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A Timeless Walk

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agur . . . (goodbye) . . .
 

 

 

 

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