Community January 13, 2009
A Timeless Walk

 Up in the high mountain valleys, when the ragged shadows of the Sawtooths settle softly over camps snugged up against the White Clouds, the tinkle of bells, like the old songs of the Basque sheepherders, can still be heard echoing faintly through the groves of aspen trees.

Somewhat romantic now, even a little mysterious, sheepherders have been a part of the Wood River Valley landscape for almost a century. A familiar yet elusive sight from our roads and trails, these bronzed men with foreign tongues are generally unassimilated into our community—part of, but seldom included in, our collective reality. Their movements are framed by the floating of fine brown dust along the hillsides, accompanied by the bleat of lambs and the occasional bark of working dogs, punctuated by a low, sweet human whistle.

The progress of the herders up and down the Valley can still be measured by the movement of their camps—picturesque wagon homes on wheels, in pleasing shapes of bowed white canvas or painted bent tin. The boxes are painted a uniform green, with a half-door in front for driving during inclement weather. And always, permanently affixed to one side of the door, somehow proclaiming the occupant to be tidy and organized, are a broom and a small, round, enameled washbasin.

The camp wagons are inevitably pulled by a team of gentle-looking, often mismatched horses. The horses look perpetually tired—or perhaps they’re just patient, understanding that, in their scheme of things, there is seldom an occasion for hurry. From early spring until late fall, they are destined not to arrive at a given place, but only to move from one spot to another. Another of their roles seems to be to stand patiently hitched to the wagon or staked out nearby, solely to provide photo opportunities for interested passersby.

And interested we are. Few of us are not touched by the romance these scenes evoke: the shade-dappled campsite, the dogs underfoot, smoke rising from the little camp stove inside the wagon; the robust young men graciously interrupting their chores to pose shyly, seated or standing in the sheep-wagon door. Our snapshots reflect our own nostalgic visions of a simple, healthy life, unfettered by cell phones, uninterrupted by meetings or media or must-do lists—truly a life lived in the present.

The history of Sun Valley is often mistaken for the history of snow. By now, the story of Count Schaffsgotch’s final shot at finding a suitable location for Averill Harriman’s ski area, somewhere on the Union Pacific’s system, is the stuff of legend—as is the selection and purchase of the Brass Ranch for the location of the yet unnamed Sun Valley Lodge and Resort. >>>



What is seldom recalled or recounted, though, is the fact that the Brass Ranch was a large working sheep ranch, and had been, off and on, since the early 1900s. The same is true for the Lane Ranch south of Ketchum and several places out Warm Springs Creek. Yes, there was some summer tourism in this region, but after the bust in silver mining in the late 1800s, the backbone of the economy in this area was sheep—lots and lots of sheep. Wool and lamb chops kept the Wood River Valley—and its environs north to Stanley, east to Mackay, and west beyond Fairfield—alive for close to half a century. And it was sheep that kept the trains running, long after the last ore car had clickity-clacked its way down-valley.

The hub of all this activity was Jack Lane’s Mercantile in the heart of Ketchum, where Starbucks now resides. The store was a clearinghouse for everything, and everybody, passing through town. A general outfitting store of the pot-bellied stove and pickle barrel variety, it supplied everything from sausages to saddles to “Doctor in a Bottle” snake oil. They cashed checks, held stakes, and handed out free directions and advice to all and sundry. Tourists and trappers alike patronized the place, but the bulk of the business went to ranchers and herders, whose far-flung operations in the mountains were in constant need of supply and re-supply.

…the progress of herders up and down the Valley is still measured by the movement of their camps.

In later years, in the sun-filled empty storefront, Jack Lane could be seen on infrequent trips to town, chewing the fat with an old crony or two from “the lower country,” sharing a cigar, probably a couple of fingers of whiskey, and many a tale of life in the old days. For skiers clomping by in their clunky square-toed boots, looking in that window was like looking into a diorama of days gone by.

In 1955, the California Woolgrowers Association (of which the Lanes were members) published a rather fanciful article in their newsletter. The article pointed out how stockmen and sportsmen could coexist, each to the other’s benefit. In glowing terms, it described how wool taken from Jack Lane’s sheep, which grazed on the slopes of Baldy all summer, was made into fine sweaters and sold in Pete Lane’s store in Sun Valley to skiers, who wore the wool sweaters in winter on those self-same slopes—thus achieving multiple, harmonic, uses of the land. A mighty nice sentiment, to be sure. But, somehow it’s hard to picture Jack sitting around the store with a passel of crusty old sheep ranchers, drinking horseshoe-float coffee topped off with a healthy slug of bourbon and comparing new designs for ski-sweaters. 

Long before Harriman decided to build a newfangled resort here, Jack Lane was already a part of the Union Pacific’s financial interest in the community. Besides shipping thousands of lambs and transporting sheep to the lower country or to California for winter holding, the railroad also had sheep of its own. At one time, Jack and his son Pete (who had the first ski shop in the new Sun Valley Lodge) ran close to 6,000 head of their own and another 2,500 head for Union Pacific, on contract. Before the resort was built, more sheep were shipped from Ketchum and farther west on the Camas Prairie than from any other place in the world.

It’s no wonder that old Jack, though a great booster of the new resort (in the early days, he was often called the “mayor” of Sun Valley), never believed that it would supplant sheep as the prime economic engine of this area. Even after the resort had been established for a few years, Jack commented, “Many of the older folks don’t approve of those who spend their time playing, drinking, and dancing . . . our main interest is in sheep, that’s where we make our money.” >>>



On a lesser scale, the last part of that quote also applied to a race of men who, practically unnoticed, twice each year for the greater part of a century moved sheep through this valley. Few were suited to this existence, and none were genetically programmed to it. Most arrived, like we all arrive at things, by necessity.


This was the case of the Basques in America. Writer Robert Laxalt (brother of Governor—then Senator—Paul Laxalt of Nevada, both second-generation Basques) described them in his book of homage to his father, Sweet Promised Land, as “these men of leather and bronze.”

It is interesting that a people of such an adventurous, fiercely independent history as the Euskotar (ethnic Basque) should end up working in what was once one of the most denigrated occupations in the West, that of sheepherder. Renowned for their skill as whalers, cod fishermen, and navigators, Basques sailed with Columbus—yet were also known to be in the New World, at the mouth of the St. Lawrence, long before him. After Magellan’s death, it was his Basque lieutenant, Elkano, who successfully completed the first circumnavigation of the world. In that light, it’s a not-surprising tribute to their spirit that the Basques rose above any disparaging attitudes directed toward their occupation, and contributed mightily to any community they became a part of.

Contrary to belief, the Basques did not come here just to herd sheep, at least not initially. The decline of the California gold rush coincided with the opening of the West to free grazing, and many Basques, familiar with the agrarian lifestyle of their homeland, gravitated to interior Nevada, Idaho, Utah, and eastern Oregon to take up ranching as a way to new fortune. From there, circumstances combined to increase the population of immigrant Basques: large Catholic families, hierarchical inheritance laws (property and goods going to the firstborn son), economic depression, and lack of opportunity all fueled the movement. Nepotism also played a huge role in the increase. Everyone in the Pyrenees, it seemed, had an uncle, brother, cousin, or acquaintance in “Amerika,” working to make their fortune. Many came back, wealthy by local standards, either to stay at home and start a business or to claim a wife and return to the new life they had made in the United States. Many, after completing a three-year herding contract here, struck out on their own. The Basque diaspora of the interior West is rife with stories and examples of successful businesspeople, politicians, and community builders, and the history continues with each successive generation.

Of the various groups of immigrants that made up the “melting pot” of America, the Basques, initially, didn’t “melt” as readily as some of the others. Individually and as a group, they were isolated by occupation (grazing sheep requires constant movement), by geography (the vast, unpopulated spaces of the West), and by language. Among the more than 6,000 known languages, the Basque language, Euskara, bears no relationship to any other. And, although émigrés often knew some Spanish or French (of the seven Basque provinces, three are French and four are Spanish), their own language in its pure form was often a barrier to their integration into our society, as they sought out the company of their fellow countrymen. But one thing that did help their integration, and this seems universal with immigrants everywhere, was music.

“Singing . . . singing always” is what Victor Otozua recalled in an oral interview recorded by Miriam Breckenridge for the Ketchum Community Library regional history department in 1981.

“It no unusual,” he said, recalling his youth, to be working and singing in the barn and to hear someone singing in a field nearby, and another group returning from the village or next farm with their voices raised in song—“all at same time.” Anyone who has lived or stayed in Stanley, Idaho, in the summer during the last century might recall the singing of the Basques. >>>



Often on a Friday or Saturday night, someone with a pickup would make a circuit of the sheep camps and haul as many herders as they could find to town. There, plied with enthusiastic (as well as liquid) encouragement, these stalwart, ruddy-faced, vital young men and their music would galvanize any place they visited. Since the crowd inevitabley gravitated to where the herders were singing, Victor recalled, it was politic to move from bar to bar so that all would profit equally. Of course, each new move brought a new round of drinks! But I wasn’t the drinks that brought these men to town; it was the music, and the pure joy of raising their voices together. Given their circumstances and distance away from their native country, the voices lifted were those of lonely men in a lonely occupation, singing their way back home.

Those songs are silent now, and in the aspen groves the apple glyphs—the tree-carved record of the comings and goings, the hopes, dreams, and fantasies of several generations of Basques—will, like the history of the herders themselves, last about 80 yeas. It was about the same span of time that elapsed from the day the first carver left his mark, to the last.

…they are destined not to arrive, but only to move from one spot to another

A different language is spoken around the evening campfires these days. A different whistle calls the dogs, and the trees bear carvings of another distinctive nationality of men brought there by their own set of hopes and reams. Now, it is mostly Chilean and Peruvian herders who are creating a local history. Perhaps, with the advent of cellular phones and the growing number of Spanish-speaking resident here, their experience is less isolated than the Basques’. Even buying supplies in town must seem more familiar to this new wave of shepherds, since Atkinsons’ Valley Market in Beelevue stocks a full aisle of foods, spices, and cooking tools from Latin America. But still, on a warm summer evening, you can hear music on the breeze . . .

Recently Robert Laxalt brought his father, Dominique, home to the Pyrenees Mountains. This was Dominique’s first visit to his homeland in 47 years, since leaving as a young boy to herd sheep in America. After visiting family , friends, and his childhood home, he spent the last evening amidst laughter, love, and music in the home of a favorite sister. At the end of the evening, nephew Joseph asked what hour Dominique was leaving, knowing he would never see his uncle again. “Very early,” Dominique replied. “Probably with the sun.” Joseph put his hand on the old man’s shoulder. “Then know this,” he said. “With the first sun of the morning I will sing you farewell from the mountain up there.”

If you have had the good luck of watching these men of “leather and bronze” drift quietly through the Wood River or Sawtooth valley each season, the sentiment may resonate. Since it is unlikely we shall ever see Basque shepherds again—and, perhaps, as progress takes its course, we may see fewer shepherds of any nationality—it may be appropriate, if you should find youself some morning at sunrise in the mountains, in a quiet way to sing them a farewell:

Agur . . . (goodbye) . . .




This article appears in the Summer 2005 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.