It was a wildlife encounter I can only describe as profound.
I’ve photographed desert bighorn sheep many times over 50-plus years, but this adventure was one I will never forget.
The summer heat was withering as I stepped from my vehicle in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Not only were temperatures well into the triple digits, but it was slightly after noon so there was no mercy from the pounding midday sun.
I came with high hopes of finding bighorn sheep in one of the desert canyons that has perennial water. These isolated sources of water are a thin lifeline for the animals who live in this arid place.
The air temperature alone was bad enough, but I could feel even more heat radiating off the light-colored desert sand as I followed the dusty trail.
Movement caught my eye. A jackrabbit? They are not typically active in midday summer heat.
I stopped on the trail and suddenly a massive desert bighorn ram pushed through a thicket of indigo bush and we stood face to face not more than 20 feet apart.
Encountering an animal this large and powerful in their environment might be a little concerning, but as we looked at one another I felt no sense of threat.
I knew this was a special animal.
His horns were thick, solid and fully curled from the top of his forehead back around to his eyes. The curling horns were broomed from wear at the tips, weathered and chipped from successful battles of dominance, and his fur showed scars earned from a long life in a harsh place.
Perhaps 8 or 9 years old, an elder by bighorn sheep standards, he had no doubt seen and survived everything from the challenges of other rams, perhaps mountain lion attacks and simply navigating the rugged, vertical landscape where everything claws, sticks, pokes or scratches.
As he stood staring at me, I didn’t see fear, aggression, curiosity or even wary caution. This was his domain and he was the undisputed master. I saw mutual respect and wisdom in his large, gold eyes.
For the longest time we just stood and watched one another. This was an animal who had a story to tell. I could see wisdom in his eyes.
There is instinct and there is wisdom. Instinct is for early survival, while wisdom is earned from surviving our imperfect instincts.
There is power and strength in youth, often tested and displayed simply because the youthful can. This patriarch was obviously powerful and strong, but there was no hint he would use it unless needed. He had no need to prove anything.
So many lessons were exchanged as we watched one another. Two old warriors of life, showing our age but also our respect for what each has endured to arrive at this moment and place in time.
For a time, it was like old friends sitting silently together and reflecting on lives that have seen things, done things, won, lost, lived and survived. There was the acceptance, calm, compassion and understanding that seems to come with age. These were a few golden moments.
While this magnificent ram seemed unconcerned with the 111-degree heat, I was beginning to wilt. It was time to leave.
Several other bighorns were now milling about. Smaller rams, ewes and yearling lambs fed on the dried remains of brittlebush flowers or bunches of parched native grass.
The younger rams were testing their strength by feigning battle, pushing one another, gently bumping horns, but never challenging the big ram.
All seemed to respect the leader as he fed on the parched vegetation.
For close to an hour we shared this sweltering place. In reality he allowed me to share his home. He seemed unaffected by the oppressive heat and harsh landscape, while left alone, I would survive only a short time here.
I had no idea if this ram was aware of his mortality, but he has now lived most of his years and in a few more seasons at best will fade from his role as patriarch.
He will have accomplished his singular purpose of perpetuating the species.
He is the strongest of the strong. A champion with strong genes, good survival instincts and a lifetime of earned wisdom that has been passed on to future generations.
Should we ask for anything more?