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The Life Of A Shepherd

By Marian Schultz Callison

From the first time I met Margarito Hernandez-Lopez, I was amazed. He was a wiry, little old man that did not speak English very well and yet there was something about him that fascinated me. I thought, after speaking broken Spanish with him for a while, that he had to have a very lonely and rugged life. I could not have been further from the truth if I had tried! Margarito came to America on an airplane, via Texas some 60 years ago on a government program. Supported by the Sheep Herder’s Association, this program sponsored Hispanic young men, eager to start a new life, by giving them a chance to become shepherds for sheep ranchers that needed their help.

A New Life For A Hispanic Shepherd

His first job was working for Freddie Fulstone in Smith Valley, Nevada. Freddie had over 6,000 head of sheep that he range-grazed on BLM property (also known as open grazing property). Margarito had tended sheep all his life working on his father’s ranch in Mexico. But this sheep operation was nothing like Mexico. Besides the fact that he spoke no English then, and the terrain of the BLM grazing land was new, Margarito found a lot of Basque traditions were being introduced to him all at once. Margarito learned early to fend for his flock and himself and to use the knowledge he had learned in Mexico to survive summer grazing.

Left: Author's husband Jim; Right: Margarito and his puppy checking a hurt wether.
Left: Author’s husband Jim; Right: Margarito and his puppy checking a hurt wether.

Freddie Fulstone was not the type of sheep rancher that took to his hired help “receiving guests” while they were tending to his flocks in the summer grazing periods. Afternoon beers were not tolerated either.

Still, Margarito tended Freddie Fulstone’s sheep with a respect for him that is admirable. He learned with ease both the route going up through Pipeline Canyon, a 100-year-old traditional sheepherder’s trail, and all the passages throughout the Mount Siegel area.

Margarito walked then as he does today, at an easy 10 to 15 miles daily. Tending sheep on the open range in rugged country is no easy task. Mountain lions and black bear are a worse threat there than are coyotes. Coyotes are abundant, however bear and mountain lions hunt all the time and are a greater threat. They stalk their prey in evenings when the sheep are resting as well as when the sheep are being driven to new ranges.

Margarito learned fast to put the sheep in a small pen at night near his “Herbie” or trailer. It was an easier way to protect the sheep from predators. He also learned to let the dogs do much of the work in the evenings. They could stay awake all night without the possibility of dozing off, and thus protected the sheep.

Tending to 2,000 head of sheep is nothing abnormal here in Nevada. Open range localities that the BLM assigns to shepherds are vast areas.

Running just a few sheep is not profitable to the rancher, nor allowed by BLM. So a shepherd puts in long miles while tending to the summer grazing.

On the open range, canyons all look the same as they tower above the terrain. A shepherd that does not know the area could get lost easily.

A Working Shepherd With A Flock

Margarito worked for Freddie Fulstone for about 20 years. Freddie became old, then ill. He no longer was able to run the sheep he had before. He asked Margarito to do him a favor and go to work for a friend of his that needed help in the Sacramento area. A shepherd was no longer a necessary item for the Fulstones, so Margarito found work outside of Sacramento, at the Abel sheep ranch.

He worked for the Abel ranch for approximately 10 years and then, due to the heat, sought work elsewhere as a shepherd for Pete Borda and his brother “Dutch” Raymond Borda in Dayton, Carson City and Minden, Nevada.

Every summer he would drive the sheep up to the Pine Nut Mountains or to the Monitor Pass area, and every spring he would help in Dayton with the lambing chores. Dutch was the sole person that took care of the sheep during WWII when Pete went to war in Italy. Dutch’s father, Raymond Borda, was too old, and no one else was involved with the business. So Dutch was eager and happy to have Margarito work for him.

(It was during this time that Margarito first met his present boss, a Basque sheep rancher, who was then only a kid.)

After two years of working for the Borda Brothers, and shortly after Pete had returned from the war, a tragedy struck: The family suffered the loss of Pete Borda in an accident. The entire sheep operation, which consisted of approximately 6,000 head of sheep, came to a halt. Margarito-although fond of the Borda brothers’ sheep-was more devastated at the loss of Pete. He had not only become close to the sheep he tended but also to the families that he worked for. Dutch was forced to sell the sheep to a man in Idaho, and close the business. He was older and he and his wife alone could no longer attend to all the business of the sheep operation known as the Borda Land and Sheep Business.

Margarito next found work at George Robert’s ranch in Topaz, California. George had known both Pete and Margarito. Margarito tended sheep for George for 10 years.

George ran his sheep up in the Monitor Pass area in California on BLM lands he leased, so nothing was new for Margarito. Life was good at the Topaz ranch for the years Margarito worked there. He and George got along and it was a large shock to Margarito when George died suddenly of a massive heart attack. The ewes and lambs, and the ranch, were sold.

This time however, starting over was not as it had been. Margarito found that a Ted Borda, Pete Borda’s only son, had bought the ranch and was offering Margarito the job of shepherd. It was like old homecoming to both Ted and Margarito.

A Typical Day On The Range

A typical day with Margarito while he is with the sheep on BLM lands starts with awaking at 4 a.m. to the two raw eggs he puts in his coffee for his breakfast. After eating, he moves the sheep-on foot with just the help of his three dogs-to water. Sometimes this may be just a mile or so while other times it may be as many as 10 miles. Water sources in the Pine Nut Mountains, because it is high desert area, are not always a common occurrence. But at least poisonous water is not normally an obstacle for Margarito, as the water comes from artesian springs, spread throughout the mountain areas.

He often walks on the tops of the mountain ridges so he can look for strays while keeping an eye on the flock. After completing his morning hike of up to 15 miles, Margarito then returns with the sheep to his trailer. The interior of this trailer consists of a sink, a stove, and a bed, and is a traditional Basque “Herbie,” also known as home to Margarito. Here he rests until about 2 p.m., when the sheep start to stir from the heat of the day.

The sheep will not move far when the hot Nevada sun beats down on them. They rest under sagebrush, with their heads and bodies as shaded as possible to keep cool. When the sheep are up, Margarito takes them for their afternoon walk, to a new mountain field or meadow that he scouted and found in the morning.

Rough & Ready Methods

Sometimes, Margarito is forced to doctor his sheep on his own, if one becomes injured. He carries a lariat with him in the trailer so if he needs to check on a wether or ewe, he has a way to catch them. He lassoes the sheep to get a better look at them, just as cowboys did on the range. Roping a sheep is no easy task. They can be very strong, and are determined to stay with the flock.

Margarito has learned the Basque way of skinning a dead lamb from a mother who had a stillborn, and making a coat for the “bummer” to wear, thus the ewe thinks it is her own, and accepts the lamb.

The Trailer that Margarito lives in during summer and fall.
The Trailer that Margarito lives in during summer and fall.

At times, he has had to butcher a wether if it is hurt and cannot make the daily trip on foot.

To reach Mount Siegel-once he has left Dayton, Nevada-on foot through the Pine Nut range, Margarito walks a total of about 900 or more miles round trip. This does include the times Margarito spends on his morning and evening hikes as he moves the flock and searches for water, etc.

This year, Margarito turns 83. Although most folks would think about retiring by now, Margarito still tends sheep, walking the average 10-15 miles a day while up in the BLM lands grazing the sheep. Sheep are a way of life and keep him going. Without them, he would be lost. He has worked now for Ted Borda for four years, driving 2,100 head of Merino x Rambouillet crossbred sheep that are his Basque sheep rancher’s flock, and a few Suffolk ewes and lambs that were George Robert’s sheep. He has a tenderness about him that is hard to describe. He is firm with the sheep, yet they respect each other.

Watching Margarito and his three dogs work or drive the sheep is amazing. The sheep seem to move like a wave coming to shore. When they start to stray, Margarito simply whistles and heads pop up and turn at the sound of him calling to them.

Moving 2,100 head of sheep through downtown Dayton, Nevada, although new to many of the residents, is what Margarito has seen and done all his life. Lambs, which once were thought by ranchers as “unherdable,” follow Margarito and the rest of the flock as if they were veterans. When sheep come off the BLM lands, they are half wild. They get little or no human contact besides Margarito while on the desert open range. They respect Margarito. The sheep depend on him to survive summer grazing. The sheep and Margarito have an understanding that is hard to describe.

I have known Margarito for about four years now. I have walked with him on sheep drives, not because he has needed the help, but more because my husband and I have wanted to. There is a peacefulness during these walks that I cannot find in everyday life. The sheep are driven hard, and up steep terrain, and yet they go willingly.

After being with Margarito, and sharing his camp, I know now why this gentleman of a shepherd has chosen the life he has. 83 may seem old to most of us, but to Margarito it marks just another year for him to tend to his sheep here in Nevada.

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