One of my favorite trail encounters on the Abraham Path centered not on people, but on a small goat. My co-workers have insisted that I write the story of it up as a blog post, while I’ve been concerned that it will come off as me just talking about what a swell guy I am for helping goats. I seem to be in the minority opinion here, though, so you be the judge.
This past April, I was out scouting a section of trail in the Craters Region by mountain bike. At the western rim of the Large Makhtesh, I had finished the day’s work and was sitting in the Negev sun, eating some snacks. Suddenly, the desert silence was interrupted by a forlorn bleating. Nearby, half-hidden in the scrubland, was a small, staggering kid (ed.: a baby goat) with no other goatkind in sight.
This is unheard of; when there are goats, there are generally either zero goats, or a crowd of more than fifty. I ran to the nearest hilltops to scan the immediate area, in case a nearby flock might have shed a member, but there was nothing. I concluded the kid must be from a large flock I had seen about 3 kilometers down the wadi I’d come up, and had somehow gotten separated.
As the saying goes, “with small goats comes great responsibility.” This little guy clearly did not belong out here, and, as far as I could see, was thoroughly lacking in survival skills. Whether by dumb luck or by the act of some caprine guardian angel, I was now tasked with discovering where the goat belonged, and seeing it safely there.
With a pat on the head, I befriended it, and soon had it following me – but not very fast. It was only around 3 kilometers to where I’d seen the shepherds and flock, but at the rate I was going, it would have taken over an hour to get there. After a painfully slow few hundred meters, I decided to stash the mountain bike and carry the goat. Aside from the occasional loud, agitated bleating and spasm of kicking, this seemed to be working.
As I went on, the kicking grew more desperate, so I tried having the goat follow me again. Soon it seemed to become more reluctant to move on its own: each time I set it down, it would follow me for ten meters or so, then hold its position and start bleating in sadness or defiance, if those are ways in which a goat can bleat.
Getting fed up with this, I decided I was going to have to carry the thing the rest of the way. I gave it many more chances to walk (especially whenever it got squirmy) but this seemed futile. So we continued in an awkward alternation of carrying, switching arms, bouts of kicking and squealing, deposition of goat upon ground and subsequent scooping up again.
Although this goat likely did not understand English, I found myself speaking to it as I would to an uncooperative child. I inquired as to the purpose of all this kicking, and whether the bleating needed to be so loud that it rattled my eardrums. I explained that, since the option of being left to die in the desert was off the table, the baby goat must choose either to walk on its own four feet, or to be bundled awkwardly in my arms. I explained how much I would appreciate it if the goat would make its choice and stop complaining. I promised we would soon be home with its family, and sooner if it would please shut up.
This latter promise was not made in entirely good faith: I had no way of knowing the flock would still be there when I reached the spot, nor even whether it was the correct flock. If it were a strange flock, I didn’t know what to expect – would the other goats ostracize it? Formally initiate it and raise it as one of their own? Cannibalize it? Treat it as an interesting curiosity? Give it a wedgie and steal its lunch money? I don’t know how goats live.
However, right flock or no, any shepherd could eventually track down the true owner; there aren’t all that many people living out in this particular backcountry. And it was the middle of the day. Typically, a shepherd will bring their flock to a certain spot and graze the area for the day, not moving too far until later afternoon when it’s time to go home. So I slogged on, counting on the hope of finding an appropriate place for my passenger.
Finally, I approached the spot where I’d seen the flock. They had been here, as evidence by the tracks and livestock poop littering the valley floor, but there was neither sheep nor goat in sight. So I set the baby goat down and told it to stay put; then, ignoring the shrill unhappy noises it began to emit, I headed up over a hill to get a view of the area.
The profiles of several sheep a few hills over showed me I wasn’t too late. With a new burst of energy I hauled the goat (which was getting more and more upset about being carried as we went on) up to the edge of the flock, and hoped that it would be drawn to the presence of its own kind. The newcomer and the herd began to bleat back and forth at each other, but the little guy was still standing in place, not making any headway toward the flock.
I plopped the baby a bit closer to the others and finally, it wandered in fits and starts up a hillside, to where a goat that could only be its mother emerged from the crowd and started licking it. Success! On seeing this, the elderly shepherd came over and immediately handed me some saj bread (a hearty Bedouin flatbread easily cooked in the field), presumably in thanks, and introduced himself as Salem.
The whole time I’d been carrying the goat, I’d been concerned I was being too rough with it – perhaps that was the reason for all the kicking and squealing. But Salem’s first reaction was to grab the thing by its hind leg, drag it over to him, and give it a big fat kiss on the top of the head. Luckily, he did not do the same to me. Instead, upon hearing my story, he summoned his daughter to take some photos of this unusual gathering.
I needed to leave in order to catch a bus, and in any case was eager for a shower to remove the smell of goat from me. I petted the goat one last time, shook hands with Salem, and departed. I hope he’ll enjoy trying to get people to believe his tall tale of the time a foreigner in a bike helmet emerged from the desert, hauling a reluctant baby goat back to its mom.