2112 words (8 minute read)

Counting Sheep

One of the best things about attending outdoor shows is running into people I’ve done stories with. People like the ones you’re meeting in these chapters. They gather from all over the country at outdoor shows and at this one I’m in a scooter. You know, like the electric kind plugged in for recharge along the wall near the main entrance of shopping malls and grocery stores, convention centers too. That scooter. I rented one and I’m riding it. I’m a fast walker and it’s a slow roller. It’s frustrating and it’s weird. I don’t like the vulnerability of it.

Everyone is used to seeing me upright on two strong sticks (my legs) with another set of sticks (my tripod) over my shoulder chasing something wild and worthy of lens attention. I’m doing none of that. I’m riding a scooter in Sunday stroll mode.

My broken leg bends a little at the knee now and it’s slightly tucked close to the scooter’s basket and handlebars. It’s covered with loose, stretchy pants so its disjointed and discolored condition doesn’t sick anyone out.

My fat foot doesn’t fit in a shoe so it’s sporting a light blue, hospital sock, the kind with white, grippy dots on the bottom for anti-slip traction. As if I could put my foot down anyway. I can’t. Too early. Bones will buckle. Again.

Ignore the sock because the rest of me is put together as well as can be when high on pain pills, yet everyone is still higher. My neck is stiff from looking up at everyone because they’re standing and I’m sitting. On a scooter. I really don’t like the scooter, but it’s necessary.

The show is miles of booths and millions of stairs. I avoid stairs by finding elevators. I’m in one of those elevators when a skinny man about my size slips in right before the doors slide closed. He has a red beard and blood shot eyes. Shifty eyes. I decide I don’t like him as soon as he pushes me out of my scooter. Pushes me!

I hit the dirty elevator carpet on elbow and hip, my broken leg wedged under the seat. The elevator doors open, red beard rips my scooter away, ripping my new repairs to rubble and taking my ride, and my backpack that’s in the basket, with him. I can’t crawl out fast enough to beat the closing doors let alone chase the stealer. The doors close. I open my eyes.

I’m crying. Another dream. Drug induced dreams are crazy, so real, but crazy. And stealing dreams might suck more than falling dreams. Falling dreams hurt physically. Stealing dreams hurt emotionally.

My husband slides over with reassurance. I ask him if he’s so far away from me in our bed because I’m ugly. He laughs himself awake and says he can’t tell if I’m ugly in the dark, but that’s not why he sleeps hanging off the other side of the bed.

He’s scared he’ll hurt my injuries in his sleep so he’s staying far away. I started reducing my pain medication this week. I want my memory retention back, but reducing pills means I sleep in fits because I can feel my body trying to repair itself. He doesn’t want to undo any repairs or add any agony so he’s giving me space. I tell him I’m up because someone stole my scooter.

“You don’t have a scooter,” he whispers in the dark. “And if you did, why would someone steal it?”

“So I can’t chase them when they steal all of my other stuff,” I whisper back. “My cameras, my money, my phone. With so many stairs and no leg to climb them with, I’d have to resort to sitting on the sidewalk hoping you know where to look for me”

“I know when and where to look for you,” he says with a yawn. “Now go back to sleep.”

I’m done sleeping, but he’s not. He slides way over to the right again and starts breathing deep. I shove my sagging right foot into a pillow. The process of lightly pressing against a pillow is supposed to stretch my wilting arch and folding toes, both withering due to lack of use. I wiggle my toes, feel my foot tingle then start counting sheep.

Bighorn sheep. They’re cool. Rams, lambs and ewes. They’re all cool with their coats of one color, invisibility. It’s nearly impossible to find bighorn sheep for two reasons. First, their fur matches the landscape they live among. Match it exactly. Snow is their only disadvantage because they don’t turn white in winter like weasels do. Second, there aren’t a lot of invisible coats left in the West. In many places, bighorns don’t exist anymore. In other places, herds hover under a dozen.

I’m covering a story about one of those on-the-verge-of-blinking-out herds in early spring. The eastern Idaho desert mostly bare of snow, but no matter, we find the herd. One ewe was collared last year. The redundant radio beep of her movements tell us where she is and where the other animals wandering with her are, including a few young rams. Biologists want to collar one of the young rams then watch where it wanders and see whether it knows where more bighorn baby makers hang out.

On these kind of stories, any wildlife story really, I don’t dictate how stories unfold or in what order I shoot my shots. Usually footage before interview so I can relate my questions to what I see, but that’s about the most I can ask for when I have no control over what happens.

There’s no script or shot sheet like in the movies. I can’t tell the animals to stand in the best light and I certainly don’t tell the people to say things that put them, or the issue, in the best light.

During shoots, my microphones are in use even when I’m not doing interviews. I like to clip wireless mics to people while they’re in action so I pick up their personality and story intel in addition to an official interview. People clearly know they’re mic’d because I ask them to wear the mic then I have to invade their space to run the mic through their clothes while testing audio transmission into my earpiece. Once that’s done, they wander off to do their thing and I wander off to do mine all the while listening.

They talk about what they’re doing and I match my shots to their action. The play-by-play works even in wide shots. I’m out of reasonable hearing range, but hear everything because the bud in my ear lets me eavesdrop. Yes, eavesdrop. The problem with openly putting a mic on someone for more natural sound is a few minutes after you clip on the mic they know about, they forget they’re wearing it. More important, they forget I can hear everything they say, and do, even when I’m far away.

It’s unintentional and it’s inevitable. I’ve ran many a river bank on early mornings ripping my ear buds out of my head in panic as the guy wearing the other end of the audio feed wades into the willows to relieve himself of too much breakfast brew. Now that, I don’t want to hear, but it’s harmless. Doesn’t hurt me.

Some of what’s said does hurt me, or it could if I let it, and it usually happens when I walk away from the scene for a wide shot. I’m still looking with lens and listening with wires, but I’m walking away, out of normal human hearing range.

“You see her rack?”

“She married?”

“Happily married?”

I roll my eyes with my back turned, turn back around and continue working like their banter is beyond my range and truthfully for that matter it’s beyond my bother.

But in the huddle over the bighorn getting a GPS collar attached to its neck, I hear this as I walk away for a wide shot.

“Where is she going? Does she even know what she’s doing? Nothing is over there. Is she any good at what she does?"

A wireless mic picks up the voice of the body it’s on, but it also picks up voices attached to bodies huddled close to each other, not clear enough to be used in a story, but clear enough for me to hear in my earpiece.

"Is she any good?" 

Seriously? He’s seriously asking that? And right now? Seriously? I silently shake my head and keep walking toward the spot I’ve already spied for a wide shot.

I don’t know all the scientists in the huddle, but I bet my skills on the guy with the handlebar mustache as the one spilling that question into the dusty air. Yes, handlebar mustache. It’s still fashionable in the West. Sometimes authentic, others times trendy. This guy is too old for trendy. He’s authentic. At least he thinks he is and he wants to be remembered as such so he handlebars his facial hair with beard balm or some other waxy crap for effect.

And yes, dusty air. We’re in the desert, most of the snow sucked out of the ground months ago. Summer rains yet to come. Dry earth grinds between my teeth like this guy grinding on my last nerve.

We’re in a dust bowl with all the loose particles raised by a chopper chasing sheep from the snow line of the high country down into the flat, lowlands of desert below. There are a dozen bighorn sheep running for their lives with one taking the fall for them all. Well, the fall and the collar. He’s not dead, just held down, collared then released.

I want to see the huddle rise when the ram is released. That’s why I move away from the action for a wide shot. The best action is coming soon and it will be best from farther away. The run away scene.

“Is she any good?” he asks again, the rest of the huddle concentrating on their quest more than his query.

I stop walking, spread my tripod’s legs in the dirt between sagebrush and bitter brush and click my camera in place, all eyes on equipment like I don’t hear a thing, but I hear everything. Including the reply.

“You’ll know the answer to that when you see her story,” says a voice I can’t place, but want to embrace. “Now on the count of three, we’re letting this guy go. 1-2-3.”

I’m rolling, huddle rising, dust lifting. All humans. No animal in sight. More rolling, rising, lifting. The ram springs then sinks. He doesn’t spring higher than the heads of the huddle that held him down. He springs again. The huddle backs off. Again with more effort, more space. Spring! The ram flops on its face. Its front legs don’t work. Something went wrong during capture. This ram won’t release. It wants to, but can’t. Now the huddle of humans is so far from the ram its out of my wide shot and in my personal space. We’re all watching, hoping the animal rebounds and runs. Its front legs just fell asleep. That’s all.

Not the case. Not the case at all. Bighorn sheep are capture sensitive. Just like pronghorn antelope will panic themselves into a heart attack during capture if you’re not careful, bighorn don’t handle holdings well either.

I don’t control the wild. It controls my stories and in this case the story is bad. In a herd of shrinking bighorns, one of the few rams left, just left the herd for good. It dies the next day. Collar mission failed. Wildlife wasted.

It’s not pretty. It’s not common, but it happens and it happened while I was watching. It has to go in the story, so does why capture is risky and why this type of work is still worth the risk. Personally, I don’t like how this particular story ends, but professionally I’m proud of its accuracy, its truth and its reality. It’s a solid story. Proof my skills are beyond good, but the main character, the ram, still died.

Makes me wonder, is he, that guy with the handlebar mustache, is he any good?

Next Chapter: The Wading Game