The Basque Shepherd

by Richard LeBlond

Basque-LeblondIn early autumn 2007 I headed north from Elko, Nevada, on my way to the Owyhee River region of southeastern Oregon. It was the sporadic continuation of a journey that began in 2004, annual month-long adventures to the West from my home in North Carolina. I grew up in Portland, Oregon, but left for the East Coast in the 1960s. Now 66 years old, I was exploring a frontier largely unfamiliar to me. I had a sense of direction, but no fixed destination, deliberately exposing myself to the “jeopardy of circumstance” William Least Heat Moon had encountered in Blue Highways. Adventure and exploration thrive on uncertainty.

I stopped for gas in the village of Owyhee on the Nevada/Idaho border. This is where most of the Shoshone and Paiute residents of the Duck Creek Valley Reservation live. If the appearance of houses, yards, and infrastructure is the measure, the town was deep into poverty. It seemed to be another fulfillment of Sherman’s two-fold prescription. As Commanding General of the Army after the Civil War, he had said, “the more I see of these Indians the more convinced I am that they all have to be killed or be maintained as a species of paupers.” Pauper maintenance is the choice of a civilized people.

After gassing up, I got in line at the store to buy a candy bar. Ahead of me at the register were two men, the older appearing close to 80, the other maybe in his 50s. The younger man kept scolding the older one as if he were a child, giving detailed instructions on each step needed to complete the transaction. I guessed they were father and son.

“Do you have the right change? Let me see your hand.”

The older man’s face remained stoic. But I interpreted from small movements of his body—he kept pulling slightly away from the younger man—that he must have been resentful, if not angry. There was nothing childish in his bearing. Now that I am old myself, I pay closer attention to the street theater of aging. I am a student of looming futures.

As I drove north from the reservation town, I wondered what might have brought about what I suspected was a reversal of their generational relationship. Maybe the older man had become forgetful or less attentive, and was now being treated like an irresponsible child. Maybe he still was who he had been, with occasional lapses. Maybe the younger man was unable to resist an opportunity for payback, unsympathetic that he too followed the same arc of aging.

*

Almost without notice, the Owyhee River has deeply eroded northern Nevada, southwestern Idaho, and southeastern Oregon, a region virtually without people and paved roads. The river’s arid watershed abuts the northern edge of the Great Basin. Like the Basin, it is high and dry desert, blistering hot in summer, brutally cold in winter. I think one must be born to this country to survive it. Desert plants look more dead than alive, but I know they are only withdrawn, and will quicken in the uncommon rain.

North from the Shoshone–Paiute reservation, mountains are fewer and farther away. The land becomes as monotonous as Iowa corn ground. My best use of it was to get through it as quickly as possible. I was on my way to an expectation somewhere along the Owyhee, and figured to be in Jordan Valley by late afternoon.

Jordan Valley is a town of about 250 people in southeastern Oregon, close to the Idaho border. It is located along Jordan Creek, a small tributary of the Owyhee. Basque settled here in the latter half of the 19th century, immigrants from the homeland on the border of France and Spain. The first immigrants were mostly men who found work as shepherds, living in virtual isolation for most of the year. Consequently, the Basque were more slowly assimilated into the U.S. culture than other immigrants were, and were often the victims of ethnic and sectarian bigotry.

I had known about the Basque presence in the West while growing up in Portland. But I hadn’t given it any thought until I encountered a surprising element of Basque history in Red Bay, Labrador. There I discovered the Basque had established a large and long-lasting whale and cod industry throughout most of the 1500s. A thousand or more Basque sailed north from the Bay of Biscayne to the Labrador coast every year. The Red Bay Basque fishery is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Although Basques are now assimilated throughout the U.S., there remains a concentration in the central and northern Great Basin, and in neighboring watersheds like the Owyhee. At one time two-thirds of the citizens of Jordan Valley were of Basque descent, and they continue to have a strong presence there. Surnames are rich with ethnic identity: Uberuaga, Eiguren, Elorriaga, Goicoechea.

Like so many small towns, Jordan Valley can’t hide its economic ambiguity. A few buildings appeared to have been without enterprise for decades. Others, though functioning, were relics from the fifties, renovated by time alone. The newer buildings clustered together: a gas station, a convenience store, and the Basque Station motel.

There was no office at the motel, so I went to the convenience store, where I was told to ask for Jim Zatika at the Shell station. He was seated at a desk in a small and crowded office, filling out forms; Jim was an older man, 73, I would learn.

There were a few younger men working or milling about, going back and forth through the door connecting the office with a tire repair garage. Jim seemed to have an ongoing sarcastic dialogue, or at least monologue, with each of them. Just about every sentence he uttered had an embedded profanity. I wasn’t used to hearing those powerful words in public. They were jarring, like rocks rolling out of his mouth. I was a bit intimidated, and tried to get his attention without getting in the line of fire. But that was an impossibility.

“What do you want?” Jim asked. Apparently Jordan Valley’s remoteness precluded the need for good customer relations. I told him I was looking for a room to rent for two nights.

“Maybe we got one, maybe we don’t,” he said as he opened the motel ledger. “Well, you’re in luck.” I’m sure he knew I would be, but the doubt created a mild anxiety that heightened my “reward” of paying him for two nights.

I noticed that the clock on the wall was an hour ahead. I had forgotten that a small part of eastern Oregon, essentially from Ontario to Jordan Valley, is on Mountain Time.

“I see you’re on Mountain Time.”

“You must be one of those goddamn Pacific Time lovers.”

It was about here I began to think Jim heard and used these profane words so often they had become basic manly vocabulary and had lost their power to offend, at least in the Shell station. Otherwise, this was my first encounter with hatred of a time zone.

I told Jim about my backcountry plans and asked where he thought I should go to reach scenic areas of the Owyhee River canyon. He suggested I try Birch Creek, a tributary off Jordan Craters Road. He then added gratuitously, “Until 30, 35 years ago, I didn’t give a shit about scenery.” That was a backhanded way of saying that for the past 30 to 35 years he had given a shit about scenery. Becoming accustomed to the profanity, and amused by his sarcastic banter with those milling about, I was beginning to like him.

Next morning I headed north from Jordan Valley on US 95, then west on the gravel, rock, and dirt of Jordan Craters Road, which for a while follows a shallow valley with an intermittent stream named Cow Creek. It was dry at the time, except for one mud hole where two cows were looking for water. They turned their necks my way to show me their disappointment.

Twenty-four miles in, the road down Birch Creek canyon forked off to the right and began a steep four-mile descent. At times the road seemed more concept than reality, crossing Birch Creek five times without benefit of bridges before reaching the Owyhee. During the descent, spectacular views of the river canyon suddenly erupted, creating serious driving hazards while I tried to navigate hairpin turns on what seemed like near-vertical slopes.

After a couple of hours of sight-seeing and photography in the richly painted Birch Creek and Owyhee River canyons, I returned to Jordan Craters Road and took the spur to the craters themselves. They are a rabble of volcanic spewing holes and enormous lava flows that continue to blacken 27 square miles of landscape from volcanic events that happened more than 4,000 years ago. The lava field is naked, without vegetation, because of the abundance of minerals toxic to plants.

About a half mile before the craters, the road came up over a low hill and I saw the lava field stretching out below, blackening almost everything to the horizon. At that moment the sound and feel of my Tacoma changed, and I realized I had a flat tire. My bummer gland, which lies right next to the depression gland, emptied its contents. I was 26 miles from a paved road, and a late September cold front was approaching. (There would be snowflakes in the rain that came in the afternoon.)

I had with me a product affectionately known as “spare tire in a can,” a concoction that can be squirted into a flat tire through its valve, hopefully filling it long enough to reach a repair site. I also had an actual spare tire if it became necessary, but that was not a pleasant prospect given the location, my age, and my ex-smoker’s lungs. What might be a minor mishap for a younger person could be a reckoning for me.

Shortly after I applied the “spare tire in a can,” two hunters came by in their SUV, scouting sites for the next day’s hunt. And sight-seeing. I apprised them of my situation, and they said they would keep an eye out for me on their way back. They continued on to the craters, and I set out for Jordan Valley and Jim’s tire shop.

About four miles down the rocky road my tire went flat again. I sucked it up, got out the driver’s manual, fetched the spare tire tools, and tried to free the spare, which was housed under the bed of the pickup. After spending several minutes on my back, I realized the manual and tools did not match or fit the mechanism that was holding the spare in place. Soon after, the two hunters showed up, and being men, each in turn crawled under the truck. We were unanimous that something unwanted had happened between manufacture and the present moment.

(It wasn’t until after I left Jordan Valley that I learned the previous owner of the truck had installed an anti-theft device on the spare tire release mechanism, and that the unlocking device was missing.)

The hunters had their own can of “spare tire,” so we put that in and headed off down the road, them behind me. After another four miles, the tire went flat again. Still 18 miles from pavement, we decided it was best not to remove the flat tire and leave the truck held up by a small and unstable-looking jack so far from help. So I locked up, hopped in their SUV, and they took me to Jim’s place in Jordan Valley.

“Goddamn-it,” Jim said, “I suppose you’re going to blame me for sending you out there.” The Shell station buzzed with a handful of local younger and middle-aged men, one or two working and the rest loitering. It was clearly an important gathering point in the village—I’d later learn Jim was a town councilman—and he was engaged in his more-or-less continuous sarcastic banter with all of them.

Addressing the others, he said, “This foolhardy young man has got himself stuck up Jordan Craters Road. The only reason I’m going to help him is because of the color of his hair.” My hair is white.

Jim and I made two round trips to my truck, one to gather the flat, which turned out to be  beyond repair, and one to attach a new replacement tire, a total of 104 miles, 72 of them on rough backcountry road. He spent five hours helping me, did most of the heavy lifting, and like the hunters, had crawled under the truck to try and free the spare.

During all that time in his truck, we began to know each other, and I invited Jim to have dinner with me at the Old Basque Inn. I learned that Jim was born in Jordan Valley, and that both of his parents were from the Basque region of northern Spain. By the second trip out, he related the details of his wife’s death in a Boise hospital.

“She’s been dead for two years now.” His tone, and the tense of the statement, said she hadn’t gone far.

That evening at the restaurant I was in the king’s court. By the time we left, all other customers had stopped by our table for conversation, and not a cuss word was spoken. The profanity had been left where it belonged, with the grit and grime of the gas station, dirty words for dirty work, and the first aid when heavy metal insults the flesh.

*

A small but remarkable incident happened after the first round trip, when we brought in my flat tire. Arriving at the station, I followed Jim out back to where he kept his tire racks. He searched for a replacement that was the right size. The tires were stacked upright side-by-side, the tread facing outwards. He had written each tire’s size with chalk on the tread face. But the chalk writing on one tire read “FUCK U LEVI,” the words written one above the next.

FUCK

U

LEVI

“What’s that all about?” I asked him.

Jim paused.

“Levi was a boy who worked for me. Killed in a car wreck a couple of months ago. He was a wonderful kid, son of the cook over at the Basque restaurant. I miss him very much.”

At first, I thought Jim had most likely written what was now a crude but potent memorial before the accident, for a moment that needed profane jesting. That it was still there suggested a continuing need for catharsis.

Later I considered that Jim might have chalked the words after the accident, in an angry expression of pain from the loss. If so, then on some level it might not have been addressed to Levi so much as it was to God.

Whether written before or after Levi’s death, the words now transcended their vulgarity. The profanity had become profound.

*

“There are times that one treasures all one’s life,” Steinbeck wrote in Travels with Charley, “and such times are burned clearly and sharply on the material of total recall.” Such were the events of that day.

*

I visited Jim again in subsequent years, and even gathered a few small mementos from Labrador for Jordan Valley’s Basque museum. Now this essay has become part of its own story, suggesting that Escher illustration of two hands drawing each other. I didn’t begin writing about my personal travels in a vigorous way until 2008, and I didn’t try to publish until the winter of 2013-2014. Then I began to think about accountability.

*

In the spring of 2014 I realized the stories I felt were the most powerful involved people still living, and whom I greatly admired. So I contacted them to let them know I had written about our encounter, and might try to publish. I wanted to send draft copies to them to make sure my writing matched their memory and, in Jim’s case especially, that there wasn’t a sense of betrayal.

I hadn’t seen him since 2011. I wasn’t even sure he was still alive. He’d be almost 80. So I called the Jordan Valley Shell station, and Jim answered. I told him I had written about what had happened in 2007, and that I was going to send it to him. I also gave him the date I would drop by in late July to hear his reaction.

“I’ll take you to dinner,” he said.

“No, I think you better wait until you read what I’ve written. Tell you what. If you like it, you can take me to dinner. If not, dinner’s on me.”

When I arrived at Jim’s Shell in late July, I pulled up to one of the gas pumps. He was sitting outside near the office door, and recognized me when I stepped out of my truck. But his face was non-committal.

“I figure you’re not going to shoot me while I’m standing at the pumps.”

“Don’t worry,” he said with a broad smile, “I’m buying dinner. I was going to lie so you’d have to pay. But I couldn’t. Everything you said was true.”

It is a measure of the man, at least in this instance, that he valued truth above any embarrassment that might come from a depiction of his feelings for others. He probably wouldn’t be embarrassed anyway, in spite of all that he-man profanity.

We sat for a while in front of the station and chatted with his son. When we left for dinner at the Old Basque Inn, Jim first drove me around town in his new pickup. He stopped to talk with almost everyone we saw, and to each of them he introduced me as “my only friend.”

At the Inn parking lot, Jim motioned to an adolescent girl to come over to us. He introduced her by saying, “I want you to meet my girlfriend, Seraphina. She’s lazy.” The young girl, no more than 14, giggled and snorted at the same time in response to Jim’s two-pronged characterization. After we left her, he said, “She is lazy.”

A few customers were talking on the restaurant’s porch with a couple of waitresses and a cook. The conversation was familiar and good-natured. In small town restaurants, I’ve found the atmosphere is often like the Sunday dinners I remember from my childhood home. When we got to the porch, Jim again introduced me as “my only friend,” though clearly everyone was his friend.

As he chatted with the others, the waitress standing next to me said she had witnessed our parking lot encounter with the lazy Seraphina. “Jim has mentored a good number of people in this town, and for a long time.”

Next morning, Jim and I sat in front of the station composing our goodbyes. He was off to nearby Caldwell, Idaho, and I was headed to Ely, Nevada. We were joined by a couple who appeared to be near or beyond 60. They were dressed to the hilt in motorcycle gear: black leather, silver studs, and t-shirts promoting Sturgis, South Dakota, their destination. He wore glasses, had a well-trimmed gray beard, and resembled a college professor stereotype. She looked good with her tied-back vestigial blond hair, sunglasses—and her own bike. They were so relaxed with Jim that I thought they were old friends. But he had only met them the night before, when they checked into his motel.

When I got up to leave, Jim started to get up as well. I said there was no need for him to stand. His left knee had been bothering him of late.

In a kind of half hug, I put my arm around his shoulders as he sat in his chair. I was surprised by how bony his shoulders felt, and feared he might be losing weight. But the previous evening, Jim had eaten his way through a New York steak dinner like a high school athlete. Maybe his shoulders had always been bony.

As I started to walk away, I said to the bikers, “This old bastard’s going to outlive me.”

“Just make sure you come back next year,” Jim said. “And you’re buying dinner.”

 

Note: The following photo is of Jim, Richard LeBlond (the author), and Jim’s son, Kevin, in front of the Jordan Valley Shell station. It was taken by an anonymous tourist, with Richard’s camera, at the time of the visit that concludes this essay. 

LeBlond-Basque-Shepherd-Photo

Photo credit

About Richard LeBlond

Richard LeBlond is a retired biologist living in North Carolina. He has been writing about life experiences, travel to Europe and North Africa in the 1970s, and more recent adventures in eastern Canada and the U.S. West. His essays and photographs have appeared in several U.S. and international journals.

Richard LeBlond

Richard LeBlond is online at