In a high valley between red mesas and conifer-covered mountains in southern Utah, I find a campsite among apple trees. I park in the shade between two of the trees. My site has a roughly weathered picnic table, where I sit to work on my notes. There is a horse pasture behind me. Two horses stand head to butt in classic horse pose, each swishing his or her tail to keep the flies away from the face of the other.
In the evening a young man leads the two horses across the pasture. Another horse, two mules, and a young woman, who carries an infant, also follow the man. He leads the two horses through a gate out of the pasture into an irrigated alfalfa field. The third horse would follow them, but the man hesitates at the gate. “Stay,” he says firmly to the lone, third horse. The horse stops and stares at the man. The horse whinnies, but I sense it is not an agreeable response. One of the other horses responds. The young woman’s hair is bright yellow in the late evening light. She carries the infant on her hip slowly back across the pasture without waiting for the man. The mules remain to forage near me. When the sun sets the mules bray. This is long. Each bray has many pieces—a squeal of drawn breath and barks of forced breath.
Mountain bluebirds forage in the grass of the horse pasture. I watch them flit from the tufts of grass to the fence that stands behind me.
I listen through the evening to the irrigation—the cook-shook cook-shook cook-shook cook-shook of the sprinkler heads turning to an end and then repeating the motion. The irrigation waters the same spot of alfalfa from the time I arrive in the evening until I leave the next morning.
The next evening I camp among ponderosa pines at nearly 8000 feet in elevation on the Kaibab Plateau in Arizona. I have camped before under these same trees. This is not uncommon in my travels—I often return to camping spots. When the sun sets below the horizon, the tops of the pines brighten with a harder yellow light. A swarm of pygmy nuthatches moves from lit treetop to lit treetop. They are restlessly in motion—hopping round the circumference of the branches as they peck at the bark for food. A hairy woodpecker pounds a trunk behind me. There is also an elegant flycatcher that I do not recognize, although I am impressed by the orange underside of its tail.
As the cool darkness comes down, I climb into the back of the truck and into my sleeping bag. I can hear traffic on the highway that is about a mile away. Using the light of my headlamp, I take out my notebook and begin to write.