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Contract with loneliness.

A SOLITARY HERDSMAN tops a rolling hill at the head of his flock and approaches under an open sky. The treeless landscape stretches nearly out of sight where snowy peaks rim the horizon. Tufts of dry grass blow in the cold wind and bow to the animals' hungry mouths. Felipe Trigo tugs at his chuyo's ear flap and talks gently to his two dogs. He tells them how fine his flock looks today and how warm the winter wool fleeces must be. He speaks in Spanish mixed with Quechua, but the dogs seem to understand every word.

Felipe is Peruvian, although he is not herding llamas and he is not in the Cordillera Central near his home in Junin province. Felipe in fact is more than four thousand miles from the stark altiplano, but only a few hours drive from the neon canyon lands of Las Vegas, Nevada, the casino capitol of the United States. He is as far from his homeland as he could ever have imagined he might one day be.

Felipe is a contract sheepherder who has come to live and work on the open range in Nevada's high desert, a region known as the Great Basin. He has come to fill a job that no U.S. citizen knows or wants to learn. For the next three years Felipe will have to live alone with his dogs, his horse, and his sheep. Although this is more or less the same work he left behind in Peru, it is decidedly not the life that most new immigrants expect to lead.

In the western United States, the sheepherding traditions that were established late in the last century are now carried on by Latin Americans. Where Spanish Basques once grazed their own sheep on unclaimed desert, now one finds Peruvians, Chileans, and Mexicans working under contract for settled ranchers, many of whom descended from those very same Basques. But the work is much the same. Good sheep dogs and riding horses are as indispensable as ever on the still largely unfenced open range.

Basques were first lued to the United States by the California Gold Rush, coming directly from the old country or via the pampas of Argentina and Uruguay. However, many disliked the uncertainty of mining and soon reverted to the sheepherding work they knew best. The late nineteenth century was a period of rapid settlement in the barren western states with many opportunities for herders to start up and expand their own flocks, known as "bands."

While range wars between cattlemen and sheepmen occasionally broke out, with each accusing the other of ruining pasture and water holes, sheepherders found their niche on marginal grazing land unfit for cattle and stayed constantly on the move. By the 1940s, however, the number of itinerant "tramp bands" had declined due to overgrazing, drought, the consolidation of public range land, and tightened immigration restrictions for Spanish nationals.

The era of big time sheep ranching had come and, with it, a growing demand for skilled herders willing to work on a contract basis. No longer would a herder have the chance to strike out on his own. To surmount the labor shortage caused by these setbacks for small operators, the U.S. Congress passed a series of special "sheepherder" laws authorizing ranchers to import Spanish herders on three year contracts.

Thus the Basque herder, wearing a blue beret and with a wine bota slung over his shoulder, came to a land previously known for its cowboy hats and redeye whiskey. In fact, this image of the sheepherder remained accurate until the late 1960s, when employment opportunities at home improved so much that Spanish Basques no longer needed to emigrate to find good work.

With the decreasing availability of Basque herders, Latin Americans took their place--the beret gave way to the chuyo and the sombrero. Today there are some 1,150 contract herders in the U.S., over half of them Felipe's countrymen from Peru, about three hundred Mexicans mainly from the state of Guadalajara, a smaller number from the Coihaique area of Chile's Aisen province, a few from Spain, and, surprisingly, eight new recruits from Mongolia.

The responsibility for locating and hiring contract herders rests with the Western Range Association, an organization whose 280 members are mostly from Basque-American family sheep ranching operations. Executive Director Larry Garro explains that the Association works with local coordinators in each country who compile lists of prospective candidates after first carefully assessing their sheepherding skills and personal character.

The Association;s coordinator in Peru is Rigoberto Calle, a former agricultural science teacher. In this periodic trips from Lima deep into the countryside, Rigoberto might interview up to 30 interested candidates, many of them referred by relatives already hearding in the United States. His list is the most active, because Peruvians seem to be in the highest demand these days by U.S. sheep ranchers. At the end of the three year work period, the herder may choose to renew his contract, apply for permanent residency, or return home. Each year the Association must replace the three hundred or so herders whose contracts are due to expire.

Choosing reliable men is essential. It is no ordinary task to watch over 2,000 sheep for weeks at a time, out of contact with civilization. A good sheepherder is an expert in many things, able to make every decision on his own. He must know if a spring rain storm will pass quickly or settle in and turn to snow. He must know how to track and trap the coyote that overnight may attack his band. And he must know the easiest route to lead newborn lambs from one valley into the next.

Fresh recruits have little time to learn the ropes before being sent out on the range. One newly arrived Chilean, after having traveled directly from Coihaique via Santiago and Los Angeles, spent his first night in the United States in a camp wagon and woke up to find himself in sole charge of more sheep than he had ever before tended. But he was clearly up to the task and was soon passing a few Patagonian herding secrets on to his North American boss.

THERE IS PERHAPS no better way to learn about the life of a sheepherder than to share in his work. This opportunity was recently granted to two curious outsiders by a third generation Basque-American sheep rancher on his spread near Nevada's Great Basin National Park. His operation employs a number of Latin Americans, among them Felipe. Another herder graciously invited the outsiders on the annual spring trail drive as he led his band of 2,000 bred ewes from winter to summer pasture.

Tomas Ballato is now what one would call a typical sheepherder. Although born on a ranch in Mexico's rural Hidalgo state, he has lived long enough in Mexico City to know the metropolis like a chilango. With a high school education, he seems better suited to reading books than herding sheep. And the fact that he is young and unmarried makes one wonder why he would choose such a lonely life.

But in an important respect Tomas is typical of all the others--he has a sixth sense about herding sheep. Also like the others, Tomas cannot wait to go home when his contract is completed. "The solitude here is tough," he says, echoing the feelings of even the most hardened herder. "All the time thinking of sheep, nothing to do but take care of sheep. I just came to make some money for when I go home. If it, weren't necessary, I wouldn't be here."

Tomas had been under contract for two years and this was to be his last spring trail, taking hime some 150 miles north from the wide desert valleys where he passed the winter. Along the way he would run his sheep through a shearing camp and then on to the lambing grounds, where his ewes drop one, two, and sometimes three lambs apiece. From there he must move the greatly enlarged band into the Butte Mountains to graze all summer.

The winter had been relatively mild, with enough snow for the sheep to eat--so they did not need frequent watering--but not enough to cover their pasture. The wood burning stove in Tomas' camp trailer, an old covered wagon remodeled with a sheet metal roof and rubber truck tires, had kept him warm. More significantly, not a single blizzard all winter long had prevented Tomas' camptender from making his regular visit.

The camptender is by far the most important person in a sheepherder's life and, in many ways, his only friend out on the range. He is quite literally the umbilical cord which ties the herder to the outside world. The camptender supplies herders with provisions, brings mail, buys new boots when the old ones wear out, and if there is time, might even cook that day's dinner. The camptender, in short, can be the herder's best and only friend out on the range.

Tomas was lucky to have Felix Parra as his camptender. Felix was a fellow Mexican, an unperturbable Chihuahuense also on a three-year contract who first came to the ranch as a herder. By now he knew both the social and the work routines of his camptending job, and he was always able to revive even the lowest spirits of the most homesick herders. When Felix drove up to Tomas trailer in the ranch's old Dodge power wagon, known as the "Bumblebee" for its distinctive sound and color, Tomas knew he was in for a relaxed, if too brief, visit. Felix was bringing news which Tomas had been expecting for some time now. He was to start gathering his band and head up the trail as soon as he could.

Trailing work is far different from the relative inactivity of winter. While Tomas had gotten used to the short days of checking on his sheep at leisure, now he would be going with little or no sleep for the full two weeks he would be on the move. Once a sheep band is pointed north, not even a moonless night can bed it down. Since most of the ewes had made the same trip before, they knew well where they were headed--away from the dry old sage brush and towards that sweet mountain pasture--and nothing could stop them.

With the help of his dogs Toby and Pastor, Tomas set out on horseback to bring stray ewes down from the hillsides. Getting them bounched could take hours, but Tomas shortcut for counting them was a real timesaver. Although perhaps obvious once the secret is learned, it is something that only a sheepherder could dream up.

While most of his sheep had white fleeces, Tomas always kept a few blacks in the band, about one for every forty whites. Knowing this ratio, Tomas could quickly count up the blacks and thereby tell if his band was roughly intact. If one black was missing, he knew he was probably missing some forty whites as well. Two missing blacks might mean eighty missing whites, and that would be a serious loss. Even a crude accounting trick comes in handy when a herder is too busy to count every single ewe.

Once the band is bunched and counted, trail work is quite routine. This is because sheep have a natural herding instinct--they actually like to stick together. And luckily for a herder working alone, the more sheep there are, the easier it is to keep them bunched. A good herder, in fact, fights this tendency to a certain degree, keeping them from bunching so close that they trample their pasture and cannot graze. Ideally, sheep should be strung on the trail over a half mile or more and move at their own pace.

The herder sees more of the camp-tender when he is on the trail than at other times of the year. As the herder moves steadily north, the camptender's job is to advance his camp wagon twice a day. In the morning, he pulls the wagon up to the midday point where the sheep are watered and rested for several hours. He returns in the afternoon to pull the wagon on to the night spot where the herder will bed the sheep.

Night duty on the trail is an onerous task. Many of the sheep refuse to settle down and continue to drift north. At the sound of distant tinkling of bells, strapped to the necks of roughly one in one hundred sheep, Tomas must jump out of bed to rush out and detain any sheep that are still wandering. As Tomas demonstrated on more than one occasion, heavy sleepers need not apply for his job!

Another night threat is an attack by coyotes, to which sheep usually respond in one of two ways. Either they dumbly sit by waiting to be the next victim or they scatter far and wide. The next morning, the herder might find the bed ground littered with carcasses or with no sheep at all. On the nights when Tomas knew he was camped near a coyote den, he set a series of sagebrush fires at the perimeter of his band, hoping that the sudden flare-ups would frighten off any predators.

TOMAS WAS on the trail just five miles behind another herder named Prospero Puchi, the newly hired Chilean with his band of 2,000 sheep. Because Prospero did not yet know the route or the locations of the wells, camptender Felix had to spend most of the day supporting him by working back along the trail in search of stragglers or going ahead to slow up the leaders.

Because Tomas had less company than he might have otherwise expected, he was eager for a chance to visit the other two. Such an opportunity presented itself the evening before his sheep were set tocross a fence gate, permitting him to leave them unattended for a few hours on the other side. Tomas rode his horse up to Puchi's camp and, after introducing himself, tried to get to know the new man.

"Is this the first time you've come up here to work?"

"Ya, the very first. I'd never even imagined it before! The first few days are pretty rough."

"They sure are. Is sheep work much different in your country?"

"Everything is fenced, and they lamb inside corrals. You only have to check them every couple days."

"Just wait 'til we get through shearing and then start lambing out on the range! The work never ends."

Puchi did not have to wait long at all, because the next day his band was due at the shearing camp set up just south of U.S. Highway 50, known as "American's loneliest road." There, before being run through the shearing chutes manned by a team of burly Australians, the sheep first had to be separated into holding pens for yearlings, "wets" (i.e., with milk), or "drys" (i.e., unbred), so later they could be branded accordingly on their freshly shorn skin.

Working the corrals and chutes is a dust caking, throat hoarsening, boot stomping job for the dismounted herder, but the task goes a lot faster with a good dog to help. When Thomas arrived, Toby and Pastor barked up a storm but unfortunately would not follow orders. Felix's dog however did the work of three men, and Tomas was soon on his way again, each of his ewes many pounds of wool lighter.

As Tomas continued moving his sheep north, the elevation shot up and the temperature dropped. On some days sleet threatened to turn to snow and all his weather forecasting skills were called upon. The decision to seek shelter in a stand of juniper trees or to stay out in the open might mean life or death if lambs were born that night. The fact that all his ewes were bred within a period of only two weeks did not make their due dates absolutely predictable. They could begin dropping lambs at any moment now.

By the time his ewes were finally ready, the rancher and a few other herders had set up a lambing camp where Tomas joined them. To avoid major losses during lambing requires a team effort because this is by far the most labor intensive part of a herder's year. When up to fifty ewes give birth in a single night, many requiring their lambs to be pulled by hand, Tomas does not sleep.

Time is also of the essence minutes after birth, because lambs that cannot suckle will quickly weaken and die. Abandoned lambs must hastily be matched back with their mothers before this happens. When triplets are born, or if the mother of twins has insufficient milk, on lamb either has to be given to a ewe who has lost her lamb at birth or, the less preferred option, taken back to camp and bottle fed. Tending the camp's orphanage trailer can be a full time job in itself.

But convincing a lambless ewe to accept another's orphan takes a considerable amount of subterfuge. Because a mother will automatically reject any lamb lacking her imprinted odor, the orphan must be fitted into a "jacket" made from the skin of the mother's own dead lamb. With mother sheep, the eyes might be fooled but never the nose.

Lambing out all of Tomas band takes ten hectic days, followed by two more weeks of quiet grazing and nursing for both ewes and lambs. By then their bonding instincts are strong enough to survive the rigors of the remaining uphill miles to summer pasture. They must climb several low passes before finally reaching their destination, where the terrain is so mountainous that Tomas will be forced to abandon his wagon and live in a tent.

Although summer herding is a mostly passive exercise, Tomas' thoughts race ahead to the season's end when his contract terminates and he returns to Mexico. When asked, Tomas is not certain of his future there. "I don't know what I'll do when I return," he says. "Maybe open a store or buy a business with the money I've saved. When you first go back, you're so turned around that you have to wait and think a while before making any plans."

Tomas is certain of one thing, however--he does not intend to herd sheep ever again. "This life isn't for everybody. How can you put up with so much solitude? Maybe Prospero and Felipe can do it because in their countries they're used to hard work and bad weather. For them, there's not a lot of difference between here and there. But I'm still young. I want to get back these last few years I've lost up here."

But first Tomas must get his band out of the mountains and back down the trail to the desert flats where they will spend another winter. When he again crosses Highway 50, all of the ram lambs and many of the ewe lambs will be trucked to California feedlot. Although a bittersweet time for any herder, shipping off his lambs will be a most fitting way for Tomas to complete his contract.

At the end of next summer, Tomas will say goodbye to his three years as a Nevada sheepherder and a new herder will be hired to replace him. And from wherever the new man should come either Felix, Felipe, or Prospero will welcome him, pleased to have the company of a countryman who brings news from home.

Louis Werner is a freelance writer and independent producer/director of documentary films.
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Title Annotation:includes related article on documentary film about contract sheepherders; sheepherders' solitary existence in Nevada's Great Basin
Author:Werner, Louis
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Mar 1, 1991
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