I’ll Be Counting Sheep Tonight

“Dear nasty, wretched crow…SHUT UP!”

Thus began my day. Curled up in my sleeping bag, one eye open to the encroaching daylight, I wished for the first time in my life that I was in possession of a loaded pellet gun. I started to wonder what I was thinking when I suggested and arranged this last-minute camping trip.

Despite its unpleasant and abrupt beginning, the rest of the day unfolded into one well worth waking up for. After packing lunch and loading the FJ, we headed out of Marble up Colorado 133 toward Paonia, searching for adventure. We had done a little research and discovered we were just 30 miles from a dirt road that would take us over Kebler Pass and down into Crested Butte. Couldn’t pass it up. And, at the very least, it would get me away from the thieving crow that had robbed me of my peaceful mountain slumber.

We knew from our research that we would get a view of the world’s largest aspen forest. What we didn’t know was that our simple trek to Crested Butte would be delayed by free-range livestock. Our first meeting was with a rancher and his cattle. With the bovines marching down the center of the dirt road in front of our SUV, I could imagine the tourist postcard opportunity: “Colorado Rush Hour.” (Of course, as any Denver resident knows, our rush hours involve a lot fewer cows and a lot more stubborn mules and other assorted asses.)

Once we had safely bypassed the miniature cattle drive, Steve pulled off onto a small shoulder where we decided to picnic before the rain set in. While eating my sandwich I noticed a few sheep nestled into a meadow at the edge of a grove of aspen. I walked closer to investigate. There were easily 60 sheep resting there in among the trees. When they noticed me, they began bleating to one another. From across the road, more sheep called out to the larger flock. We had stopped for lunch unaware that we were in the midst of a sizable herd of free-range sheep. We finished our food, took some photos and video, and started down the other side of Kebler Pass on our way to Crested Butte, all the while rambling on about seeing those dang sheep.

On the way back up the pass heading back toward camp, the mountains offered us a different and even prettier view than before. We marveled at the immensity of the aspen forest which, in the intermittent rain showers, oddly resembled a rain forest. We began to look for the sheep again. Near where we had seen them before we saw a rancher in a bright yellow rain slicker walking with two large, white dogs. Simultaneously, using our vast and largely worthless knowledge of dog breeds, Steve and I both blurted out “Anatolian shepherds!” Anatolian shepherds are Turkish sheep dogs that live out with the flock full-time and serve as protectors. They are known to be incredibly independent and fearless. We used to joke that we needed an Anatolian shepherd to protect our wimpy Labrador retriever.

We drove beyond the dogs and rancher looking for the sheep. That’s when we realized that the large herd we had seen earlier was roughly one-quarter of the size of the entire herd now gathered at the top of the pass. I’ve never seen so many sheep in my life. We might as well have been in New Zealand. We stopped to stare at massive flock because we were suddenly feeling small and outnumbered. Steve grabbed his fancy camera, got out of the car, and headed back up the hill on foot for some sheep photos. Suddenly, his car door reopened and he jumped in.

“There’s an Anatolian shepherd running toward the car,” he huffed once safely inside.

Sure enough. Standing right there next to Steve’s car door was one of the large shepherds we had seen. He eyed Steve cautiously and then walked around to insinuate himself between the car and the sheep. I unrolled my car window to get a photo of him. He looked at me cautiously but without ill intent. He was doing his job, protecting his flock. As the hundreds of sheep moved through the ferns and underbrush beneath the towering aspens bleating calls to each other, I was in awe. It was odd and pastoral and yet perfectly Colorado.

Sometimes, the adventure you set out on is quite different than the one that opens before you. We had planned nothing more than a pleasant afternoon drive to Crested Butte. Instead, we ended up in the middle of one of the coolest things we’d ever seen in the Colorado high country. Colorado is consistently breathtaking, but it’s the unexpected treasures that make living here a privilege.

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