010 Water, Salt, and Fences

Rosalio and I made our way together with the sheep. He told me that Sycamore Creek was below somewhere and I was anxious as soon as possible to go ahead and choose a grandstand seat to watch the animals head down for water.

Approaching this watering place, a mountain slope which constitutes the trail starts downward at a grade which is difficult to hold to, from an elevation high above the stream. The descent is cut with ravines and strewn with loose shale, and grown over with saguaro, ocotillo, and prickly pear. Half way down I chose a jutting rock and sat to wait the herd.

They broke over a squared hill, slowly, and began pouring down like grayed molasses burping from a pitcher. Fifty molasses-like streams descended in different courses, twisting, stopping, now bursting ahead in gushets of speed.

Their final pace was frantic as their thirst — built up from hard days of desert travel without water — propelled them toward this creek.

As the mass of sheep plunged downward, I realized that these animals were borrowing the instincts of their wild mountain ancestors. Surefooted, these modern wool bearers leaped their way down a rocky slope to water. As they reached it, prolonged and repeated baas of thankfulness and contentment came from each animal. Their call reached up to me on my grandstand seat and soon the air was filled with their simple expressions of joy.

Sugar Loaf Peak rises above Sycamore. This area is one of the high points on the southern part of the sheep trail. For Rosalio and Pablo, for the sheep, and for me also, it was a figurative high point as well.
Gunnar Thude’s foreman had come up the Bush Highway by truck, then bumped in on a torturous road to meet us, bringing camp supplies to replenish our dwindling provisions. Pablo was obviously pleased. “If you didn’t come,” he said jestingly to the foreman, “Fran-cees would soon have to be eating rattlesnakes.”

Occasionally, the owners fail to make connections with the herds at the few meeting places en route, and the herders are forced onto short rations.

A letter had also been brought in from Rosalio’s sister in Albuquerque, and some Spanish newspapers, which Rosalio and Pablo read eagerly. The papers had been published in Santa Fe many days before, but the contents were news to them.

This bivouac at Sycamore was a double blessing for the sheep. Not only did they get water, but they got salt as well. The foreman had brought in sacks of rock salt, which Pablo and Rosalio scattered out, as the animals went for it almost frantically.

Rosalio had even greater occasion than Pablo for elation. One of Gunnar’s other herds of 900 sheep in charge of Manuel had come in from Cave Creek on the Bloody Basin Trail and had been waiting here for four days. In a giant maneuver in which all of us —a total of six men — participated, we cut some 700 animals from Rosalio’s herd and joined them with the band in charge of Manuel. A new count showed that Rosalio would now have 1,547 sheep, a more manageable number. “Better for me,” he mused, “also better for the sheep. If not much feed, more can eat. “

From now on, Gunnar would have three herds heading along the Heber-Reno Trail. A caporal, or captain, on horseback, would be brought in to supervise the three herds as, traveling several miles apart, they headed farther and farther into the wilderness.

When our sheep at length reached Bush Highway this wilderness, stretching before and behind us, had a brief respite.

Varied signs of civilization, from which I had been separated for a week, were crowding in on all sides. A car went by on the bumpy road, the first I had seen since the sheep bridge. With the foreman, I rode up to the Sunflower General Store, where I met the first person, other than the herders, since leaving the bridge. And as we and the herd left the road, heading on into the hills once more, we followed along a three-strand fence — the first fence of any kind which we had encountered. But this, Pablo told me, was just a “drift” fence or “wing” — a barrier to keep range cattle from wandering too far to the south, for this sheep trail traverses cattle country in this area. It was not a fence to exclude us; the trail in fact went right through it and the sheep went under, for the bottom strand or wire was purposely not barbed.

As we climbed higher and higher we were able to see the Bush Highway, which extends from Mesa and the Salt River up to Sunflower and Payson, threading through the rocky terrain down below us. During the two hours that it was in our view only two cars went along it. But to me, who had become acclimated to wilderness, they were foreign intrusions.

We plunged into a somewhat rough and rocky section of hills and made camp well before dark on the slope of a broad north and south valley with a high mountain — Boulder Peak — to the east. The highway, cars, and store — even the drift fence — were now lost from view. We were back in the natural world.

As if to prove it, Pablo motioned me to come look at a tree close to camp. Around a hole in the tree’s side a small colony of bees was working. Pablo put his hand into the hole; several bees lit on it, without hurting him. “They here every year,” he said. After the evening meal, from his new supplies, he put some canned apricots and sugar in the hole. “It keep them busy,” he explained. “Otherwise, they might drive the burros from camp.”

Just before reaching camp, Rosalio and I had come upon a nearly two foot long Gila Monster, the first we had seen. Rosalio said they were less dangerous than they looked. “They bite. Maybe you get sick. But you don’t die,” he explained. It is the most colorful member of the lizard family I’d ever seen.

As I cleared a place for my bedroll in camp I found a strange spider, a dull gray and nearly the size of a huge elongated bean. Its back was covered with tiny egg-like warts or bumps. Gently I removed it from the spot which I had chosen for my bed but as I did so, the warts began to move. Looking closer in the dim light, I discovered that they were baby spiders. Dozens of them. The mother had a whole family riding about with her, piggyback.

In the space of a few hours we had exchanged stores and automobiles and fences for Gila monsters, wild bees, and spiders. These were more in keeping with the nature of the trail.