Truth be told, it was the sheep who saved our summer vacation.
My teenage daughters were just barely tolerating the 4,000-mile, out-and-back road trip from Chicago to Yellowstone and Glacier national parks. Their patience was slim. A year and a half home with me and their mom, separated from friends thanks to that nasty virus, had ratcheted their teen angst several notches above healthy.
Wyoming’s majestic Bighorn Mountains could not compete with their smartphones. The rustic room we’d woken in that morning didn’t completely cut it. The vast starry sky the night before, with a lightning show on one side and endless constellations on the other, entertained, but only briefly. Our failure to find a place called Porcupine Falls that morning stirred still more annoyance.
And then, manna came from heaven in the form of sheep. Not just a few sheep but hundreds upon hundreds of them moving across the highway from the plain on the left to the mountainside on the right, completely blocking our path.
My daughters looked up from their phones, suddenly enthralled. They rolled down their windows.
“Baaa-aaaa-aaaa!” the girls bellowed at the sheep.
“Baaa-aaaa-aaaa!” the sheep bleated back.
The girls roared with laughter. Sometimes they did variations: “Maaa-aaaa-aaaa!”
Wave after wave of sheep clopped onto the road and blanketed the green mountainside rising to the right. Their matted wool looked like foam atop ocean waves washing over the road ahead of us. We couldn’t budge. Nor did we want to. The girls gaped and laughed and tried to engage the sheep.
Flock-of-sheep roadblocks I’ve encountered often in Ireland. But Wyoming?
The usual route to Yellowstone is south of Bighorn on U.S. Route 16. But we diverted north on Route 14 and climbed up into the Bighorn Mountains, as though on a mission to encounter these sheep.
The Bible offers many accounts of sheep as parable. The errant child who must be found and returned to the flock. The shepherd leaving 99 sheep in the field to search for the one that is missing. “Rejoice with me for I have found the lost sheep,” Luke quotes Jesus as saying.
The sheep we’d encountered weren’t lost. Neither were my daughters staring at their Iphones instead of admiring the mountains. But in our little parable, we’d taken a byway and found these sheep, and they had served to stir us all awake. They sowed excitement. They added a dash of the new and the unexpected as nothing else had.
“There’s one just standing here looking at us,” my wife said, pointing to a lone sheep standing still as waves of sheep crossed the road toward the mountainside. The lone sheep found our SUV curious and stood perpendicular to the front of the car, just staring. All around us, in front of the car, behind us, on both sides, sheep passed by, bleating.
“We’re surrounded,” my wife said.
“Maaaeh-eeehhh-eehhh….” The girls got more creative in their sheep calls, sounding like a cross between “Baah”-ing, coughing and vomiting. The sheep responded with ever-more-enthusiastic bleats, prompting more laughter.
“Look at the three dogs,” my wife said, pointing to the only shepherds guiding the flock. There were no humans to be seen. The shepherd apparently trusted his or her dogs to move the sheep from one field, across the highway, to another.
“Oh, Hi, Puppy!” My dog-crazed daughters interrupted their bleating to ogle the sheep dogs. “Oh, my goodness, you’re so cute!”
Directly in front of our car a kid suckled its mother in the middle of the road. Then the mother pushed the lamb off and continued to the mountainside.
“The Mom’s like, ‘This is not the place to eat,’” my wife told the girls.
“We love you – you’re so tasty,” I called to the sheep. My wife and daughters, who do not share the enthusiasm my sons and I have for grilled lamb, ignored my comment.
“What if these sheep just started saying random words in English?” my younger daughter pondered. “I mean, we’re speaking Sheep, so, why wouldn’t they just talk back to us?”
The girls resisted the urge to open the car doors and join the flock as it scurried up the mountainside, though I’m sure they fantasized about hugging each of the sheep and the shepherd dogs, journeying to the top of the mountain with them.
We moved very slowly, allowing the straggler sheep room to safely make it across the highway to join the others. Then we resumed our course down the mountain to breakfast in Powell.
Ahead of us lay all the standard joys of touring Yellowstone and Glacier. We would hike up to beautiful mountain lakes surrounded by snow-capped peaks. We would watch a bear and her cub from a safe distance. We would peer into bubbling blue pools smelling of sulfur. We would touch the undersides of glaciers as they melted, the water running into trickles down the mountains that turned into rapids.
My eldest son would come down from Montana to join us, and teach the girls to skip stones across the water. We’d attempt conversations with the girls on our mountain hikes about how to get back to a more normal, post-Covid life as in-person school started up again in the fall.
Our communion with the sheep lasted maybe 10 minutes, but it pulled the wool from our eyes, cleared the roadblocks in our minds, and allowed us to begin enjoying our vacation.♦
This article by Abdon Pallasch on Gothamcanoe.com.