Pagosa’s Past: Followin’ the flock

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Photo courtesy John Motter
County Judge J.T. Martinez looks on as a hired hand shears a sheep long ago.

By John M. Motter
PREVIEW Columnist

For years, I’ve hiked the trails from Pagosa Springs up the surrounding mountains on foot. Most of those trails were made by sheepherders driving tens of thousands of sheep from New Mexico winter pastures up to the high mountain pastures in Pagosa Country, which turn green for a short time during summer.

Back in the late 1800s, when Pagosa Country was first being settled, cattle were introduced into a land that had known sheep for decades. The cattlemen soon tried to drive out the sheepmen, resulting in a few shootings and creating a lot of material for Hollywood movies. In truth, sheep were much more profitable than cattle. Sheep produce two cash crops a year: mutton and wool.

Sheep were encouraged to graze as they munched from pasture to pasture. The herders, with time to spare while the sheep grazed, used much of that time carving names, initials and dates into the bark of aspen trees. Reading their carved creations intrigued me, explaining my interest in exploring sheepherder trails. It’s called “Sheepherder Art.”

My first introduction to sheep in Pagosa Country took place down near Tiffany in the southwestern part of the county. I was driving along, singing to myself. I’m a
“Cool Water,” Sons of the Pioneers fan. If nobody is around to hear me, I even try yodeling.

Suddenly, the road in front of me was blocked from the fence line on the left to the fence line on the right by a moving, bleating wool factory. A couple of men on horseback were riding through the herd, keeping it moving and making sure the bleaters didn’t go through a fence into a nearby field of alfalfa.

Slowly, I moved down the road following the herd, frequently stealing a look at my wrist watch and telling myself don’t get mad, don’t get mad. I think you get the picture if you’ve ever waited for a slow stoplight to turn green.

The nearest caballero, clad in a faded red shirt and jeans, and swinging a rope from one sheep to the next, glanced back and waved, urging me to follow him through the herd down the left side of the highway. From his mouth came a steady stream of whistling and other noises the sheep seemed to recognize as an order to get out of the way and obediently complied.

That was my introduction to sheep and sheepherders. Since then, I watched a man who had worked with sheep all of his life shear sheep after sheep in preparation for moving the herd up to the mountains. He used hand shears with amazing dexterity and skill.

I’ve had many mugs of coffee and burritos smothered with chile verde while an ancient sheepherder pointed to this mountain and that mountain explaining where the trails and grass and water were and where he and his dog had confronted a wolf or grizzly bear.

I even learned how to make sheepherder coffee by dumping the grounds into a coffee can and warming it on the campfire each morning while using the same grounds over and over.