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The Vietnam War was raging, the draft was a possibility, and Rawlins wanted none of it. His parents were appalled. The summer of '73 looked to be tense on the home front, so Rawlins hired on with a shepherding operation in the Salt River Range, tending to hearth and tent while his buddy Mitch covered the sheep. Claiming some experience, he was in truth an impostor, learning packhorse knots and sourdough baking on the run. At first the story is all about gathering his wits as he tries to manage the tasks at hand. Then he starts to look around. As the camp moves from site to site, he forages for greens to supplement the mutton and peanut butter: speedwell and waterleaf and salsify. He becomes observant, noticing the green porcelain of a lake, the nervous polychrome of a fly's eye, the atmospheric changes that foretell a storm. As the summer deepens, he rolls ideas like wilderness and patriotism, complexity and draft notices around in his mind, shedding his own light on the subjects. A near-death experience pulls him up short; his girlfriend comes, then leaves—permanently; he squabbles with Mitch; the backcountry begins to scare him. Things fall apart. But then, in fits and starts, Rawlins regroups. Deep immersion in the landscape helps. So do the writings of the ancient Greeks, his stabs at poetry, the job's steady thrum. When, in a closing private moment, he "lifted [his] arms and began to dance . . . a dance of helplessness, mourning, love, and victory," one senses that Rawlins may well be off his rocker, but he's regained his bearings.
The book covers the period from June 21 to September 17, 1973. Readers will feel honored to have spent these three months with this reluctant shepherd.