you know I'm a romantic at heart, and there is something terribly romantic about sheep and sheepherders. at least in my book.
when I was in 9th grade my sweetheart was a boy named barney murnin. we had been friends ever since I moved to utah and joined his school class, but during 9th grade the feelings turned into that mushy stuff. I spent a lot of my free time with barney, and one summer day he took me horseback riding in the hills behind his home. he lived in snyderville, at the bottom of what was then Park West Ski Resort.
barney saddled up a gentle horse for me, brought a picnic lunch in his bag, and we started up the road and turned into the gently sloping trail up toward the mountain top. in my memory, we rode up red pine canyon, but everyone I have ever mentioned this ride to insists that there's only a white pine canyon. perhaps red pine lives only in this story, but it is a vibrantly real place to me.
we rode up and up, finally coming to an open meadow that spread for an acre or two, where a small, rounded and worn trailer perched in the yellow grass. a blue healer ran circles around us, barking and nipping gently at the air by our boot-shod feet, and a small old man came forward out of his old wood chair to greet us.
barney introduced me to the shepherd who cared for the murnin family flock, and we sat and ate with the wizened and browned man who spent weeks at a time with just his dog and his flock of sheep.
this was one of those defining experiences for me: I believe it was the first time that I realized not everyone lived the kinds of lives my family, neighbors, schoolmates and acquaintances lived. that someone could spend their time following sheep across hillsides and pastures and mountaintops, reading thick novels by lantern light and using their voice only to communicate with four-legged and two-winged creatures.
I treasure this memory, and relive it each time I see a sheepherder moving his flock.
which is what I saw saturday as I flew down the back side of big mountain toward east canyon resort.
I actually had to brake and slow for the ewe and her two lambs who didn't quite know what to make of me, while the long-haired white sheepdog lay at the side of the road, confident in his herd's ability to navigate us cyclists and automobiles. a single black sheep stood on the far side of the road, watching me with solemn dark eyes and a motionless body.
I smiled inside and out, and instantly returned to that meadow where I first met a man who lived such a radically different life from mine.
on the way back up big mountain a few hours later, the shepherd and dogs were nowhere to be seen, but sheep decorated the entire hillside, their bumpy bodies moving slowly uphill, weaving about through the sagebrush and rocks and thistle. their calls to each other floated down the hill and I echoed a baaa or two back up at them while my heart remembered exactly what it was like to be 14.