It’s like the ocean out here. You look down for 2 seconds, turn around, look up, and the ground beneath your feet has shifted. Things just disappear in the brush — a new knife, music speaker, nails, pliers. Gone. Sacrificed to the sand, the rocks, the piñon and juniper and cholla. Buried in a time capsule perhaps never again to be opened. Careful. It will swallow you too.
The magnitude of this place overwhelms and uplifts me. The wind whips and it whispers, calling out to you alone on the valley floor. If you listen briefly you might hear a car, the deep hum of a bike. Turn your ears. It’s only the breeze.
50 years ago the hills were bare, an old timer said. Now the cedars have moved in, made camp, put down roots. Giant bushes, with thick, tall stems. From a distance the inclines look forested — a lush expanse high in the desert. Cow skulls and elk sheds scattered amongst the chamisa and prickly pear note the cyclical complexity to which we are so inextricably linked. The sandy soil sinks and slips beneath your feet, but the trees hold on.
Painted in the earth are webs of trails, etched by the cattle here. Cows are massive animals, but they walk with their feet almost touching, leaving paths no wider than a foot. These paths are articulated trails, not just smatterings of footprints in the dust because cows travel in single-file lines to and fro throughout the pasture. Hundreds of acres to spread out across, yet they move one behind the other, fluid, like water molecules, bonded together.
I was lost one day in the middle of a canyon, surrounded by juniper — a maze of mirrors in a haunted house. To my left and my right were hills too steep and rocky to scale conveniently on a bike, and behind me — a fence with no gate. Ahead of me — a trail.
If it’s good enough for the cows, it’s good enough for me, I thought. Yet it wasn’t good merely for the cows. It was good because of them. A cow’s ability to orient herself in a sea of endless sameness continues to amaze me. How many times have we moved mother cows, only to watch them swim continuously against the tide of the shifting herd to return to the exact place she left her calf? The cattle trail I rode that day led me to water, to the road I’ve traveled a hundred times. It took me home.
Everything in life is a lesson if you want it to be. Cattle trails are not necessarily aimless ruminant wanderings, but rather the materialization of purpose and intentionality (and much appreciated directional soundness). If you ever find yourself off-course on a ranch in the high desert, trust the wisdom of the cows. It just might be the helping hand you so desperately need.
By Connor, a 2021 intern at the MP Ranch.