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Tending Flock Not for the Sheepish : Immigrants Brave Isolation, Elements in Wilds of Idaho

Charles Hillinger's America

January 04, 1987|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

GEM COUNTY, Ida. — Shrill whistles and repeated shouts by two men rend the still, crisp air.

In response, three black-and-white dogs bound up a hill chasing stragglers, circling the band of 4,200 sheep, turning the woolly animals toward a better crop of alfalfa stubble.

Rolling pasture land and towering, glistening snow-shrouded mountains are visible in all directions. But there are no signs of other human beings--no houses, barns or roads.

Sheepherding in the foothills and mountains of southwestern Idaho's remote outback is one of the loneliest jobs imaginable.

Separated From Family

"I don't mind taking care of the sheep," said Vicente Valle, a native of Peru. "The hard part is the solitude and being separated from my wife and 9-year-old daughter month after month for three years."

Valle, 31, left his home in Juancayo, Peru, a year ago to run sheep here. He is one of a few hundred men who have left their native lands of Mexico, Peru and the Basque country of the French and Spanish Pyrenees mountains to tend sheep in the United States.

"In Peru I was lucky to make $60 a month as a laborer. In America I make 10 times as much: $600 a month watching the sheep. It means my wife and I have more money than we ever dreamed possible," Valle said.

Like nearly all foreign sheepherders in this country, Valle did not know anything about sheep before he came here.

"Everybody thinks that we Basque were all sheepherders in the Old Country before coming to America. Not so. I never ran sheep in Spain," said Eusebio Jayo, 61, as he and Valle took time out for lunch in their home, a covered wagon parked on a hilltop a half-mile from the grazing sheep.

"It just happened when Basques first started migrating to America in the late 1800s they hired on as sheepherders. It was an available job," he said. "Ever since the cousins, nephews, sons, grandsons and great-grandsons of those original Basque sheepherders have been working the sheep in America."

For Jayo, the years since he left his home in Guernica, Spain, 18 years ago have become a blur.

He has never returned, not even for the funerals of his mother and father. And he rarely leaves his sheep except to spend an occasional night in a small Idaho hamlet or a day or two in the capital of Boise.

"I give it another year, then I go home to the Basque country in Spain where I retire," Jayo said, standing on the ladder of his covered wagon. A recently butchered sheep from his flock--frozen in the midday 24-degree temperature--hung from the back of the wagon.

It is a custom for two men to work each band of sheep in the hills and mountains of Idaho.

"When I came here in 1969, I was paid $225 a month. Owners of the sheep provide us with food. Now, I get $700 a month. I saved almost every penny I made in America, enough money to live out the rest of my life in comfort without ever working again when I go back to Spain," Jayo said.

Jose Arrieta, 46, a Basque sheepherder for 28 years, in recent years has been a camp supplier for a dozen sheep outfits. He brings food and supplies in a four-wheel-drive truck every couple of weeks to each pair of sheepherders.

Arrieta and son Jon, 9, had brought Jayo and Valle fresh fruit and vegetables, canned food for their three sheep dogs, canned goods for the two shepherds, coffee, cereal, milk, eggs, mail, books and magazines.

"For Vicente this life is a killer, being alone like we are. He is homesick for his (wife) Irma, for Danitza, his daughter," Jayo said. "For me it is not a lonely existence. I relish this life alone.

"At night we read by the light of a lantern. Vicente and I talk about our two countries. He tells me about Peru. I tell him about the Basque country. We talk about our hometowns, about our family and friends, about the good times and the bad times we remember."

News From Europe

The two men live in the covered wagon during December, January and February. Inside are two bunk beds, tiny stools, boxes of food, a wood stove for cooking and heat. On their short-wave radio they listen to news from Peru and Spain.

Jayo is the cook. He also breaks camp almost every day, moving the wagon from one pasture to another while Valle watches the sheep.

During the nine months they spend in the high mountains, the men sleep in tents and move from meadow to meadow on pack horses. They brave blizzards, sub-zero temperatures, hailstorms, thunder and lightening and heavy rain as their sheep eat 100 miles into the mountains and 100 miles back to the foothills in the yearlong cycle.

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