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My spit barely had enough energy to leave my mouth. With labored breath, I put one foot in front of the other, steadily gaining ground along the game trail etched into the side of the hill. It was a chilly late February morning as we started the hike into the backcountry of Southwest New Mexico. I was wearing every bit of clothing I had with me, but once the warmth of the sunrise hit the hillside, I was ready to shed a few layers. I dropped my pack and crammed my down jacket into the top. We took stock of our surroundings, an amalgamation of bitterbrush, prickly bear and ashe juniper painted the landscape in grey, yellow-green and brown. No wonder aoudad are so hard to spot out here.
Barbary sheep, or aoudad as they’re more commonly known, were introduced to the southern high deserts of New Mexico in the 1950s. Native to the northern coast of Africa, these sheep thrive in desolate mountainous terrain where few other animals of their size can. Hiking along the steep, chossy cliffsides gives you an immediate appreciation for how agile and efficient these ungulates are at navigating landscapes us two-legged folk have no business trekking. Even the most sure-footed humans look like fools trying to get around in these sheep’s backyard.
I look up from the rhythm of my boots as Nate crouches two steps ahead of me. “They’re right in front of us!” he whispers with a look of pure elation. We had spent the better part of an hour staring through our binoculars where eight sheep were grazing. My heart soared as we settled into the cover of scrubby brush, making sure to stay out of sight while still trying to keep an eye on the seemingly unaware group merely 175 yards away. I couldn’t believe it.
We sat and waited as the sheep began to bed in the warming sun. “We might be here for a while,” Nate said. “Who knows how long they’ll be bedded down. It’s better to play it safe and wait for them to make a move than for us to try and get into position and potentially spook them off.”
We knew we’d most likely never see them again if we did. Last season, Nate had his first barbary sheep stalk on public lands not too far from where we were that day. That hunt ended in a missed shot under similar circumstances and the weight of that failure weighed on his mind as we watched our group from afar.
An hour passed and the sheep unexpectedly began working their way up the steep cliffside in front of us. We had to make a move. Nate crept up to close some distance. Each step carefully calculated to make as little commotion as possible, a task easier said than done across crumbling rock littered with dead brush. I hung back, waiting for Nate to get into position and give me the all clear. Once I caught up, I tucked into the hillside just behind him as his cheek lay rested against his gun stock, eye trained on the little brown blob, just over 100 yards away.
The concussion hit me with a thud. As I pulled my 10x42’s up to my eyes, the group of sheep were laser focused down the hill. Statuesque as if not sure where the shot had come from.
“Did I miss?! I don’t see anything down!” Nate said.
A second shot rang out and echoed across the sunny canyon walls and sent the herd into a frenzied brown blur up the hillside, vanishing out of view as if they were never even there.
As we stood and scanned the hillside, the sinking of uncertainty washed over us. “I’m usually a bit more steady, but I don’t take shots I’m not sure I’ll make,” Nate said. “Did you see anything fall?”
I was hesitant to answer. Neither of us would like the answer.
We waited, replaying the sequence in our head, searching for a clue we’d hope would reassure us. The hillside was still. The wind blew gently through the brush bringing relief from the subtle heat of the midday sun. I walked through the steep, chalky bedding area, desperately hunting for the faintest sign of success, but none came.
The tag was never mine to fill, but the joy of success or pit of defeat would be shared just the same. Reality took hold and I headed back to our shooting position.
“He’s here!” I heard Nate’s voice echo. Just like that, a gigantic morale shift clicked into gear.
“You found him?!” I yelled from a few hundred feet above.
“Yessir! Come on down!”
Nate connected on the first shot. The sheep collapsed and careened down the hillside, coming to rest at the edge of a fifty foot drop. It took a little looking in all the wrong places, but the redemption story had come full circle. An even greater sense of admiration for these hooved beasts set in as we combed over the details of its tan coat and rugged features, tailor-made for arid high desert survival.
We butchered the sheep, carefully collecting as much meat as we could. Backstraps, hams, and what Nate affectionately called the “filet mignons,” two small strips of meat just above the pelvic bone and below the spine. The heart was still in tact and we saved it to round out the menu for the pending fireside dinner. We sat beside the babbling water of the Rio Bonito, the crackle of burning oak rang out and Nate trimmed the fresh meat into bite size pieces, skewered on willow branches. A packet of ramen noodle seasoning served as an improvised dry rub--don’t knock it ‘till you’ve tried it.
That night, I sat beside the glowing fire and watched the sunset put on a show so awe inspiring a photo would do it no justice. The feast was mouthwatering-- tender and full of flavor. This was the experience I was searching for. This was the tag I was looking to fill; a moment of great thankfulness and the sensation of being truly alive. A sensation best experienced in the outdoors.
Andrew Miller is an outdoor Photographer based out of Denver, Colorado who hunted aoudad in New Mexico in February of 2017. You can check out all his work here.