newspaper of the Trail are filled with record-setting events; a deer doing a standing high jump which would qualify for the Olympics, a jackrabbit turning in a 100-yard dash that breaks the Olympic record, even the tiny ant hoisting and carrying more weight for its size than the world record weight lifter.
By the time I have perused the weather reports, comics, and sports, I am ready for the real news of the day — the always changing excitements and episodes of the trail. Of late it has been rare when there was not need for an “EXTRA!” This day called for even more — a special edition made necessary by unusual events. We reached the summit of the Sierra Ancha and came upon a treasure chest of wonders. The Sierra Ancha summit wore a crown, a royal tiara of forest growth — pinyon, oak, yellow pine. But jewel of the crown was manzanita.
Manzanitas. “Little apples. ” That is what they are termed by the Spaniards, because of the tiny fruit, which was used by the Indians as food and for the making of cider and vinegar and stronger drink. For me, here was a forest of wonderment, a whole mountain plateau woven with tangled beauty, for the trunks and branches of the manzanita shrubs are twisted shafts of stained and polished mahogany, grotesque shapes of reddened, burnished gold.
Reminiscent flashes came to me of my sculptor-artist friend back in California. He sought out rare shapes of the manzanita growth, trimmed and polished them, and sold them as art objects, at prices such as only rare objects of art could bring. My eyes widened; in half an hour I saw half a dozen pieces that might command small fortunes.
“Get thee behind me, Satan. ” That was no longer the world I was in. Deeply I took in great breaths of the mountaintop air, and began to feel the thrill of just being here, able to witness and absorb all the wonders of the Sierra Ancha summit.
Each year the manzanitas shed their bark and become forest princesses, clothed in a skin of smooth and delicate green. But these mountain maidens sunburn easily, and soon there is a rich chocolate glory of smooth manzanita limbs over all the mountaintop.
It was blossom time as well, and each bush held clusters of fairy bells, urn-shaped, delicate white and pink — lilies of the valley on vacation in the mountains. For two hours we wove through and about this wild riot of color, following natural paths most of the time, for the greater part of the manzanita growth was impenetrable. Nearly in gooseflesh at the display about me, I spoke of its grandeur to Rosalio when next I joined him.
“Yes, pretty,” came his comment. “The sheep eat it some, but no much. And it’s too thick for them to get through. Awful hard on sheep.”
The first thought of Rosalio’s life was for his sheep.
At times we came to forests of close-set, tightly packed young pines, nearly all the lower branches dead due to self-trimming, and these places were nearly as hard to penetrate as the manzanita. The ground of much of the forest was bare of grass or growth of any kind and the herd traveled fast. Rosalio advised against my effort to find camp alone and I stayed with him closely. We soon became a two-man school in nature lore, he the teacher and I the pupil.
He told me that in fall one yucca-type plant — in bloom now — would have a long fruit, something like a banana, and “dulce,” rather good to eat. He pointed out two wild cherry trees and said that sometimes on their trip back in the fall he and Pablo watched the birds picking off the last of the dried fruit.
With the herd we entered a virginal area, devoid of forage, but with the ground spongy with needles from the forest of pines through which we traveled. No herd had been this way for years, Rosalio told me. The sheep went swiftly through the area, breaking at times into a run.
“You know why they go so fast?” asked Rosalio, and he added the answer: “It is because no other sheep have been here —no tracks.”
Pressing for a further explanation, I was amazed at the reply: “All the same like humans. Where other men have been around, men like to stay. If no signs of other men, men don’t like it. Same with sheep.”
Rosalio was fathoming here the fundamental reason for the growth of cities — the gathering of crowds in public places, the reason for the saloon’s appeal, the gregariousness of humans. Few people really like complete wilderness, complete solitude.
Approaching Gun Creek another “special edition” event unfolded. The sheep stampeded into a rocky branch canyon in hope of water. Suddenly, under the pounding weight of those hooves, a section of the cliff gave way. Some thirty animals slid and fell to the canyon’s bottom, with rock and dirt tumbling and showering around them. The drop was perhaps twenty-five feet and, by some miracle, no casualties resulted. The rest of the herd were able to stop and thus avoid the fall.
Deliberately, yet with resolution, the animals which had not been caught in the slide, and which were still above it, began a maneuver which confirms my belief; sheep have been makers and molders of history.
One of the older ewes began slowly and bravely picking her way down the sheer slope of the debris of the slide, going in sharp zigzags to decrease the grade. It was a hard assignment — and a dangerous one — picking her way around and between rocks as she pioneered a safe path to the bottom. The process took probably ten minutes.
With one safely down, another followed. Then another. In half an hour the entire herd had made it to the bottom. Sheep must be placed prominently among the trailblazers of history.
I have heard that some of Boston’s streets follow the meanderings of early cowpaths. It would be interesting to know how many furrows in the world of humans follow the trails of sheep.
We made camp for the night on a gentle slope among junipers. As we were drying the dishes following a very late supper, the herder from the band of sheep ahead of ours dropped in for a visit. He had lost his campero and so, bedding down his animals, he had walked several miles through the darkness in search of our fire. This man ate with us, then headed back through the wilderness again, to be with his sheep during the night. It was cold now, on top of the Sierra Ancha, and he would be without camp or blankets.
Later we found out that this herder and his campero had been at odds with each other most of the trip. Trouble between them, we discovered, was brewing.
Thinking of the manner in which the varied events of the trail resembled the format of a newspaper I drifted into sleep. “That’s 30 for tonight,” I thought.