Rosalio Lucero is a hero. He does not remotely resemble one, yet twice a year he performs a hero’s task guiding his migrating herd over the tortures of the Heber-Reno Stock Trail.
I had to see him experience heaven and hell for fifty-two days, as we followed one of the wildest sheep trails in America, before I comprehended the humble qualities of his greatness. He is a Mexican-American sheepherder who, for much of his life, has been driving herds each spring on the long trek from Arizona’s hot central valley to cool summer pastures in the mountains, returning with them each autumn.
His furrowed tanned face is a relief map of his Arizona hills. The brown skin of his hands, and particularly of his cheeks, and about his eyes, is ravined like the hard but wildly grand terrain of the herd country. At three score years his hair is still as black as the charcoal embers of his campfires. His teeth — although not brushed with any regularity, yet preserved and hardened because of simple eating habits — are white as bleached bones on the desert. Forty-seven years of leaning, in odd moments, on a herder’s staff have sculptured his shoulders into the curve of the staff itself.
Rosalio dresses in dusty bib overalls and denim jacket which flap grotesquely as he runs in pursuit of an errant sheep.
On government maps this trail and its extensions are shown by a neatly patterned arc-shaped crimson line connecting a pinpoint near Phoenix with another pinpoint beyond McNary, Arizona, up toward the New Mexican border.
To the sheep, trekking northward each spring to escape the heat of Phoenix’s Salt River Valley, returning each fall to escape the chilling snows of the White Mountains near McNary, the trail is a blessing tinged with blood.
As the crow flies — although hawks, vultures, and even eagles are the winged surveyors which more commonly measure distance over these cactus-calloused deserts — the length of the trail is over 200 miles. The sheep make it at least 300, meandering as they do like streams of water to seek passage over wild terrain. For more than fifty days every spring, because of the economy of the Arizona sheep business, plus the stern commands of climate in the state, the sheep must struggle upward to the mountains, only to return in the fall. They and the herders are trailbound nearly a third of every year.
Rosalio, the herder, who must keep the sheep in progress and circle constantly in search of strays, travels a far greater distance than the sheep. On a round trip in spring and fall he covers probably 700 miles, on foot all the way, nearly every step a strenuous climbing one, and a test of strength.
The Heber-Reno is a long, almost pathless strip from two to four miles wide laid out by the government as a driveway for the herds going from central to east central Arizona. Established with almost no regard for terrain, it plunges into ravines, surmounts mountains, and penetrates forests of cactus and of pines.
The trail embraces the whole range of seasons. The herders traveling north each spring find that debilitating summer soon stems into refreshing spring, sometimes winter, as the trip progresses. The calendar of half a year is condensed into fifty days.
It spans the range of wild life and things which grow. Brown lizards, sunbathing in lethargy on rocky deserts, give way to brown deer, bouncing gloriously in silent forests. The towering cactus dissolves into towering pine. There are many trails in America where more sheep travel, but no other with the variety of this one.
Historically the Heber-Reno Trail accomplishes the mightiest span of all. For time dips backward swiftly as each day carries the sheep away from signs of civilization and on into silent hills; time recedes until those hills of Arizona become closely knit in a historical fleecy skein with the hills of Babylonia and Palestine, where sheep have provided the needs of humanity and woven them-selves into the lore of the land since earliest biblical times.
The sheep and their herder can go for forty days on this trail without trespassing on private lands. There are fifty miles between fences. Only a few times during the first month are roads encountered. Not one cactus in that month of travel is owned by any individual, and each lizard which dwells there is accountable only to God and the predators. The whole business, save for a short patch near the end and a little stretch which goes through Indian territory, is public domain. The Heber-Reno is an undulating ribbon of wildness.