July 2017 – During our stay in Buffalo, Wyoming, we were treated to a most unusual celebration: an annual Basque Festival which featured a parade of Basque sheep herders’ wagons rolling right down the main drag as well as a weekend-long fair and Basque Wagon Show at a nearby park.
The only thing we knew about the Basques prior to this event was from watching the Euskaltel–Euskadi cycling team in the Tour de France. Whenever they rode through Basque country, an area that spans the borders of France and Spain, the locals would all be dressed in orange and green, lining the sides of the and road waving flags, and they would go absolutely crazy!
It turns out that the Basques have lived in their corner of Spain and France since long before the Roman Empire reached across Europe. Their language is the only living and spoken European language that doesn’t have Indo-European roots (actually, linguists have not definitively found its roots in any language, dead or alive!), and scientists say their DNA is unique as well.
In the 1800s and early 1900s many Basques immigrated from France and Spain to America and became sheep ranchers in the western states.
Quite a few Basques settled in and around Buffalo, Wyoming, in Johnson County, and there is a bronze sculpture in town that commemorates them and their line of work.
When the shepherds were out on the prairie tending their flocks, they would set up camp in a covered wagon.
Many of the original wagons are still around and are still owned by Basque-descended families. As we stood watching the parade go by, we were amazed by the number and variety of these wagons.
Some were pulled by a truck, some by horses, and some by antique vehicles. Some had rubber wheels and others had wooden wheels. All of them were very cool.
The people in the parade were all descendants of the Basque families, and their excitement was palpable.
The Basques have a wild side (as we had noticed in those Tour de France bike races), and a few of them carried a leather pouch filled with wine that they squirted into their mouths as they paraded along!
One family float had big coolers of beer, and when they stopped in front of us a family member grabbed a beer and took it up to the driver of the truck pulling the float. Drinking and driving was okay for a day in this fun commemorative procession!
The families are very big now, and many family groups had lots of folks in the parade. Some carried cute signs.
The Arno family’s wagon had a funny sign on the back too:
Some even brought the family dogs along in the parade.
After the parade there were a dozen or more of them at the city park, and each one was opened up so you could take a peek inside.
These trailers looked to be about 15 to 25 feet long and they were set up very simply.
Inside, there is usually a wood stove on the driver’s side, a bed in the back, a bench/bed on the curbside and storage drawers all around.
One had been upgraded with an RV stove instead of a wood stove.
Each one was unique, and they all looked like a lot of fun to camp in.
Of course, for Basque sheep ranchers on the wide open lands of Wyoming, watching the grass grow and the sheep eat it back wasn’t necessarily a life of thrill and adventure, so the Basques often passed their time making music. During the parade we had a chance to see several Basque dance troops showing off some of their traditional dance steps.
As we wandered among the Basque wagons, we were intrigued to see two Amish men walking around as well. America is home to so many unique lifestyles and traditions, it was really fun to see the Amish among the Basques!
I started to talk to one of the Amish men and discovered his name was David and he was from Lancaster, Pennsylvania (of all places!). He had a non-Amish neighbor back home who had a summer house near Buffalo, so he and another Amish friend had hopped on a train to come visit for a week.
He had never been out west and was really enjoying seeing the beauty of our country. He gave me his card and suggested I look him up next time we’re in Lancaster. Definitely! We both had a good laugh when we found out that he has a cell phone but we don’t!
The festivities in the park included all kinds of things, from crafts to Basque flags and wine pouches to music performed by a Basque steel drum band.
In one corner of the park lots of kids romped around in a big playground. A group of kids was having a blast swinging on a huge self-propelled merry-go-round. Cowboys, of course, were everywhere, and we spotted a very young cowboy — in hat, western shirt, Wranglers, boots and all — nimbly scampering up a rock climbing wall!
Buffalo, Wyoming, sits on the edge of the Bighorn National Forest, and we enjoyed several excursions into this beautiful wooded and mountain scenery.
The woods were filled with pine trees, and much like the Black Hills where big rocks and boulders predominate, there were lots of wonderfully craggy rocks between the trees in the woods.
We were surprised that in late July the Bighorn mountains were still snowcapped. The views of the Bighorns were beautiful.
Even though the peaks of the mountains still had snow on them, the wildflowers were in full display in the valleys.
The lovely wild lupine were in full bloom, happily showing off their lavender glory.
Carpets of these gorgeous purple flowers covered the ground between the trees.
We found wonderful streams and noisy babbling brooks.
And the skies were very dramatic.
Suddenly, we saw a huge flash of lightning and heard a loud crack of thunder just before a deluge of rain pelted us.
Then, as quickly as the summer storm descended, it suddenly dispersed, leaving a beautiful sunset in its wake.
One of the greatest joys in our traveling lifestyle is the many people we meet. While in Buffalo we started chatting with the owners of a side-by-side UTV, Jonette and Bill, and we peppered them with questions about it since we’re very curious about these things.
As we talked we were blown away to discover that they followed our blog! We became friends and they laid out the royal carpet for us during our stay, showing us many of the hidden jewels in the area.
One evening they took us out to the Bud Love wilderness area where we saw an incredible number of pronghorn antelope and deer. It occurred to us that for the Basques living in their wagons out on the prairie, “Home, home on the range” was definitely a place “where the deer and the antelope play!”
The fawns still had their spots and they stuck close to their parents. If mom wandered off, baby had to run to catch up.
There were two types of deer roaming around: white tail deer, a slightly taller deer that raises its tail like a white flag whenever it runs, and mule deer, a smaller deer that has enormous ears and holds its brown tail down when it runs.
One group of mule deer was particularly unafraid of us and let us get quite close.
There were several bucks hanging around along with a fawn and doe, and when they stopped right in front of me in a perfect family Christmas card pose, I was just thrilled to get the shot!
Then they wandered off and the fawn began running and jumping to keep up.
On another day we were driving down a dirt road when we noticed a fawn climbing out of an irrigation ditch right by the side of the road. He stopped and stared at us with a rather stressed look on his face. We pulled the truck over to get his portrait and noticed he was all wet.
He disappeared into some tall grasses and then came running out again. Then he began running in very tight circles round and round.
We were really puzzled, but had learned from friends last year in Montana that herds of elk run in tight circles when they’re scared. We had seen a whole herd of elk doing just that on the side of the highway in the Bitterroot Valley (blog post here).
As we watched him, we suddenly noticed his mom was standing waiting for him on the other side of our truck. We had inadvertently parked our truck right between him and his mother, and besides falling into a ditch and getting drenched, he was now terrified he couldn’t get back to her. What a day!
We pulled the truck back out into the center of the road and drove off so the little tyke could get back to the safety of his mom’s side.
We were lucky to see the North American Basque Organization’s annual festival in Buffalo this year, but it will be held in other towns for the next few years. So, if you can chase it down to its next location, definitely do so. In the meantime Wyoming’s Bighorn National Forest is a true delight for an RV trip. We will definitely return for more!
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More info about the Basques and Bighorn National Forest in Wyoming:
- Annual Basque celebration locations – North American Basque Organization
- Basque Sheep Herding History and Info
- Schedule of Events at the Buffalo Basque Festival – Lots of stuff went on!
- Bighorn National Forest – USFS Website
- RV parks and campgrounds near Buffalo, Wyoming – RV Park Reviews
- Location of Buffalo Wyoming and Bighorn National Forest – Google Maps
Blog posts from the Big Horn Mountains, the Badlands and the Black Hills:
- Badlands National Park – Rugged Beauty on a South Dakota RV Trip 09/21/17
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