Most days I make it from waking up to lying down without running into any trouble worth sweating over.
For that, I thank the priest who told my mom in the maternity ward that he’d pray for me every day if she’d give me his name. It was a fair deal, so now his first name is my middle name and my seas stay pretty smooth.
But when a bull leveled his horns at me from just a few paces off last weekend, I thought maybe the padre had skipped his morning prayers to give me the chance to see just how lucky, fast or tough I am on my own. It created some trepidation that lasted a couple minutes. But when it was over, I think both the bull and I came away a little wiser about how to share an uncomfortable space with someone we can’t trust.
This was the third bull that I, an uncle and two aunts came across that morning, but only the second to challenge us on our path.
Neither of these challengers were far past calfhood, thankfully. The one full-grown behemoth that could have ended the morning for all of us wasn’t able to do anything but bellow in frustrated anger as we passed on the other side of his fence.
The first bull (maybe a steer — I only saw him head-on but he had plenty enough bulk and horn to cause trouble either way) was in a herd of two dozen cattle that appeared when we’d huffed about a mile up a hill near San Juan Bautista, Calif.
It took some debate for our hiking party to decide whether he was a hindrance or a boon, seeing as he and his companions were completely blocking our way just beyond a bench that one of us had said could be a good spot for a quick breather before we all turned around. To the right frame of mind, it was just the excuse you’d latch on to when heading back down the trail.
But my uncle and I being guys — with the taste for adventure outweighing our sense of self-preservation that’s common to our gender — it became a personal challenge for both of us to get past this horned roadblock.
A few pebbles tossed near hooves, lots of sharp clapping and several shouts of “hya!” and the whole herd mosied out of our way. It lasted just long enough for us to make a Plan B (see how fast we could all leap over the barbed wire beside the trail) and even a desperate Plan C (find out whether it’s true that cattle don’t run well downhill). .
Up we hiked for another mile and a half, far enough to round the hill past where the warm morning sun turned over the climate to the chilly winds blowing in wildfire smoke from the coast. Down a sheer drop on our left we saw the overturned remains of an old, old car like something that had crashed in a Steinbeck story, a testament maybe to what happens when you can’t find a way around a foe on a narrow path.
Then the second bull of the morning — the one who truly hated our trespass on his hill, unlike the other two who just held us in distrust —bellowed from over a fence, shook his head and loped off someplace where at least he wouldn’t have to look at us.
We turned and headed back down the hill, past the antique wreck, past the herd that had brought us our little excitement, now grazing picturesquely a few yards off the trail, and straight into the day’s real challenge.
It was another small herd, maybe a few cattle lighter than that first one. But there was something different about the young bull with this one. OK, maybe he, too, was a steer, but the way he held his horns up front kept me from walking around back to tell for sure. Neither noise nor stones got him to move aside as the rest of the cattle did.
I think my uncle held him in place with his steady gaze while we slid past, keeping close to the barbed wire, but the cattle probably say it was their protector who made sure we humans kept our distance by lowering his horns in a warning that carried clearly across species.
Let those cattle tell it the way they like. What matters is that two groups of creatures with no love and little trust for the other found a way to share a narrow strip of dirt that morning.
We each showed we were willing to fight — our stones, his horns — but we each also kept a respectful distance that said we preferred to pass in peace. And we all, cattle and people, went on to enjoy the golden morning on that gorgeous hill.
Richard Espinoza is a former editor of the Johnson County Neighborhood News. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.