003 Sheep Bridge

The true trek begins on the third day at the crossing of the Salt River, at a swift-flowing section near Blue Point. The crossing provides a clattering opening drama. In former times the herds used to swim the river but this was not only a difficult task for animals and herders but dangerous and costly as well, with occasional drowning of sheep and burros. So the Arizona Wool Growers Association and the Federal Government jointly constructed a narrow suspension bridge, 320 feet long with its approaches, which in true western style is spoken of as “the only bridge in the world exclusively for the use of sheep.” There are other sheep spans, and furthermore this one is for burros, dogs and herders, as well as woollies. Yet, even though it may have rivals, the Salt River sheep span affords concentrated drama. (This bridge has subsequently been destroyed by flooding of the Salt River. The herds now cross on a road bridge close by.)

Our herd swung down to the river close by the bridge at midmorning and Pablo at once laid out his camp and began cooking in restaurant quantities. For this river crossing much resembles old-fashioned threshing day on a midwest farm; there are extra mouths to feed.

Before noon the owner of the herd, accompanied by his wife and daughter, bumped in with their pickup truck down the sandy winding road leading through the brush from the main dirt highway. The pickup was stocked with canned goods for the men, and salt for the sheep. This bridge is one of the few places en route where additional supplies can be brought in.

The government ranger pulled in shortly afterward. Much of the trek is over lands of the Tonto National Forest and a fee per head is charged by the forest service. This crossing of the river, as the animals stream off the bridge, is a heaven-sent opportunity for obtaining a correct official government tally.

The herd of another sheep outfit had also arrived for the crossing. Though the animals looked like all the rest, they were different; they were encumbered with a mortgage. A man from the finance company was on hand to tally his mobile collateral as it surged across the span. This sheep bridge was a countinghouse in both the figurative and literal sense.

The campero from the other outfit brought some larder to aid Pablo and at noontime all of us — the two camps thrown together, along with owners, ranger, mortgage-holder, and guests — filled our plates with frijoles and mutton shanks and ate pan biscuits which Pablo had baked in good quantity. For an hour afterward we wove woolly yarns about the lore of the trail and of the herds. A day at the sheep bridge is a combined supply bivouac, financial function, government survey, and a carnival occasion. It is a farewell fling which the herders enjoy before they plunge into fifty days of wilderness.
And then the crossing. Our herd went first. The animals were bunched into a corral until they resembled a moving sea of gray foam. A gate was opened onto a chute leading to the bridge, there was a moment of hesitation until the leaders were started, and the excitement began. For spectators it was sheer delight. The bridge, light in weight and of the suspension type, writhed and trembled as the sheep pounded across. Its gyrations sent fear into every animal and they ran and pushed and stormed to get over. Only three feet wide and intended for single file passage, the bridge under duress often must accommodate the sheep two abreast, since they are in such frantic haste to be done with it.

It is common for sheep to leap into the air as they are tallied. But as they reached the end of the bridge, where the ranger was making his census, they beheld solid ground again and made enormous jumps of joy which hurtled them high through space like circus animals vaulting through hoops.
I took a try at the tally but in five minutes I was dizzy and had lost my count. Amateurs sometimes faint endeavoring to count  sheep in this fashion, the herd flashes past so swiftly. Each animal is branded with the owner’s insignia painted or stamped on its back, and these large brands flashing by accentuated the dizziness that affects anyone making the count. For most persons, sheep counting is best done in somnolent moments only, and always in imagination. Only the expert does it well in daylight with his eyes wide open.

For nearly half an hour the stream of woolly backs rushed past, hooves pounding, air electric with the bleating, and with those final circus leaps at the end. It was a lively prologue to the trip.

The herders struggled for another half hour trying to induce the burros to follow across, for they would freeze in their tracks rather than run, as the bridge began to sway. The ranger made out his trail permit for Rosalio, the sheep were driven down to the river for one last drink, good-byes filled the air all around and soon we and the herd disappeared from the sight of those remaining at the bridge.