Jackie arrived at my house a little after 9, her boundless energy matched only by that of Jessie, the yellow lab whose head was hanging out the back window. My hope that Jessie would have tired himself out by the time we reached the trail head was in vain; it seemed the car ride was just a warm up. From the onset of the hike up Sterling Pass trail, Jessie ran ahead and then back and then ahead and then back, scouting for potential dangers and then returning to report his findings. Bella the black lab had little interest in keeping up with Jessie. Her greying muzzle, calm manner and robotic, deliberate movements betrayed her age. She tolerated the yellow lab, but saw no need to prove herself by matching his high energy and instead watched Jessie as he ran back and forth. She was George to Jessie’s Lenny.
As we made our way along the trail I stayed back a bit so that the surrounding scenery could saturate all of my senses without the threat of me being knocked over by a 75 pound furry, slobbering weapon. Sterling Pass trail climbs 1100 feet in one and a half miles up through a wide valley. Tall spires point sharply at the blue sky, their charred husks a stark contrast against the red rock walls, lush green vegetation and white, red, purple, yellow and orange flowers that have conquered the valley bottom. These sentries are the skeletons of what once were full crowned Ponderosa pines, and while a long ago fire stripped these great trees of their leaves and branches, their majesty remains as they tower over the new generation of shrubs and forbs which have taken advantage of the fire scarred land. It is spring time and the flowers are in bloom offering sweet smells as I walked along the trail, this combined with the fluttering song birds, abundant and vocal, made me feel as if I was in the jungles of South America, not a semi-desert in Arizona.
The sun which in part gives life to the valley bottom was beating down on me as I followed Jackie, Jessie and Bella up the trail. Despite constantly drinking water and finding respite from the heat in the shade rorschachly blotted along the trail, I felt the migraine coming on. It was well established when I finally reached the summit of Sterling Pass. The dogs had already found their resting spots, but Jackie was prepared to keep moving. I quickly picked a side in this argument and slumped down next to the panting dogs.
After a too short break we started back down the trail towards the car. Jessie led the way, leaving barking dogs and irritated hikers in his wake while Bella respectfully traversed the trail. I fell behind as both the sun’s heat and my migraine intensified. The feeling that a red hot poker was being forced through my skull created a pain which distracted me from the scenery that had captured my full attention just an hour earlier. My concentration was now put towards stepping one foot in front of the other to get down the trail as soon as possible before the full onset of the migraine could take place.
It was at this time, close to the end of the trail, that I came upon Jessie raucously scrounging through the underbrush, no Jackie or Bella in sight. It took a moment to process the scene I had walked up on. Birds flew out of the brush chirping wildly, but Jessie didn’t pay them any attention, he was still rummaging through the low lying shrubs, there was still a bird left behind. I yelled for Jessie to stop, my voice high pitched with panic, my migraine instantly gone. But Jessie ignored me and as he buried his muzzle into the brush and quickly flung his head back I realized I was too late. The fledgling bird was flung to the trail dying as Jessie quickly lost interest in his new toy and ran to catch up with his mom. I approached the bird hoping that my being there would somehow reverse the fledgling’s fate. The deep red blood that now escaped from the puncture left by Jessie’s incisor was a stark contrast to the graphite grey feathers which had failed to help the young bird escape. Its yellow beak opened and closed as if it was calling for its mother or gasping for breath, in, out, out. It stretched out one of its legs, slowly grasping at the air, trying to hold on to something, anything. All the while the mother bird sat on a nearby branch helplessly calling out. There was nothing to be done and as I raised my head I saw Jackie standing next to Jessie, he was scolded, but didn’t seem to notice. They started back down the trail. I stood up and began to follow them but turned around; I couldn’t leave the birds’ body in the middle of the trail. Using two sticks I gently lifted then lowered the limp body from the trail into the brush, the mother bird watching over us, still chirping.
I again started down the trail, my migraine had returned to its full glory. This was not my plan.