Sheep, you may be surprised to learn, are not as dumb as they look. Some people might even describe them as shrewdly calculating, remarkably crafty animals with fierce independent streaks. Given the slightest opening, for example, they will quit a herd, striking out in small, enterprising bands for the high-desert plains — ungulate fugitives in a promised land of sagebrush and cactus — sometimes never to be seen again.
“They’re good animals if you take care of them,” said Henry Etcheverry, bouncing along a dusty two-track in the Minidoka desert near Rupert, 160 miles southeast of Boise, tracking an errant herd. “But take my word for it: They’ll clean your clock if you don’t.”
Etcheverry is one of the last Basque sheepmen left in the American West, where there were once hundreds, if not thousands, like him. He learned the business from his father, Jean Pierre Etcheverry, who emigrated from the Basque Country, a region in the Pyrenees Mountains comprising parts of southern France and northern Spain, in 1929. Back then sheep outnumbered Idahoans seven to one, a peak that coincided with the tail end of Basque immigration to the Western United States. Tens of thousands settled in Idaho, Nevada, California, Utah and Wyoming, many finding work in the sheep trade or establishing boardinghouses and restaurants catering to Basque herders. Though a precise tally is elusive, Basques once roamed Idaho’s sheep ranges in formidable numbers. Today, just two or three remain.
“I’m the last of the Mohicans,” said Etcheverry, 63, a sturdy, affable man with gray caterpillar eyebrows and wind-chapped skin who learned to drive a pickup at age 8 and run his own herd by 12. His father started out in the Minidoka desert, camping in the brush for months on end with little besides a horse, a couple of dogs and a few hundred sheep for company, the loneliness compounded by a relentless, howling wind. As Basque herders prospered, they tended to gravitate to less solitary occupations. All of Etcheverry’s herders these days are Peruvian.
Nonetheless, remnants of the Basque culture are evident throughout Idaho, especially in Boise, where roughly 15,000 people of Basque descent still live, the highest concentration outside Europe. The city’s mayor, Dave Bieter, spent part of his youth in the Basque Country and is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the only Basque-speaking mayor in the United States. On the Basque Block Downtown, sidewalks are chiseled with Basque surnames and coats of arms, and two good restaurants and a market specialize in Basque cuisine.
The Basque Museum and Cultural Center has a small but impressive historical exhibition and offers classes in Euskara, the imposing stew of consonants that makes up the Basque language.
The majority of Basques in Boise hailed from the province of Vizcaya in Spain, where eating expansively is an art form. While the American version of the cuisine hews closely to the original (think Spanish rural cooking meets refined Tex-Mex), there have been ingenious adaptations. For instance, the Spicy Lamb Grinder, served at Bar Gernika on the Basque Block, is essentially a French Dip sandwich piled with grilled onions and jalapenos and served with a saucer of tangy Lamb Dip. The Chorizo Supreme follows the same pattern but swaps jalapenos for pimentos. I made quick work of both — on separate visits I should add — each with a side of croquetas: tiny flour spheres stuffed with cheese and fried golden brown.
A more orthodox take on the cuisine can be found at Epi’s Basque Restaurant in nearby Meridian. Run by third-generation Basques, Epi’s specializes in traditional dishes like beef tongue (mingaina), lamb stew (txilindron) and pork chops with pimentos (txerri txuletak piperrakin). After dispatching a bowl of red bean soup, steamed shrimp with rice and an order of ham croquetas (OK, two orders of ham croquetas), I had the excellent tximinoiak (squid simmered in its own ink) washed down with a tall glass of iced kalimotxo, red wine mixed with Coke.
‘SAD IT’S ENDING’
While the days when Basques dominated the American sheep industry are long gone, to Etcheverry, whether Idaho’s Basques realize it or not, their identity remains firmly tied to sheep, as well as to the rugged sagebrush steppe of the Minidoka.
“This is what made us who we are,” he said. Gesturing to a trail slashed through knee-high scrub, he added: “These tracks were laid by Basque herders back in the 1880s. You can tell where they camped from the old Prince Albert tobacco cans.”
Scattered across the desert, small stone pyramids called “rock boys,” some built by Basques more than a century ago, mark former water sources.
“This business has meant so much to us,” he said. “I’m sad it’s ending, but I can’t dwell on it.”
Herding sheep is done pretty much as it was a century ago. Etcheverry’s herders (spread across a handful of camps) live for weeks at a time in tin-roof wagons lacking electricity and running water, perched on blustery hilltops overlooking bands of roughly 2,000 ewes. The 21st century is a distant dream to them, though they have sunglasses, and rifles for coyotes. Etcheverry, who lives 40 miles away in Rupert, takes them copies of People En Espanol magazine to combat the boredom.
At first glance, the Minidoka desert may seem like a poor place to graze sheep. A good chunk of it lies within the 750,000-acre Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve — a Martian landscape of jagged volcanic rock and hidden crags known to swallow sheep whole. Coyotes and rattlesnakes are further nuisances, as is a poisonous native plant called “death camus,” which sheep like to snack on: “Kills them deader than hell,” Etcheverry said. The desert also has a knack for making sheep vanish without a trace.
“I call it the Bermuda Triangle,” he said. “You lose sheep out here — poof!”
But the Minidoka has its advantages. Etcheverry’s herd (some 7,000 ewes and 1,400 yearlings) munch on a profusion of native grasses and plants like goatsbeard, desert parsley and rabbitbrush, which lend their meat a distinctive flavor. And despite the desolation, the land holds a wild beauty. The Minidoka is plopped down in the crotch of the Snake River Plain and the Sawtooth National Forest, one of the great natural landscapes in the Western United States. To the north lie the snowcapped peaks of the Pioneer Mountains; to the east, Big Southern Butte — a 7,550-foot-high volcanic dome covered in lodgepole pine and Douglas fir — and farther east, the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, where Etcheverry will move his sheep in late summer.
A handful of tourists are drawn each spring to the Minidoka’s staggering wildflower yields and omnipresent fauna. In one afternoon, Etcheverry and I spotted pronghorn antelope, golden eagles, yellow-bellied marmots, western meadowlarks, long-billed curlews and an unfathomable number of red-tailed hawks, all while encountering perhaps one other car.
“Nobody sees this country but maybe 25 people a year,” Etcheverry said.
On the lookout for straggling sheep, he occasionally leapt out of his truck to view the horizon with binoculars.
“I see something out there that just don’t fit,” he would say, before harrumphing and climbing back in. “Just grass.”
SHEEP ON THE LAM
Toward the end of the day, we came across Etcheverry’s worst nightmare: a split herd. Some 300 ewes, led by a few wily outlaws, were fleeing across the desert in multiple directions, like bees from a hive, in search of more succulent feed. It was a sheep insurrection.
Etcheverry, shouting at me to grab the wheel and meet him on the other side of the hill, spilled from the truck clutching a two-way radio. Before I could ask which hill, he shot off into the dust. I picked the nearest mound of lava rock, hoping for the best. Rounding it moments later, I met one of Etcheverry’s herders, Bacilio Inga on horseback, trotting over the ridgeline and chatting with his boss via the two-way. We waited. Finally, the main band of sheep came bleating around the hill, trailed by a giant white Pyrenees, his tongue hanging about halfway to the ground in the dry heat. Having caught and cornered the outlaw band, they had simply shooed them in the right direction.
Etcheverry brought up the rear. I pulled the truck alongside him, trying not to flatten any sheep. Panting, and dust pouring from him like Pig-Pen, he hopped in. The uprising squelched, Etcheverry sighed heartily.
“It’ll be heavy on the whiskey tonight,” he said.