A life to fry for: hot on the trail of bighorn

 

Night slides down the mountainside, and the temperature in the Tule Desert sinks to 108 in the shade. A bighorn sheep 50 yards away gawks at me while I nervously work down a steep stone slope. I can see amusement in her big, dumb eyes. Suddenly, my backpack nicks a boulder. I hear a horrible grind as the hefty stone slips, slices open my calf, and finally comes to rest on my heel. I am wearing running shorts, running shoes, and a T-shirt, and I am not pleased.

I wince from the pain and inspect the big rock now snoring on my heel. The sheep does not blink - I have made her day. I gingerly move my foot; the slab rumbles down toward the boulder-choked wash below. It can't get any better than this.

The light is a gray gauze as I reach the bottom of the rock face, and then I stagger across the half mile of wash toward my camp. Warm blood dribbles a Jackson Pollock pattern on my leg. The air is a blazing Jell-O, a solid blob of molecules that has napalmed my body since dawn. Sheep drippings decorate the arroyo, ironwood and palo verde sketch out neat red slashes on my whimpering hide. I slip and slide through a maze of boulders, visit with thorns and cactus eager for a piece of me. A vulture pops up from underneath a boxcar-sized boulder, then another grinning buzzard and another and another. I walk over to see what the fuss is about. A coyote lies stretched out on the sand, flies buzzing around the gray-and-tan body, the flesh swollen just a bit with heat and death. My nose stops me 15 feet from the carcass.

I think: he has solved the heat problem.

Twenty minutes after exiting the rock face, I stumble into my camp. Home is a simple place: 15 gallons of water, five freeze-dried dinners, a generous larder of Spam, 16 granola bars, three pounds of sunflower seeds, 12 books of almost unbearable dullness, a jar of industrial-strength instant coffee, and, most importantly, no ice. A thin blue pad defines my bunk on the smoldering ground (soil temperatures here sizzle around 150 to 160 degrees), and nearby is a folding chair, the aluminum Chippendale of my genteel life.

I make a small fire of ironwood twigs, boil water for a crime against my digestive tract called Burgundy Beef with Noodles, and then relax in the blast furnace while slopping down my gruel from an aluminum pouch. Bats flutter around my face.

I call it a day, stretch out on the blue pad, note the stars puncturing the sky as night comes on, and wait for the music. At precisely 11:30 each night a coyote explodes into a mixture of heavy metal and punk about one meter from my eardrum. The concert lasts two to four minutes, and then there is nothing left to do but bake until dawn.

I have been here for five days. I am alone, 40 miles east of Yuma, maybe 60 miles west of Ajo, 30 miles south of Interstate 8, and deep in the heart of one of America's favorite bombing and gunnery ranges. I am on the west flank of a rockpile called the Sierra Pintas. Nearby is a tank - a hole where the rains collect; that is, when and if they happen by every year or two. The water is green scum encrusted with a fine carpet of dead honey bees. Dung flavors this beverage.

I am here on serious business. I am counting sheep. Yes, I am.

The Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge covers 865,000 acres, and nobody lives there. The gunnery range covers even more ground, and nobody lives there either. We are talking about a couple of thousand square miles with live rounds, bighorn sheep, no paved roads, no people, and me, an official sheep counter for the United States government. Every June for the past 30 years, the feds have dispatched a handful of pilgrims to various water holes to inventory the sheep. Such workers sit motionless in the heat for five days, busily count off the herd on their fingers and toes, and then go home again. This is called science.

I would like to claim that I am here as a peculiar punishment for some act against God or man. But this is not the case. I volunteered for the job, as did a dozen other fried souls scattered about the Tule Desert, the Lechuguilla Desert, the Growler Valley, and other landmarks in hell.

I wanted to be alone. I wanted to see what heat was really like when there was no escape. I wanted to think big thoughts: I have a completely empty notebook sitting on my lap as evidence of this last goal.

I will tell you everything.

It is noon and a white flame of light sweeps across the desert floor. I am walking, a brief coffee break from my sheep-counting duties back at the tank. Heat boils up from the ground through the soles of my running shoes. I wear no socks. I wear no shirt. I wear no shorts. I wear no hat. Heat Solution No. 817. This solution is not working.

I look down at my feet and see a pottery fragment. A closer examination reveals similar debris everywhere. To the north a half mile are two small caves where early men and women and children, damnable litterbugs that they were, left busted pots, old sheep bones, and random garbage. Folks used to call this place home. In 1699, Father Kino may have ambled through here on one of his interminable marches across the desert seeking lost souls and new geography. Then, in 1939, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, at the prodding of the Ajo Boy Scouts and others, scratched his pen on a document and made the whole joint a refuge for desert bighorns. Then the war came and more ground was set aside as a shooting gallery. Now I am here. That's history for you.

I hear a big boom; my head whips toward the noise; a jet arcs across the sky and plays war games while giving the sound barrier a thorough drubbing. Then silence, absolute silence. The birds refuse to speak in the heat of midday, the insects shut up, too, and the wind has not yet started. Silence flattens the land.

I listen to the blood coursing through my veins.

It is 112 in the shade as I lie in the blind near the waterhole. The structure is a frail ramada (shelter) of saguaro ribs. All the wild animals know I am in here; I can see this knowledge in their eyes. But the blind is a necessary courtesy. I am that unspeakable thing to them, a human being, and it is best that I keep out of their sight as they bake through another Tule Desert day.

A golden eagle stands on the edge of the water hole. The beak is open, the tongue hangs down, the bird pants. The talons look like murder. The eagle peers up at me and then down at the water. It is 2 p.m., and eagle time is apparently as rigorous as factory time, since the big bird appears punctually each day. At noon, the red-tailed hawks always come in, four of them, and drink and splash in the water. The doves prefer dawn, 1 p.m., and dusk. Four ravens always show up around 4:30 p.m. The sheep are not so simple. They can go up to nine days without water.

The eagle pants and pants. I pant and pant. I literally do not think. I sense, I know, I feel, but I do not think. I have no anxiety, I cannot think enough to be concerned about anything. Here is a sample of my mind at 112 degrees: Six vultures land at the tank, they space themselves two feet apart, they drink one by one, they leave. Bees roar. Sun thuds off the stone. The eagle pants and no one pays any attention. The vultures course down the canyon and land near the dead coyote.

I can go on like this for hours. And I do.

 At night I see satellites zip across the heavens. To the east, flashes of lightning suggest the monsoon has arrived in Tucson. One evening at dusk, I sit in my chair and stare at a rock face 60 yards away while I eat Sweet and Sour Shrimp with Rice. A coyote slips down the slope, the tail flowing. The animal does not hesitate and refuses to look at me.

I sprawl out on the blue pad, moths land on me, and then the bats flit by a foot off the ground and eat the moths. I am a dining-room table.

I had assumed that ideas about Nature would flood my mind during this five-day stay. I am happy to report this does not happen. I see a coyote. I see a sheep. I listen to silence. I swelter in the heat. Each day I stop by the dead coyote and check on how the vultures' work is progressing. A hummingbird hovers six inches from my face, an antelope ground squirrel nibbles seeds a foot from my leg. I pick up a jug and the fluid splashes in my mouth like it was straight from a hot water heater.

But thinking about Nature here would be an insult. Thinking itself is an insult. There is nothing to contribute. I can tell by looking into the eyes of a bighorn; I have no doubt when watching the careless disdain of the coyote for my presence. This is a place to be. I am not sure how to define being, but I am getting quite good at being. I sleep very soundly and awaken an hour before dawn. The air is cooler then, in the mid-80s, and the smells are stronger and richer and the desert requires nothing because everything that is necessary already is.

One day a huge ram, perhaps six to eight years old, walks up to the tank. His big horns have more than a three-quarter curl, his body is well fleshed, and he moves with dignity. He stands for half an hour before the tank of water, trying to decide whether to drink. He decides, moves forward, and lowers his head for six minutes and 25 seconds. I time him: Science demands this deed.

I read a book on bighorn sheep. The author states that rams will only associate with other rams that have horns the same size as they do.

He ain't heavy, he's my brother.

Early Spanish explorers found pyramids of sheep horns in this desert. Later scholars stumbled onto a similar pyramid near the tank where I now bake. No one is quite sure what the pyramids of horns were supposed to do, but they were clearly some kind of gesture by early Tule Desert people. The Sand Papagos who frequented this area until early in this century said the piles of horns stopped the wind. The wind here is a potent force, a blazing surge that comes up around noon and streams across the flats, withering everything in its path. I drink water all the time but I cannot keep up with the power of this wind.

Scholars also found sheep bones, usually vertebrae, that had deep burns on them. They had been fired at high heats for long periods of time, far longer than was necessary to cook the flesh. The sheep had been cremated. This desert in southwestern Arizona and the Pinacate country just to the south in Sonora are the only known places in the Western Hemisphere where human beings cremated nonhuman beings.

No one is quite sure why this happened either. There are whispers of explanation. The Papago at the turn of the last century said it was to placate the sheep, to calm them and win them over so that their spirits would not be angry and go visit the living sheep and say bad things about men, things that would scare away the herds. This makes sense to me. If I ever kill a sheep out here, I am certain I will cremate the beast.

There are other variant forms of cremation taking place here. Below my tank spreads the Tule Desert, a pan of fire that officially hosts four inches of rain a year. In the first 10 days of June, the Border Patrol took four dead Mexicans out of this area. They were illegals heading north toward work. There are all kinds of dead people out there, and most are never found. No one cremates their bones. No one knows how to still their spirits.

In a week it will be the Fourth of July. I peer into the volcano of the Tule Desert at noon. They are out there. But we have no striking rituals to handle this dying. When a body is found, we toss the flesh and bones into a rubber bag and tote it off to a pauper's grave. This does not seem like quite enough. We have lost the knack of desert cremation, and I suspect the spirits are not at peace, but wander this ground. And I do not want to think what they say about us.

I have not moved for four hours. Sweat streams from my body. I drink; more sweat pours out. The tank is still, just a bunch of white-winged doves sitting on the rock in the sun and broiling nicely. I hear a kind of scream; a brown form plummets, misses, wheels, and dives again. I stare into the face of a prairie falcon 30 yards away. A dead dove is gripped in its talons. The flock explodes and flees. The falcon looks up at me, and for a second or two there is nothing but the beautiful raptor, the dead dove, the heat, and death.

Then the bird vanishes. I know it leaves, I witness this exit, but in fact it simply vanishes. One second it is there with the dead dove gripped by its black talons, the next it is gone. I have no conscious memory of the falcon flying away.

The tank falls very still. A few gray feathers flutter down the rock where the kill took place. For 31 minutes, no doves come to the tank. Yes, I time it. Science once again. Then a flock lands, putters around the rock, sits in plain view under the sun, and returns to whatever life means to a white-winged dove.

I think there should be precautions, drills, air alerts. But there is nothing. The death is not even memory. This is the Tule Desert and it is 112 degrees and no one is up to anything but life itself.

In five days of watching, I see three ewes and two rams, or maybe five ewes and two rams. After a while, all those ewes start to look pretty much the same.

My notebook remains absolutely empty. I sit in the morning light and wait for a truck to come by and pick me up and take me away. A stone tumbles nearby, I glance over and see a two-year-old ram romp off the rock face and then calmly walk down the wash, nibbling at ironwood shoots as he goes. He is 50 or 60 yards away and I do not interest him. Gnatcatchers and verdins and other birds flit from tree to tree.

I hike up the wash and check on the dead coyote. The vultures are gone; I can see them overhead riding a thermal. There is not much left of the coyote: the outline of the head, the empty rib cage, a pile of fluff marking the discards of his fur. He is in the Tule Desert now, powering the muscles of the vultures as they scan the bare ground for things that have run out of time.

I sit in the sun and drink a cup of black coffee. I do not think of Nature at all. I have not spoken in five days. My leg and heel are mending nicely.

An American poet once wrote, "Do not listen to the birds / They are ignorant."

Like hell they are.

 Charles Bowden has written about the desert since 1977. His essay is part of Gary Paul Nabhan's anthology, Counting Sheep: 20 Ways of Seeing Desert Bighorn, University of Arizona Press, 1993.