Eye to eye in the desert

I spent my first summer as a professional geologist working as a gold prospector in the Mojave Desert of Arizona. The property I was prospecting on was quite large, comprising several square miles of varying terrain from wide flat, and hot valleys, to rough mountains. This area had been the site of extensive mining activity in the late 1800's and a last period working in the second world war years. Most of the workings and equipment still remain onsite although heavily picked over from the years of abandonment. My job was primarily to hike and roam the property looking for outcrops and formations favorable for the concentration of gold ore. The concentrations we were interested in were small enough that there was little hope of ever seeing the gold directly. I would mark the places I wanted samples to be taken and indicate the location on a map. In the following days one or two young men working on the property would take the map and notes and collect the samples which would then be sent to a lab for assays.

For me the job was wonderful. I would spend my day's alone hiking in that magnificent country, noting the flowers, the animals, the geology, visiting the mining works. To the superficial eye, the desert looks desolate and vast. Hiking from early morning to early evening, I found the desert to be intimate and alive. There were many wonders for me on each day out, an owl hiding in a mine shaft, a snake climbing a small tree, quail faking a broken wing to lead me away from its nest, a tarantula spider scaring the driller's wife. There were occasional more memorable events that summer including the day I was fortunate enough to greet a bighorn ram.

In general, the property was flat to hilly in the south and west, and mountainous on the east and north. As I was working the northern areas one week, I was noticing a good deal of bighorn "sign" in the area, the droppings and prints of several animals. I was very anxious to see these sheep, especially a ram as they have become quite rare in recent years. I generally worked alone, and I tend to walk very quietly so I did not have to wait very long before I saw the sheep herd. It was a small group, six or seven animals consisting of two females and several young. Although I was seeing this group regularly I was disappointed that it did not include a dominant male. That situation was soon to change. One day I was working an especially rough area around a mountainside. There was a ravine cutting deeply into the south flank. I had started the morning from the road-end relatively high and behind the mountain on the north side. When I got to the ravine I decided to cross it high on the flank, work my way down the west side, and work into the ravine low on the south side. This path meant that I would have a difficult climb back up the mountain on the east side of the ravine.

As I was returning up along the rim above the ravine, I came to a flat bare rocky area. On one side of the rim rock was a cliff dropping off some 50 feet or so, ahead of me was more open rock, terraced to various interesting levels. It was a nice place to take a rest and as I walked towards the cliff for a view and the breeze I suddenly heard a loud scrambling noise. A mature ram had been lying at the foot of a terrace in the shade. Arriving quietly from the south, I had been out of view and unheard until very close. The animal stood, ran about 20 feet away, and turned towards me. I had stepped to the cliff and glanced down, and, dropping to one knee I looked at the ram, now some 40 to 50 feet from me. He was fabulous, with his horns curling over one full turn. He stood there looking at me, and I at him. For me there was no where to go, I had seen that immediately. We looked, and then he turned and left. The encounter could not have lasted for more than a few seconds, but with adrenaline pumping into my veins, the whole thing was played as in slow motion. I stared at the ram, looking, recording, fully aware of my position, but with fascination and excitement rather than fear. The sound of his hoofs on bare rock, his breathing, the dull tan-brown of his coat, and most of all his head, his eyes looking at me, and his horns.

Then he left, just like that it was past. I did not recover so quickly. As the adrenaline wore off I began to tremble with the emotion and thrill. I stood there, on the edge of the cliff, feeling the breeze, thinking and watching it move into the distance. The rest of the day passed in a daze, small and unimportant. It was the bighorn only that mattered then. This I wondered: as these animals become increasingly rare how many more will ever have the chance to view them? My encounter I consider as a gift to me and I write this so that maybe I may share it with others and earn that gift.

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