Sunday, 17 April 2011

Rough Around the Edges: Vincente

(The following is an excerpt from "Rough Around the Edges: A Journey Through Washington's Borderlands." Copyright RK Henderson.)

Humans are a novelty in the borderlands. The most you usually see is a dormant pickup, careened on the shoulder, awaiting some anonymous driver off on who knows what mission. And even that is uncommon. Which is why I was so startled, corkscrewing down a goat path in the Umatilla National Forest, well into the second half of the day and pushing for yet another dirt track called the Kendall-Skyline Trail, to encounter a man, statue-still and silent, by the side of the road. With no truck in sight, it was clear he wasn't headed anywhere. He'd just come to stand.

As I shot past him I saw also that he possessed the proverbial ten foot pole, a slim, flexible shaft propped against a fir tree behind him. This was either one of those dreams, or a story. I skidded to a halt, determined to get it.

I jumped down, hefting my camera, while my Man Friday watched me with the large, dark eyes of a deer ready to dart into the trees at the first alarm. I grinned and waved, and his round, olive face relaxed into a shy, almost childlike smile.

He was a small, compact fellow, scarcely five feet tall, with jeans bloused into black gum boots and a thick woollen cap pulled firmly over straight black hair. His pole, I now saw, had a metal hook on the end, and that, together with a whiff of wet wool on the wind and the bleating chorus from the woods behind, explained everything. The flock remained unseen, but three deadpan border collies skulked out of the undergrowth, halted at regulation distance, and scanned me up and down like cops. They continued staring, cold and rigid as cast iron, for a good half-minute, then wheeled as one and disappeared back into the bracken.

"Mind if I take a picture?" I said, hoisting my camera.

The shepherd nodded once, and I squeezed off a shot.

"Thanks." I snapped the lens cap back on. "How long you been up here?"

Again the timid smile, followed by an apologetic shrug. Once, many years ago, I met a Basque shepherd in these mountains. My French had bailed me out on that day. Instinctively I reached for it again, but the man's dark skin and almond eyes caught the parlez-vous in my throat.

"¿Habla español?" I ventured.

His face split into a wide grin.

"¡Si!"

His name was Vincente, and he was from Peru. His awkwardness was not entirely dispelled by my lousy Spanish, and I learned that he'd been tending these sheep, with nothing for company but three unilingual dogs, for several weeks. His features I now recognised as pure Inka; if a single Castilian corpuscle fouled those veins, it was damned quiet. I didn't press for specifics, but he'd apparently followed the same trail that led Scottish shepherds to New Zealand, Welsh ones to Patagonia, and Basques to Chile and the American West.

I felt lucky for the accident, and privileged to have met him. Solitude is a skill, practiced professionally by very few in this day of robot lighthouses and flying fire watchers. If the wheels of commerce have ground most of us to dross, it was a comfort to know that there was still a place in these hills for Vincente.

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