I and Thou and the Ram
I lay dozing against a massive Wolfsberry, head propped up against my bedroll contemplating my day. I had just completed a loop and I had overdone — from Boulder Cyn up Terrapin, down to Bluff Springs back to the Dutchman and finally to LaBarge and now Charlebois — no lunch or water until nearly too late. I had finally stopped, bewitched really by a hackberry thicket that had beaten back Father Time. A scrub oak arch insisted on my attention growing out of two trunks 10 feet apart. Nature’s sculpture was perfect to me and finally I made time for that lunch and to re-hydrate as well.
It was too late, though. Despite a 60 degree temperature and a clear, blue sky day, a chill took hold that wouldn’t let up. My hands grew cold, tight and numb as though I was in snow country without gloves. That’s how important carbohydrates are to the body when subjected to continuous physical exertion. So I chowed down fast, then threw my pack up and over before tramping the last mile here to Charlebois; the only remedy for my low body temperature. Now after a beer, and with the power plant purring from my earlier lunch, I was at last warm and comfortable. Comfortable enough to slip into a drousy siesta; well-earned after a long hike into the wild. I was at Charlebois Spring and it was mid-afternoon.
The sky was perfect blue and framed the craggy profile of LaBarge Mountain and Charlebois Cyn directly in front of me to the north. I wasn’t looking as much as feeling the day and the beauty of this wilderness, not so many miles from civilization, yet it was not the distance that was so far. I had seen no one today. Not unusual, but perfect for me in this moment. Alone. I dozed and absorbed the quiet, the stillness, the smell of the day. Gusts of breeze lingered from the night before. Now the same intermittent winds swept through in an irregular staccato schedule, leaving silence and stillness in their wake as I napped. Slowly I became aware of ever more adventurous winged visitors. Two cardinals, a brilliant red male and his less brilliant grayish red partner, were scavenging my site. They were testing me, my scores depending on my skills at maintaining a non-threatening demeanor, simple enough it seemed. Yet the birds would be the judge, me flat on my back, one eye occasionally squinting open for a closer look. Think Olympics without the Russian judges.
Then the usual impulse, a nod to my humanity, more likely my socialization, hit me to catch a picture of these birds in action. I had no history of photographing birds despite several years of outdoor photography. They simply move too fast, are too nervous, certainly too fleeting for my more deliberate manor and my lack of patience; skills was probably the salient quality I was missing? Today though, right now, I was none of that. I slowly reached for my camera. The cardinals moved away, discreetly adjusting their range, but still tolerant of my careful movements to secure my camera. Having no telephoto lens I had to let them recover their trust; and soon enough they began to move in closer. Cardinals fly in short bursts, distinctive with the almost warbling sound the air makes as their feathers work; like a bundle of feathers, indeed it is no surprise? I got numerous shots, some good enough. At the same time I caught a few shots of a Phainopepla, well-named for its diminutive chirp. She was much shyer, but I got some shots of her as well. The next day I would see her or a cousin drafting on the wind over Blacktop Mesa. They are such playful creatures in the wild wind.
As I was beginning to take the cardinals’ confidence for granted, a flash of movement caught my eye across the canyon, maybe 50 yards away. I was stunned. A beautiful desert bighorn sheep was gliding across the steep south-facing slope, from left to right across their stage on the LaBarge Mountain directly in front of me. I was dead center, VIP seating, beholding Him, a perfectly formed young ram. He quickly, gracefully, and effortlessly picked his way across the slope and up the rocky point looking into and over Charlebois Cyn. He stood there for a long time displaying his perfect body, his arching spiral rack of horns, for me. Adonis, I called him. I took pictures knowing my lens was inadequate to capture his image well enough to share. I would be the only one beholding the perfectness of this being today, this creature embodying life and strength and beauty deep in the Superstition Wilderness in a cavity of Charlebois Canyon as it cleaves LaBarge Mountain.
He finally tired of his perch on the ledge and began to meander across the ridge to the west connecting the ledge with the rest of LaBarge Mountain. He took his time. He seemed to be speaking to me. He certainly appeared to be showing himself off to me. While he made no motion to indicate that he was aware of me, I knew he must be. I maintained as perfect a calm as I could; I wanted nothing to disturb the moment, to give him a reason to leave. He remained in my view, in front of me on the mountain for perhaps 45 minutes, gradually picking his way across the entire ridge, before he loped over the last promontory and disappeared into a side canyon further up Charlebois. I prayed thanks, this time aloud. I had heard no reports of desert bighorns in the interior of the Superstitions. Usually I had seen them nearer the Salt River Canyon, or certainly in the Grand Canyon. How lucky I was to see one here.
I considered his demeanor and behavior the rest of the afternoon, and the next day on my hike out. Why had he been so forthright with me; it was almost arrogance that pervaded his display? This was my perception at first, until I came to consider that he had simply been in his moment. He had calmly surveyed his wilderness surrendering himself completely; not thinking or reflecting on his place in it. Rather he had simply absorbed this wilderness and it absorbed him. He was the wild; there was nothing else. In his way he had prayed, without words, without thought, with simple life-sustaining breaths he had been one with the wilderness. I gave thanks he allowed me into the trust of His wilderness.
The next day I called my Father as is my custom on many a weekend. He was not home. He was in the hospital. They suspected he had a stroke the day before. Mom was holding up ok. The tests revealed nothing so it seemed he would be ok? I prayed. I remembered the ram. I considered how much Dad had liked to hike, how he loved the mountains. Might there be a connection between the ram and my father? After all, his medical emergency had occurred the same time I was under the spell of the ram. The unexplained we too easily dismiss. The image of the ram stayed with me. Dad recovered.
I walked through the next week and then life, still recalling the ram. I read Buber’s “I and Thou” by chance shortly after this experience. It is a difficult read and I struggle to grasp his spiritual message. Yet I think I glimpse his meaning as he distinguishes some relationships being with an “It”, some thing, someone that can be defined, described and observed; the relationship we have with the material, the It, which may even be a person. I could not understand this meaning when I first read his idea.
The ram helped me understand the other connection we can have, the I and Thou. I believe. He returns to my thoughts and I hear nothing, I see his nature, the feeling we shared in perfect, trusting silence. It is not often you are allowed to witness the oneness of a relationship with the divine. Perhaps it is because we are too often unready for the experience. Our eyes are dark and our ears are plugged with the distraction of It?
When Father returned my call he had just come home from the hospital. The tests were negative. He was fine. Perhaps his blood pressure medication had been out of balance. They would do follow-ups. We talked for a while about nothing really, nothing that I remember. I told him about the ram. He shared a similar story from his time in the Black Hills. We talked in silence until it was time to go.