Dances with Bighorns

Bighorn ewe at Taos Valley Overlook

How old is the feeling, how old?

At the turnaround point of a walk in the terrible high desert, with the sun in my face and the air blowing cool in a great soaring sky, I lifted my water bottle to take a drink. It had already been an astonishing day. My eyes made a casual sweep of the small valley beyond and stopped cold: a scary white skull-face was staring at me!

The world stopped completely and nobody moved. We were locked. There was only the One. Then slowly I realized I was looking at sunlight reflecting on the face of a beast. Just what kind, I wasn’t sure. Obviously wild but not running away. Wait a minute. What, bighorn sheep? I’d never seen one before but surely it was. And then there was another! Ewes, obviously. This one still grazing, moving off toward the gorge. Then the sentinel lost interest and went back to eating the tenderest tips of whatever there was: sagebrush, small bushes, dried grass… Just imagine a gig where you enjoy eating sagebrush—if you live here, what a benevolent God.

bighorn sheep near Taos, NM

White face a-looking at me

We had somehow established an instant relationship. I began walking after them. The trail I was on followed the slope of the valley and brought me much closer. At the sound of the camera or my foot scuffing on the rocks, they’d stop for a moment and stare like before, then go back to their foraging. When they decided to stay in the same general spot, I sat down on the trail and just watched for a long time. Whenever I shifted my legs or took a drink of water, they’d look up a bit, but by now we were almost a team. They even started moving toward me and came very close, maybe 100 feet. I even thought I’d have to get out of their way!

It must have been a good 15 minutes with me sitting in the dirt, the sheep eating away right in front of me. They were close enough that I could hear them stripping leaves off the branches and chewing the grass. When they finally turned and began ambling away, I decided the visit was over and stood up. Surely now they’ll start running, I thought, but they didn’t, not even when I picked up my camera and left. A 10-second stare, and then never you mind, and maybe we’ll see you again. At a rise in the trail, I looked back over my shoulder:

They were still there, just grazing along.

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