In Escalante Canyon of western Colorado, signs for ‘no trespassing,’ ‘no hunting,’ and ‘private property’ are prominent. I appreciate the clear signage—it’s far too easy in some parts of the West to get onto private property by mistake, and I wouldn’t want to intrude on anyone’s privacy. The canyon bottom over the course of many miles is occupied by Escalante Ranch. I drive through the canyon to the region managed by Bureau of Land Management. Here the land rises fairly quickly into a thickly forested pinyon pine and juniper community. I walk up-slope through the conifer woodland. There is a low penstemon that has blue, trumpet-like flowers as well as Fendler’s sandwort, which has wiry stems topped by a small cluster of pale yellow flowers. There are biting gnats that swarm me. The bites sting, and I slap at the small, black insects. When I spend more time swatting and stinging than looking at plants, I head back to the truck.
The canyon has a high rounded lip, below which the red Entrada sandstone is shaped in sharp facets where huge fragments have fallen away. The boulder field of these fragments lies on the gentle slope above the road, where the pinyon pines and junipers grow among the large rocks. Between the boulder field and the sandstone escarpment are gray toes that spread into the center of the canyon from half-way up the cliff. I stop on my drive down canyon to explore the toe-like slopes that poke from the red cliffs on the north side of the canyon. The gray slopes have little vegetation on them, and I assume that their soil has low fertility. It’s a harsh place for plants, but those that manage to grow on the largely sterile, unvegetated slopes are sometimes very interesting, sometimes diverging from other populations that grow in more fertile, less marginal environments.
I continue the drive down canyon, going back through the fenced and irrigated pasture lands of the Escalante Ranch. In one of these dark green pastures, where leaves of the plush grass sway in the breeze, a bighorn sheep grazes. The image is strange, even out-of-place. I expect bighorns on bouldery slopes and stone ledges, not in irrigated meadows. I had not expected to find this day something so emblematic of wild accepting easy life in a ranch pasture.