Saturday, April 16th, I had the opportunity to experience a piece of history. For over 100 years, bands of 2,000 sheep have walked the Heber-Reno Sheep Trail here in Arizona. The Dobson Sheep are the last two bands that make this 220 mile journey each year. Someday, perhaps in the not so distant future, this trail will see it's last herd and then this piece of Arizona's heritage will change forever. I could not pass up my chance to see a real sheep drive.
The sun was just coming over the mountains when I, along with my husband and two sons, arrived at the corner of Signal Butte and Brown roads in Mesa, Arizona. It was six in the morning and I was surprised to see that quite a few cars already lined the street corner. I knew that members from my spinning and weaving guild would be there, but I didn't expect so many others. It made me smile to see such a large group coming together to see the sheep.
We didn't know exactly when to expect the sheep. Our gathering continued to grow as the minutes ticked by. We milled about and gazed southward, impatient to see our woolly friends. Finally, off in the distance, we could make out the flashing lights of the police cars that were clearing the path ahead of the flock. Then, slowly at first, the band of sheep came into view. As they rounded the corner, with a sea of dust in their wake, we could begin to see just how many there were.
Before we knew it, they were upon us. The crowd cheered and the cameras went crazy as Felipe, the foreman, lead the sheep north. I was surprised by how quickly they moved. I knew it would not take long for them to pass. I alternated between trying to capture the moment with my camera and attempting to take everything in with all of my senses.
The motion of so many sheep trotting at once, the sound of their baaing and the smell of their general sheepiness was all around me. My kids, who a few moments earlier were getting tired of waiting, were now animated and calling things out to me. "Look at the black one! Did you get a picture of it?" The air seemed full of energy. It was exhilarating!
I don't know how long it took for the band to pass. It was just a few minutes and it went by so fast. I found myself wishing there were even more sheep so that the moment could last just a little longer. Some members of the crowd chased after the herd in the hopes of getting just one more picture or one more look, but the sheep disappeared into that cloud of dust made by so many hooves. Though we squinted and craned, we found ourselves just a group of people again.
It took me a few seconds to regain my focus. There were my kids, my husband, my friends. There were the smiles of the kindred folk with whom I had just shared this experience. There were the roads, Signal Butte and Brown, now filling with cars, car noises and car smells. If it were not for the adrenalin I still felt, it might have seemed unreal. I giggled as I walked to the car. What a wonderful way to start the day!
As for the sheep, they will continue north. Over the next 45 days they will travel into Usery Mountain Park, through Bulldog Canyon to the Salt River. From there they will cross the Blue Point Bridge and on towards Sugarloaf Mountain. They'll travel over Reno Pass and cross Tonto Creek heading on to the Sierra Anchas Mountains. They will proceed through Pleasant Valley and climb to the top of the Mogollon Rim and finally on to the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.
They will spend about six weeks in the cool mountains before they return home in October. This is all to avoid the soaring summer temperatures of southern Arizona, but the mild fall and winter will be the perfect climate for mother ewes to graze and to give birth to their young.
You can learn more about the story of the historic Heber-Reno Sheep Trail by reading Emily Walks the Sheep Trail by Cindy Shanks. In her book, Cindy gives a charming and educational account of this journey from the point of view of Emily, a young lamb. Emily will tell you all about life on the farm and her first trip up and down the trail.