If you're looking for an authentic taste of Basque culture outside of Basque Country — a picturesque, fiercely proud region in the foothills of the Pyrenees that fans out from the Bay of Biscay in the northernmost reaches of Spain and southwestern France — you’ll find it in Boise, Idaho.
That’s right, Boise.
Since the late-19th century, the area in and around southern Idaho’s Treasure Valley has been home to a lively Basque diaspora — a vibrant and close-knit community that’s, well, no small potatoes. Today, an estimated 16,000 residents of Basque descent live in the Boise area. My own family even has ties to the Boise Basque: my aunt by marriage is of Basque extraction and, in turn, my first cousins grew up with a maternal grandmother fluent in Euskara.
While Boise’s Basque population has assimilated over the years (craft beer rules over kalimoxto these days), folkloric traditions are still very much embraced. In Boise, the celebration of Basque heritage is centered around the Basque Block, home to the Basque Museum and Cultural Center and a market where heaping pans of paella are served patio-side every Wednesday and Friday at noon.
Outside of the Basque Block, traditions are preserved in other ways including in the remarkable handiwork of Kim and Kathy Vader of Idaho Sheep Camp.
The Vaders — Kim, a craftsman, is descended from a long line of Basque sheep ranchers — are in the business of building bespoke sheep wagons — that is, cozy little mobile shelters inhabited by early Basque immigrants who worked the land as shepherds and farmers.
Even modern-day sheep ranchers, including relatives of Kim and Kathy, continue to use these rustic proto-Winnebagos in lieu of sleek, newfangled travel trailers.
“There was a time there they decided to go to travel trailers, but after a year they decided travel trailers didn’t work so they went back to the old sheep wagons,” explains Kim. “I think the construction of them [the travel trailers] just didn’t hold up. Too many foo-foos and too many things to come apart and they just didn’t hold up.”
Globetrotting documentarian and downsized living enthusiast Kirsten Dirksen of faircompanies recently profiled Kim and Kathy Vader in a new video that provides a glimpse into the rich history of sheep wagons — the “Airstream of pioneers” as faircompanies calls them — and how the cozy, canvas-covered dwellings-on-wheels are now being embraced by tiny home enthusiasts and those seeking a “more original” vacation home or guest house.
Not at all surprisingly, you can even find a sheep wagon or two up for grabs on Airbnb.
“People want to recapture that old style,” says Kim of the current, largely nostalgia-driven interest in Basque sheep wagons or karro kampos. To date, the Vaders have built or rebuilt more than 50 sheep wagons, all unique, for clients (and a few family members) since founding Idaho Sheep Camp in 2007.
In addition to the new video from faircompanies, the couple's wagons, which start at $12,500, have been featured on HGTV.
Constructed by Kim and Kathy along with a small team of local craftsmen, each wagon is custom built with an eye towards comfort, historic authenticity and the use of durable, high-quality materials. The ash-framed wagons include antique woodstoves, RV/boat-style toilets and convertible built-ins aplenty. Sourced by Kathy, the wagon decor is appropriately antique-heavy, outfitted with lanterns, sheepskins, Pendleton blankets, Old West relics and enamelware. Lots and lots of enamelware. Broom holders are also compulsory. And similar to boat design, not a single square inch of the wagon's interior goes to waste — every nook and cranny serves a purpose.
And there's a good reason for the similarity. As explained by the Idaho Statesman in a recent article about the renaissance of these tough but cozy mobile micro-shelters, the Basque prowess in whaling and shipbuilding carried over to decidedly more pastoral activities.
There’s room for free-form expression amid the rules of the karro kampo — which roughly translates to car camp. Some wagons have rubber wheels. Some have wooden wheels. Some have metal tops, some have canvas. Some are pulled by horses, some are pulled by pickups. But the basic box shape, measuring about 4 feet wide and 11 feet long, has remained standard.
So, too, has the efficiency and design akin to that of a small ship. That’s fitting, since Basques were known as legendary seafarers. Storage cabinets open from the outside of the wagon to load supplies. They open from inside the wagon as well. No need to go outside in the cold to unload. Wagons comfortably fit three or four people.
Jeannie Eiguren, whose husband Dave heads up Boise's Karro Kamp Klub, tells the Statesman: "So many things our parents’ generation lived through, like living in the sheep wagons, they thought was so horrible. But we think it’s so cool. And, it’s our heritage.”
While authenticity is key in modern sheep wagon design, Kim Vader admits that he does take some “artistic liberties” when designing his nouveau models. These tweaks mainly involves upsizing the original wagon dimensions by a couple of feet to accommodate queen-sized mattresses. “They’re just a little bit bigger,” says Kim.