The Story Behind “The Basque Shepherd” by Richard LeBlond

Leblond-headshot-blog-300Today’s post is written by Richard LeBlond, whose essay “The Basque Shepherd” appears in our Fall 2015 issue.

At first I was reluctant to write about the circumstances leading to “The Basque Shepherd.” The essay had already crawled inside itself, becoming part of the story. I didn’t think it could support a third perspective. But when I considered the timing of the story’s events, I realized the essay had been seminal in bringing creative writing into the core of my life.

During the early years of my adulthood, I wanted to write the Great American Novel. But I couldn’t even write short stories. With a life-long interest in nature, I eventually became a biologist, retiring from North Carolina’s Natural Heritage Program in 2007 at age 65. Before retiring, I had thought about trying creative writing again. Journal writing, essays, memoirs. By then I had long known the Great American Novel was beyond my grasp. I am inspired more by observation than by imagination.

In 2003, I began a series of month-long annual journeys, alternating between eastern Canada and the U.S. West. The travel inspired journal writing. It wasn’t a diary; I don’t like forcing myself to write when I’m not inspired. Looking back at the journal entries from those first travels, the notations were just brief records of observations, events, and encounters, like randomly gathered stones. They were unconnected, without pattern—or more accurately, the connections and patterns had not yet come into view. (The first entry, from 2003, is the name of a beauty salon in Sydney, Nova Scotia: “Curl Up and Dye.”)

Jim Zatika changed all that in late September 2007. He is the focus—hero even—of my essay. Of Basque descent, Jim is the owner of a gas station in Jordan Valley, a small town in eastern Oregon. My encounter with him was so moving and powerful that I quickly realized I had a story worth sharing. I began to draft it the day after the pivotal events, and it became my first essay to have a Word document of its own. With growing confidence, that winter I took a closer look at my journals for other possible essays, and have been writing ever since.


Jim’s Shell, the Basque Station motel, and Mrs. Z’s convenience store in Jordan Valley, Oregon. The store used to be run by Jim Zatika’s late wife. Jim and I are still friends, even though we only see each other for parts of a day or two each year. We like each other a lot.

Photo by Richard LeBlond

About the Author

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.

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