I spotted the telltale signs as I slowly pedaled my mountain bike on the dirt road: dark marble-size blobs, scattered everywhere, glistening. Small footprints, hundreds of them on top of each other, everywhere like the blobs. Recent trails cutting into the sparse vegetation, beating traces of cryptobiotic soil into dust.
They’d been there recently, judging by the freshness of the blobs. I hoped as I rode my bicycle that I’d encounter them. Neighbors had reported they were in the area, and it was the right time of year for their annual appearance.
Ten minutes later I rounded a curve and there they were, mounds and mounds of greyish sheep butts and poufy heads, baaing and bleating and trodding and trampling.
I smiled. The sheepherder was with them and he saw me pedaling, coming upon the herd quickly.
“Hola! Buenas dias!” I called.
“Buenas dias,” he said smiling. A small sheep dog ran toward me, then a couple big dogs saw me and barked. I dismounted and began walking with the herder, peppering him with questions. He seemed grateful for the diversion, even as he remained conscious of the sheep’s movements.
My basic Spanish came slowly. I’ve studied several languages, and all have left phrases and words embedded in my brain, waiting to erupt at the most inappropriate times. Tamil words intruded first, since that’s the most recent language I’ve spoken while traveling, then Indonesian words crept in and curiously, a Navajo word or two. My communication skills were a mess.
He was very patient while I spouted my language mixture. His name was Elmer, he was 32 years old and he was from Peru. The flock had 970 sheep. There were four dogs. He told me the names of all of them, but I remember only Lucy, the small sheep dog, because she demanded we throw sticks for her to fetch. The two Great Pyrenees, white monsters both, were good at barking and checking me out. The other large furry dog just seemed scary.
Elmer said he liked the work, even though he was far from home.
I wondered what Elmer thought about me, with my wide-tire mountain bike and cycling clothes and helmet, asking him too many questions. When I tried to ask things like, “Who owns these sheep?” and “What will happen to them?” he pulled out his Google translator on his phone. It helped for a little while, until he had to go tend the sheep.
He told me I could take photographs so I did. Those sheep went everywhere, searching for anything green to uproot. Anything except cheat grass and tumbleweed. Always moving. Elmer carried a rope that he swung around and he walked behind the flock while the dogs ran the edges while keeping an eye on their charges.
Elmer told me he needed to take the sheep for water and pointed to the east. I thanked him and shook his hand and asked him how long the sheep would be around. “Cinco dias mas,” he said. I was happy, because then I’d have another crack at speaking with him.
I found the flock the following day, but a different herder was with them and he didn’t seem too interested in speaking with me. I threw a stick for Lucy the sheepdog and she showed her gratitude by jumping on me and demanding pets. The two Great Pyrenees ran at me barking for a heart-stopping moment. And I herded some sheep off the road while riding my bicycle which was kind of fun.
Near a very loud well compressor, a makeshift camper-type thing on four wheels was set up with a camp chair outside. A 1,000-gallon tank and troughs provided water for the flock.
I tried to imagine what kind of life this was, leaving your country in South America to tend sheep in the windy spring weather in New Mexico. Sleeping in the camper, watching the crows, hearing the coyotes at night and hoping the big dogs were doing their job to protect the sheep. And waving at the locals who walk their dogs or who bicycle nearby occasionally, sometimes even talking with them and patiently responding to their mixed-up kind of Spanish and sharing a bit about life as a sheep herder.