Travel: Following a Navajo sheep herder through the mountains

"At 7 o’clock on a June morning, Irene Bennalley opened the gate of her livestock pen, and 800 little hooves, give or take a few, kicked up a copper-colored cloud of dust. Bleating and baaing with excitement, the herd of some 200 sheep and goats moved west over the parched desert plains of the Navajo Nation toward the eastern flank of the Chuska Mountains on the New Mexico-Arizona border. The older ones knew exactly where they were going, remembering from years past the route that would take them from scarce fodder and sweltering heat to high meadows and cool air. The younger ones followed like ... sheep.

Irene, a 55-year-old Navajo herder and weaver, led from behind, making sure none of the animals on the right side of the flock straggled or strayed. She wore sweat pants, a long-sleeve T-shirt and a wide-brimmed hat. Following her instructions — “Keep them together but don’t rush them” — I did the same on the left. A motley crew of dogs, though good at keeping predators away once we were in the mountains, were useless as herding animals.

As the sun slid higher, shadow and light dappled the sandy ground. Eerily eroded volcanic plugs broke the flat horizon behind us; above, power lines hovered, held aloft by giant steel skeletons.

I was here to get a taste of the traditional-contemporary life of Navajo pastoralists. My plan was to join Irene as she moved her sheep up to the Chuskas — a strenuous eight-hour trip — then stay for a few days on the ancestral land where generations of her family have spent summers. "

Get the Story:
‘The Sheep Are Like Our Parents’ (The New York Times 7/29)

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