In a few minutes, the large bentaillou flock finally comes loping up the road. I wait for the sheep to pass—all 1,500—a giant ribbon of white wool, then fall in line with the hikers behind. The day has turned spectacular. The Lez River on our right is glass-green, icy, swift. We pass tiny stone hamlets, houses with slate roofs and neat fenced potagers. An old woman waves from her doorstep, lace above the lintel. Then the road narrows and the valley walls press close. We’ve fallen into shadow. The sheep bunch together and slow to a half step, the road now speckled with fresh green dung.
Suddenly I find myself in the middle of the flock, the only human body bobbing on the surface of sheep. I feel myself being swept in a current of creamy wool. The sheep don’t seem to mind, but the shepherd does, and he gently calls for me to get behind the flock. Apologetic—embarrassed—I stand and let the current pass and meekly take my place with the other bipeds.
A shout comes from the file.
Everyone grinds to a halt and looks around. The border collie tunnels importantly through the crowd. People are shouting and pointing toward the river. A sheep has fallen in?A plunge into the icy rapids would mean instant death, and a dozen hikers dash to the embankment to look.
“Là-bas!” someone shouts. I half expect to see a sheep bobbing tragically downriver. But instead he’s stranded on a precipitous bank, bleating, the river 20 feet below. The shepherd calls off his collie; the dog’s excitement will only panic the sheep. The dog obeys and backs off, then stands waiting at a distance. Everyone else on the embankment is waiting too, holding their breath. Will the sheep make it?He is skinny, with first-year horns and long ovine eyelashes. His back leg slips. This could be a real cliff-hanger.
Slowly he struggles to safety and a cheer rises from the crowd and everyone starts walking again. The sheep rejoins the flock. He’ll make it to the estive after all, and survive another summer. But in the fall he’ll probably be sold for meat.
Now, through a narrow rock gap, we climb into the forêt domaniale. The river thunders on our right. Cold funnels down from the upper valleys. Water drips from rocks. Dwarfed ferns and wild butterfly bush line the track—the road is now all scree. Then the gorge opens into a valley painted with alpine flowers. The hikers shed sweaters and coats. We’ve been going at it for a good three hours. The sheep are thirsty and tired from the forced march, and so are we. Some sheep meander down to a braided mountain stream and suck up water.
Soon we reach our lunchtime destination, the Cirque de la Plagne, a natural alpine amphitheater. The view is staggering: four waterfalls plunge at the head of the cirque, small mountain rills gurgle over rocks, boulders lie interspersed among wide bowls of blooming flowers. Everyone spreads out to rest. Plastic cups of Kir Gascon are passed around. Rustic patois music pumps out of portable speakers. A barbecue pit smokes and chuffs with our lunch.
I sit in the cool sunshine with some hikers and riders on horseback. They’ve ridden up this morning on their Merens, who munch grass a few feet away. We eat too: blood sausage, pâté de foie gras, cured ham, cheese, bread. That’s only the beginning. The main course is—what else?—barbecued lamb chops, more tender and succulent than any I’ve tasted before.
We rest. We eat. We drink cups of red vin de pays while the music blares from among the rocks. Some dancers perform in traditional garb and wooden sabots. From where we sit, we can see the sheep. They’ve moved several hundred feet up the cirque, a white mass, bunching and unbunching, with a mind of its own.
Word has come down that there’s still snow on the Bentaillou—“the place where the wind blows.” Shepherd’s huts, called orries, dot the Pyrenees, some of them also used by hikers on the GR10. The crude stone structures are testaments to the hardscrabble life of the transhumant shepherds. Today the owners of the flocks spend little time up on the estives. The few hired herders are given cell phones and paid minimum wage. They are enjoying the party now. Soon, all the tourists will head back down the valley to warm houses or hotels, and the sun will drop in the cirque. That’s when the hard work begins. The long, solitary summer days on the mountain watching sheep and sky.