At the moment, the desert ram was facing away from me, keeping eye on a small band of ewes further up the draw. With the rut in full swing his attentiveness was clouded by his desire to breed. I lay prone many hundreds of yards down the slope with my rifle’s fore-end nestled in a fanny pack, riveted on the moment at hand. It is the 19th day of the hunt and the last day of the sheep season in my unit.
The familiar pounding of my heart reminds me again why I have been a hunter all my life and why I will leave this world a hunter. This internal compass, this desire, this ingrained primordial thread, is as much of what makes me who and what I am as the biomechanics of my physical being. I came out of the womb with a passion for the wild and the pursuit of wild things. Like any other predator, if it runs I will chase it.
Men have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for the privilege to hunt desert sheep, but I’m a craftsman, not a millionaire. Each year I filled out the application and waited impatiently for the inevitable disappointment of not being drawn in one of the nation’s toughest lotteries. I had applied for that desert sheep permit for 17 years before drawing this coveted tag. The unit I was in is not known for desert rams that carry extraordinary headgear. This was never a factor when I filled out the applications; it was the area itself that held the attraction. Located on the northwestern side of Lake Powell, this area allowed more terrain than I could ever possibly cover in the allotted amount of time for the hunt. With only one other permit holder in the unit, I had this desert paradise virtually to myself. The environment in itself is a living museum, allowing an open door to the past if you’re patient and observant.
My search began in earnest at the end of September. The first eight days of the hunt were hot, water was scarce and the terrain demanding. In these solo days afield I only shared company with ravens, wrens and a single roving tarantula. I was neither lonely nor dejected having seen not a single mammal so far. The weather was good, the sign was faint; but I was hunting, and that was all that mattered.
I carried what water I could and then drank from rain-filled depressions in the ground when I could find them. The sun baked my skin, and fine red sand found its way into every pore. Camp was made wherever I found myself when the sun set. The luxury of such a journey is the solitude which allows one to recall many aspects of life; the hours behind my optics were spent in quiet contemplation. At one point, I mused over the route that led me into this valley.
As a child growing up in Virginia I walked into the woods at a very early age and was always in search of something. I was fortunate to be surrounded by elders who were enthusiastic hunters, each helping mentor “the kid” in his own way. It was this early exposure to cold mornings, the sight of flying flags and the fine guns, that forged the steel that was to become my future. One member in our camp had two custom rifles: a Sedgley and a Griffin & Howe. The walnut and blue steel of these hand-made arms held my attention every waking hour that we weren’t in the trees. Books written by Koller and Corbett became my Bibles and, at the age of 12, I made the decision to become a rifle maker, to travel west and to hunt beyond the borders I then called home—from the mountains of Augusta County, Va., to the aspen flats of Colorado, and then the world.
Having come from a family that called a handyman for everything, gunsmithing school was a challenge. I entered my new vocation with a handicap, but I paid attention, listened intently and, with time, became familiar with the tools. Within a few years, I moved to the western slope of Colorado and began to guide for deer, elk and black bears. I quickly realized by guiding that I could personally hunt a much longer season—being paid for the effort was almost too good to imagine. In years that followed I began to assess what rifles worked, find fault in those that didn’t and explore how any design in hunting equipment might be improved.
With every client and hunt I gained a deeper insight into myself, my relationship with the game I hunted and a deeper understanding of how to produce a better rifle. The rifle is the hunter’s tool and I wanted to produce the finest and most functional one that my skills would allow. This time in the bush, in the real world, has always been just as important as any time spent working at the vise in my shop.
I’ve been on the other side as well—having been the paying client on a number of guided hunts. I’ve been the dude, the newbie, the guy with the funny hat, and I can assure you that looking at the grass from the other side of the fence is always worth the price of admission. My relationship with the game that I have killed has not always been pure as driven snow—I can remember bullets and arrows that I would gladly call back if I could. Not every death is clean and surgical despite the best intent. We learn, we grow. Humility and sorrow often walk hand in hand with regret.
We are back in the desert now, where this story began. On the second half of my sheep hunt I am joined by a friend who knows this habitat better than anyone I’ve ever met. We have shared each other’s company for many decades, and I am always left in awe of his knowledge of the desert. Within hours, we find the ram that I will eventually kill, but it will not happen on this trip. We bail into a canyon and begin a game of cat and mouse in the Wingate rubble—hide-and-seek on a scale that only a few will ever appreciate. Eventually we run out of cover, back out, bivouac behind a monolith and fade into sleep as the galaxy keeps watch.
This country is rich in artifacts, silent traces of history from the earliest of Americans, and we can’t help but keep our eyes on the lookout for evidence of these hunters of the past. We come upon a lone pictograph: late archaic, maybe Basketmaker, and try to interpret its meaning briefly before documenting it for later discussion. Midden sites—collections of ancient bones and artifacts—catch our attention, and for a short time every sheep in Utah is forgotten. It is the ancestors of these sheep we now hunt that both enchanted and fed these hunters from long ago. Bighorn images dominate the walls on early pictographs, depicting single animals and herds being hunted by men that developed the skills to kill them with remarkable efficiency over time. I realize that I am but one in a line of sheep hunters that have roamed this desert since before the time of Christ.
Like the dwellings of the Anasazi, the overhanging alcoves in these canyons offered shade for bighorns in the hottest of months. On a sheep trail at a cliff base, Vaughn finds an atlatl dart lying in the dust. It is made from local red chert, is simple in design and would have been effective in the hands of a skilled hunter. We pass the dart back and forth, snap a few pictures, and then return it to its original resting place in the trail before moving on.
From hand-thrown stones to spears and then bows, the art and skill of making tools for hunting made slow but forward progress in these canyons. The ability to reason, experiment and refine toolmaking has propelled man from a scavenger to an apex predator. As we traversed another slope I think about the tool maker that chose the atlatl over the conventional bow. It is easy to assume that when he saw the extended range he made the decision to adapt and refine this new technology. This ancient maker must have also considered the design of the projectile, the dart itself. Years were spent pressing bone into stone, learning which chert offered you the best flakes, incremental advances in technology that took place over generations. This evolution of the craft over time must have given a few dart makers an edge in flight dynamics, penetration and accuracy.
We stop for lunch in the shade of the Wingate and I look at the rifle I have made—from black powder to centerfire, from lever action to bolt, ever extending the range and the accuracy for precision bullet placement at distance, design and function perfected over the centuries. Like the dart maker, I’ve built the best tool that I can. From my vantage point I can look in any direction and imagine a stalk or drive in progress, from a culture of hunters long departed and almost forgotten with the exception of vacant dwellings, pictographs and artifacts hidden by shifting sand and time.
It is now the last day of the season. In the early morning twilight, we find the sheep on a bench across a major canyon. The three of us discuss the route in hope that we can close the distance. Water bottles are filled, lunches packed, boot laces are tightened and we slip down a ravine. Vaughn’s specialty is linear travel from A to B as quickly and quietly as possible without detection—I gave him the reins. My job is to follow, and Brian and I fall into line. We keep out of sight by using the contours of the canyon, and by early afternoon we are within a third of a mile of the band of sheep. We are also out of cover. We discuss a different route to close the gap, but it’s evident these sheep have chosen this section of the wash wisely. There is no easy approach. More time is spent optically picking apart the terrain. It’s hard enough to conceal one hunter in this terrain, much less three, so it’s now up to me to find a way to get in range.
I spend the next hour running into dead ends that would leave me fully exposed or send me off cliff faces that drop 30 to 100 feet. Finally, I decide to go for broke and belly crawl for at least 125 to 150 yards on sandstone as flat and exposed as any city sidewalk. If I can somehow find a route that puts me under the feeding sheep, I’ll be out of sight. Desperate, I begin to pull up the only vegetation available. It is not much but should help break up my outline; I have zero to lose. Vegetation goes into shirt sleeves, into the back of my pants, over my hat and sticks out of my shirt. The rifle goes across my back and I begin the crawl—for the next 30 minutes I never look up.
I inch along the sandstone, pushing with my toes and clawing with my fingers. Sweat trickles down my face, movement is kept to a minimum. Time and stealth are now my allies; darkness is hours away. I find myself at the edge of a drop off. I continue forward crowding the edge and ease over a fault in the sandstone. Seeing soft ground 10 feet below me, I ease forward and drop to the fault below. I cannot see where the herd had been feeding, which means they cannot see me. I need to make up some time—I ditch the foliage and hustle up the drainage. There is a huge car-sized boulder in front of me that I use as cover as I scramble up a field of debris.
I am now covering ground as fast as possible until I reach the boulder. I crawl to its base, gather my wits and belly crawl to its right side, glassing every inch of ground that comes into view. Soon I spot the ram, his brilliant white rump patch facing toward me, feeding uphill with the ewes uphill to his left. I pull off my fanny pack, push it into a mound of sand and lay the rifle onto the pack.
The ram feeds uphill and away from me with every step. Distance is going to be an issue now, in addition to the terrain. At any moment he could drop into a fold or gully and disappear forever. To say that I have waited my entire life for this moment is not an exaggeration. The range is just under my self-imposed limit for distance; it is truly now or never. There is no wind as I wrap into the sling and center the ram in the field of view. He steps onto a rock the size of a kitchen table and turns to the left now completely broadside looking uphill at the ewes.
Decades of range and field shooting come down to this shot. I place the duplex reticle what looks to be 4 inches above his back at the shoulder, exhale and press the trigger. I lose sight of him in recoil and never hear the bullet strike with the report. I send a spent case somewhere into space and reacquire the rock he’d been standing on. Nothing moves above me.
I sweep the scope towards the ewes and see them looking down the hill, alert but still. My attention returns to the rock. I begin to tremble though I am not cold. I finally gather up my kit and walk around the rock, now in full view of the ewes. Panic sets in and they bolt out of sight, but the ram doesn’t follow. Halfway there, I turn around to see both Vaughn and Brian far below rapidly picking their way uphill. Just as I swivel back around to continue, I spot the broken base of an atlatl dart at my feet. I turn it over with the toe of my boot, and I pause just long enough to contemplate its own sheep story. I continue up the slope with a smile.
Within minutes I am at the base of the rock. The ram is lying on the opposite side. I sit down a few feet away and pay my respects in silence. It is always a heady moment with a mix of emotions that I have long given up trying to define or defend. I clear the rifle, lay it on my kit and take the time to examine the ram closely, running my hands over his body, over the coarse battered horns that show years of battle. Once again, I smell the unmistakable scent of wild sheep.
Vaughn and Brian arrive, both smile, extend a hand and kneel down around the ram. We discuss the stalk, the shot, the essence of the why we’re all here. The walls of the Wingate stone tower around us. Cameras finally appear, and for a while we record the event for others in this clan of hunters to share later. It is close to 4 p.m. as the sun slips behind the lip of the cliff face and the air begins to cool. We begin to cape and quarter the ram, a ritual done over and over again by hunters that lived in this landscape long before our time, dividing the meat, cape, hooves and horns between us. In another hour our packs are weighted and cinched. I look around one last time in reverence and try to commit every last bit to memory. With a nod from Vaughn, we fall into line and begin the hike towards the trucks as the daylight begins to dim.
It was quite an adventure, one that started long before the permit was drawn. Maybe this journey began in my youth, leaned against a summer poplar with my nose buried in a chapter by O’Connor, with him hunting the rams of the Sonoran Desert. Maybe it started long before then, when I took my first breaths. I was born a hunter. And I, like the toolmakers that hunted this desert before me, will die one.
Today, the croak of a raven anywhere reminds me of these days spent in red sand and cliff face, in harmony with the hush of silence and the caress of a desert breeze on my face.