Friday, April 25, 2014

Lighting out for the Territories, 4: Clueless cowboys...

Rancher Cliven Bundy's refusal to pay his federal grazing fees has captured the imagination of many Americans who know nothing about public lands and assume people can do as they please when on them. They can't, thank God.                                                       

  I got interested in the West while working for the Washington Post, years ago. I wanted to write about the vast public lands, what I saw as a "kingdom in the country," and since the editor didn't know what they were, I took off in a van on my own. Below is one chapter from the book that was later published by Houghton Mifflin and has just been rewritten and reissued in paperback:                                                                                    

                                                                  Antelope Clover

I had driven for two days across the plains of Oklahoma and Texas, seeing redbud blooming on the stream banks and smelling manure and diesel fumes, when suddenly the West began. Huge country rises from the Pecos River toward a lost, rocky upthrust known as the Capitan Mountains, in southeast New Mexico. In April, antelope clover turns whole sections an electric yellow, and the long straight road mounts and dips among the thermals.
This rising plateau country is the range, the most salient aspect of the West, and the most evocative. Walter Prescott Webb wrote of the range, "There you will see action, experience adventure, hear strange new words, and see a relationship between man and man, man and horses, man and cattle, man and woman, that you will find nowhere else in America."
When I thought of the range I thought of sweeping country altered by cows and sheep; of men on horseback, remote settlements in difficult places; of gorgeous scenery in which you could become lost; of self-sufficiency and hardship and raucous good times. All of those images inform the notion of Western character so important to our national myths, an idea still vigorously mined by cigarette advertisers and scriptwriters.
In that notion of superior Western character, the range is ruled by individualists — ranchers bound by the wisdom and audacity of their own decisions. But what they think about this view, and how they actually do what they do in this era of feedlots and the disappearing beef-eater remained a mystery to me. I often wondered exactly who these people were and why they kept at it.
 That first day in the West, as I approached the junction of the narrow highway and a dusty track without a sign, mailboxes came into view. They sat on a pipe frame that had been welded in someone's barn, proof of life beyond mirage; they were full of bullet holes. For the first time in hours I got out of my steel box, with its cushiony tires, vibrant electronics, and all the insulation of the contemporary voyager. The bright colors of mail-order catalogues gleamed in shafts of sunlight; I heard the wind whisper through the ventilated names of strangers.
One of those mailboxes belonged to Bud Eppers, who owned land in the last unbroken string of ranches in New Mexico, extending a hundred miles south from Vaughn to Roswell and sixty miles west to Ruidoso. This part of the state, close to the Texas Panhandle, had been the scene of big cattle drives the century before and now was home to more sheep than cows. They foraged and birthed on Bud Eppers's thirty thousand lean acres, the lambs and calves standing up on wobbly legs amidst sacaton grass and dried mud left by rare rainstorms, gawking at big open country between the high plains and the Chihuahuan Desert.
Eppers's was the first wire fence I came to west of the Pecos, and the first stop on my journey. I had met him at a stockmen's convocation in Denver the autumn before; he was expecting me. Bud owned cows and sheep but was identified as a sheepman, an ongoing bit of cultural segregation as old as the West. As soon as a cattleman acquires a sheep he loses a century's worth of social superiority. The sheepmen have the reticence of any minority but tend to open up more than cattlemen once you get to know them. Bud talked in unabashedly countrified locutions about yoyos who worked for the federal government, and the deficiencies of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which forced the BLM to actively manage the land. He had a boxer's two-tiered nose, and when he took off his hat he revealed the white head that is the hallmark of ranchers.
I assumed that a man with thirty thousand acres lived in relative splendor, with a green lawn and a servant or two. But Bud lived in a whitewashed stone house that had a corrugated iron roof and was surrounded by piles of rock, at the end of a sixteen-mile dirt road. A string of bright red chiles hung from the eaves. A cow skull sat on the ground next to a metal screen door that would have been more appropriate on a penal institution than a ranch house.
Bud came out to greet me in faded Levi's and pointy-toed boots that were split up the seams and covered with a patina of dried mud and sheep dung. A cracked leather belt with a silver buckle held up a middle-age spread. On his Cat hat — one of those billed, slogan-bearing caps made stylish by the drivers of Caterpillar tractors — was an advertisement for a feedlot in Roswell, the closest town. As he showed me around his place he pointed out a ramada he had built of pipe to shelter the geraniums from the sun. When we passed an old Chevy pickup sitting in the grass, a bullet hole in the windshield, Bud said affectionately, "Kids."
His three sons and a daughter all lived in distant towns. They preferred life on the ranch, but thirty thousand acres would not support more than one family, not when you needed forty acres to run five sheep or one cow. Fewer people were eating beef and lamb, and paying less for the privilege. And the federal government wanted to raise grazing fees, with the livestock industry already ailing.
The Epperses' house had been built in 1850 and patched and painted over the years by Bud and his wife, Alice, a sturdy woman who in a pinch could do any work required of her husband. Now she put on stockings and make-up every morning and went to work for the local congressman in Roswell, an eighty-six-mile round trip. Some days she and Bud talked more by CB radio than face to face, while she drove back and forth over the blacktop and he traveled the back roads in his pickup. Often he had to make dinner himself.
"And he gets to make up his side of the bed," Alice said. 
"Women's lib," said Bud.
His CB handle was Redman, after the brand of chewing tobacco; hers was Padrona. They had been born within three months of one another, and delivered in Roswell by the same general practitioner. Both were accustomed to ranch life, however. She carried a .38 Smith & Wesson in the front seat of her car, mostly for shooting rattlesnakes, and he carried a .357 magnum.
We ate dinner prepared from cans. Bud had bought a secondhand pool table for $150, balls and cues included, and a beer tap where he drew a single ice-cold mugful each evening after work. There was plenty still to do on the house, but the Epperses didn't have the time or the money. Ranching wasn't the moneymaker it had once been. Bud's secondhand Cessna sat on a sage flat above the house, unused in more than a year.
His stepfather had come to New Mexico from Missouri in a covered wagon and lived to see space shuttles hurtled into the atmosphere on the screen of the Zenith color set in Bud and Alice's living room. He died at eighty, after that same general practitioner who had delivered Bud and Alice removed a piece of his intestine. He had seen some of the range wars in what became Chaves County. Water, not land, was the power base. Once you understood that, Bud said, you could understand the West. Bud ran three hundred mother cows and sixteen hundred ewes on land not designed for such an industry. Now he could barely make ends meet. His ranch was part his and part the government's, although he didn't think of it that way. He had inherited the land and water, and grazing rights on government land that went with the water rights he owned, all from his stepfather. He treated all the land as his own, but in fact he paid grazing fees to the Bureau of Land Management for much of it.
The measurement of use was something called an Animal Unit Month, or AUM, a complicated formula that boiled down to $1.35 a month per cow, or 27 cents per sheep. That seemed cheap to me, but Bud recalled the time before the passage of the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934 when the range was free. It would be free again if he had anything to say about it. The range, in his view, had become the province of the politicians and bureaucrats. They had tried to force him to adapt his fences to let antelope through. Bud had always objected to the federal government telling him how to ranch, but this was the last straw. And he was willing to go to extremes to preserve what he saw as his rights.
Although he owned and carried several guns, Bud had never used one on a human being. Instead, he registered his protest to government interference by going to Rock Springs, Wyoming, to testify before the Senate Subcommittee on Administrative Practice and Procedure. The only other time he had stood up before a group of people was to call a square dance at the Roswell high school. Bud told the senators, "I resent statements by bureau personnel that all or the majority of public lands are being considerably abused by the livestock permittees."
Asked by a senator about BLM agents' knowledge of ranching, Bud had said, "They lack strongly in that area."
"His voice shook," Alice said.
"I was scared," Bud admitted, "but the force of what I wanted to say helped me overcome it."
He was invited to the nation's capital to testify again, and he took along a .38 revolver, as he always did when traveling. When he was finished on the Hill he dropped the pistol into the pocket of his suit jacket, which he left hanging in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency while he had a drink with another rancher. He didn't discover that the gun had been stolen until he got back to New Mexico. "I almost went back and found the bastard," he said. "If there's anything I hate, it's a thief."

I went to bed in their spare room and propped the pillows up against the whitewashed wall. Stuffed animals sat in old milk crates, waiting for the Epperses' grandchildren. Beyond the window I could see hills flushed with the yellow light of a westward-trending moon and the dark crease of the Macho Draw, which ran through the ranch, dry now. Bud had called this land "right rough ole country." I thought of the Anglos who settled here in the early nineteenth century; they had contended with the Spanish for what they considered theirs. In 1845 a magazine editor named John L. Sullivan excoriated foreign countries for "limiting our greatness and checking the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions."
Those multiplying millions were at first reluctant to die at the hands of savages, or to starve in country rough beyond their imagining; they had to be oratorically prodded out of Eastern cities. By the time of the Civil War most land in the West not too rough or dry to be plowed had come into private ownership, much of it through fraud. The Homestead Act at the end of a string of uncommonly wet years moved nesters into places normally unfit for farming or other human sustenance. Boosters like William Gilpin, the territorial governor of Colorado, proclaimed that moisture followed the plow and that firewood lay under the sand and that, in short, agrarian culture could modify the West's aridity and transform the landscape. It was a cruelly deceptive claim.
Tenacious dirt plowers and their suppliers, including disgruntled Southerners fleeing the aftermath of the Civil War, settled by the dozens along the Macho, where no families live today. Three derelict schoolhouses are testimony to the homesteaders' optimism. Eighteen inches of annual rain at the end of the last century had meant flowing streams year round, and flourishing grain; but that precipitation proved to be a fluke, and widespread disaster followed in the drier years. Bud himself had been raised in one of the settlers' dugouts, a one-room house with a dirt floor, but he belonged to a very different tradition, that of the stockman, fencer of the range. His stepfather had bought up a number of homesteads early in the century, after extended drought ended the squatters' dreams.
John Wesley Powell, the first runner of the Colorado River and visionary of the settled arid West, advocated more land for homesteaders, to be sold or given to them according to the amount of available water. Where water was scarce, more land would help overcome the shortage of moisture and so of crops. But Congress stuck with its policy; too little land for homesteads created cemeteries in country where individual families could not make a living on a quarter-section or a half-section or even a whole section. Before the end of the century, cattle and sheep had come to dominate the West.
In 1890 the U.S. Bureau of the Census announced that for the first time it had been unable to discover a clear boundary between wild and settled areas. Officially, there was no longer a frontier. But the West as a state of mind remained important to Americans, whether or not they intended to go there. "American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier," Frederick Jackson Turner said in 1893, in a speech before the American Historical Association that left a lasting impression. Free land, he said, had made our unique democracy possible. "This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, furnish the forces dominating American character."
The evolution of public lands could be seen from the window of Bud's spare room. The homesteads had clung to the river, where low meadows received water at least some of the year. They could be plowed, and wells dug, and a house built like this one, within sight if not the shade of cottonwoods. The higher country, away from water — the land nobody wanted — touched and mingled with the private holdings, but its ownership had been ignored or taken for granted. No one wanted to buy this land when it was for sale. It had been free for the use up until the passage of the Taylor Grazing Act. Now the government leased it for far less than the cost of grazing rights on similar private land, but ranchers had always considered the public land theirs. They still did.

Bud had not saddled a horse in two years. Dirt bikes were faster than a horse, he told me, and cheaper. "When my Honda's settin' there, it ain't eatin'," he liked to say.
He and another rancher were getting ready to round up sheep to be tagged, a cooperative process known as neighboring. Bud's neighbor straddled a new candy-apple-red Honda, much brighter than Bud's mud-splattered two-year-old. The rancher's jeans were unfaded, his shirt pressed, his Cat hat spotless. He wore a .38 revolver in a new nylon holster — protection, he called it — tied down to one thick thigh. He sold real estate in Roswell and had decided to take up ranching in one of the worst years in fifty.
They waited for the third member of the party to catch up, a Mexican who worked for Bud. He feared his dirt bike and rode it badly. Now the shriek of his engine carried up from the dry bed of the Macho, out of sight below the steep-cut bank.
"Watch," said Bud.
The Mexican vaulted into view, legs dangling like wet linguine, and landed in a cloud of dust. He almost went over the handlebars but regained his balance and bravely smiled.
"You can't get good wets anymore," the real estate agent said, unperturbed by the presence of the Mexican, who spoke no English. "They used to walk up here from the border and hang around the barn, to see if you'd give 'em food. If you didn't need 'em, they'd move on."
"Now they walk right up to the house," said Bud. "Or drive up."
All three men sputtered off in search of ewes, across land severely grazed for a century or more. I waited in the shadow of the barn. Half an hour later, forty sheep came down from the hills, made skittish by the dirt bikes. The men herded them into the corral and dismounted.
I joined them, as did a Mexican who worked for the real estate agent; we all waded in with pliers and blue plastic tags, grasping handfuls of wool and punching holes in the ears of the animals. The ears bled, and the sheep lunged and bleated, raising dust that drifted across the yard and the dry Macho and the arching, lemony sweep of country.
After the tagging was done, conversation turned to predators. Coyotes were the worst, Bud said. They crawled through holes in the net wire fences strung for sheep, and preyed on lambs. "It's damn near impossible for a coyote to get away from a dirt bike," he said. He carried a .22-250 rifle on the Honda, between his legs, fitted with an eight-power Leopold scope, the bluing long since worn away by the machine's vibration. Sometimes he just ran over the coyotes.
Eagles were also a problem. In the old days ranchers killed them, but that was illegal now. The real estate agent remembered checking snares with a dog, which killed most of the predators on the spot, but not the eagles: "We had to beat 'em off that dog."
The sheep were to be trucked to spring pasture. The men loaded them into a trailer and then put the dirt bikes into the pickups, just like horses. Bud said goodbye to his neighbor and climbed into his pickup with his Mexican, Abel, and me. Abel's clothes were grease-stained and smelled of wood smoke. As Bud drove toward home, Abel jumped out of the truck to open gates, the real measure of distance and proprietorship on land with few natural barriers.
Abel got out for good at the tin-roofed shack where Bud allowed him to live and unloaded the hated dirt bike. He had wrecked it once and broken his wrist, but biking went with the job. I felt sorry for him.
"Hope we get some wind," Bud said. "I want to burn that old sacaton in the bottoms, so the new grass'll grow."

Bud went out to the machine shed before supper, to change the oil seal in the Honda. Alice, sitting on the sofa and combing out her freshly washed hair, told me something of his past. The conversation was accompanied by the sound of the television set.
Bud's real father had left his mother while Bud was an infant, Alice said. "He never knew why his father left, he never asked his mother. He thought if she'd wanted him to know, she would have told him." She tugged the comb through a tangle. "His father didn't go far, just down into Texas. We pass the town all the time, on the way to El Paso. Once I said, 'Why don't we get off the Interstate and go look up your father?' Bud said, 'I don't care to meet him.'
"Bud can't tell even a little lie. It's what gets him, gets all the ranchers, into trouble. Their individuality."
He came in and washed his hands. He sat down with the newspaper. "I've never seen so many ranches for sale," he said. The next morning the Epperses' oldest boy, Tom, called to ask if he could drop the kids off for the weekend. He ran a feedlot in the Texas Panhandle; he and his wife were headed for the Albuquerque Marriott for a brief vacation.
Bud and I drove out after lunch to meet them. "My forebears made all the improvements here," he said, pointing to a stand of grama grass. "They made the pastures and drilled the wells and put the water around. But the BLM don't think ranchers are worthy. They don't know anything about ranching. They're bureaucrats. They sit around that Roswell office with all their vehicles and their feet up on the desk, and try to tell us what to do."
We sat next to the highway, facing east. Thermals on the horizon gave the impression of rampaging herds. Antelope strolled across the foreground, with mulish faces and white rumps. A station wagon sailed up on the far side of the road, and Tom and his wife and children got out. Tom wore a new Stetson, his wife a new blue pantsuit. The towheaded boy rose in his grandfather's arms, followed by his sister. They were Kirk and Lisa, six and seven, minted in the Panhandle and soft as her Cabbage Patch doll.
A rancher cruised past in a pickup, finger raised in greeting. "They foreclosed on him," Bud said, of the rancher.
"The heck!" said Tom.
Tom and his wife went on to Albuquerque; Bud and I drove back to the ranch, with Kirk and Lisa on the seat between us, sitting contentedly on the tools of their grandfather's trade: baling wire, a Phillips screwdriver, a chisel, and a .357 Ruger.
Bud looked down at Kirk. "Now what's this I hear about you being in love?"
Bud turned in past the riddled mailboxes; he fished his CB microphone down from the sun visor and thumbed the button. "How 'bout it, Padrona?"
Nothing but static came back. He tried it again, and put the mike away. "I was lucky to get the gal I got," he said. "She's town-raised but moved out here and learned to like it. It's not something everyone would enjoy. You learn to tough it out, to pull together. Our lifestyle's changed," he added, "with Alice working and me on all these boards."
He was chairman of the Public Lands Committee of the New Mexico Woolgrowers Association and a similar committee of the New Mexico Cattlegrowers; president of the New Mexico Public Lands Council; and vice chairman of the Public Lands Council of the National Cattlemen's Association. Now Bud wanted to run for the New Mexico legislature. He hated government so much he was about to become a politician.
Spending time with Bud, I had learned that the range is an intensely public affair and that ranchers depend heavily upon the system, like everybody else. They have to pay rent, obey rules, fill out forms, and tolerate the presence of government specialists in water, grass, and livestock on "their" ranches.
Alice had beaten us home. She was watching television, shoes off, stocking feet up on the couch. Lisa and Kirk changed into their bathing suits but Alice wouldn't let them swim in the water tank, it being only April. Bud took them out into the dust and spent an hour tossing a softball while they cut at it with an old hickory bat. Then he drew us both a beer. Alice served enchiladas and sat off to one side, dieting, while the men ate.
That night Bud stood in the front yard next to his Honda, watching thunderheads build in the north. The unused Cessna sat forlornly against the gray backdrop. The wind had come up; the sky, spectacular even by Bud's standards, held a burnt ocher sun and purple wisps of moisture riding down toward Mexico.
Spidery lightning spooked the kids, promising rain.
"We won't catch it," Bud said. "Not when the fire stays in the clouds."
Big drops drummed on the tin roof but, sure enough, the rain moved on.
"Oh, it's good ole country when you can get some water on it," he said. "Maybe this wind'll hold. I hope there’ll come a rain. I've got grass that needs a-burning.                   

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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Pulling cork: the Alsatian standard

      When unsure what wine to order in a restaurant, or for dinner at home for that matter, and there's one from Alsace available, buy it. Standards are exceptionally high and the quality generally better overall than for other wine regions, domestic and otherwise.
      Whites are the staple in Alsace, the grapes Germanic in expression if not in fact - i.e. riesling lives intimately with pinot blanc, both having great clarity, relatively low alcohol and high acid, which results in a crisp finish and never a headache (unless you drink the whole bottle, and even then it's not guaranteed).
      Unfortunately there are few Alsatian estates producing a variety of top wines at really good prices, until recently. The newest, and welcome addition to the market, is Helfrich, a family winery in northern Alsace that offers whites from a brightly sparkling cremant to powerful grand crus riesling and pinot gris costing more than $20 a bottle. But it is the second tier of wines that will have the most appeal - riesling (great body), pinot gris (lean, hint of pine forest), pinot blanc (great nose, hint of kiwi, my favorite) and gewurtztraminer (fragrant but not overpowering) - at about $16. The label's appealingly industrial-chic and the commendable screw-top prevails.
     Helfrich wines go very well with spring and summer fare and should generally appeal to younger wine drinkers branching out from same-old chardonnay and pinot grigio. Alsatian wines are a good match for most things, from goat cheese to rabbit in mustard (see below). Some of the exquisite taste can be attributed to pink sandstone underlying the vineyard in the Couronne d'Or, a piece of which sits next to my glass, not in Molsheim but in Washington, DC.                                            


Saturday, April 19, 2014

Lighting out for the Territories, 3: Sleeping with grizzlies

              I got interested in the West while working for the Washington Post, years ago. I wanted to write about the vast public lands, what I saw as a "kingdom in the country," and since the editor didn't know what they were, I took off in a van on my own. Below is one chapter from the book that was later published by Houghton Mifflin and has just been rewritten and reissued in paperback:                                                 

                                    Hayduke Lives

      He wintered in Tucson and spent summers up against the Canadian border, spotting fires for the Park Service and tracking grizzlies and photographing them for no particular reason. He liked fine cooking, or so the stories went, and was a fair cook himself. He liked to drink, and had lost the hearing in one ear in a barroom brawl. His nickname was Arapaho, although no one seemed to know why. He was the inspiration behind a major character in Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang, a man of large appetites named Hayduke. Twice in different parts of the West I had seen bumper stickers that said "Hayduke Lives." I knew it was true, but finding him was another matter. Telephone numbers I had been given rang funny bells in cabins and throbbing taverns set up on those slivers of mountain fastness between larger chunks of public land. People had seen him here and there, always bound for somewhere else, wife and children in tow. He was in the area, they said; it was the best they could do.
In truth, I didn't want to find him. His real name was Doug Peacock and the area was Glacier National Park and the Flathead National Forest — prime grizzly habitat. To find Doug Peacock was to risk going into the woods with him. For ten years he had studied and then photographed grizzlies with varying degrees of intimacy. He knew where they swarmed in season, and had collected grizzly footage unlike any other. The seral scrub fields were utterly neglected by hikers, and by Forest Service rangers. Peacock had been relieved of his fire-spotting duties because he criticized their handling of grizzlies. The officials didn't want Peacock at large in their woods, which already had a bad name because of human death by bears.
"I give Peacock more space than my 'learned' colleagues," said a wildlife biologist working for Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks a month before. "He's an old-style naturalist and may be the best source on grizzly behavior. It doesn't take a lot to determine what's in bear shit, but Peacock approaches the question with a philosophical as well as a biological concern. I wish I had his passion."
Peacock had last been sighted in Polebridge, a tiny community up the North Fork of the Flathead River, thirteen miles of serious washboard culminating in a scattering of cabins, the Northern Lights saloon, and a general store with a barrel nailed to the wall containing a telephone. Polebridge conveyed the gentle shock of recognition — a reliquary of imagined Western virtues in a charmed state. The Coca-Cola sign on the roof bore an ancient patina of rust, and facsimiles of old Burma-Shave signs beside the dirt road read, "Inconsiderate... sons of bitches... throw their beer cans... in the ditches.                                

Pickups eased onto the grass here so as not to raise too much dust, and men drank at the tiny bar and looked out the window through the fine Montana weather at snow hanging on the escarpment of Starvation Peak. The whiskery bartender had heard that Doug Peacock was in Missoula, attending a convention of grizzly experts, information that secretly pleased me: no one could blame me for eating the Northern Lights' taco salad and moving on, without having to go looking for bears.
The convention was sponsored by something called the Great Bear Foundation. Grizzlies have become the seminal environmental issue in the mountain West, and a symbol of the last truly wild and unmanageable aspect of primeval America. People tend to locate themselves among the political megafauna by their attitudes toward grizzlies. Grizzly habitat also supports woodland caribou and wolves, but big bears cut across every environmental issue, and so it was little wonder that a bear convention had filled up Missoula's Village Red Lion Inn. I telephoned there, and to my surprise soon had Peacock on the line. "I'll ask you to cover your pack if it's a bright color," he said huskily, with a slight stammer, "and to wear camouflage clothes. Sometimes they fly that area in a helicopter."
He and a friend had a trip planned and they didn't want to be spotted by the FS — Peacock's avowed enemies. They would camp in dense bottomland forest less than a football field away from a major grizzly highway, and spend the days photographing. "I don't know how dangerous it is," he added.
He made his living photographing and writing about grizzlies; only three times in his life had he grossed as much as four thousand dollars. Occasionally he hired himself out to television crews needing grizzlies in their telephotos, but mostly he wandered unassigned in the best and really the only unspoiled grizzly habitat in the Lower Forty-eight. "I had to borrow a grand to get up here from Tucson," he said. "We call it migratory poverty."
Grizzlies were a disturbing phenomenon to contemplate. The stories of deaths, maulings, and lesser grizzly misbehavior carried mythic overtones, which did not keep 2 million visitors a year from coming to Glacier National Park. In the last decade or so, well over a hundred people had had their gear damaged by bears. One notorious grizzly ransacked cabins up and down the North Fork valley and even broke into a U-Haul trailer before he was finally shot. Twenty people had been injured by bears in the same time period, and four killed. One killing had involved a man named Laurence Gordon, who hiked to Elizabeth Lake with several religious books in his pack. A bear ate most of him, and left tooth marks on one of his scriptural texts.
Peacock and I were to meet at a cabin set among lodgepole pine, in grazed-over meadow. I got there early and to pass time assembled my fly rod and struck a half-mile through the woods to the North Fork of the Flathead. A semblance of civilization lay just upstream, but the water had that deep green, uncluttered power of wild rivers anywhere. A downed fir took me across to a rocky spit in the middle; I waded in jogging shoes, pushing an old Cahill toward the far bank, hoping a trout would rise. I switched to a wet fly, but it was a difficult stretch to fish in the best of moods. The water ran fast and clear, with dense forest on the far side. I lashed the water. It was not the streaks of cloud across the sun that distracted me, but the prospect of encountering bears the next day in Peacock's company. Finally I put the rod down and took off my clothes and got into the river, which seemed to help.
Peacock arrived in late afternoon, in a small car packed with disposable diapers. His wife, Lisa, drove their two small children like turkeys toward the outdoor privy. Peacock reminded me of an aging tackle at summer football camp; he was wearing shorts and boots and had legs like hairy telephone poles, a slab of chest, a grizzled black beard. He shook my hand and began doing back exercises to relieve the pain from an injury picked up in one of a variety of violent encounters. "A goddamn front's coming in," he said, looking west.
Another car arrived, driven by his friend and photographic assistant, Dan Sullivan. He also had a black beard, and considerably more hair on top. Sullivan lived outside Chicago and owned part of a company that cleaned up toxic waste sites.
We set our packs up under the pines and spread gear on the grass: sleeping bags, sweaters, film in plastic canisters, two camera bodies, a telephoto lens the size of a small cannon, lots of garbage bags. "I don't know how Lewis and Clark did it without garbage bags," Peacock said.
He held up a Bic lighter. It was to be used in case grizzlies came marauding, to light a stash of kindling kept dry at all times in one of the garbage bags, close to a can of lighter fluid. "One night I listened to bears walking around all night, before a sow and her cubs got real close. It was my first time to use fire as a deterrent, and all I had brought was a Newsweek. It didn't burn worth a shit."
We would take along only granola bars and homemade trail mix, which had no scent. We would eat huckleberries, bear fare and a good source of sugar and vitamins. If you ate what the bear ate, so the theory went, you might smell a bit less human. Peacock had occasionally conducted sweats to purge himself of human odors, and stored his clothes in bags with dirt and leaves before putting them on, but there was no time for that now.
"It's a calculated risk," Dan said, carefully wrapping the telephoto in a sweater and the sweater in a garbage bag.
Peacock scratched a biceps when he talked, or beat himself around the shoulders with sticks, blinking furiously. There was something ursine about him. "Grizzlies should be listed as endangered," he said. "Poaching takes a lot of bears, and managing them. They die after being tranquilized, and while being moved. But if the managers stopped , people would be put out of work. We have a bureaucrat for every bear out there."
He blinked some more. "What it does, really, is create more specialists to study what's already been studied." Bear counts, he said, were highly extrapolative; no one really knew how many bears there were in the Glacier-Flathead complex, or in Peacock's chosen spot. "We might well not see a grizzly."
He opened a canteen full of Wild Turkey. "Everyone to his own narcotic. Mine happens to be alcohol."
Dan said, "You wacko 'Nam vet."
It had the ring of something private and long-lived. Peacock had studied Vietnamese in Hawaii before they met, and ended up a medic in the Fifth Special Forces, running a military hospital near My Lai. He was captured by the North Vietnamese but wouldn't bear much questioning about that experience. They released him, he said, because he ate too much.
Lisa assembled chili on the butane stove, unconcerned about the next day's mission. "I don't worry about him up there," she said. "He's at his best then. I worry about him in the bars."
She set a chunk of cheddar on a stump and we cut hunks of it with my Buck knife. The question of tents arose, and whether I should sleep alone in mine. "Can three people fit into our North Face?" Peacock asked, and when Lisa said yes I wanted to hug her.
Her husband owned a .44 magnum, bought from a friend who acquired it from a Blackfoot; Peacock suspected that the pistol had quite a provenance. He didn't carry it when he was working, and he didn't allow those traveling with him to arm themselves. The presence of a gun changed the relationship between people and bears, he said, and offered false assurance. For months I had been surrounded by guns and now when I wanted one, they were disallowed.
We ate supper from paper plates.
"Why do you like bears so much?" I asked, hoping for some reassurance.
"They don't reduce to the idea that we have a dominion," Peacock said. "They're old-time outlaws and sons of bitches. They can kill and eat you. It's a contradiction to say we can manage such a critter. We should just back off, but we've never been able to do that — it's part of our Manifest Destiny not to." And then, "Bears represent a domain where man isn't king, a magic place — our last chance to take a walk in the big woods.                                                  

That night I woke up to the howling of coyotes, an ethereal yapping that echoed through the valley of the North Fork. It made me shiver but also thrilled me. I was afraid of morning but at the same time driven toward it, and was up at dawn, lacing my boots. A light came on in the cabin, and soon we were tossing packs into the back of a pickup. Lisa and the kids would travel with us to the jump-off point, and she would drive the truck back.
The four adults piled into the front seat, our laps full of cameras, sweaters, and children wrapped in blankets. The little girl threw up after a few minutes of the washboard road, eliciting from her father a profane condemnation of microorganisms in the drinking water. Lisa took care of it, commenting on the beauty of morning sun on mountains knitted in granite, heavily firred, with elephantine rocks amidst the greenery. The Bob Marshall lay miles to the south and east, beyond the stately, cerulean cadence of the Flathead River, and beyond that the Rocky Mountain Front — one enormous conduit for things wild, and imagined.
A few miles away lay the Great Western, the ag center, the acupuncturist's, Montana Earth Pottery, Retiro Cabins, and the used car lots of Kalispell — what Peacock called Cowsmell, in another century.
On a deserted road on the valley floor, Peacock pulled over and he, Dan Sullivan, and I bailed out like a helitack team and hauled our packs from the truck. As Lisa drove off, we scrambled through scrub aspen and into the woods by way of an abandoned trail, careful to stay out of sight of a passing car that might contain a government ranger.
Within half a mile we came upon dry grizzly scat, crumbling and full of hawthorn berries. We crossed a terrace of ferns and, traveling in single file, entered a stand of huge climax larches. Thorny devil's club raked our packs, but otherwise we moved silently. More scat, very fresh, lay like a loaf of black braided bread in the middle of the trail. Anything capable of such a spectacular dump deserved respect. Peacock picked up some, examined and sniffed it, the naturalist in search of components. He passed the specimen along; it smelled like smokeless tobacco to me.
Glacier grizzlies were smaller than those in Yellowstone but could still weigh close to six hundred pounds. This one had left a print in the bed of the stream where we filled the canteens; it was a broad dish with the crown of claw marks that distinguishes grizzly tracks from those of the black bear, as if there could have been any doubt left by the size of the print.
After an hour we emerged into sunlight, facing a mountainside covered with ruddy shrubs. "Huckleberries," Peacock said. "The leaves have already turned."
We stashed the tent and sleeping gear in a side valley and bushwhacked up near-vertical slopes thick with the huckleberry bushes. Within minutes our shirts were soaked with sweat. Peacock stopped to wring out his camouflage bandana and picked some berries — fat, glossy nubs of flavor better than anything I had experienced from a supermarket. Centuries of cross-hybridization had produced hues from black to crimson, tastes from tart to sweet. The bears gorged on the berries in season, sweeping the mountainsides until the first frost killed the fruit.
The huckleberries thinned out as we climbed. Fewer shrubs and more sunlight meant even lusher crops, however, skirted by elk and deer trails converging at the ridge's rocky spine. Scrub fir afforded some cover. A towering snag leaned out starkly against the gathering cirrus, and behind us the mountains reared like upended funnels, snow tight in the crevices. Heavy timber lay below, on both sides of a ridge, in landlocked valleys.
Nothing moved among the deadfall or around the muddy melt ponds in the valleys' end zones. We took off the packs and covered the brightly colored cloth with garbage bags. Peacock unlimbered his tripod. From the stand of larch directly below came the staccato call of a shafted flicker. "Something's bothered it," he said, maneuvering his good ear in that direction. "I can hear them breathing."
Bears slept a lot, lying on what he called day beds, a ludicrous description when applied to anything as large as a grizzly. It was not a good idea to disturb one on a day bed, but then it was a worse idea to disturb one feeding or drinking or caring for its young. "I think it's a sow with cubs. Sometimes the cubs get up and want to play, like kids, and she has to slap 'em down."
Powerful inferences, I thought, from nothing more than a bird call in a shadowy clump of trees. I sat on a rock, my shirt gone clammy in the wind. Dan knelt beside me, a pair of heavy tank-spotting binoculars dangling from his neck. He pointed to the slope opposite and said softly, "Look, there's a grizzly bear."
At first I couldn't see it. Then a small piece of the mountain lurched, and amidst the huckleberry bushes honey-colored haunches took shape, then the hump between the shoulders that makes grizzlies so different from other bears: muscle that drives the powerful forelegs. The bushes shook as if in an earthquake. The bear turned and gazed speculatively down toward the pond. It resembled several animals in one skin, each doing its job while the whole supple contraption loped downhill, the contrasting gold hair and black undercoat adding to its fluidity. It stopped at the water's edge and stared vaguely in our direction. A grizzly's eyesight doesn't amount to much if you compare it with the extreme acuity of its ears and nose.
I could feel the cold wind on my damp shirt. Peacock had the bear in his telescopic lens and began to pump the shutter. We stood two hundred yards above the bear but he heard the clicking. He could have reached us in a minute but wheeled and lumbered into the larches, out of sight, breaking large limbs along the way. Miraculously, a smaller grizzly ran out the other side of the woods, frightened by the bear we had frightened. "They're constantly displacing each other," Peacock said, "like a game of billiards."
I could hear them breathing now.
"They're more wary than I expected. Must be a big son of a bitch around here somewhere."
Dan pointed again. "There's a grizzly bear," he repeated.
This one was hugely black, and untouched by fickle breezes that had taken our spoor into the valley. Peacock needed something more than photographs of bear asses to sell, and this one was not cooperating. He and Sullivan watched it with hands on hips. They had worked together for eight years, the master and the willing disciple. It seemed a curious relationship based on little money and much trouble, not to mention risk. Peacock had seen his first grizzly in the Brooks Range, in Alaska, while on a University of Michigan field trip as a major in natural sciences, but that experience didn't take. Then he saw another one in a meadow in Yellowstone and never got over it.
I pulled on a wool shirt and crawled over the ridge, to check the other basin. A bear stood directly below me, on the shore of the melt pond, white in the sun. Lewis and Clark had encountered many blond grizzlies and had given their reputed whiteness worldwide notoriety. Aldo Leopold wrote a century and a half later, "Each generation in turn will ask: where is the big white bear? It will be a sorry answer to say he went under while conservationists weren't looking." 
This bear waded into the shallow water and lolled on an elbow. I motioned to Dan, and he and Peacock scrambled over and set up the tripod among scrub pines.
"I think that's Happy Bear," Peacock said, grunting as he wielded the big lens. He had names for a few regulars. This one concentrated on swirls of mud rising from the bottom of the pond, pawing with curled claws, motions of great delicacy.
Happy Bear pushed his nose under the surface and came up with a tree in his teeth, twelve feet long and water-logged, held by one end in apparently effortless perusal.
Bears are built like medieval catapults, all internal straps and pulleys. The sloped shoulders and oracular head conceal more force than would seem necessary for the needs of an omnivore that often grazes like a cow. Bear-baiters in New Spain had turned wild steers loose on chained grizzlies that broke half a dozen bovine necks before a horn found home. Grizzlies were as unpredictable as they were versatile and preferred corms, sedges, and berries to red meat; but they were prepared to move boulders just to get at a chipmunk.
Trees as an escape route were not recommended by Peacock. Bears could cover a hundred yards faster than a linebacker for the NFL, he said, and pull you down again. His favored defense was talking to bears, and moving his head from side to side, peaceable ursine body language. "It's best to stand your ground and reason with them."
His dreams of bears were full of carnage and death, he said, which made the waking moments less fearful. "I don't plan to get mauled," he said, "but you never know." Dominant grizzlies chased and killed full-grown bull elk just for the hell of it, when there was abundant food elsewhere. They could be almost artful. The grizzly that ate Laurence Gordon, according to one writer, peeled Gordon's booted feet like bananas.
Wind tore at the pages of my notebook; Happy Bear seemed to hear it. He dropped the tree and ambled from the pond. He shook himself, a six-hundred-pound golden retriever, and climbed up onto a toppled Doug fir. He ran up and down the log with comic grace, rocking back and forth. He gazed in our direction, then turned his attention to huckleberries and fed slowly out of sight.
We sat down to eat trail mix. "This is a loveless place," Peacock said, "kind of ugly, with no macho peaks to climb. Fortunately, it's not everybody's idea of an alpine holiday. The fact that grizzlies use it shows how adaptable they are. They only come here in late summer and fall, and they'll go back up there" — he gestured toward the mountains to the northeast — "and dig dens on north-facing slopes, to get the warmth of the snowpack."
He liked Glacier grizzlies because they had not been trapped and tinkered with like those in Yellowstone. "Benign neglect is best, but wildlife biology has become the new cottage industry. How often do you have to perform an experiment to learn the same thing? Biologists are intrigued by computers and technology, they prefer collaring and tracking with a helicopter to sitting on a ridge looking at bears."
The assertive, or dominant, bear — what Peacock called the old-time outlaw — was systematically being culled from the population. They tended to get into trouble and eventually found themselves at the wrong end of a .30/06. Managers favored the shy bear that avoided man, thereby contributing to the deprivation of the gene pool. When all grizzlies became shy, according to Peacock, they would be less than grizzlies.                                                   

He stretched out in the intermittent sun. Dan did the same. I was too exhilarated to sleep and began to browse on huckleberries, on my hands and knees, looking down into the east basin. Two elk cows had appeared in the lower valley, and a big buck mule deer lay in the shadow of mountain ash, uneasy amidst all that grizzly spoor. What had earlier appeared to be lifeless burned-over second-growth timber had come alive now that bears and men had taken to their day beds.
Peacock slept, murmuring, "Dance!... Dance!..."

A sow and a cub moved down the far slope, followed by a young adult. Peacock woke up to watch. "I think it's an atypical grouping," he said. "Sometimes young bears will hang around their mother when she has new cubs, and she'll tolerate them up to a point." He had seen as many as eleven bears at once in a basin. "I've seen them put on as much as hundred and fifty pounds in six weeks here, just on berries."
Berries had stained our hands and mouths purple; drops of huckleberry juice punctuated our shirts like bullet holes. "The most dangerous time is late September, when the berries fail. There's about a week of stress, when bears are competing, and changing territory, looking for new food. Two of the six deaths in this park have occurred then."
We were to sleep in the valley, which had more cover than the ridge. Of the seven grizzlies we had seen, five had gone off in the general direction of our camp. Bears migrating down from the higher ranges, where the huckleberries were less plentiful, also used that trail. We wanted to pitch the tent as far from it as possible. There was no reason the bears should get off the trail, Peacock said, sensing my reluctance to see the sun leave us. It was descending through broad banks of gray nimbus riding in from the west — heavy weather on the way.
We packed the cameras and trail mix and started down, leaving a full canteen so we would have to pack up less water the next day. A flock of buff-colored Canada jays drifted silently overhead. Where the trail dropped steeply we paused to watch another bear nosing about in ruddy shrubs on the far side of the drainage. That made eight.
The woods lay in shadow. We crossed the trail without encountering bears or bear sign, retrieved the tent we had stashed coming in, and moved on. Then we came upon a second bear highway.
"Shit," whispered Dan. We were running out of places to sleep.
"We don't have a lot of time to screw around," Peacock said. "It's getting dark. Go another fifty yards, and set up." Beyond that, another mountain rose.
He walked off alone, to fill the canteens. We were camping, I realized, in the midst of huckleberry bushes. Evergreens kept out the sun, so these didn't bear fruit. The thickly interwoven branches snared our legs, and Dan and I ripped them out by the roots and kicked up centuries of decayed deadfall to make an island amidst the hummocks. We worked quickly, with wonderfully concentrated minds.
"Sometimes bears just go crazy," Dan said. "Like people." In 1967, after fifty-seven years during which no one had been killed by bears in Glacier, two campers perished on the same night, in different campsites, in the grip of different grizzly bears.
Peacock returned with the water. We ate granola, then wrapped it and the trail mix in a garbage bag and suspended it from a snag fifty yards from the tent. Peacock assigned me the task of kindling the fire, should we need one; he handed me the Bic. "Don't worry," he said, "you'll have plenty of time."
That was not reassuring. We blew up our mattresses and spread our sleeping bags inside the tent; I made sure I was between Dan and Peacock. Peacock had once taken Arnold Schwarzenegger into the woods to look at bears, for a television special. Dan did a good imitation of the muscle man in the wild. "Peacoke, Peacoke," he whispered now, in an Austrian accent. "Dese bears are hooge, Peacock! Dey gonna make me fweak out!"
I lay there, exhausted, wishing we smelled a little less anthropoid, and that the walls of the tent were made of kryptonite.
Peacock yawned. "After a couple of weeks in here I'll be able to sleep through the elk and just wake up for the bears."
Impending rain seemed about to break over the night range, although no drops fell. I thought perversely of food — thick burgers, Pralines 'n' Cream. If a bear came, the fire — presuming I had time to light one — would simply put off the inevitable. I had heard stories of people hitting bears with packs and sticks and surviving; others played dead and in fact did not end up that way.
After an hour, Peacock said, ''I'm going under now. Sleep light."
He snored softly, twice, before some self-regulating mechanism shut him down. A few minutes later he snored twice more and then lapsed into silence again. So it went. I imagined a bear approaching, parting the reinforced nylon with dextrous claws, and the heat of his huckleberry breath.
I dreamed I was riding a train across a strange and sullen landscape, telephone in hand, trying to make a reservation at a restaurant the name of which I had forgotten.

Silent dawn, and the smell of rain hanging above the forest like something thwarted. The other two slept on. Cautiously, I crawled out of the tent, laced my boots, and stood up under the still, green canopy. The absence of birdsong could not dampen the exaltation I felt at simply being alive and bathed in light, such as it was.
I navigated the surrounding shrubs, moving carefully down-breeze, until I reached the edge of the clearing. On the far side and a quarter of a mile up the slope, a grizzly took his breakfast with stately deliberation, a magnificent Rorschach blot on autumn reds and golds. Watching him, I felt a kind of post-coital sadness, as if I had outstripped imagination and was left with a large, primal force as mysterious as it had ever been. That raw piece of burned-over, undevelopable mountain where he browsed was his salvation, and maybe mine, too.
We saw four more grizzlies that day, in the east basin, too distant to be photographed. Our presence had roiled the air currents, sending them rippling like the water in a good fishing hole. Then the rain came suddenly in the late afternoon. Big drops rattled against the garbage bags and the hoods of our ponchos, making hearing difficult and rendering the descent from the ridge treacherous. On the trail beyond the stream we found grizzly tracks over our bootprints from the day before. "Let's make a little noise," Peacock said, his fierce bearded face running with water.
I whipped my poncho and drummed my Vibram soles on the springy earth, and a red-tailed hawk screamed at us from the larch tops.
At last I saw the road glistening through the gathering mist. We skidded down the hill, and Peacock scattered leaves over the asphalt — a signal to Lisa, who was scheduled to come looking for us. We hid our packs and set out toward town, soaked and cold. A valiant young couple in an old Volkswagen bus picked us up, and we listened to James Taylor over the knock of the engine.
In West Glacier we found a tavern where Peacock was known and the barmaid gave us free beer. I bought rounds of Stolichnaya — his favorite vodka — and we knocked them back. It was happening too quickly, something precious was slipping away: thirteen grizzlies in thirty-six hours, leaching into puddles about our boots.
Lisa arrived with incredible dispatch, hugged her husband, and told him they had only a hundred dollars left in the bank, and the rent yet to pay. "Shit," he said, "down to the wire again."
She touched his cheek.
Holding a Stoly in one hand and a can of Rainier in the other, wearing a tattered green sweater and sopping cords, Peacock looked older than he had on the mountain, his thinning hair in disarray. Members of the Sierra Club were coming up to have Peacock show them grizzlies the following week. Then Peacock wanted to fish the Yellowstone with a friend. Then the friend and his friend wanted Peacock to show them grizzlies in Glacier. He belonged to a large informal net where one needed an independent income; Peacock had none.
We drove north through the dusk, the car full of groceries, children, camping gear, and anxiety. Somewhere north of the ranger station Dan put on the brakes and Peacock leapt out of the car. He ran through the woods, stooping and pulling things from the wet earth. The berries are failing, I thought.
He displayed a dozen in the lap of his poncho. ''I'm going to make chanterelle soup!"
And he did, too, using powdered milk and loads of garlic, in the cabin on the North Fork. There we drank a bottle of Bordeaux I had carried for ·thousands of miles amidst clothes and gear, and then another. The kids hung happily on Peacock's legs, while Dan took turns tossing them into the air.
In the dry heat of blazing aspen logs, with four hard walls around me, I remembered a dark, majestic creature browsing contentedly on a mountainside.                                                                                  

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Napa cabernet sauvignons from cold, wet 2011

Eric Asimov's assessment of some of the under-$100s is good, and he's appropriately critical of the fruit bombs that go all the way up to $1,500 a bottle. Some of my favorites are in there, including Frog's Leap, Chappellet, and Newton:

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Lighting out for the Territories, 2: The happiest man I ever met was in the Sawtooth Mountains, alone...

I got interested in the West while working for theWashington Post, years ago. I wanted to write about the vast public lands, what I saw as a "kingdom in the country," and since the editor didn't know what they were, I took off in a van on my own. Below is one chapter from the book that was later published by Houghton Mifflin and has just been rewritten and reissued in paperback:                                                                              
"There's a Basco up there," said John Faulkner, owner of one of the largest sheep ranches in Idaho. He nodded toward the little mountain. "Name's Basilio. Look for a wagon and a band of sheep."                                                   

A weathered blue camp wagon stood in a grove of lodgepole pine a couple of miles up the creek. The curved roof, covered with tarpaulin to keep the rain out, was punctured by a crooked stovepipe. Detachable wooden steps hung from the front of the wagon; a wooden commissary wagon was tied on behind, and tied to it was a little saddle horse, a gelding, its ears pitched forward.
I got out of the van. Two white-faced Border collies appeared from nowhere and barked. The camp wagon's Dutch door hung half-open onto living quarters not much bigger than a closet. A wood-burning stove sat in a corner, next to a pail of water — the herder's kitchen. Cans of tomatoes and a ripped carton of Winstons rested on the shelf; a new pair of black shoes stood against the wall.
Someone inside said, "Oy?" and the dogs barked again. A man emerged from the shadows, where he had been napping. He had a marvelous red nose and white hair scissored close to the skin. He wore Levi's and the traditional black Basque sash tied in the back, and exploded shoes with red socks peering through. He stood for a moment in the doorway, looking down at me and scratching his stomach.
Finally he said, "You writer?" 
"Yes. Yes, I am."
He scribbled on his callused palm with an imaginary pencil. The notion struck him as so absurd that he laughed out loud. Then he said, ''Johnfaulkner say you want bullshit me," running his employer's first and last names together.
"That's right." 
Already bored, he went back for a cigarette. He returned with a .30-30 Marlin lever action, which he left on the steps while he strolled out into the meadow to set up a target, an empty condensed milk can. The rifle had teeth marks on the stock where the gelding had gone after the salt from Basilio's hands.
"For oso" —bear. He smacked the gun, and added, "No worry."
Soon we were blasting away at the can. He used the Marlin as an icebreaker, a kind of pre-brunch social activity smelling of burnt cordite instead of mimosas. It had quite a kick. He mostly shot coyotes with it, he said, with bullets provided by Johnfaulkner.
I could barely see the sheep up the canyon, drifting in and out of the lodgepole stands like bits of cumulus, but I could hear their bleating. Basilio went in to put on a clean white shirt, for it was Sunday. Ordinarily he ate lunch about ten in the morning, having been up since four, but the foreman was expected with a load of supplies and so he was waiting to cook for him as well.
The pickup appeared on cue, driven by Guillermo. He got out and shook hands, a bare-chested Basco with a red bandana tied jauntily around his neck, wearing cutoff Levi's. "Goddamn Jesus Christ son of a bitch," he said happily. He would have been there earlier but there was some problem with a Peruvian herder down the supply line. Guillermo had yet to deliver to the Mexican herder over on Smiley Creek. While he talked he unloaded the supplies: a sack of Gold Medal flour, cardboard cartons of groceries, some kerosene. He and Basilio shoved the wooden steps into the wagon. They dropped the old metal tongue over the hitch on the pickup and hauled the camp a mile up Frenchman's Creek.
They conferred about the proper aspect for the wagon in the stand of lodgepoles, speaking a strange singsong language. Basilio took a shovel and dug holes for two of the tires, leveling his house for the next week or so. Then he replaced the steps, climbed inside, and tossed a bota — a leather wineskin — out the door.
Guillermo caught it. He cocked his head back and directed a purple jet into his mouth, then passed the bota to me. I got the wine into my mouth all right, but left a trail down the front of my shirt. "Maybe you want a glass," Guillermo said, laughing. "Goddamn Jesus Christ son of a bitch."
He or Faulkner bought whatever supplies the herders requested. Basilio required no more than one pair of pants a year and considered even that an extravagance. He had yet to put on the new shoes.                                                  

Smoke emerged from the chimney: lunch was in progress. I had expected warmed-up corned beef hash or bologna sandwiches but realized that something else was in order when Basilio pulled a chicken out of a cardboard carton and began to chop it up with a huge butcher knife. He worked on a board with a single hinged leg that stayed folded against the wall when he wasn't cooking or eating off it.
He floured the chicken and dropped the pieces into an iron skillet full of hot oil. A handful of peeled and sliced garlic followed. He flattened out handfuls of dough, using a gallon jug of Carlo Rossi as a rolling pin, and threw these big pancakes directly onto the hot stovetop. The smell of the bread and garlic and the taste of the wine in the hot, clear air lent my hunger a sudden, glorious edge.
Basilio had seen the little tape recorder in my van. Now he rummaged around in the back of the wagon and came out with a cassette of Basque fandangos. I put it on the machine, in the grass, and a thin, furious music rose beneath the trees, full of accordions and a plangent, repetitious melody that reminded me of Cajun songs. Guillermo tried to translate, but the lyrics seemed incomprehensible in any language.
We ate lunch from a board suspended between a fir log and a can of diesel fuel: soup with dumplings, coq au vin, and hot fresh bread washed down with wine from the bota, followed by salad and canned fruit cocktail, the most enduring of camp desserts. Talk was of sheep, and Peruvians. "I don't give them wine," Guillermo said of the Peruvian herders in his charge. "You give them a gallon, they drink a gallon. You give them two gallons, they drink two gallons. Goddamn Jesus Christ son of a bitch." ·
Basilio would not denounce the Peruvians; instead, he criticized their cooking. "I don't like."
They were pretty good herders, he added, but none too strong. "Little," he added, measuring.
The Peruvians, and some Chileans, were still working under three-year contracts, as these Bascos had done in the beginning. Guillermo had been in the United States for twenty-three years, Basilio for seventeen. Basilio had worked in California, with Mormons in Utah, and in Colorado, but he liked Idaho best. "Not too much people," he said.
I asked if he had a family in Spain. "No wife, no children," he said. ''Just sheep." He laughed explosively.
We stretched out on a piece of canvas and had a smoke. The tobacco tasted fine after that meal. Guillermo had to go tend to his Mexican. He unloaded salt bags for Basilio's sheep, hay for the gelding, a fresh ham and a slab of bacon, which Basilio stashed in a cardboard box — his larder — insulated from the stove by a stack of fresh-split wood.
Guillermo said, "Goddamn son of a bitch Jesus Christ, it's a beautiful Sunday," and drove off.
Basilio had to turn the flock downstream, to be nearer camp. He explained that coyotes and bears were less likely to come so close to the smell of man — in this case, garlic. A good herder stayed close to his sheep, anyway. He didn't try to count the sheep every day but kept track of the thirty black ones as floating indicators; if a dark woolly was missing, he figured about sixty white ones were off in the woods with it, and went looking for them.
If I wanted to go fishing, Basilio said, he knew a beaver pond where trout congregated. Fish would be nice for supper, and he had no time to catch them himself. He saddled the horse, named, appropriately, Bolero, and I got my gear together. We set off across the wet meadows, the dogs excited by the prospect of an outing. Border collies have faces of unnerving intelligence. Probably the last breed on earth uncorrupted by show breeding, they are still linked directly to a profession going back to paleolithic times in Europe. These were named Mike and Bat — Basco for Number One.
Basilio had turned back in the direction of camp. He bent slightly at the waist, sash swinging, forefinger raised. I thought he had seen a bear. Then I saw a station wagon piled with folding chairs, bumping uncertainly up the road — an unusual sight in these remote parts. "Tooor-ists," he said, rolling the word around in disbelief and alarm. Not only did tourists bother the sheep and compete with herders for available space, but they also complained on occasion of domestic animals eating grass and browse, and cluttering up the view. Tourists were a clear and present danger to Basilio's way of life, whereas bears, coyotes, rabid foxes, rattlesnakes, and blizzards merely inconvenienced him.
The station wagon turned around and disappeared; Basilio sighed with relief. We skirted a beaver pond and came up from the south side, with a view of wild brookies and brown trout marshaled in the clear, shallow water. I assembled my fly rod while Basilio looked on skeptically: it had remained lashed to the roof of the van through some great trout country, and now the leader was corkscrewed and the reel covered with dust.
I tied on a fly; Basilio's skepticism hardened. "No worm?" he said.
Without waiting for an answer, he took the dogs to inspect the next pond. I worked the fly into the range of the trout, who fled.
Basilio returned five minutes later. "How many catch?" 
"Basilio, I just got started."
"I go sheep."                                 

I fished for three hours, floundering in the mud and tripping over submerged willow branches. In the distance I could see Basilio moving the sheep and hear their bleating. He sat with great patience on Bolero, doing what, I could not say, but the herd moved with a calm persistence in and out of the woods, pushed slowly but relentlessly by the dogs. There was something profoundly restful in the sight.
Basilio moved sheep until seven-thirty. By then I was back at camp, propped against a spruce, writing in my journal and watching the shadow of the opposing mountain climb the slope. Mountain sheep sometimes descended the scree and coupled with the ewes, Basilio said, but he had not seen one in two years. I had caught two small fish. I told him, and he said, "Dos?" He repeated it. "Dos," he said a third time, trying to come to terms with the idea of someone catching just two fish in Idaho — a perversity.
It was clear we would need more than that for dinner. He told me to save them and quickly peeled potatoes in the waning light, refusing to let me help, and then beat half a dozen eggs for a kind of potato omelet. He embodied a remarkable economy of motion, first flipping out the shelf on the Dutch door, unhooking the wash pan from the outside wall of the wagon, soaping his hands, and tossing out the water in the same gesture with which he replaced the pan. He started the fire with diesel fuel and cooked a complete meal faster than any short-order specialist I had ever seen.
I brought out a bottle of Mendocino cabernet, which he sampled. "Hot," he said, detecting high alcohol; otherwise he liked it. He liked the wines of Rioja best, and Spanish food, but Spain wasn't what it had been, he added.
A curious thing had happened. Without a third party to witness our linguistic inadequacies we were talking quite easily in pidgin English and Spanish, the dogs cocking their heads and looking at us as if we were crazy.
Basilio came from the coastal province of Vizcaya. He had been back to Spain the year before, on holiday, but was unimpressed with everything but the food. The curas — priests — now wore clothes like everybody else. "Half Catolicos no go church." He remembered Franco, whom he disliked. "Franco kill lotsa Basco. But lotsa job with Franco. No much money, but jobs. Now no jobs in Espana. Bums," he added.
There were cars everywhere in his province, where before there had been almost none. "Idaho better," he said. The notion of public domain amazed him. He called it, simply, "the land," with a sweeping gesture implying vastness. Everybody in America could act like a king, he said, because of the hunting and the grazing. There was no BLM in Spain, no Foresta like the Sawtooth, and no twenty-five hundred head of sheep in a single herd. His brother ran a few sheep and cows on a farm in Vizcaya, as his father had, but the scope of herding in the West was considered a fantasy at home.
"United States good," he said, nodding. "Not all good, but Reagan good." He thought for a moment. "Dollar strong."
I asked what he did with his money. "CD."
"Certificates of deposit?"
He nodded, and said, "Better interest."
He had almost eighty thousand dollars in the Gooding bank. With average annual expenditures limited to a pair of pants, it was easy enough to save. Faulkner had told me that one of his foremen had a quarter of a million dollars in CDs. Some Basques had ended up owning sheep outfits they herded for, because the accumulated debt to them was so great. Two years before, Basilio had bought the radio for $150, what he considered a great extravagance, although every day he listened to the Spanish language broadcast, his only source of outside amusement; he seemed quite happy to miss it if there was something else to do. 
Some years he attended the annual Basque picnic in Gooding, but usually he stayed by himself. Most herders worked in pairs, one to cook and one to herd, but not Basilio. The teams often had disputes, usually over women. If a woman showed up the odd man out had to sleep under the wagon while the lovers partied a few inches from his face. That led to arguments, and worse.
It didn't get dark until ten. We drank brewed coffee after supper, Basilio stirring sugar into his with a fork handle. I found out too late that the water had been dipped from the creek downstream of two thousand sheep. If I developed giardiasis, at least I got it in a beautiful setting, in good company. I could see the dogs' eyes shining outside. The bawling of distant sheep filled the night; the stars had a new intensity. We sat watching moths kamikaze against the wheezing, white-hot lantern. Basilio's freshly skinned head gleamed in its light. He had been up since four in the morning, had cooked two epicurean meals, moved his camp, tended his sheep, fed his horse and dogs, split wood, entertained a stranger, compared two California wines, and delivered a treatise on Spain and America. If a herder's life was easy and narrow, his was no good example.
He was up before dawn the next morning, making bread in the light of the Coleman. He mixed a big wad of dough in a metal bowl, wrapped the whole thing in an old shirt, and stuffed it into his still warm bedroll. We set out in the darkness to move sheep, he on Bolero, I on foot. In first light I could see Basilio across the meadows, still mounted, urging woollies off the scree slope with infinite patience. Sheepherding is not one of the world's great spectator sports. Basilio made an odd hissing noise from time to time when the animals browsed where he wanted them, and his voice rang out when he, Mike, and Bat had them on the prod, but mostly the mysteries of his profession remained intact. When we returned to camp three hours later, the dough was pushing up the bedroll. He made a fire and took the dough out and kneaded it. He fondly sprinkled it with flour and eased it down into the greased Dutch oven. "Pretty soon," he said, which meant another hour to rise again and another to cook.
We dozed until it was time to eat. He made another fire outside, squirting a long column of diesel fuel onto wood piled between two rocks. He took a side of bacon from the ubiquitous cardboard box and hewed off a couple of slabs that were soon spitting in the hot skillet. I could smell the bread. Basilio took the lid off the Dutch oven, revealing the gorgeous crusty top of a round loaf the size of a hatbox. He removed the bread and set it aside to cool.
"Get fishes," he said.
I fetched the trout from my ice chest.
"Dos," said Basilio, looking at them one more time, and then slipped them into the hot grease. They were followed by half a dozen eggs. He slid them sunny side up onto cracked enamel plates warmed by proximity to the fire, and poured cupfuls of Cribari. He hugged the fresh loaf to his chest and cut swaths of steaming bread with the butcher knife, with great unbroken scythe-like strokes. We finished up with a can of Budweiser from a six-pack left by a tourist from Phoenix as a peace offering — a digestif for the sort of meal outdoorsmen eat after a hard day in the bush, except that it was just ten o'clock in the morning.                         

The sky was hazy from blazing national forests. From Arizona to Washington State the West was on fire; I wanted to help fight one but couldn't tear myself away from Frenchman's Creek. If Basilio and I had nothing else in common, we had food, courtesy of Johnfaulkner, who knew that a well-fed herder was a happy one. I contributed what I had. Basilio was not shy about accepting, or rejecting. He disapproved of American bread, which he called "sack bread." Peanut butter was clearly an abomination in his eyes. He went through my store of fresh plums in ninety seconds, swallowing the best and ejecting the others like cannonballs. This was a man accustomed, after all, to good Navarran fruit. He wouldn't eat my carrots, so I fed them to Bolero. One night he came in at dusk, tied Bolero to the commissary wagon, unsaddled and fed him, started a fire outside with the usual barrage of diesel fuel, washed his hands, carved two ham steaks, and began cooking them, all in about seven minutes. The usual fistful of garlic went into the skillet, followed by a can of tomatoes. He gave the dish a stir with the empty can and tossed it into the darkness with his usual economy of gesture. He always picked up before moving camp, but in the meantime Basilio wasn't going to bother with putting empty tomato cans in plastic bags. Some bread also went into the skillet. We were eating within fifteen minutes, a meal of such flavorful intensity that all I could do was gasp.
I had no way of determining Basilio's anxieties, if they existed, but he certainly seemed happy. I had never met anyone more at home in his life, good-natured, generous, devoid of pretension and apparently of material needs. I wanted to send him a present when I got home but couldn't imagine what. I asked if he wanted a cassette player like mine, and he said no. He didn't mind listening to fandangos occasionally when someone came around with a little machine, but basically he considered them unhealthy. He liked to eat fish but had no interest in catching them. Reading was a chore. "No want nothing," he shouted, laughing.
We did not shake hands before I left. Formal partings were not Basilio's style. He spent much time alone and had developed a humane means of dealing with the interruptions, with some protection built in for himself. He led a life that must have had its moments of intense loneliness. Since he didn't celebrate arrivals, he didn't celebrate the leavings either. It was all part of a larger process, one in which people showed up with food, or appetites, or both, and went away fuller than he imagined. He just stood there in the sunlight, ruddy nose pointed up-canyon, talking loudly about sheep.
Then he turned and strolled away.