“No speak Englese,” he said.
The man, probably in his thirties, stepped out of the sheep wagon sporting a wide, gap-toothed smile, a five o’clock shadow, and a tan not entirely due to the elements. He was flanked by three small border collies.
That effectively ended my, “Hi, so you’re the guy we’ve seen riding by us on your four-wheeler and horse looking for sheep!” We commenced to petting the dogs who seemed more inclined to come forward with a welcome and “get to know me” attitude.
We recently camped back in the pines and aspen near a main artery to the popular Louis Lake in Wyoming. Several times a man on a four-wheeler, driving sensibly slow in comparison to the many other vehicles on the road carrying weekend vacationers through the incredibly gorgeous scenery, passed by. He came on a dirt trail from across a meadow, obviously searching for sheep in our minds, since we had seen the small collie riding on the back and also heard the bleating of many sheep in the distance. We had noticed some sheep on a hill nearby to the east the first night, enjoying perhaps a respite from the larger flock we could not see behind the hills and forest, to the west.
That morning we had seen the shepherd riding his horse, the three dogs eagerly running beside, heading for the small band of sheep on the hill. A ways behind, a beautiful honey gold horse followed, having a slight limp, but determined to trail the rider, obviously not about to be left in camp by himself.
The sheepherder’s appearance brought to mind another encounter about over twenty years back with another sheepherder in a sheep wagon, on another mountain. We had stopped to visit and that man did speak English. He invited us into his wagon and talked about his reclusive life, guarding a 1000 head of sheep. He had a “boombox” that gave him entertainment in the form of listening to ball games and music. He got one four-day weekend a month off, to go into town for personal supplies and leisure time.
Once a week, the rancher he worked for brought food, fuel and water for him, food for his dogs and horse and salt for the sheep. He gathered the sheep together at night by putting out salt. He carried a gun to protect them from predators, which included foolish humans who sometimes harassed the sheep while out joy riding in pickups or all-terrain vehicles. There aren’t many areas untouched by humans anymore.
Where we camped recently, coyotes from three different directions yipped and howled one evening, perhaps complaining they hadn’t had any mutton to eat lately.
The sheep wagons definitely come under my definition of early campers. Developed in the 1870’s in Wyoming, they have a two by six foot floor, with sides expanded above that, equipped with bed across the back above cabinets and drawers, one or two burner plated wood stove near the opening in front, (ready to throw out if the fire threatened the wagon, the man said), and shelves with doors to store clothing and food stuffs, all protected by a round metal or canvas cover. They are a tiny home away from home. In the past, the tongue in front was long enough or shaped for a horse or horses to pull; they now are adapted for pickups to transport to the grazing spots.
They are an intriguing tie to the past, the future, and to the Basque people who were some of the first sheep herders in the state of Wyoming. But that’s another story!