Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Adventures At Sheep Camp: Learning Lessons

When last we saw our heroines, they were spotting Bighorns on an arid, sunny ridge atop the Mesa.

We only stayed up on the Mesa for a few days on that particular trip. After buttoning down our base camp, we hiked back down to the rig, drove back to town and retrieved our dogs. At that time I had a little dog named Merrik, a little poodle-terrier mix. She resembled Toto on stilts: she had a loosely-curled silver-grey outer coat, a dense, velvety and inky black undercoat, shiny dark eyes, big pointy bat ears and enormous charm. She was deep-chested and wasp-waisted, and had a surprisingly graceful, gazelle-like neck (only visible when she'd been clipped, since in her long-haired state she had an enormous ruff of grizzled coat around her neck). Maggie had an English setter, silky-eared and sweet, a restful dog.

Back at the bunkhouse we showered and changed into clothes that weren't grimy with Mesa dirt and sweat and insect repellent. We were in town for a couple of days, and then we collected the first of our volunteers: A a married couple, locals. I forget now how they ended up on Maggie's radar to volunteer, but they were capable, pleasant, useful sorts, practical and down to earth. They stayed with us for two days, plus the hiking-up day. The husband, an experienced hunter and camper, put his back into our latrine site, excavating a large rock that had been foiling me, and the wife cobbled together something a little tastier than we'd managed for dinner: I don't know what it was called, but there was broccoli, and cheese, and some kind of sausage. It cooked up in one pan, and it was perhaps the only time we cooked up on the Mesa (at least so far as I recall.) They took turns leading our spotting forays, reading the topo map and scoping out good glassing sites. We spent one afternoon perched in a row in the shade of a big pine only yards from a 300-foot drop-off, passing the scope between us: taking turns peering between the needled branches at a small group of sheep, basking on the sun-struck shoulder of the ridge opposite. The air was hot and still, and small trails of sweat rolled slowly down my neck. Every so often a faint, hesitant breath of a breeze stirred the oppressive air, prompting Maggie and I to shed out hats and push our hair up off our sticky napes. Small butterflies drifted by from time to time, and the ever-present gnats managed to find us, biting and stinging - but even so, it was a pleasant way to spend a day, breathing in the heat, the resinous scent of evergreens, the smell of sage and dust.

The sheep weren't the only thing to see on the Mesa. There were elk and deer, cougars and bears (of which we only ever saw scat), and birds of all descriptions, including a surprising number of hummingbirds. And of course there were plants - aspen and evergreens, shrubs and flowers. When bored, Maggie would regale me with species names of the local plants, or pick some bit of vegetation and make me identify it. As an undergrad, I'd majored in biology, with a concentration in immunology. She'd majored in forestry. Consequently, I knew more about T-cells (a fairly useless subject, up on the Mesa) and she knew more about the local flora (much more germane). I was pretty good on the genus and species names of the fauna, but I could not tell a grass from a sedge when we started, and while I knew which were pines and which were spruces, I couldn't say why this one was spruce and that one pine.

It was an enjoyable adjunct to the hiking, but one thing about Maggie: You knew there was going to be a quiz later, so you'd better be paying attention. At any time she might pluck a strand of some grass-like thing at your feet and demand that you tell her if it's a grass or a sedge, or insist that you shake hands with the evergreen to your left and tell her if it's a fir or a spruce. (In case you should ever need to know this, just remember: Sedges have edges, and while firs are friendly, spruce are spiny. Oh, and if you should have to identify a Doug fir, the scientific name is Pseudotsuga menziesii. I know this is likely to come up at your very next cocktail party, so take note.)

After the married couple left us, we had a volunteer from Germany who we called Pooh-Bear. We also called him TimberBeast, because things that Maggie and I would go around, he would just hike right over: Rocky outcrops, downed trees that were level with the button-flies of our Levi's, what have you. Maggie and I: trudge around the obstacle. TimberBeast: Plant one foot on top and step up on it like it's no more than 6 inches off the ground.

Pooh-Bear had other skills. His first evening on the Mesa he took our spotting scope and tripod, fiddled around for approximately 90 seconds, and then invited us to look. We did. He had Saturn perfectly lined up in our sights. Through the spotting scope, the colors were washed to ivory, but despite that, it was in some way like looking at the Bighorns through the scope: Somehow much more immediate and real than seeing it on TV or in even the most detailed photographs. It's as if seeing it in person, even through the remove of the scope, somehow imparts the emotional reality of the thing, not just the intellectual reality. We already knew there was such a thing as Saturn; we'd seen close-up pictures, learned its name in grade school. But now we have the emotional knowledge of it; seen it hanging in the sky, seen its rings tilted to catch the light... and somehow, it's different. More.

Pooh-Bear, apart from being amazingly strong, was endlessly cheerful and even-tempered. We discovered quickly that humor is sufficiently cultural that a great deal of what was funny to us made no sense to him, and vice versa, but he was easy-going about it, and tolerated our attempts to explain why something was funny with good grace, even if it still made no sense to him. His English was good, both intelligible and pretty comprehensive, and our German non-existent - but he and I both spoke French, so sometimes we conversed in French to level the field a little. That way neither of us was using our native language, so the disadvantage was equal. Or at least somewhat equal, because if one of us didn't know the right word in French, we still had to revert to English to go around it.

With Pooh-Bear on the Mesa, we were able to split up a little. He and Maggie - both stronger hikers than I - would go out on long point-hikes, and I'd go on shorter hikes, seeking the small bunches of sheep nearer to hand. About this time I noticed an interesting thing. When I'd first come onto the Mesa, I knew which way was north, but I was otherwise entirely dependant on the topo maps to navigate. But after even a few days out in the middle of nowhere, the terrain starts to fit itself into the mapping function in your head. What used to tell you "Go down to the Starbuck's and then take the stairs to the second floor and the office is third on the right", now tells you "Aim to to left of that shrub and then when you see that one rock, take a 90% left turn and that'll take you to the trail." Somehow I wasn't expecting that. Don't ask me why.

I also noticed that I really preferred sleeping outside to sleeping in the tent. I don't know why this is, but it's the same as it was when we were rafting the San Juan: I just couldn't see the point of the tent. It wasn't raining, it wasn't cold. Why sleep inside? Accordingly I unfurled my sleeping bag at the foot of a scrubby little bush, taking advantage of the slight rise at the root of it to use as a pillow. One morning when Maggie woke before me she was sitting in the doorway of the tent and looked up to see a young bull elk peering over the bush at me, inspecting my sleep. He watched me for several minutes, blinking his large, dark eyes at me, turning his ears to catch my breathing, his nostril sifting my dreams from the air. At last he sighed, relaxed, wandered off.

Like a dope, I slept through the whole thing.

We stayed on the Mesa for eight days with Pooh-Bear, and our last day was a nine-hour hike out. By the time we got to town it was early dusk, and we were hungry, tired and filthy. Neither Maggie nor I paused to collect our dogs; we'd shower and eat first, and round them up after dinner. Ravenous, we decided we'd go to the bar for pizza. Trading hiking boots for tennis shoes and grubby field-wear for clean clothes, we walked to the bar. It was early; only three or four of the Northern Geo guys had yet showed up, but they had the jukebox blasting, and they'd engaged several boisterous locals in a game of 8-ball. They gave us waves and grins as we came in. We took a table at the back of the bar - furthest from the door, but closest to the bar (and hence our food). Someone else had a pizza in the oven ahead of us, so we ordered a pitcher to occupy us while we waited.

I happened to be sitting with my back to the bar, facing the door. I saw it open, and suddenly there's my little dog loping into the bar, her head turning side to side to search. She sees me and her ears flatten with delight and she races over, leaping into my lap.

"Merrik! What are you doing here?" I asked her, quite dumbfounded. Maggie and Pooh-Bear stared at us with identical expressions of open-mouthed surprise - doubtless the same expression I wore. Merrik squirmed happily , tail wagging madly, and offered me a bright-eyed grin, panting with cheerful excitement.

The couple who'd opened the door sauntered up. "I take it that's your dog," the man observed, amused.

"Yes - but where'd you find her?" I asked, completely bemused. She'd been at the babysitter's, confined in their yard or inside their house, to the best of my knowledge.

"She was sitting outside the door, staring at it. When we opened it, she darted in between our feet. We almost stepped on her," the woman said.

"Whoa," said Maggie, raising her eyebrows. She had to be thinking the same thing I was: How did Merrik know which day to escape, and why would she come looking for me at the bar? We'd never brought her there. Why wasn't she waiting for me at the babysitter's, or failing that, at the bunkhouse? Those, she'd been to. We'd never even walked her past the bar, all of our main-street business being at the other end of the street.

"You're going to have to take her out of here," the bartender said, wandering up to the table. "Health codes."

"Yeah," I agreed vaguely, still wondering.

"That's almost too bad; she went to all the trouble of finding you," Maggie observed.

"Yeah," I agreed again. I set Merrik on the floor and stood up. She looked up at me, wagging her tail madly, and danced out at my side. Leashless, she could be relied upon to stick close to my side, and I walked her back to the bunkhouse and let her in to sleep on my bed. She hopped up and circled a few times, treading herself a spot on my bed, and then curled up with a contented sigh. I cuddled her for a few minutes, praising her and laughing softly to myself in lingering bemusement.

By the time I got back to the bar, the pizza was arriving at our table. We fell upon it like ravening beasts, dispatching it in record time.

"So do you think she went to the bunkhouse first, and then tracked you here?" Maggie asked me.

"Maybe," I said doubtfully. "She's kind of nose-blind," I added, and it was true: Merrik wasn't good at finding food on the floor by scent, and often had to be showed where a dropped item was.

"Plus we showered and changed before we came; you even changed your shoes," she agreed. "Plus we've never brought her here, and it's pretty noisy with the jukebox. You don't think she could have heard us talking, do you?"

"Not over the jukebox and the pool game," I said. "And how did she know when we'd be back in town?" I asked. We shook our heads.

Well. One of life's mysteries, perhaps.

The next day we drove Pooh-Bear back to Rifle. The dogs went back to the babysitters because we'd be there overnight. I felt a bit odd about taking Merrik back to the babysitter's - after all, she'd made her preferences clear - but there wasn't any option; the bunkhouse at Rifle was closely overseen, and dogs were not allowed. The babysitters - a very nice local woman and her 10-year-old son - told me they had no idea Merrik would dig her way out of the fence, and they'd repaired the fence line and laid cinder blocks over the dig spot. They promised to keep a close eye on her. Merrik liked the little boy well enough - and he was mad for her - but to be safe they took her inside.

At Rifle district we took care of various business and hobnobbed with the other students working DOW projects. Several of us went out dancing that night, Maggie and I among them, but we made an early night of it; we planned an early departure in the morning. It was about 10:30 by the time we made it to Plateau Creek, a lovely sunny Saturday morning. We cut through an alleyway that spilled out onto Main Street, heading for the post office. I was looking at Maggie, saying something, when suddenly her expression melted.

"Oh," she said, the way you do when you see something sweet and sad, and a microsecond later Merrik's feet slammed into the back of my leg. I turned and she leaped for my arms.

"Merrik! What are you doing here?" I asked her stupidly, for the second time in two days. She was squirming and whining in my arms, licking my neck and wagging her tail frantically. Some people walking down the street paused beside us.

"She was sitting out in front of the bar all night. She kept trying to go in," they said.

Well. She'd found me there once, so I guess it was worth a second try - and as it happens, it worked again, although not quite the same way.

"God, I'm so glad no one took her!" I said fervently. I'd licenced her in Plateau Creek, stitching the tag onto her harness with dental floss, but still - I would not have known where to start looking for her if someone had taken her home.

"I think some people thought about it - she's a nice little dog - but it was clear she was looking for someone, and she wasn't getting in any trouble, so we waited. She'd let people come up to her and she'd sniff them and wag her tail, but she wouldn't let anyone touch her. But as long as she wasn't in trouble, we thought we'd just watch and see. The people at the grocery across the street have been keeping an eye out," they added. "We all have."

Small towns. You gotta love that.

We had shopping to do that day and I made a point of thanking the grocers for thier kindness in watching out for my dog. The proprietors - a sixtyish couple - smiled benignly at me.

"We're getting used to her now," the husband said with a wink. "We know who she belongs with. Don't you worry none."

I was approaching the end of the time I had available to help out on Maggie's project, but I wasn't done yet, so I admit that it eased my worry some to know that little Merrik would be looked out for in case she escaped again. Naturally I'd prefer she stayed put inside the safety of the fence, but it was nice to know she had friends should she need any. But as it turned out, she never escaped again. Maybe it was better fenec repair, maybe it she felt she'd made her point... but to this day I still wonder: How did she know what day to make her first escape, and how did she find me at the bar?

I guess I'll never know.


Anonymous said...

Wow!! You should see me trying to explain your story to my husband...I was telling him about Maggie just yesterday morning! Now I will have to tell him about your awesome little escape artist :) -Beth

MaskedMan said...

Merrik was one of those maddening and wonderful creatures - A Houdini. I've seen Houdinis pull some truly astounding feats, and no one can explain how they knew to do what they did, or how they do them... Just a reminder that they indeed, for all their familiarity, an alien outlook.

If the weather is good, I like to sleep outside too. The main advantage of a tent in prime weather is that it reduces the numbers of wildlife that may take an interest in you and/or interrupt your sleep. Having had a live-and-death chase interrupt my sleep (small furry thing chased by larger furry thing) by traversing my face at high speed, I can say that it's not a small consideration.

AKDD said...

@Beth: Maggie isn't easy to justice to: Smart, tough and beautiful. Merrik, though... indescribably charming to me, in ways that will stick with me til I die. She absolutely was the perfect sidekick.

@MM: She really WAS wonderful. My roomates were convinced she was psychic, since she always knew when I was coming home, even though they themselves could not predict it.

For some reason wildlife likes to come up veeerrrry close to me and inspect me carefully when I am sleeping. I have no idea why. So far, no nocturnal death-chases.... thankfully! :D

AKPonyGirl said...

So worth staying up past your bedtime for. If you write this good sleep deprived I can't wait for what you write when you are rested!

Dragon43 said...

And the naysayers wail and gnash that it can't be and we are making it up and you know no amount of arguing will convince them so all you do is say it once and if they don't get it, they never will.

You have to have lived it.