Hunting for a Legend

“What was your dad like?”
Perhaps it’s the question I most fear and most hope will be asked of my kids when they are old.

Apprehension had already staked a claim as I prepared for this exploit into the unknown. Poring over maps of sheer high mountain desert escarpments suggested this adventure might be more than I’d bargained for.

“Oh, one more thing. Better pack a bunch of water. You won’t find any out in these mountains.” 

The understated words at the end of the call with a New Mexico wildlife biologist upped the ante all the more. 

I suppose the genesis of this hunt was a decade ago for me as I walked into the home of an old hunting legend. Staring me down, eye to eye, was the full-body mount of a strange, regal creature I had never seen before. He explained it was a Barbary sheep ram, but to my novice eyes it looked like it had just bounded out of Narnia into his living room. Full-curl, oversized horns topped its sleek and muscular mountain frame. A curtain of shaggy hair extended from its throat down its forelegs like a lush mink draped on the shoulders of a stylish 1940s woman headed to the theatre. This ram somehow embodied the courage of a guy walking into Fight Club, the mountain prowess of Yvon Chouinard, and the raw toughness of Sir Earnest Shackleton. 

But with horns.

The Barbary sheep is native to the rugged mountains of northern Africa. Some 20th century hunting enthusiasts thought it’d be great to ship a handful of these wild creatures to a high-fenced gentlemen’s hunting preserve in west Texas. It was all great in theory, until a couple of marauding rams went rogue and jumped their enclosures. It turns out the trip from West Texas to the high desert of New Mexico was not only possible, but it led these rams to a habitat hauntingly similar to the arid beauty of their North African mountainous homeland.

To capture one in a pair of binoculars is a feat. But to apprehend one with a bow and arrow would require everything I had and then some. Every year when my “unsuccessful” lottery letter came in the mail from the New Mexico Division of Wildlife, I felt disappointment for sure, but also a wave of relief that I didn’t yet have to face the challenge.

Seven years and three months after first putting in for that annual drawing, I stood on my street holding the hunting tag of a lifetime. It felt like it had been dropped from Tatooine into my suburban mailbox. 

The chase was on. I would need every bit of the next nine months to research and prepare for a new state, new species, and new terrain. Intimidation mixed with some unnamed joy rose from within; I was remembering what makes me come alive.

We are made to plunge into the unknown. We’re made to risk a worthy attempt against all odds. 

We are made for adventure.

As with any public land backcountry hunt, the work began on a computer and a phone and ended with boots on the ground in rugged country formerly unknown to me. Hours poring over terrain maps, biological data, management reports, and a handful of internet videos hand-picked from the vast sea of eye candy and false realities. I followed hunches and every warm lead online to talk with Wildlife officers and biologists across the region, gathering as much data as I could to begin crafting a plan.

Barbary sheep are altogether unique. Like bighorn sheep, they are always alert and work in a herd, often bedding in opposing directions on nearly impossible cliff faces and drainages with swirling thermals so they can detect danger through scent and sight from every possible direction. Yet they also have the speed of an antelope, able to move quickly through multiple drainages and over extensive distances. As one mentor said, if you are fortunate enough to find Barbary sheep today, they are very unlikely to be in that place—or anywhere near it—tomorrow.

The moment finally arrived to put boots on the ground. A 10-hour drive landed me in mountains unlike any I’d seen, resonant with the rugged cliffs and canyons of Colorado’s western slope but distinct as an arid wonder. After the first mile of ascent, I was entombed by stretches of towering cane cholla cactus. Stretching over my head and adorned with stunning yellow blooms, these cacti felt like the creation of a renowned artist who had thrown caution to the wind and lavished his vocation upon these lonely desert mountains, if only for an audience of one.

True to mountain deserts and courtesy of relentless trade winds, the high mountain deserts of New Mexico are a land of extremes, with only two temperatures: very hot and very cold. In six days of scouting through solo ascents and descents of the Sacramento Escarpments, not once did I put eyes on a single Barbary ram. Everything biologists, wildlife officers, and the internet had said about Barbary sheep and their ruthless habitat was true.

Except this:

I found water. Lots and lots of it. In places I didn’t expect.

It wasn’t until about the fourth day that my body and mind slowed to the speed of soul, calibrating me to the rhythm of my surroundings. Only then did I become aware that I was moving, climbing, sleeping, and adventuring among reservoirs of water. Though they were inaccessible to me, to say they were not there was simply not true.

The water was hidden in the plants, and the plants were in vast abundance. 

Over hundreds of thousands of years, these desert plants have learned how to store water in abundance, resolving to store it when it comes in the form of flash floods and occasional storms and to protect it for steady use until the next provision. I guess the old prophet was right.

For waters shall burst forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert. The parched ground shall become a pool, and thirsty land springs of water. 
(Isaiah 35:6-7, NKJV)

What was gained through creativity was protected with ferocity. Every species’ sacred reserves in that desert were well-defended; I have never seen spines as foreboding as on those water-storing plants. To concede water would be to concede life. 

On day five I could no longer resist cutting into one of these desert micro-fortresses. I chose a prickly pear. (Even trying to be careful, I managed to lodge about 10 cactus thorns in my left hand, and they remained for the duration of the hunt.)

What I found was water in abundance. Water fully saturating the interior of this plant. 

Water: life-sustaining and non-negotiable. 

How can I allow these mountain plants to mentor me along my own path of becoming? I can take to heart that in order to thrive in their environment, they had to get creative. They had to adapt and create a way to survive. Survive they did, and more than that. Over time, through the harshest of conditions, the resident species have found ways to thrive. 

The irony of the harshness of our current moment is that it appears to be a culture only of excess. Do not be deceived. Things are not what they appear. Ours is also an environment hostile to the life of the soul. As Richard Swenson suggests, we must hold in tension the reality that today things are both far better and far worse than they have ever been in human history. What we have gained in the extraordinary advancements in modern medicine, for example, we have paid for dearly in the terrific rate of change. The soul was meant for beauty, yet we are bombarded by artifice. It was made for rhythm, yet we find ourselves in a culture that is always up, always on, void of natural daily, weekly, and yearly rhythms of engagement and rest. We were made to recover and refuel in stillness and silence, yet these two realities are being aggressively driven toward extinction in our age. We were made for “less but better” and instead it’s more and more and more. Our attention and affection is the last great frontier. And it is being sought after ruthlessly every day of our lives, by vast and complex competing forces.

In a land of excess we find ourselves in a soul’s desert.

We are desperate for water. Living water. Sustaining water. We just don’t know where to find it and how to make it last.

What if there is a way to find such water and hold onto it, right here, right now?  What if we get honest about the challenges of our environment and prioritize the adaptations we must make in order to collect and protect our sacred fuel?

It was John Muir who keenly observed over decades of vagabond life in the high Sierra Wilderness that “everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”

Leaving my six-day scouting trip, it was not the sight of Barbary sheep but the wisdom and instruction of the cactus that was reforming me.

I was grateful to know I would return at least once more to this sharp, evocative landscape. Not to scout, but to hunt.

A month later, I was fully immersed in a week of ascending and descending, listening, pausing, waiting, and searching in the mountains of New Mexico, After two scouting trips and four days of pursuit, I finally managed to come life-on-life with one of these regal giants. After an hour of chase, five gorgeous rams had me pinned at 94 yards on a rocky cliffside with no way to close the distance. 

That moment was as close as I ever got in a week of relentless pursuit.

The gift of the hunt was a revelation that the desert is, in fact, brimming with water. But it must be seen and sought with the eyes of the heart. It must be fought for and protected as if our very lives depend upon it.

As it is with life in the desert, so it can be with us. No matter the perils and wonder, opportunities and tragedy of our time, God is with us. There is a way to discover and cling to streams of living water. To create reservoirs within. To become one who is saturated in the midst of desert. Perhaps it will take acknowledging how rare it is in our climate of excess to take seriously and soberly the task of both preserving and protecting the life of God that is meant to be our source of life.

We must discern the times. You are worth it. Revelation and sustenance await. 

There is abundant water in the desert. 

And it is available to those who choose to see with the eyes of their heart.

What will you choose to see, and what will you choose to do about it?

Keep hunting. 

For the Kingdom,