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.                             

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