best festival

Some 1,500 sheep make their way down Main Street in Ketchum during the annual Trailing of the Sheep parade, just one of the events during the four-day Trailing of the Sheep Festival.
Photo courtesy of Trailing of the Sheep Festival

A wild and woolly adventure
Best festival in valley is baaaack this fall.
Pam Morris

Ask average people where their food and clothing come from and they'll likely reply, "The store."

The organizers of the Trailing of the Sheep Festival, voted the best festival in this year's balloting, made it their mission to change the way people answer that question.

Americans and other citizens of first-world nations live a long way from the earth-stained-fingernail world of agriculture. Our food comes wrapped in plastic and our clothes come wrapped in tissue paper. Yet deep inside our 2014 bodies, with their callous-free hands and chemically tanned faces, the whispers of our ancestors tell us that there's more to the frozen-food aisle than we know.

First-time festival participants are hilariously naïve—and that's good, organizers chuckle. Every year, someone new asks, "This is a re-enactment, right?" or "How long did it take to train the sheep to do this?" as Main Street in Ketchum is swarmed by a two-block-long band of sheep, about 1,500 in all.

It's the real deal, organizers tell them, domestic sheep moseying down to winter pastures after spending the summer munching on the tender greens of the high country's public lands, sticking close to sheepherders and their wily dogs and trying to steer clear of the coyotes, wolves and other predators that want the sheep for a tasty meal of their own.

Sheep ranching is alive, if not totally well, in the state of Idaho, which 235,000 sheep and lambs call home. During World War I, trains from Ketchum's Union Pacific railhead hauled sheep to meet the world's demand for wool for uniforms and mutton to feed soldiers and citizens alike.

Ranchers first brought domestic sheep to the area in the 1860s. A hundred years later, when the ski industry began to boom in Sun Valley, new mountain residents sometimes found their drive to work blocked by something unexpected: the sheep jam. It was a rite of spring and fall, a lot like getting stuck in a Paris roundabout, except the sheep were the only ones moving. As the area became more urbanized, festival founders and ranchers John and Diane Peavey began to invite small groups of people to help them move bands of sheep down the valley each fall to try to bridge the growing gap between ordinary people and agriculture. They knew something their urban cousins didn't—that sheep are the linchpin of an age-old culture that modern people were fast forgetting.

From a straggle of ewes observed by a small gaggle of nearly accidental onlookers, the Trailing of the Sheep Festival grew to invite all comers to celebrate the connection between man and these beasts through storytelling, music, dancing, poetry, good food and demonstrations by sheepherders and their dogs, as well as craftsmen. The leisurely parade of wagons, jingling Basques, proud Peruvians, ambling Polish and piping Scottish musicians and dancers, Western herders and skittish sheep tops the weekend on Sunday morning.

The festival, recognized most recently with the Idaho Governor's Award for Cultural Heritage and previously by other organizations as a top festival, is a fine and unhurried way to spend a golden fall weekend reconnecting with the things of life that the whispers of our ancestors tell us are genuine and good.

If you go
When: Oct. 9-12, 2014.
Where: Hailey and Ketchum.
Don't miss: Any of it.
More information:

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