021 Herders’ R and R

Pleasant Valley is logically named — and strategically situated. To Pablo and Rosalio and the herd it was a place of rest and refuge between two of the cruelest sections of the Heber-Reno.

Back of us were all the tortures of the trail leading out of Tonto Basin, the weariness of threading through the maze of manzanita on the Sierra Ancha plateau, the canyons and rocks and treacherous ledges, the fury of the rains which held us prisoners in misery when we had started down from the top. In the Sierra Ancha, within a week, the weather had gone from rain to hail, the thermometer had tilted from well above 110 degrees to freezing. It had sucked the mercury up to the heights, then plunged it down to the depths. Cruelest blow of all had been Spring Creek Canyon, that hellish nightmare of rock-strewn, gorge-scarred tumbled confusion, just before we came out into Pleasant Valley. All of that was now behind us.

But ahead lay the three devils of the Heber-Reno — Naegelin Rim, Ramer Canyon, and the Mogollon. Here in Pleasant Valley was the chance to repair from what was behind, and prepare for what lay ahead.

After drifting idly for a couple of days across the grass-blanketed valley floor, Rosalio chose a camp spot surrounded with lush forage and shaded with a few scrub oaks, close to the base of the Naegelin. The night before, we had done little else but relax. On this afternoon and evening we did nothing else but prepare for the assaults ahead.

Carefully Pablo inspected the shoes of his horse, and replaced one. From his pack, Rosalio took out a newer pair of shoes for himself than the tattered ones he had on. Adjusting his glasses, which he almost never used, and whetting his pocketknife (every good herder carries a small whetstone) he cut out the upper leather from an old shoe and pared it, by a great circular cut, into a rawhide shoelace, three feet long.

At a deserted trapper’s shack below Spring Creek, Pablo had found an old washtub. “Give me your shirts, fellas,” he commanded, and the three of us stripped to the waist. After Pablo’s laundry had been boiled in the tub, it soon adorned the scrub oaks like flags at a carnival. Then Pablo spent nearly an hour scouring every pot and pan he had. Twice he arranged and rearranged his spices and canned goods, as fussy as a newlywed bride. From somewhere in the duffle, Rosalio produced a saw and hammer and skillfully made repairs on a kyack box, which had broken.

When no more work could be found, Rosalio searched in the packs for his battered mouth organ, which he had used only three or four times on the trip. He is an expert on the instrument. Mexican music and a couple of lively Yankee airs floated into the breeze, mixing with the juniper incense. Using a recently laundered dishcloth as a veil, Pablo did a spritely dance.

As Pablo began packing his pots and pans, I thought of all the meals he’d prepared, and marveled at his skills in these kitchens of the open air. There is a science to cooking over an open fire and Pablo knows it well. It isn’t the way of the Indians, who need little wood. When he has it, Pablo uses much, and of the best kind to produce embers.

He has three white covered baking pails or kettles and two aluminum ones which go through the whole trek without once being streaked with black.

He usually digs a hole for his fire and fills it with wood until the hole and its fringes are filled with glowing embers and ash. Then, scooping some of these in a shovel, he makes a patty of hot ashes on the fringe and places his pot or kettle on this. It does not blacken any more than on an electric grill. Not heat, but smoke, smudges kettles.

Much cooking is done in the Dutch oven, an iron kettle with a lipped lid into which live embers can be placed, so that food cooks on both top and bottom. Coffee is always made in the Dutch oven, then poured into the coffeepot. The pot never goes on the fire itself, but is kept on live embers.

Late in the evening Rosalio again filled the air with south-ofthe-border tunes from his mouth organ. I fell asleep to the music.

Our morning start next day was earlier than usual for we could not make noon camp until we had scaled the Naegelin Rim. The grassy slopes and scrub oaks of Pleasant Valley soon turned to thick underbrush. I started up the slope ahead of the sheep —scrambling over sharp, loose stones — and finally found a large opening in the Rim up which the sheep would come. From a pinnacle at one side of the natural gate I could look down at all that was happening below.

At one point, the entire herd stopped. Behind, Rosalio was urging them on. His piercing whistle bit into the air. He waved his hands and his staff. It was a sheer ascent and the herd’s forward movement was almost imperceptible.

Then the action suddenly became swift. Wave upon wave of sheep clambered up the rocky slope.

Opposite me came the greatest test, in which the animals had to leap up from one ledge to another.

The driving was easier now. The herd, once started, seemed to accept the challenge and the goats and leader-ewes found half a dozen different avenues up which they led seemingly never-ending files of sheep. Sometimes a sheep would not make the upward leap and would slip back, then either try again or circle and make the attempt at some other place. Leaping, clambering, sometimes hesitating slightly but never for long, each animal scaled the Rim.

The noise resembled the crescendo of the 1812 Overture — thunderous whistling and shouting of Rosalio, barking of dogs, bleating of the sheep. Just beyond the herd was a sheer face of rock over which even the sheep could not climb. Or could they? Some animal was surely over there. As I looked, a deer — frightened by the herd — took a graceful leap up over the barrier. The sheep leaped too, though far less gracefully. But they made it to the top.

Rosalio followed the stragglers and carried a bleating lamb over the last stiff climb. Almost directly behind came Pablo who, with his pack animals, had followed a narrow ranger trail to the top.  As quickly as it had started the ascent was finished. Soon sheep, burros, horses and herders — all of us — were swallowed up in the dense brush and undergrowth of the trail along the top. In a small clearing, we made our camp.