023 Wilderness Interlude

Ranger Harlan Johnson, who had spent most of the day fighting a forest fire off beyond Heber, drove up to Mule Springs Corral in his pickup to welcome us to Sitgreaves National Forest, and more particularly to check Rosalio’s trail permit. Seeing my cameras, he at once forgot about sheep and began talking photography. Taking pictures was a passion with him; he soon became less interested in the herd’s pursuit of the trail than in mine He had just photographed some elk the day before in connection with the elk census he was taking. I soon became as interested in his elk stories as he was in my camera work.

Most favorable place to observe the animals, Ranger Johnson said, was the Ryan Ranch, just a few miles distant. Rosalio and Pablo would be spending the night near the corral; Johnson suggested that since no one was at Ryan’s now, I might want to spend the night there and watch for elk. On a narrow fire trail he drove me through dense forest until we came to an open meadow with ranch buildings at the far end. Frightened by our motor, four elk in one band, and thirteen in another, swept across a pasture, over a fence and into the blackening forest.

“Ratio’s just about right in that herd,” said Johnson. “Four cows to each bull.” I had been so excited that I hadn’t even observed their sex, so Johnson went on to explain. “With a four-toone ratio, and plenty of young coming on, the balance is just about right. If the cows increase too much, we permit more hunting. If they decrease, the hunting’s restricted. I take a census each May. Numbers don’t matter. What I’m concerned about is the ratio ofcows to bulls. “

Saying our good-byes, Ranger Johnson headed back to Heber and I went on alone, toward the three log buildings and a shed which made up Ryan’s Ranch. I was told that Ryan is a generous soul who is glad to share his place with the wild animals, and would be equally glad to share it with me, although he and I had never met.

I took up my abode in the loft of the barn, which is open almost entirely at one end facing the meadow, and has some boards removed at the other, giving view right into the forest, against which the building is set. Being tired from my climb up the Mogollon Rim, I went to bed almost at once, throwing my blankets near the open end of the loft, so I could see Jupiter rise above the forest, and Caster and Pollux dance above the meadow.

Now it is morning. Twice during the night I looked out onto the meadow, hoping that the elk had returned after their fright from the motor, but was unable to observe any. I wakened at 5:30 A.M. , not having Pablo to call me, and was robbed of almost half an hour of daylight. Looking out I saw three elk — all cows — close to the barn, and a calf alone, two-thirds grown, on the far side of the meadow, its tender stubs of horns just starting to develop, like the fuzz on the face of a high school sophomore.
Light was too dim for filming so I settled back in my bedroll — the morning air was just above freezing — and waited. But before the sun’s rays penetrated to the meadow, the elk were gone.

This meadow is small, with the intimacy of a New England village common, but with great pines and log structures — instead of church spires and white houses — creating the encircling intimacy. Most of the trees are mature, or at least well along toward the prime of life — one or two hundred years old, some even three hundred, Ranger Johnson told me. Some are mere spindling upstarts — black-barked, wispy, grown close together — of forty or fifty years.

Far down the meadow I saw some elk, large as mules, with nearly an equal bone structure, though not as fat by far. Each animal had a white patch on its rump. Every one of these beautiful creatures must have sat in a flour barrel. Slowly the three which I saw grazed the lower end of the meadow.

As I brought them into focus in my camera lens, something in the foreground was blurring my view; a careful check showed it to be two squirrels, each with black stripes running along the back. Like the great elk, they too were grazing, but unlike their huge companions, the squirrels were scampering for their morning meal. One bent his head daintily, that his clippers might be lined up with the stem, and cut a dried dandelion, which he then ate greedily. His cheeks popped in and out like an old man’s eating peanuts. I could nearly follow the squirrel’s reasoning as he next clipped a tender yellow dandelion, in full bloom. The dried one had been dainty; this would be dessert. But he took one bite and ejected it in evident disgust. In the next few minutes, among many other things, he had clipped three yellow dandelions, taken a bite of each, and spit it away.

But suddenly the squirrel stopped in the middle of a bite, a half-eaten leaf protruding from his mouth as he stood completely motionless.

From down the meadow came a thunderous neighing — a wild, fearful sort of noise. The squirrel dropped everything and ran for the safety of a nearby log. Up from the lower end of the meadow pranced a magnificent black horse, running with high-arched steps. Ranger Johnson had told me to be on the watch for a sight like this; this was a wild horse — a fiery stallion.

He came fearlessly. I had left the shelter of the loft and was out on the ground to watch the squirrel.

The stallion saw me —came closer. Then he stopped right out in the middle of the meadow. His great black head was marked with a white star in the forehead. His tail and mane were long and unkempt. The superb beast eyed me with a meanness which was real, then tossed a snort in my direction which cut the morning air and echoed against the forest trees behind me. The squirrel darted from beneath the log and across the intervening dozen feet to his earthen home.

It would be impossible for me to exaggerate the fierceness of that stallion’s snort. Three times he did it, in quick succession, and turned half about each time, but always with his eye beading directly on me. I was an intruder here and that snort was for me and no one else. I had heard a softer version of that sound in the night and had not known its origin or meaning.

At intervals for an hour this black creature continued his feud with me — then suddenly hurled himself in his beautiful prance up to the other end of the meadow, vaulted a cattle guard, and disappeared.
So many distractions had held my interest that I’d forgotten completely about the elk. I looked and they were gone, having been for the time almost the least important things in the meadow, even though it was for them I had come.

Going back up to the barn, I found a grandstand seat on a small platform which jutted out from the open end of my loft, and spent an hour or more writing in my journal, always on the alert, however, for wild horses or elk. Instead, right below me — at the edge of the barn — I spotted a porcupine.
He was as large as I have ever seen, the size of a small bear cub, but more cumbersome in his walk than a bear, and a world more ugly; in fact, he reminded me of an ape waddling along on all fours. His small beady eyes surveyed me when I attracted his attention, and there was an excellent chance to survey him in return as he waddled slowly across an arm of the meadow toward the woods. His coloring intrigued me. The long hairs of his body were black, tipped with white at the ends, but his quills were a lustrous golden green. Those showed along the back, but most particularly at the rump. The animal’s tail was a beautiful spray of that gold with the greenish sheen.

The porcupine was grazing, nibbling the grass as a sheep does, his head down, plodding along slowly — very slowly. The meadow this day has been a panorama of vegetarians — elk, stallion, squirrels, porcupine. The only carnivorous creatures I have seen today are a robin catching worms, and swallows in pursuit of insects.

I followed along the meadow floor in silence and came to the conclusion that a porcupine, whatever other modes of protection he may have, is not well equipped for hearing and seeing. Although he was grazing in my direction some of the time, and there were no obstructions, I came within a few feet of him before he acknowledged my presence. His back was partially turned and the golden green quills bristled and shimmered in beauty as he tensed every one.

It is fitting that porcupines inhabit Arizona, for they have much in common with the cholla or jumping cactus. Neither porky nor cholla can throw their spines, but in both cases the deadly hooks come off at the least touch and are vicious in their effect.

By this time, the porcupine had worked close to the encircling forest and was just a few feet from a tree. Waddling fast, but not quite at top speed, he made it and started up, climbing swiftly at first, but then hugging the trunk and working his way up past the middle branches. He was almost perfectly concealed and by going slowly did not attract attention. Had I not known his exact location, I could not have spotted him at all.

Only when I observed him in the tree did I begin to comprehend the reason for the coloring I had admired so much. On the meadow it had taken my eye, but it was a camouflage made for the trees — not the meadows — where he could climb for safety. His dark hair was identical in coloring with the black bark of the younger pines, rather than the reddish brown of the giant trees, because these younger ones were easier to scale, and had branches which could be reached more quickly. Large as he was, he could not have hugged one of the 300 year old giants and slid obscurely up. Its open surface would have betrayed him. He matched the trees which were his size.

And those golden green quills of his; the reason for that shading had not occurred to me at all, until now. Up amongst the pine needles, he became just another clump of needles. The sun sifting down through the branches lit up the pine needles and clothed them a golden green; it did the same to the quills of the porcupine. There was no difference. He became part of the tree, part of its bark and its foliage. The “pine” which goes to make up the name of this animal is descriptive and appropriate.

All nature “shades up” as do the sheep, and this is the time for siesta. By 2:00 P.M. — though the air was chilled — I went out into the middle of the empty meadow, leaving my clothes behind, and took a bath in the tiny stream which — though it comes from a spring somewhere in the meadow itself — immediately gains a depth of some three feet, forming a splendid pool into which I could hang my feet from the grassy side.

Few spots along the Mogollon Rim in this section have the solid advantages and charm of Ryan’s Ranch. Though I am using the loft of his barn without rent — and have never met him — I feel that in Bill Ryan the meadow has a friend. His house and buildings are simple, blending with the hill and forest against which they are set. Few signs of humanity scar the beauty. If the meadow must be owned, he seems the one to own it. There is another fact which helps bring me to this conclusion — the location of the outside toilet.

Chic Sale immortalized the privy in a book which dwelt almost painfully on every detail of architecture and reminiscence. But he forgot — or never understood — the most important requirement of all. His book never discusses orientation — the way it faces.

The Ryan Ranch outhouse is a fair distance from the other buildings and faces directly away from them — faces a view so charming that it has never had, and will never have, a door. There to the front is a cairn of rocks — a ledge of honeycombed tufa coming out of the forest, with grasses and forest plants pushing up through cracks in its pitted surface, and pines growing above. Immediately over the privy itself extends the branch of a tree which projects a glorious spray of pine needles into the view. Any picture is better when framed, and all this is framed by the doorway — but never by a door. The woodsy cliff provides complete privacy. This is what I have always dreamed of — a “bathroom” with a view.

More elk came during the afternoon and I carefully observed the ratio of cows to bulls — about three-to-one, of those I counted.

Toward dusk, as I walked across the meadow toward the ranger trail, I could dimly see two large shadowy forms — bull elks — working up to the stream for a drink. Off in the woods on the far side came a strange cry, one which I could not identify. As I stepped across the darkness of the meadow, the ground gave under my feet — damp and oozy with the recent rains. A coldness — a strong-scented good cool feeling — lifted from the meadow floor into my face.

Sounds of a motor reached my ear, and I saw lights approaching. Ranger Johnson had come to drive me into Heber.