A handful of ranchers, most of them with homes in the Tempe-Mesa-Chandler triangle of the Salt River Valley, and with summer ranges in the northern forests, dominate the sheep business of the Heber-Reno Stock Trail.
The number of sheep involved is not large; it is the manner of handling and the terrain of the trek which scratches one’s fancy. A quarter of a million wool-bearers make the annual migrations but two-thirds of them take the Ashfork Trail through Lonesome Valley, or the Flagstaff route through Bloody Basin, or the Beaverhead-Grief Hill Route.
Only 30,000 — and the number is decreasing until one day the whole thing will be jelled and packaged in history, for the figure used to be 230,000 — followed the Heber-Reno Trail at the time of my second journey.
The Salt River Valley surrounding Phoenix is a winter resort not only for people but for the herds as well. For six months —from October to April — the sheep breakfast and sup in alfalfa which drips of greenness, a herd of 3,000 scouring out a pasture in a week, at high rental cost to the owner.
By mid-April the scorched valleys of Old Mexico have started blowing their hot breaths northward across the border. Most of the greenness has been sucked by the sheep from the pastures of alfalfa.
Residents of the Salt River Valley turn on their air coolers, but for the sheep the only air-conditioning is migration. The signs of the seasons in the valley, the zodiacal signs in the sky, are all arguing for the northbound trek to begin. In mid-April the luxury hotels of the area prepare to bar their doors for the summer, plow up the lawns and the gardens to be replanted in the fall, and send their herds of relaxing millionaires back east till another season.
By mid-April the four-footed sheep have likewise been shorn, crews coming in with power clippers to strip off the wool before the hot journey begins.
From October to April Rosalio and Pablo had tented in the pastures, living like the Arabs of old. During the last three weeks they had thrown themselves unstintingly into preparations for the journey; pack boxes painted a lusty red, hobbles and harness mended, Pablo’s horse shod (Rosalio would walk all the distance), their own shoes stoutly soled, the pack boxes concentrated with provisions. Paraphernalia littered the campsite as though this were an exodus of all the children of Israel from Egypt. When the seventh burro was firmly packed — 150 pounds to some of the animals — there was enough remaining to weigh down another animal. But by judicious planning this excess was roped and tied and hawsered to various of the seven — shovels and axes here, Dutch ovens and lantern there.
April 16. The sheep under Rosalio’s care were poised to depart from the winter pastures. Gunnar Thude, the owner, who would freshen the herders with supplies along the trail, and a couple of Mexican ranch helpers, were on hand to assist at the start.
Four of the Dobson herds had broken camp and started on the 15th. All during that day four frothy kites of spiraling dust marked their progress along the dirt roads across the valley. And now, with the morning sun of another day bombarding over Superstition Mountain and firing its hot shafts horizontally across the pastures, the dust of Gunnar Thude’s first herd, which broke camp before daylight with Mulatto as herder, became a puffball of rose-colored cotton as it drifted along the valley.
Rosalio and Pablo, marshaling Gunnar Thude’s second herd, with 2,260 sheep in the band, left camp after daylight.
As the pasture gate was opened and sheep began streaming onto the road a melody of baaing arose, puncturing up into the vast balloon of dust. The river of sheep, packing the roadway from fence to fence and washing and slopping over into the fields, flowed like a spring freshet released from winter thaws.
Ahead of the woolen river flowed the clouds of dust and ahead of that, as though carried on some fresher current, flowed the swelling baas of the herd.
The sound of the sheep leaving the pastures reached out over the fields and on across the valley to the town of Chandler nearby. The Arab delegates to the United Nations Assembly in New York — desert sheiks in silk robes who had come westward to taste the desert, Arizona style — those Arab princes who were just departing from their hotel, might have heard that swelling melody of the sheep, that trail song of the herd, and carried it in memory back to Araby.
If so they would have returned the echo to its origin. For this baaing of the Arizona sheep was simply a repeated chorus of the sheep sounds which had filled the mornings in Arabia when the sheiks draped themselves, not in silk, but in lambskins, and quieted their hunger with mutton.
There has been huge progress since Scheherazade wove her yarns of the Arabian Nights and sheep grazed the hills of Araby. Now we ride the Constellation instead of a camel. The siren replaces the lute. The knife plunged to the hilt in slaughter has a uranium edge. Both comforts and confusions have been multiplied.
Through it all, only the sheep have been constant, a familiar link in the chain of history. For sheep do not fly; they plod. They walk at a mile or so per hour. To the degree that people are still dependent on the sheep, humans likewise plod, and in these rare moments their feet are kept on the ground.
We are still dependent on mutton and its newer derivatives for our meat; much of our warmest raiment still is spun from the wool; and milk — from sheep, or goat, or the slightly more modern cow — is yet the calcium of our existence. We pasteurize the milk, and aerate it, solarize it, homogenize it, and add Vitamin D. But it still comes from the teats of the herd. And the symbol of a higher education — but whether this is slander to the herd, who can say? —through all the years has been the parchment sheepskin. This was an elemental river of destiny flowing along the dusty Chandler roads, a stream of meat and milk and raiment. History on the hoof.
Above the herd flowed the dust. For two days the undammed stream of sheep spewed the powdery offal of the roadways into the air, stopping only at night, striving to finish this first test of the journey. Behind the herd, Rosalio drank dust all day as he climbed fences on one side of the road and then the other, urging on the stragglers, those little pools of sheep which eddied out of the main stream into the fields and would otherwise have become stranded, like stagnant water holes.
At night he coughed from the dust in his throat, and next day he drank it again.
Gunnar’s pickup truck came by and I took a ride in it. Working our way through the sheep on the road was like plunging a wedge through a bale of wool. The firmly packed herd oozed slightly on either side and somehow made way for our passage. We were moving on a wide gray cloud. For fifteen minutes we wedged our way through and by then the sway of movement had become a surging, foamy sea, with a low hanging fog of dust hindering our vision.
That second afternoon we crossed the final irrigation canal with sides so precipitous the sheep could not drink. On trucks from a convenient loading place Pablo and Gunnar brought water in barrels for the burros and Pablo’s horse.
Gunnar turned back. Leaving the roadway after crossing the final canal, the herd pushed on. The dust of this first stretch of open country was different from the dust of the road. The stream of the herd could flow wider, the dust cloud became thinner and broader.
Soon we crossed U.S. Highway 60 with its blatant signs and crude structures. As the herd struck across this final main thoroughfare, as though glad to be shed of these trashy tag ends of civilization, it vomited up a last great cough of desert dust which choked the throats of the auto travelers who had stopped to let the sheep go by. The dusty cloud hung in the sky for half an hour, its particles finally catching the rose of the sunset as, windswept at last, they drifted away and left the desert air clear for the stars.