Free-range descent

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Highland dancers celebrate the European sheep herding heritage brought to the Idaho mountains. Photo by Michael Milne.

KETCHUM, Idaho - The atmosphere is festive, but tension is in the air. The main street of this tiny mountain village, where Ernest Hemingway's spirit still lives, is lined with throngs of visitors. Basque dancers in traditional costumes prance and pirouette to an ancient tune, followed by a mule-drawn gypsy-style caravan. The main event is soon at hand, heralded by the sound of thundering hooves echoing off walls and the unmistakable baaaa of . . . sheep?

It might be Pamplona, Spain, at the Running of the Bulls, the heart-pounding stampede of hooves and feet that Hemingway immortalized in The Sun Also Rises. But it's not. This is Ketchum, adjacent to the ski resort of Sun Valley, where "Papa" spent many of his later years, where he died of a self-inflicted gunshot to the head in 1961 and was laid to rest.

Apart from its literary claim to fame, though, Ketchum has the Trailing of the Sheep Festival, celebrating the annual autumnal migration of the woolly creatures as they descend from higher altitudes to winter in the valley. The four-day festival - this year's iteration is Oct. 7-11 - is not just an excuse for a parade down Main Street. It is an acknowledgment of the legacy of sheep ranching in the Northwestern United States, a deep heritage that encompasses the very essence of the American dream.

Sheep first came to this part of the country in the 1860s, when livestock-laden ships from the Hudson Bay Co. docked at Astoria, Ore., at the mouth of the Columbia River. From there, herders moved eastward along the Columbia River Gorge, settling in the mountains and valleys of what would become eastern Oregon, northern Nevada, and southern Idaho. No coincidence that the famous Pendleton Woolen Mills started here.

By that time, the mining frenzy that had taken the West by storm a decade earlier was on the wane, and the sheep industry ambled into the void. The wide-open spaces and varying elevations are ideal for these naturally free-range animals. During a year, they traverse more than 100 linear miles and one mile in elevation, moving every four to five days as they seek temperatures suited to their fleecy coats.

"I didn't know what misery was until I started herding sheep," quipped Hank Volger, addressing the Friday-night audience at last year's festival. The Nevada sheep rancher and humorist typically leads a discussion with other ranchers about this unique - and uniquely American - way of life.

"John Wayne didn't make westerns about sheepherders," he lamented. "Otherwise, we'd be as mythical as cowboys." The ranchers certainly are dressed like characters from a John Wayne movie, but as one of them observed, "This ain't no movie. This is real life."

Sheepherding brought a unique breed of immigrant to the West: the Basque highlander. Originally lured from northern Spain's Basque country by the mining opportunities, many stayed on after the mines were played out. The rugged countryside, the climate - and the sheep - were reminiscent of their homeland in the Pyrenees. Idaho was a natural fit.

Today, the Basque heritage is much in evidence in the region and well represented at the Trailing of the Sheep Festival. Sitting on the grass during the Saturday-afternoon Folklife Fair in the neighboring town of Hailey, we spoke with former sheepherder Alberto Uranga over a picnic of garlic-infused lamb (a Basque specialty) while dancers festooned with colorful ribbons demonstrated traditional jigs and reels.

Adorned in a beret, speaking with an accent not quite Spanish, not quite French, Alberto told us about the waves of immigration that perpetuated the Basque culture in Idaho. "The Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, along with the Basque Separatist movement in the late 20th century," he said, "brought many Basques to America seeking safety and peace."

More and more, though, that heritage winds up at odds with 21st-century aspirations. Uranga, for one, gave up his sheepherding ways and now runs a real estate company in Ketchum. As the Basques assimilate into mainstream culture, a new wave of immigrants arrives to do the tough job of herding. Today's sheepherders are mostly from Peru and Chile, even Mongolia - countries where rugged mountain livestock thrive.

Oblivious to the ethnicities of their guardians, the sheep continue their annual migration up and down the mountains. But the region now known as the Wood River Valley has become a prime vacation destination. It boasts a top ski resort flanked by charming towns that attract famous novelists and Hollywood types, such as Bruce Willis, who raised his family nearby. Houses sprang up as people discovered this peaceful valley with crystal skies, aspen-covered mountains, and cool, dry summers.

The route the sheep have trod for more than a century was eventually paved over for a bike path. In an ironic twist, neighbors complained about the sheep droppings on the path during the migration. Enter John and Diane Peavey, owners of Flat Top Ranch, one of the largest and oldest sheep operations in the area. The Peaveys weren't looking for a fight. Rather, they chose to educate the new residents about the sheep.

"They held an informal sit-down at the town coffee shop to explain the importance of the sheepherding heritage and culture, then invited locals to walk along with the annual migration," recalled Mary Austin Crofts, who was working with the trail system at the time and now heads the festival. "People loved it."

The next year, the Peaveys met with the local tourism board to create a formal event around the migration, and in 1998, the Trailing of the Sheep Festival was born.

After days of storytelling, lamb tastings, sheepdog competitions, wool demonstrations, and even more lamb tastings, the big day was here. On the morning of the parade, intrepid visitors headed a few miles north of town and scrambled over the foothills to get a first glimpse of the herd of more than 2,000 sheep making their way down. They arrived as a fluffy, sand-colored wave, slowly undulating to the tune of the occasional bleat and bell, guided by the hardworking sheepdogs and the whistles of the dogs' Basque, Peruvian, and Chilean masters.

Shortly, they were poised for their command performance: the finale of the parade, much like Santa Claus on Thanksgiving. Running down Ketchum's Main Street, they couldn't help but stir the American spirit. In their onrush was history - hard work, immigration, small towns, the Wild West. They passed the cemetery where Hemingway makes his eternal home. One can only imagine if the Nobel laureate had been alive to see it: For Whom the Sheep Run?


WILD AND WOOLLY KETCHUM

The 2015 Trailing of the Sheep Festival is Oct. 7-11 this year and will include several free events, as well as cooking and craft classes, and some performances requiring tickets.

The Wood River Valley, incorporating the towns of Ketchum, Sun Valley, and Hailey, can be reached by flying into Hailey (airport code SUN). Additional flights are available into Twin Falls (75 miles) or Boise (150 miles).

For information: www.trailingofthesheep.org