Shepherd for a Season

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Ray stoked the fire in the iron-cast stove and placed an old, sturdy kettle on top. The trailer warmed,
fighting back the veins of frost on the windows. We sat solemnly in the same dirty clothes we’d been
wearing for the past several days, liberally drinking cups of black coffee to combat sleep while a small
battery-powered radio blasted local news and hits from the 90’s in between screeches of static. It was
our fourth straight day tailing the ewes across the Uintah National Forest. The feed atop the snow-
capped mountains was sparse and the lambs were sold, which meant it was time to get the mammas
down into the valley for the last of the fall grasses. The day before we had moved the herd 15 miles to
a corral up Chicken Creek, a small valley just north of Strawberry reservoir, and we had another 15 until
we hit Center Creek on the southeastern hills of Heber City, UT. From there, the herd would have about
a month and a half of feeding before being shipped to the desert for winter.

The sun had yet to peak over the thick forest of yellow pines and aspens that litter the west side of the
canyon, so we waited for it to thaw our path. We sat cozily in the 7 X 15 ft trailer while Ray reminisced
on his herding pastimes and childhood. As a young Navajo growing up on the reservation in western
New Mexico, herding appealed to him at an early age as a means to escape the cycle of poverty that
swallowed most of his peers. He dropped out of high school, moved to the mountains and never looked
back. Over the next fifty years he ended up working with numerous herds throughout New Mexico,
Colorado, California, and Utah.

Although Ray didn’t know exactly how old he was, the contours of his face and the wrinkles in his hands
spoke to his age, while his toothless, child-like smile revealed an innocent soul. He claims that the
mountains keep him young and staying away from liquor, the “white-man’s poison” keeps him alive.
He’s been sober for ten years, but prior to this stint of sobriety he spent decades in a drunken stupor.
He would drink morning, evening, and night. He would drink while riding. Sometimes he would be
passed out for days and not move the herd, leaving them without food and leaving himself without a
job. One time, a fellow Navajo herder named Isaac stopped by Ray’s camp and the two of them inhaled
whiskey like water. Isaac woke up in the middle of the night and headed home, but he never made it. A
week later a search and rescue team found Isaac’s body at the bottom of an abandoned mine shaft. Ray
hasn’t touched a drink since then.

We gulped down one last cup of bitter comfort, put some cookies in our pockets, and left the warmth of
the camper. After saddling the horses we untied the corral gate and ushered out a flood of screaming
wool. Turning the herd north up the dirt road, we moved slowly to give them time to suck from the
stream and eat some of the large foliage around the water before shepherding them through the thick
of the forest. The herd was approximately 1,300 strong, although many had been eaten by coyotes
and black bears over the past year. By this point in our journey there were several ewes which had
solid limps in their steps from getting tangled up in sage brush and twisting their legs on rocks. The day
before, one of the older ewes got caught in some bushes and broke her back. She persisted to stay in
the flock but we could see her dire injury better than she could feel it. We had to leave her behind.

My guide across the wilderness was a trusty steed named Desert Horse. My boss had bought him
years back from the Idaho State Correctional Facilities where he was trained by inmates. I was also
accompanied by Yellow Horse, a lean mare with a white mane and matching tail who never left my
side, as well as two dogs, Porcupine and Chubby. Porcupine was a border collie and Chubby’s breed
was unknown. The two of them were never properly trained, so while they did okay staying with the
herd, they would often get too aggressive and bite the sheep in the ass, causing a huge group of them to
rumble off in the wrong direction. Half the time we were chasing sheep through the forest because of
those goddamn dogs. At one point the flock was completely scattered. Ray got off his horse and started
using Chubby as a target for the handfuls of rocks he collected out of anger. In contrast to their typical
uselessness, occasionally they would surprise us by chasing down some wandering sheep that went lost
and herd them back into the flock. I’m still convinced it was pure luck that they ever pushed them in the
right direction.

The sun was still too low to penetrate through the thick of the trees which allowed the thin sheet of ice
to remain blanketed across the woodland undergrowth. As we moved through the forest the frozen
ground crunched under the weight of all 5,200 hooves, causing a loud crackle to echo through the hills.
The first freeze of fall had come and gone, and with it a kaleidoscope of color smeared across every
hillside, leaving in its trail a wave of red, orange, and yellow that dispersed among the thick dark pines.
We rode slowly and watched as the sun illuminated Mother Nature’s autumn canvas.

But our tranquil moment didn’t last long. Within fifteen minutes one of the black ewes, or as we
called them, the “black bitches,” had led a group of a couple hundred sheep off the path and down the
backside of a rocky hill. I took off after them at a steady pace and began hollering to get their attention.
“Hey, Hey, Hey!” I yelped with one hand cupping the side of my mouth while galloping down the hillside,
when all of a sudden—SMACK! My vision immediately went black as my head shot backwards and
my neck snapped. In the midst of my pursuit I took my eyes off the trail and Desert Horse afforded
me a face-full of timber. I managed to remain on the horse, but my hat went flying and the branch left
me with blood dripping down my face. My naiveté in equestrianism quickly and painfully set in as I
dismounted my horse and tried to gather my surroundings. I hiked back up to my hat, wiped the blood
from my face, and then led the horses on foot for a bit while shaking off the ringing in my head.

Besides the occasional group of misdirected ewes that would scatter off, the flock was familiar with the
journey. For many of the seasoned mothers they had made this trip on several occasions. They knew
where the water holes were and the easiest routes between the valleys and hills. The pace was slow but
steady, which gave Ray and I time to continue all the conversations that were cut short and provided
us much needed piss breaks. During our down time, Ray taught me some basic Navajo phrases, and I
inquired as to what a shepherd does with his money. Up until the last couple years he would send the
majority of his earnings back to his family on the reservation, until one day he returned home to find
them blowing his earnings on drugs and booze. Nowadays he saves his money and doesn't talk to his

With only a couple miles left we began ascending down out of the forest and into the valley where we
found our route blocked by a newly fashioned wood fence. The confusion caused a mix up that sent
a small number of ewes trekking the wrong direction. It took us a while but we eventually turned all
the sheep around except one. Every time we yelled and tried to turn her back, she would venture off
further into unfamiliar territory. After a thorough attempt to shuffle the lonely ewe down the mountain
Ray said, “She’s blind, and deaf. She’s only made it this far by staying tucked between the others.
Without that touch she is dead. Leave her.” We watched her scamper off to a certain demise.

Once we arrived in the valley the sheep scampered off to their familiar feeding spots and water holes.
Ray and I dismounted, removed the horses’ saddles and laid beneath some withered shrubs. We pulled
our hats down past our eyes while the whistling wind sang us to sleep.


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