With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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When I met Randy Livingston in 2000, I was making the long drive from California back to my home state of Minnesota and had stopped in the mountains of Utah to go for a run. On a quiet gravel road three miles from the highway, I found myself face to face with a cowboy on a horse and a couple of dogs trailing behind. He invited me back to his small camper trailer for a cup of coffee.
The cozy, wood-paneled space was simple and efficient. “I thought I’d seen just about everything until I saw you coming up that road,” he said, shaking his head as he filled my mug. He herded sheep year-round and wasn’t used to seeing anyone out there, certainly not a man in running clothes.
Randy herded two thousand sheep for a farmer named John Mikkelsen, spending five months of the year at low elevation and another five in higher mountain pastures. The remaining two months were set aside for shearing and birthing lambs at Mikkelsen’s farm in Fountain Green, Utah. For more than forty years this had been Randy’s life.
The sheep grazed on twenty-five thousand acres owned by the Bureau of Land Management. Every other week Mikkelsen drove out to check on Randy and to deliver a supply of food. Other than those brief visits there was no one around. Randy was thirty miles from the nearest town, and that was just the way he liked it. He’d learned to herd sheep from his father, and, after returning from military service in Vietnam in 1968, he’d decided to become a shepherd and never looked back.
Two years after having met Randy, I wanted to return and document his solitary way of life with my camera. Randy agreed, and before long I was sitting with him in his trailer at 4:30 AM, sipping coffee, listening to the radio (he has no TV), and waiting for the sun to come up. Two hours passed without a word spoken between us; I wanted to observe, not interfere. Finally Randy got up from the table and said, “Well, I suppose . . .” He never finished his statement. His workday had begun.
Saddling up his horse, he explained that the sheep needed to be herded up and given water. He was fairly certain they were about four miles away, and he set off on his horse toward a lookout point, his binoculars around his neck and his two dogs out in front.
At noon he and the dogs returned with the two thousand sheep in tow. The dogs’ instincts and training were such that they required no commands, and I was in awe of Randy’s easy way with the animals.
After another two hours spent filling twenty water troughs from a tank trailer, Randy’s work was done for the day. The sheep would drink and later drift into the wilderness once more. Randy went into his trailer to shave, then filled the wood stove to bake bread. Settling in, he told me that modern society doesn’t suit him.
“Getting so I don’t enjoy people anymore,” he said. “People just want to brag about what they got. They got this, they got that. I get so sick and tired. I’d just as soon be out here.”
We talked for half an hour, our longest conversation yet.
“This job is just like any other job,” he said. “Anyone can do it, but very few people can do it right, year after year. You gotta learn your sheep. Don’t try to outsmart them. If you do that, you’re just asking for trouble. They’re smarter than you think.”
Randy is a kind, hospitable man of few words who values self-sufficiency and the solitude of open spaces. This life he’s made for himself is simple, and he doesn’t plan to leave it. But the U.S. sheep industry is not thriving. Consumers prefer beef and chicken to lamb at the grocery store, and most wool is now imported from Australia or New Zealand. Four-wheel-drive vehicles are destroying the vegetation on summer grazing lands. Sometimes I wonder about Randy’s future.
On the day I left, I sat on a hillside and watched Randy relocate his camp. Other than the occasional airplane crossing the sky, there was no indication that the rest of the human race existed.
“All I want is self-satisfaction,” Randy told me before I had to go. “As long as I got peace of mind and am happy inside, hell, I don’t need to be rich or have fancy things. It’s all gonna go when you’re dead anyway.”
© Robert Meyer
Rob Meyer’s poignant photo essay on Randy Livingston’s solitary life as a sheepherder [“At Home on the Range,” October 2012] was notable for the story it told as well as for the fine black-and-white photography. That Livingston could find peace and contentment in what many would call a lonely existence is remarkable. A man, a horse, two dogs, and the mountains of Utah — one could do much worse.