By Adus F. Dorsey II
Special to The Ely Times
There is no wider spot in the road than in Baker, Nevada on the Utah / Nevada line where gas stops are some times only a hallucination, even for a Toyota. It is the kind of place where in the late 1800’s, a mysterious event took place, and like peeling back the layers of a onion, it would take over one hundred years to unfold. As mysterious as the event itself, is the mystery of just who it was that would lean a prized Winchester rifle up against a pinion pine tree and walk off and just leave it there. The general consensus at the local coffee counter is that couldn’t have been a miner, hunter or herder, because a rifle like that was practically an extension of those boys’ arms, and who ever it was, either ended up dead, or wished he were.
It is also a place where in the winter of 48-49, after World War II was over, that the snow got so deep the U.S. government enacted a humanitarian effort dubbed “Operation Haylift”. A time when the U.S. Government and the U.S Air Force deployed its pilots and C82 “Flying Boxcars” to drop 525 tons of alfalfa, ultimately feeding a million sheep and 100,000 head of cattle in Northern Nevada and Utah. A sacred subject as there ever was, something only shared around distant desert camp fires, and in whispered breaths like that of a testimony of faith, or on bended knees in prayer.
The history of the western sheepherder is mostly an individual saga, and for the lone sheepherder, his history will be forever confined to an area the size of his sheep camp. Memories and accounts of heroism and heartbreak, strategically stashed on a shelf behind well-read books by Zane Grey, and lost stories that most likely no one will ever have the opportunity to listen to, and take up no more space in his sheep wagon than his favorite wool pillow.
Possessions and memorabilia to a sheepherder last about as long as a tank of gas, “who really needs them?” The philosophy of some sheepherders on the range is, “I was born into this world with nothin’ and if I was to add up and subtract all the experiences I have had in life, when I die, all I care about is just to be even with my maker. Hell, I pack up and move so often that I never have had any delusions or dreams of the possibility of taking anything with me when I finally go. I don’t have anything that I care about that much anyway!”
As recently as a week or so ago, on sheepherder time, I found myself in Baker, Nevada attending the annual “Border Inn Old Sheepherders Ball”. It was Brandi Roberts, the Executive Director of the Great Basin Heritage Area Partnership, that introduced me to a guy named “Buddy.”
Standing not so eye-to-eye, I looked upward at “Buddy” after a beer or two, and with my rather limited knowledge of western sheepherders, I kind of surmised Buddy had to be a cross between an Alaskan Grizzly and a big spotted bobcat… or maybe even a rogue mountain lion with a little wild coyote mixed in.
Even after another adult beverage I still wasn’t real sure about Buddy’s lineage.
On a bathroom break during Border Inn’s Old Sheepherders Ball, I spotted Buddy in the hall and I casually mentioned I was interested in doing an interview with him. He asked, “When?”
It was getting late, and Buddy proceeded to tell me he has “camp chores to do in the morning”. Things like starting the generator that powers the water pump, feeding his dogs and his company horse. Then Buddy told me he was going to spend the night in the parking lot of the Border Inn in his van, and if I wanted to follow him out to his sheep camp in the morning, we could do the interview out there.
I couldn’t have been more excited, and I spent half the night with the lights on at the Sinclair Motel in Baker, Nevada making sure I had all my recording equipment ready and would be wide awake at daybreak. I hardly slept an hour that night I was so excited.
It was in this wide-open space on the Nevada / Utah border, on the now dry bottom of what was once known as Lake Bonneville, out on a 30 mile dusty gravel and dirt road that crisscrossed the Nevada/Utah line at least a dozen times, that I drove my trusty fully loaded 2008 Subaru station wagon out to record an interview with “Buddy”, my new west desert friend, and a real sheepherder.
Buddy’s sheep camp turned out to be so far out into the ancient depths of Lake Bonneville that I was sure I was beginning to see mirages, and if given a lie detector test at the Ely County Court House, it surely would have revealed that I really did see at least a couple.
As I pulled into Buddy’s camp in my heavily dust covered Subaru station wagon, there was an ostentatious looking reclining chair sitting near the un-latched door to his sheep camp wagon. A piece of living room furniture so out of place and big that there was no way this upholstered chair could ever have fit inside a sheep camp. Buddy feels the need to explain to me how he found the behemoth recliner on a curb in Helper, Utah, and decided it needed a home, and that it would provide him with a comfy enough seat to sit and look at the stars on the darkest of desert nights.
Long story made short, I told Buddy I was interested in learning about what it was like to be a sheepherder, what life was like out on the range, the challenges, the predators and perceived aloneness.
Buddy Walker “Walking Bear”, is a white, lifelong, western sheepherder. Buddy is a burly looking fellow; the “Walking Bear” name suits him well. “Practically born right in a sheep camp,” Buddy tells me as he busies himself with his chores and feeds his dogs and company horse some hay, “My folks were living in a sheep camp when my Ma was getting close to having me. One day my dad mixes up a potion of diesel, oil, some rubber and other stuff that was lying around camp, and he puts it in an old coffee can and sets it out in front of the sheep camp, and he tells my Ma that when she felt like she was gettin ready, she should light the can with a road flare and he would see the black smoke and come running to take her to the hospital.” Thus, Buddy’s life of sheepherding began 59 years ago.
It was shortly after Buddy had started the generator to pump water, finished watering his company horse, fed his three dogs: Duke, Bluebell and the pup Jo Jo, that Buddy plopped down in his Helper recliner in front of my camera. Buddy reached into his shirt pocket and singled out a non-filtered cigarette, lit it, then blew out a long stream of smoke. Then he leans so far back in the recliner to the point I thought he would fall over.
“Well”, Buddy says, “To me weather is the biggest challenge being a sheep herder. You can’t just say you ain’t going out in it today because it is lightning, raining or snowing. Sheep need tending no matter what. If you don’t tend ‘em they get wild and then you really have a challenge on your hands. You have to keep them moving and that is where my dogs come in; they do the real work.”
Somehow Duke seems to know Buddy is talking about him and he sticks his nose in Buddy’s crotch.
“There is such a thing as to much tending too”, Buddy straightens up in the recliner and leans forward like he is going tell me something real important. “We had a new young guy out here one time that stayed right on the sheep all the time. I think he thought he might lose one. It made the sheep real nervous and their lambs were small. It is kind of like having a cop pull in behind you and just follow you for a hundred miles. Hell after about a mile or two you are a nervous wreck, and that is what is like for the sheep.
“I give my sheep plenty of room. I can send these dogs out two miles and signal them with a broom stick I painted white that I keep near my rifle. They will move them sheep right or left; it is just like my dogs know exactly what I want them to do, sometimes from miles away.”
“Most of the new guys, (Peruvians) whistle to work their dogs,” says Buddy. “When we bring all the bands of sheep in from the range and put them together, and everybody is whistling, it confuses the dogs and they don’t know what to do. I have trained my dogs differently, and voice commands and hand signals work well for me.”
“Predators are another challenge… those sneaky buggars” Buddy says as he belches out another shot of smoke. “Coyotes mostly, sometimes lions, and bears when you are in the mountains, people’s dogs too. I hate it when I have to shoot someone’s dog, but once a dog gets the taste of blood, it is hard to keep them out, and you just have to put them down.” Buddy flips his cigarette into a pile of about thousand butts, then lights up another cigarette with the flick of his Bic.
Buddy clears his throat then says, “Some guys say they get bored out in the sheep camp but I don’t. I do have a radio and a DVD player in my wagon. As a matter of fact I just got to see Mitt Romney and the Kardashians on TV for the first time last month. I had been hearing all about them two on the radio but I never had a chance to put the name with a face.”
“Personally I’d rather be out in the saddle. Riding the range I get to day dream a lot. Sometimes I think about what I would do if I found a big bag of money that had fallen out of plane or something. I like to think I would gather up my pay and be gone in a shot to live out the rest of my days in Mexico. I also think about riding up a canyon or somewhere and finding a girl that needs rescuing, and taking her back to camp, and we would live happy ever after. But that ain’t likely to happen. It would be real hard to find a woman that would be willing to live the sheepherder kind of life. My Ma did it, and it made for a good life for me and my sister.” Buddy’s eyes get glassy and he stands up to stretch. Bluebell and Jo Jo do too.
Buddy proceeds to tell me how the range and dealing with the U.S. government agencies has changed over time. He then gives me some of the history as he knows it, of when the Peruvians started to come into this country, and how it would be just as hard to find a damsel in distress as it would be to find a white sheepherder these days. “There just aren’t any white guys willing to herd sheep anymore.” Buddy then adds another cigarette butt to the pile.
Buddy again leans way back in the recliner he found in Helper, Utah, and puts his pocket size torch to another cigarette. Buddy looks straight up at the sky and tells me, “I went to a carnival somewhere once, maybe in Moroni or Ogden, or maybe it was a dream, but a fellow had three ponies on a merry go round thing, he was charging $5.00 for a five minute ride.”
At this point in our conversation, I was hanging onto to every word Buddy said and I leaned forward to listen. A pencil thin line of smoke slowly escaped from “Walking Bear’s” lips.
“I think when I retire I will get me a truck that I can live in, and a horse trailer that can haul at least six ponies. I figure if I worked at it I could be making $32,000.00 a month at carnivals! I could live on that”, Buddy says and laughs, and then he begins to show off a little by puffing out a perfect row of four smoke rings.
“I would follow the carnival around all summer, and then get me a room at the Borderinn in Baker all winter, with room service and only a short walk to the bar. Hey, what more could a guy like me ask for?”
Wanted; moderately priced Sheep camp with well-trained camp dog. Ask for Adus!