014 Borrego Plunge

In the Mexican settlements of Los Angeles, Phoenix, and other southwest cities this is a fete day — Cinco de Mayo. May 5. Mention was made of it in the conversation at breakfast — the subject was brought up by me, I believe — but here on the trail this was just another day with the sheep.
From the point where Rosalio had left them, the herd had worked nearly up to camp in the night. It takes skill in determining a camp location so that the terrain will naturally lead sheep toward the site rather than away from it, in case they might move in the darkness.

We had spent the night on the summit of a great ridge which from below had looked like the summit of the entire range. But within an hour after starting out in the morning, that ridge and our campsite were far below us. We were now following along the red rock gorge of Canyon de Borrego — a magnificent blood-dyed scar in the green-clothed mountain. Far across the canyon, three miles distant, Manuel’s herd was visible, working its way up at a different point — a series of tiny white threads on the mountain. Rosalio had chosen the longer route around, and the rougher one, since none of Dobson’s sheep had gone this way and there would be more feed, with possibly a chance for water.
“Harder to travel,” he told me, as we commented on our route in contrast to Manuel’s, “but more better for the sheep. ” Personal hardships meant nothing to Rosalio if there would be a benefit for the herd.

Soon after this Rosalio pointed out two lonely saguaros, the last we would see, he said, along the northward trek, and the first of the desert giants to greet them when they would return in the fall. Now the junipers were packing closer and closer until there above they began to cluster into the beginnings of a forest.

Though the morning was less hot than the day before, by 8:30 — three hours after their morning’s start — the sheep were dawdling again, requiring considerable effort to be moved. We were working along a rocky hillside around a great scarred branch arm of Borrego Canyon. Listlessness was settling fast upon the herd, as though some sleeping potion dripped on them from the heated air.

Then suddenly a metamorphosis unfolded before us. The drug changed into a stimulant. Rosalio saw it before I did and exclaimed: “See the old ewes run. They go ahead of the yearlings now. Maybe water up there. ” With a swiftness hard to comprehend after their lethargy, the leaders had already rounded the end of the branch canyon and across it a thin line of them was running back in the direction of the main canyon again. The impulse carried back along that single file of sheep, back to the bunched herd where I watched. Soon a line of animals a quarter of a mile long was running Indian-fashion, leading out from the main body of the herd. It was a sight weird to see, and hard to describe.

The animals at the rear, particularly the yearlings, didn’t seem to get the message about the water until it was transmitted to them by the animal next ahead. There was no mass movement of the herd. Each sheep fell in line, as though in a parade, and then ran single file. Some force ahead was pulling out a thin white string from a great hank of woolen twine. Finally the hank was undone; the last sheep at the end of that long thin line was galloping over the rocks and circling the branch canyon.

As the sheep started to run, something had apparently told Rosalio that he would be needed ahead. In a dry country sheep go mildly crazy where water is concerned.

It would have been impossible for him to overtake them. Instead he went down, and then up, the sides of that branch canyon, which was a pageant of wicked boulders and rocks. There he was on the far side, doing the last rocky cliff with ease.

Borrego Canyon had water — small, isolated, scarcely-flowing pools of it — in great cups of smooth hard rock at the bottom, guarded by canyon walls which lowered to twenty feet in height where the sheep entered, but which rose precipitously in height farther up and down. From a high seat on the rim I watched the animals scramble down, then surge out in both directions, for each stranded pool of water was large enough for only a few. Rosalio, somewhere in the distance, was shouting and his calls echoed, sometimes twice, in the canyon. The bleating of the sheep, in its original and in its echoes, was like the booming of a pipe organ, and the red rock ribs of the canyon walls were the pipes.
Later Rosalio joined me. “The sheep run up stream — nearly a mile,” he explained. “You hear me yell? I have to turn them back, for that is the wrong direction. I was afraid it would happen.”

He had scarcely finished speaking when a different sound came from somewhere below. Rosalio listened intently.

“Hear that baa?” he said. “A sheep is in trouble. I go down and hunt him.” (Rosalio always used “he” and “him” when referring to the ewes.)
I heard baas, dozens of them, for the pipe organ swell of bleating was still chorusing the air. But after he distinguished it for me, I did observe that one bleating was not of joy at drinking, nor of anticipation, nor even the call of a mother for its lamb. It was the baaing of distress.
“A sheep is wedged in rocks. Me go down.”

Rosalio was ahead of me, over the boulders, until he could peer down into the canyon depths. His call of explanation caught up with me as I tried to follow.

“He no caught. He — what you call it? — stranded.”

By now I was at his side and could see it all for myself. At this point the dried-up waterway, leading down sharply, went between walls only three feet apart. There far below was a sheep which, in the craze of seeking water, had kept going along the sharply dropping canyon, leaping to successively lower stages at places where, in time of storm, the water accomplished the descent by low waterfalls. Now the animal had come to the last step in the descending streambed before an eleven foot drop. To the rear the ewe had burned her bridges, so to speak, for, while she had been able to jump down each succeeding fall, she could not jump back up again. The rock, furthermore, was far too slippery and smooth for any climbing. Straight above the sheep for thirty feet was the narrow slit of canyon, then it widened and rose another 200 feet to the top.

And there, ahead and below the trapped animal, was the eleven foot drop, down to a clear pool of water, after which the canyon descended gently, giving a way of escape. I have seen many sheep which would have taken the jump without hesitation but this one would not. It bleated piteously. Rosalio whistled, barked, and threw rocks, but the ewe refused to move.

“I have to go down,” he said.

It was a long time, for it required a wide circuit and much climbing, before Rosalio appeared far below, but he found it impossible to reach the sheep’s ledge from that angle. He disappeared again and next I saw him, after another extensive lapse of time, working down the slit of canyon from above, the way the animal had come. His shoes and socks were off, for better traction. It was treacherous going. Foot by foot he edged and worked downward, at last lowering himself onto the ledge with the sheep.
In a panic now, just before Rosalio reached it, the animal took the leap and a violent report of noise and a fountain of water filled the air. There was a terrific churning of the pool as the sheep swam the ten feet across it to the rocky ledge. As it came out onto a safe landing and stopped to shake itself, there was a dancing of water particles in the air enough to cause a rainbow, if the sun had been coming that way. In five minutes Rosalio came back up to my position, breathing heavily but smiling. I thought to myself that some herders might have left the animal stranded rather than risk so much in the rescue. Not knowing my thoughts, Rosalio explained:

“One time, when I worked for Mr. Porter, six sheep got caught in this canyon. I sent the dog down but he no could get out too. I had to get them all out.”

This was just one more example of what I was beginning to realize — much of the Heber-Reno Trail, for numerous reasons, is too tough for dogs. Often they would help round up strays which lagged behind. But when the herd separated into several branch canyons at once, dogs could not be depended on to make certain all strays were accounted for.

That was Rosalio’s responsibility.

Later that day, lingering behind the herd, I found another pool that was ample in size and only a few inches deep. It spread out in a gentle saucer of a great grayish red rock twenty feet square and the flow was such a tiny trickle that the sun had sponged up all the coldness. Here I took a bath.
At this pool, also, I had companions — such as I had never seen before. One was a green worm, less than an inch in length, with nine legs on either side, and antennae at its head. The second was a tiny creature the size of a navy bean, and elaborately patterned on its back in black and white with the delicacy of a painting. The third was like a shimmering tin submarine, half an inch in length, which resembled the U-boats not only in appearance but in its travel. I am a stranger to creatures of the water but is it possible that, as the desert has vegetation unknown elsewhere, it also may have species of life in its pools which do not exist in other climes?

The imperial thermae of Rome reached a height in bathing grandeur with their library, lecture room, garden, and bathing establishment all combined. But what poverty they showed compared to this bath of mine.

Here was my tub made of rock formed a million years before the Romans lived. Pleated drapes of serrated vermillion cliffs rose about me. Back of those were palisades as grand as on the Hudson River, but more colorful by far. About me was unknown life. Only humans were absent. Few people had ever seen this place. The world felt good this day. Bathing is one of the luxuries.