Hiking in the Rocky Mountains always fills me with inspiration and a keen sense of being truly "alive." During moments in the wilderness, I feel at one with nature and absorb the colors and light of the landscape. I thrill to observe the extraordinary wildlife I encounter.
After several hours of hiking through the backcountry, I spotted a distant herd of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. I slowly walked closer to the group, not wanting to spook them. I decided this high country clearing overlooking steep mountain cliffs would be an excellent spot for sketching. The weather was perfect, the peace and beauty of the area mesmerizing.
Time seemed to stand still. I was lost in the beauty of the moment. I realized the bighorn sheep had drifted much closer to me and were peacefully grazing. I remained seated, not wanting to startle them. Soon I was encircled by the grazing bighorn sheep, surrounded by the entire herd.
As if the bighorn sheep had accepted me as "part of the herd," they begin to graze closer and closer to me. Eventually, many of the animals started to lie down, rest and chew their cud.
One young ram laid down so close to me that I could have reached out and touched him. When the ram began to doze, I was amazed at the trust and acceptance the bighorn sheep seemed to have in me. One curious youngster walked up to me and sniffed me. His mother scolded him, nudging him away from me.
Hours passed, and I was absorbed in the thrill of this incredible experience.
Suddenly, the entire herd lept to their feet on full alert, looking around and sniffing the air! I could neither hear nor see anything unusual. At that moment, the whole herd raced over the edge of a cliff, nimbly transversing rocks and almost vertical slopes, disappearing in a flurry of dust. Startled at how swiftly the bighorn sheep moved from peaceful tranquility to racing at top speed over and down the cliff face, I went to the cliff's edge to look around.
The sheep had vanished, and I saw nothing, and I heard nothing. (Witnessing this almost vertical descent is the inspiration for the painting "Rocky Mountain Descent.”)
Immediately I realized it was late in the day, and I was miles into the backcountry. What had startled the bighorn sheep? Should I be concerned? Mountain lions are the main predator of bighorn sheep.
I secured my sketch pad and camera gear in my pack, making a quick survey of its contents. I had extra protein bars, water, an emergency blanket, a compass….and no flashlight or headlamp!
I decided on the shortest, fastest way back to my truck. I looked at the bighorn sheep route, but there was no way I could navigate that almost vertical descent.
I would have to run for it; nightfall is approaching. I would jog on the flatter, less rocky places and walk as quickly as possible in the other areas. Moving decisively, I descend the mountain, navigating my way through the trees.
Suddenly, I had a sixth sense that something was watching me. The forest was silent. Instinct told me that I should not run. Was I being stalked? I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck prickle. I continued to move confidently, careful not to show any signs of fear or concern. Eventually, I didn't feel as if I was being watched or stalked. I finally made it back to my truck shortly after dark.
To this day, I wonder if something, perhaps a mountain lion, startled the herd and watched me for a while.
I will never know the answer to this mysterious end of a perfect day in the mountains.