Trailing: An Age-Old Tradition
By Kathleen Bean
This past weekend the Sun Valley community held the fall festival known as Trailing of the Sheep. It began as an effort to educate the local community about the long tradition of sheep ranching in our region and now, in its 22nd year, has become one of the most popular festivals in the country, attracting many thousands of visitors. For four days we celebrate all things sheep –sheep dog trials, sheep shearing demonstrations, fine woolen goods, music from sheep traditions around the world and of course lots of delicious lamb dishes. The weekend’s events are punctuated by the colorful sights and sounds of bagpipers, Peruvian musicians, Basque dancers and Highland flingers.
Trailing is our favorite weekend of the year. It reminds us that we are part of a long tradition, even though our family are first generation sheep ranchers. We don’t have generations of memories behind us, to nudge us on when the going gets tough. We learned from the old timers, though, and we’ve lived into their memories as best we could. In our small way we are part of the story of sheep ranching in the Pioneers – Ketchum was the largest shipper of lamb in the world at the turn of the 20th century, second only to Sydney, Australia.
We spent the two weeks leading up to Trailing moving our own sheep out of summer forest grazing grounds down through the towns of Ketchum and Hailey to fall pastures. It is this annual migration that inspired the Trailing of the Sheep festival. Interrupting the morning commute traffic to walk a band of 800 sheep through town takes all our sheepherding skill, but we are mostly rewarded by smiles and waves, and the delight of elementary school kids as the sheep go through their campus. Moving the sheep along a four-lane highway for seven or eight miles, however, is stressful. The guard dogs aren’t used to busy roads and occasionally wander out into traffic. When we finally get to the night’s destination, we all breathe a sigh of relief.
As I walked with the sheep day after day I tried to imagine, over the relentless roar of traffic in my ears, what it was like moving sheep up and down our valley just a few decades ago. How reasonable it must have seemed then, with so few people and cars, when moving livestock down the road was expected and better understood. My own trailing became a meditation on keeping old ways alive in a fast-moving world.
The relentless hard work of ranching brings rewards in things like walking with a band of sheep, listening to the sound of their hooves and the rhythmic clanking of the bell on the “bell ewe,” and breathing in the scent of sage stirred up by their passing, We feel fortunate to be part of this old tradition.
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