The wind howls across the alpine tundra. In the distance, rocky spires stretch to the cloud-filled sky. I imagine an ancient ruined city, like Machu Picchu, at its base, but I see no trees, buildings, roads or human development at all. It would be serene if it weren’t for the two thousand sheep.
If I had suddenly been transported here, it would be difficult to establish time or place. My first guess might be Peru but the ancient shortwave radio the shepherd carries is a clue to the present
Juan, the shepherd, is indeed from Peru, but this place is far from it. We are high above the treeline in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado near Silverton.
I’m currently in a traffic jam with lots of unruly sheep and two Great Pyrenees. These guard dogs are here to protect their strange sisters with their babies from other carnivors. Juan is in the lead of this caravan with his trusty sidekick Annie, a herding dog. It has been a long summer keeping the sheep in line and Annie is tired. She looks at Juan and hesitates before carrying out his last command. She seems to hope that he will change his mind. He doesn’t, so she jumps up and runs the wandering strays back into the flock. It is only then that she returns to Juan’s side and plops down to rest again.
Nightfall is approaching and Juan drives the sheep back towards his camp. The white canvas tent in the distance, with its cot and wood stove, is Juan’s home for several weeks a year. As a guest worker in the United States for a few years, Juan works as a ranch hand and shepherd for Etchart Ranch in Montrose, Colo. The sheep are permitted to graze here on open range in the summer months by the U.S. Forest Service. Once a week Ernie, the rancher, rides with a pack train of horses with supplies to move the camp a few miles down the trail to fresh grass.
Being a shepherd is largely a solitary job. Ernie is the only company, with an occasional hunter or hiker on the Colorado trail who might stop to chat for a few minutes. Juan carries a shortwave radio and often hikes to high peaks to tune into Spanish stations; the signals bouncing through the sky from faraway stations near his homeland in South America. Chilly nights are spent in the tent with the warmth of the fire, occasionally checking that the herd hasn’t roamed too far and wondering what his family is doing a world away. He listens to cassette tapes of “folklore,” Peruvian traditional music, to help pass the time. Annie tolerates the sounds from her bed under Juan’s cot.
Days start well before the sun. Wood has to be split, and a fire lit to make coffee, brewed Peruvian style with a stout dose of sugar. Breakfast might be cookies or leftover soup. Sheep have to be accounted for. They might need medication or salt and the dogs need to be fed. All before the daily trek in search of grass.
It is now the middle of September and the snow will soon reclaim this grassland in the sky for another long nine months. Juan yearns for his comfortable trailer on the ranch. It has a gas stove, solar power, DVD player and service for his mobile phone. He looks forward to talking with his family for the first time since July. Tomorrow, with the help of some fellow shepherds, the herd will descend to the valley, thousands of feet below, and be trucked to their winter pasture.