High Trail was a highway for Will C. Minor, sheepherder and author
“High on the east face of the towering red sandstone cliff which forms the east wall of Flume Canyon, there runs a broken, narrow, shelf-like ledge known locally as the High Trail,” sheepherder Will C. Minor wrote more than 60 years ago.
He was describing a narrow path that lies within the lands now designated McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area.
“The ledge varies in width, 10 to 20 feet at the wider places, less than 30 inches at the narrowest. Yet this precarious shelf is a well-traveled road ... Over the High Trail, great bands of sheep, herds of white-faced cattle, packers and camp movers, with their strings of loaded pack horses, pass on their migrations between the Black Ridge country and the lowlands along the Colorado River.”
Minor tended sheep for the Beard family. But he was much more than a sheepherder. He was an amateur photographer and a writer who produced two books and many magazine articles, as well as a regular column for The Daily Sentinel in the 1970s.
Minor wrote mostly about the wildlife, from bear and mule deer to mice inhabiting a sheepherder’s cabin — animals he viewed during his days and nights of solitude. Dogs, horses and sheep were his only domestic companions for lengthy periods of time. They also were discussed in his writings.
“He was a soft-spoken, unpretentious man, almost Aen-like,” recalled former Daily Sentinel Publisher Ken Johnson. “And he was a great observer.”
The late Sentinel Publisher Preston Walker recruited Minor to write about his back-country observations, Johnson said. Minor’s obituary in the Sentinel in 1981 said his second book reprinted many of his Sentinel columns.
In the late 1970s, Minor and Johnson teamed up to work on a planned book about the oil shale boom that was under way in the region. But Minor still valued the peace and quiet of the backcountry, and he was less than enthusiastic about a major oil shale industry developing in the Western Slope. He became disenchanted with the book project and dropped out, Johnson said. He lived in Fruita until his death.
The High Trail took up Chapter One in Minor’s first book, “Footprints in the Trail,” (Sage Books, Denver, 1950). The trail is still spectacular, but it is no longer the major stock highway. It is extremely difficult to find unless you have a guide who has been there before. Earlier this month, I visited the trail, accompanied by my friend, Catherine Robertson.
Far from any main route, you follow a crooked, meandering path that’s little more than a deer trail through juniper and pinyon pine. There is little to hint at what lies ahead until, suddenly, Flume Canyon opens up in front and to the right of you. Directly ahead, the High Trail clings precariously to the cliff face.
There are remnants of its heyday as a livestock trail: pieces of an old barb-wire fence and a gate that closed the top half of the trail from the bottom, as well as a few bits of broken glass from old bottles.
But the trail is being reclaimed by nature. Large slabs of sandstone have slumped off in places, making it necessary to scramble down and around, then back up to the trail.
Minor wrote that he regularly crossed the High Trail, both with herds of sheep and strings of pack horses. He reported observing the actions of other creatures from a rocky knob high above the west side of Flume Canyon.
Minor was born in 1903 in Missouri and grew up riding horses, as one chapter in his book attests to. He moved to Colorado in 1912 and began herding sheep in the 1930s. He started writing young and recorded his first published work when he was 16, in Boy’s Life magazine.
He herded in the Frying Pan country as well as in Mesa County. But he was best known for his writings about the canyons west of Grand Junction and about Pinyon Mesa. In fact, the U.S. Board of Geographic Names officially designated an arch southwest of Horsethief Canyon as Will Minor Arch in 1993.
There is a bit of Aldo Leopold in Minor’s writing style — the keen observations and the obvious delight in simply watching wild animals in their natural habitat. But, unlike Leopold, Minor tended to attribute human thought processes to the actions of wild animals.
In “Footprints,” he described several instances on the High Trail when he observed confrontations between predator animals and prey — a bobcat and a deer or a fox and a squirrel. But in each instance, he said, the animals parted without an attack. He wondered if there was some special animal code of conduct for the High Trail, precluding attacks because it was too dangerous for both parties.
When we visited the trail on a warm morning earlier this month, there was a pygmy rattlesnake coiled up beside a rock just off the trail. It made no move as we gave it a wide berth, nor did it flinch when I tossed a small pebble to land about a foot from it.
The snake had apparently died curled up by the rock. I wondered what story the imagination of Will Minor might conjure up to explain the snake’s apparently peaceful demise so close to the trail.
Will Minor chronicled back-country wildlife and his own solitary life as a sheepherder at a time when activity in the canyon country west of here was far different than today. Cattle and a few sheep still graze in what is now McInnis Canyons, but they and their human herders no longer have the land almost exclusively to themselves. Also, large trucks and better roads have given ranchers more convenient options than trailing their livestock over the narrow, dangerous High Trail.
But for many years, Will Minor gave Daily Sentinel readers and those who bought his books a glimpse of the peculiar life of a sheepherder in the rugged canyon country of Mesa County — something few of them would ever experience on their own.
Thanks to Zeb Miracle and Michael Menard of the Museum of Western Colorado for biographical information and photos of Will Minor.