It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Along with the entire town of Ketchum, we were waiting on Main Street for a parade which was thirty minutes late. Just as I was starting to feel the first pangs of boredom: they were there. Thousands of sheep running, sprinting down the street, bleating and panicked and jumping over each other, trying to escape through the crowd, getting reined in by barking dogs, cheered on by screaming kids, and blessed with holy water by a courageous preacher standing his ground in the middle of the street. And then it was over.
The Trailing of the Sheep Festival has been held in Sun Valley every year since 1997 but its roots are far older than that. This has been sheep land since John Hailey first brought his flock here in the 1860s. Land of the Basques, who were emigrated here in droves to work as herders and never went back home.
The parade of sheep through the center of Ketchum was the culmination of the four-day festival; other events included a Sheep Dog Championship, a Folklife Fair, lamb cooking classes, lamb tastings, sheep photography classes, lectures about sheep, traditional dancing… and did I mention anything about admiring sheep or eating lamb? Because there was a lot of it. We participated in everything, but will focus first on the parade which marked the festival’s end.
Long before the Trailing of the Sheep became an official event and captured Ketchum’s heart, it was something of a nuisance. Festival or not, those sheep still came through town at the end of every summer on the way to their winter feeding grounds. But turning it into a celebration made all the difference in public opinion. Where homeowners once grumbled about trampled flowerbeds and streets smeared with sheep poop, now they cock their heads nostalgically to the side and congratulate each other on their shared heritage.
On their way into town for this year’s parade, the sheep had ended up on the wrong trail, delaying their appearance for about 30 minutes. So the rest of the parade walked very slowly through town — a group of girl scouts, then traditionally-dressed Peruvians, who have replaced the Basques as the region’s imported shepherds du jour. It would have been dull, if not for the parade’s Master of Ceremony, who kept the jokes coming at a rapid-fire pace, some of them hilariously off-color for such a community-oriented event. I mentioned to Jürgen that the MC must have been a stand-up before this gig, and a woman standing behind us confirmed that he was.
Eventually, the sheep found the right path and came storming through Ketchum. It was over almost before it began, but the brief minutes that they were running past us were exhilarating. Sheep are skittish by nature, and running through a relatively narrow corridor of people had them in full-on panic mode. A priest was standing in the center of the Wool Storm, blessing the terrified creatures with holy water.
Our day ended in a field just south of Ketchum, where the weary sheep were finally allowed to rest under the ever-watchful gaze of their Pyrenees guard dogs. They would sleep here before continuing their southward journey on the next day. Different groups began arriving to the field; a Basque Dancing troupe from Boise, Polish Sheep Herders from Chicago, the ranchers and their friends. It was a surreal end to a strange and wonderful festival.