Sunday, January 15, 2012

My office is surrounded by some of the most awe-inspiring scenery on the planet, and yet it is still a government office. As I pop in and out of these worlds of beauty and bureaucracy, I am constantly switching gears from forester to administrator. Occasionally I forget to switch, taking the office geek out on the trail or stuffing the outdoorsperson into a windowless basement office. Working here is always a strange blend of Office Space and Summer Vacation. As your job comes head to head with the unpredictable and incalculable whims of nature and tourism, someday you will find yourself standing nose to nose with a wild creature, gripping a memo in your fist…blinking…and trying to remember what that email said about how to avoid being charged by a bighorn sheep. 

Following my marathon shift in the visitor center today, I needed to hurry into the park before sunset to snap some photos for a new trail sign we are drafting. Certainly, the opportunity to hike a trail is a welcome part of work; I fully recognize how spoiled I am to be paid to hike. However, I had already had a long day on my feet, and was now working extra hours to meet a deadline which has been gnawing at me for weeks. The sun sets early this time of year, so I had just over an hour to drive to the trailhead, climb the trail, snap my photos, and return before darkness sank in. At 4:00 sharp, I pulled down the flag, locked the visitor center doors, grabbed my hat and car keys and headed out. I was delayed momentarily in the parking lot by a group attracted to the all-knowing flat hat, and was half-jogging to the top of the trail, racing the setting sun.

When I came head to horn with a bighorn sheep. 

Right on the trail.

He stared at me, unflinching, knowing that he had the upper hand—or hoof—on the steep slickrock slope. I froze too, listening to the pebbles kicked loose by my footsteps roll down, down, down the hill below me. I had my camera in hand for the project, but I flinched at the strange sound of Velcro tearing through our staring contest. Finally, the ram seemed to decide I was not a threat, and went back to grazing.

Right on the trail.

Now, I love a good animal sighting as much as those crazy wolf-watchers with the ten thousand dollar scopes in Lamar Valley, but at this particular moment, I had a couple of 12-pound horns standing between me, my photos, and the encroaching darkness. I wouldn’t have time to come back the next day, and I had a deadline to meet. The trail was steep enough as it was and I was certainly not keen to imagine how little effort it would take this guy to send me tumbling on my sandy bottom to the sandy bottom.

I cautiously detoured off the trail to the right, choosing a steeper sandstone slope and praying my Vibram soles would stick to the rock. The ram watched me alertly, while I assumed a downcast, less-predatory gaze. Just as I came up level with the sheep, he bounded higher, keeping the upper ledge and continuing to obstruct the trail. Now, guilt was settling in, for I knew I was stressing this animal needlessly, but the deadline pusher in me was crying out. As so often happens in the workplace, a simple task became inexplicably complicated, and my frustration was boiling up—which I’m certain did little to convince this bighorn that I was a harmless observer. I detoured wider.

Eventually, the ram went back to browsing and even settled down on a high ledge to watch the play of light from the setting sun. I scrambled to the top and took my photos, then peered down from the rim to see if the ram had ceded the trail to the awkward bipeds who need more than a pebble-sized divot to perch on solid rock. I scanned the trail and didn’t see him, then dropped my gaze and realized he was staring up at me from directly below. Even as I imagined he was calculating whether he could leap 15 feet vertically to give me a solid head butt, I couldn’t help but appreciate his healthy brown coat, solid horns and shiny eyes. After a few moments, however, I realized I must look an awful lot like a mountain lion, hunched over the rocky ledge with my forward-facing eyes sizing him up. I crept back to give the creature his peace and found a suitable route down the opposite side of the sandstone knob. I made it back to the trailhead while the light was still fading and drove back to my dark basement office to get ready for another day at the office.