It is the last day of daylight savings time and I just have time to do something with the horse. I don’t really have time to saddle up and ride, so my choices are ride bareback or go “walkies.” Since it is just above freezing with a cold wind outside, and since I haven’t ridden all week, I decide on a walk. First, I must don the appropriate amount of layering—long underwear, sweats, long sleeved t-shirt, fleece jacket, gloves, neck gaiter and headband. I test it out on the back porch—brrr… I go back in the house and add a pair of wind pants. Okay, now I think I’m ready. The wind pants mean that I won’t be able to hop on bareback if I feel like riding at some point. Have you ever tried to ride in wind pants? It’s like trying to ride a greased pig!
I decide that today will be a “cookie” walk. Usually I don’t carry cookies , but I have found that if I do an occasional cookie walk—where I stuff my pockets full of goodies and let them know it—the effect lasts a good long time. And for these girls at least, I guess hope springs eternal because they generally stay with me even when they know I don’t have anything. They must figure I have the power to magically conjure cookies on a moments notice, so they’re not taking any chances. Only they have to earn their cookies. They have to go off and graze, then put effort into coming back to me—only then do they get the reward.
I let them out, and Annie immediately begins shadowing me.
“Cookie?” is her obvious question.
“No cookie,” I say, gently shooing her away.
Dolly closes in from the other side “Did you give Annie a cookie? Because I want one too then!”
“No cookie,” I repeat, gently shooing her the other way “ you have to earn them.”
So we wander down the ridge and they finally begin moving off to look for the clumps of dried grass that are still hiding among the sagebrush. As we leave our property, Dolly stays behind to munch on some weeds then trots to catch up. I reward her with a cookie. Annie trots over indignant, so she earns one also. It becomes a competition between them. They watch each other as closely as they watch me.
We reach the bluff that overlooks a large wash. It is a short steep drop into the wash proper. The girls stop to graze on some nice clumps of grass at the top of the bluff. As I slither down the hill, I wonder how long it will be before the angry scars of recent flash flooding will fade away. The hillside is cut by dozens of parallel erosion channels leading down into the wash. The wash itself is a mess. Where there used to be a soft sandy floor, there is only hardpan and harsh gravel. The banks no longer slope easily, but are cut deep and jagged. I hear both Dolly and Annie clattering down the bank behind me. Dolly finishes with a flourish by cantering through the sagebrush and coming to a screeching halt beside me.
We choose to cross this wasteland and seek the nicer footing above the far bank. Dolly gives a little hop and halfhearted trot—sorry, not enough effort. We continue across the wash to the far bluff where there is an abundance of bunch grass. Both Dolly and Annie know this place and immediately tuck in. I find a nice rock halfway up the bluff and sit to enjoy the world around me for a while. Grey clouds punctuate a crystal clear winter sky. To the west are the strato-cumulus, soft and fluffy, but to the east are dark grey lenticulars, sculpted into fantastic shapes by the winds aloft. It is the golden hour where the quality of light is at its best. The sky to the east appears to be a darker shade of blue even though the sun is still above the horizon.
If I had enough talent to write poetry, this is the time and place I would most like to write about. Too often, people mistake the desert for a barren wasteland, but it is not so. Down below me, there is a sandy channel with the tracks of the hundreds of small animals who call this little area home. There are ground squirrels and chipmunks and a whole multitude of rabbits living here along with dozens of lizards, their tails marking their tracks as reptilian in origin. It is too cold for lizards or their shyer cousins the snakes right now, but during the summer, they dash away in all directions as I walk through. There is a large covey of quail that roam this area and will sometimes explode in all directions when I venture too near. Their tracks are all there, telling me stories about the lives they lead.
In addition, there are the larger animals that prey on all of this fare—the coyotes, hawks and eagles that I will occasionally spot as I walk or ride the horse. One of the most amazing things I have seen is a Golden Eagle taking wing from about ten feet away when I startled it away from a rabbit it was eating. And there are the unseen animals—the pocket gophers and packrats and mice who only make their presence known by causing a mess in my haystack or horse trailer. I have even spotted a few foxes over the years, though usually late at night when I was driving home. They live there, all of these animals, because there is plenty of food in the form of bitterbrush, pine nuts, and the seeds of the many grasses and flowers that grow abundantly here if you know where and when to look for them.
Annie stops by for a scratch. She knows I won’t give her a cookie, but she will stop by for a scratch just in case I make the offer. She enjoys the scratch almost as much as the cookie anyway. Dolly is slowly moving up the bluff now, so I climb to the top. She canters the last few strides and earns another cookie. Annie, of course gets hers as well. We decide to head downhill today and make a big loop around to the left that will bring us back home.
Suddenly, a flock of birds rises out of the sagebrush and flows downhill like quicksilver. The sun glints brightly off of their wings and they make a high pitched “chee, chee, chee…” as they fly. Then another flock and another, rising with one fluid motion, then flying nap of the earth, skimming the top of the sagebrush in ever widening circles until it looks like a giant maelstrom of tiny birds. And then they disappear, settling back into the sagebrush as suddenly as they ascended—invisible again to the outside world.
We find another patch of nice grass to graze on for a bit, then I continue to move off to the west. There is too much grass here, though, and Dolly is thinking about ignoring me and moving away into better grazing so I move off in the opposite direction. I find an unexpected ally in Annie who sees her chance to hog a few cookies as she follows me. She almost makes it, but at the last moment, Dolly gallops after me and catches up just before Annie does. They both get two cookies for leaving such good grass to be with me. As I continue to walk down slope, paralleling the wash, Dolly canters off to the right, then circles around to stop right in front of me again—I think she has the idea!
I keep trying to get one or the other of them to pose for a picture with the big lenticular behind them against the bright blue sky, but they don’t cooperate. We finally cross the wash again about a half a mile below where we did earlier and continue south towards home. As we walk, we pass the “sheepherder shacks.” David and I call them that because the sheepherders sometimes camp there, although we don’t know what their original purpose was or who built them. Dolly is always fascinated by the junk that is laying around loose near the shacks. Today, she noses at an old hunk of plywood on the ground as the sun finally slips behind the mountains. Soon, we won’t even have time for this luxury after school. Our walks will range closer to home if we can take them at all. For now it is enough to enjoy the perfect twilight and the companionship of our little herd.