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The Young Shepherd and his Winter Flocks in the San Jacinto Valley

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"Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother's house we go..."

That's what other people sang, apparently in the back of a horse-drawn sleigh. My brothers and sister and I sang, in the back seat of the old Ford station wagon, "Over the fields and past the sheep to Grandmother's house we go..."

I went to my grandmother's house in the San Jacinto Valley last week, praying that there would be sheep because I have missed them. (I sang my childhood song to my own three daughters while taking them to grandmother's house - they were impressed and awed by the sheep until they turned into teenagers.)

After I passed Lake Perris, there they were. Just off the Ramona Expressway, cars hurtling past way too fast for the road, flocks of beige and brown sheep moved in the new grass of the fields between Lakeview and Nuevo.

The lonely home of the shepherd stood in the center of the flat land.

Photograph by Douglas McCulloh
Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

This was a vintage travel trailer, avocado-green stripes, rusty propane tank, an ancient antenna like a yard decoration near the front hitch, and a barrel for trash. A border collie approached me warily, barking but with head cocked as if curious; her face was brown and white. Then, her three puppies came out from under the trailer, black and white, barking for practice.

I could hear lambs calling, shrill and melodious, nearby, under the deeper baa-ing of the hundreds of sheep.

The fields around the trailer were golden hay stubble and sprouting grass. A series of wooden gates and wire fences kept sheep in particular areas, and a stout man waved his leather hat and shouted to move one herd into another pasture. I waited until he was finished to say hello. Before getting into his truck, he shook my hand and said, "Watch the dog."

The dogs were playing now. I laughed and replied, "Oh, they look pretty friendly."

He shook his head ominously. "No. The big white dog." Then he drove away.

I looked around, realizing I stood in completely open flat land, for a white dog. Nervous. But I saw only sheep.

Two more men walked the fields, coming closer. Three herds were being joined, it was clear. I headed down the road toward them, anxious about the big white dog, which had turned mythical to me. How would I see it, among the sheep? The border collies ran through the stubble alongside me, and I saw something chilling - it looked like the foreleg of a lamb.

The two men waved at me. Esteban, originally from Guanajuato, Mexico came over to talk. He and some of the other ranch hands lived in the front of the property. But the shepherd was a young Peruvian man in his early twenties, shy and smiling at me, circling and moving amid the sea of wooly backs, deftly forcing the herd toward the gate where I stood.

"His life is hard," Esteban said. "He stays here 3 years, seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Then he goes back to Peru."

Photograph by Douglas McCulloh
Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

I took that to mean he'd earned enough money to return home, and that another young man would come from Peru to replace him. But I don't know if that was the case. Esteban continued, "But it is a hard three years. Every night, the coyotes come. They take sometimes one, sometimes four sheep. The lambs." He shook his head.

Beside me was the pasture of mothers. About twenty new lambs shrieked constantly, babies crying just to practice, like the puppies testing their barks. Their mothers, some who had clearly given birth only the day before, moved slowly while lambs nursed. One lamb wobbled along, maybe hours old, skin still pink and wool-less.

Just then, another man came striding down the dirt road, gesturing to me to move. "Camino! Camino!" he shouted at me.

The sheep needed to walk where I was. I moved to the side of the gate, which he opened. He was the rancher, with blue shirt, reddish-blond hair, and he ignored me. He had sheep to worry about. Lambs. And coyotes.

He said something, and the four dogs, who had been lolling about, playing in the stubble, sprang to attention. Another man appeared in a far field, and the scene was nearly operatic in its perfection. Esteban and the young Peruvian shepherd had skillfully combined two herds, of about fifty each. They rumbled toward me, and I pressed myself alongside the fence.

The dogs wove in and out in a formation known by instinct, braiding their own trails at the heels of the sheep, circling and circling, and two sheep who tried to bolt turned back quickly. The rancher waved a plastic bag. Whatever works - it worked. A hat, a bag, four dogs barking, and in minutes hundreds of sheep were across the road.

The three ranch hands began to funnel the sheep through a gate, single-file, and the rancher unloaded metal stakes and spools of wire. They built a fence, right there, and penned one group of sheep. The rancher stood beside the gate, checking each animal for something. Fatness? Pregnancy? Depth of wool?

All my life, I've seen these flat valley lands along the San Jacinto River raising sheep and wheat and potatoes and corn. Where would the sheep end up - leg of lamb, wool for export?

Photograph by Douglas McCulloh
Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

The dogs trotted off nonchalantly through the field, heading toward the water trough. The brief, intense burst of running made them thirsty.

Then I saw it, in the distance. I thought it was a sheep, a very tall sheep, but the tail was long and curled up like one side of a handlebar moustache. An impossible curl. A tall animal moving slowly, regally, this way.

The big white dog.

This dog sleeps inside the herd at night, Esteban told me. Invisible. When the coyotes approach, the big white dog leaps out from the center barking furiously, trying to kill the coyote, and waking the shepherd in the trailer so he can come outside.

Presumably with a gun.

The white dog looked my way, disinterested. The breeze moved the menthol-scented leaves of the eucalyptus windbreak. The sun was out, but the wind was cold, moving across the fields, and the lambs bleated, their tongues out like teasing preschoolers.

The coyotes.

I looked again at the lonely trailer, the mountains in the distance, the cars and trucks speeding past. In the Southern California of constant wireless connection and commercials featuring "that's so 26 seconds ago," the miles this young man walked every day seemed ageless.

I wanted to ask the Peruvian shepherd how he did it - stayed in that trailer exposed to wind and rain and baking sun, waking from sleep every night to hear the white dog and see the gray shapes of predator. But he was unrolling wire fence. The rancher shouted and waved his plastic bag. I went back down the dirt road. The shepherd lifted his head to smile at me, and Esteban waved.

Susan Straight's latest novel is "Take One Candle Light a Room."  Both she and photographer Doug McCulloh are natives of Riverside, and their stories appear on KCET every other Wednesday, all which can be read here.  She is Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at UCRiverside.

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