BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Most people like some authenticity in their ethnic dining experience. A chef who has a way with Old World spices. A server with continental flare. A bartender who tells stories with an accent that says, “I was there.”

That last one describes Joaquin Mendiara, an 81-year-old bartender who – like any good bartender – is pretty good at listening. But, for patrons of the Oak Street restaurant Chalet Basque who are inclined to listen themselves, he reveals impeccable Basque bartender credentials.

Born in Basque country – that’s the mountainous region of southwestern Europe where Spain and France meet at the Pyrenees mountains – he worked in his father’s bakery in their tiny mountain town of 400 residents.

And at age 20 he served in the Spanish army of the legendary Generalissimo Francisco Franco. But when Mendiara‘s father’s bakery started to struggle he and his brother decided to travel to the United States to earn money they might send home to save the family business.

They told immigration officials they were sheepherders – sheepres, in the native tongue of the young men – because that’s the kind of specialized labor U.S. authorities were most likely to be seeking from such applicants like them.

Mendiara’s first real meal in the United States – breakfast at the Noriega Hotel in Bakersfield. That’s where he met his future employer, a Kern County sheep rancher. In time, Mendiara worked his way up to a supervisor position. But in 1964, just days before it was time for the rancher’s herd to make the springtime trek from the desert of eastern Kern to a cooler climate, the company’s sheepherder quit, and Mendiara had to step in.

And so accompanied only by two faithful German shepherds and a donkey – he walked 700 head of sheep from Mojave north through the eastern spine of California 250 miles to Lee Vining, north of Bishop. The trek took 29 days.

“700 sheeps, (sheep dogs) Fina, Pancho, and my donkey, Marcellino,” Mendiara said. “We started walking, and it took me the first time, it take me about 29 days, from Mojave to Lee Vining.”

One does not eat with, sleep with, walk alongside and care for 700 sheep, in the eastern shadow of the Sierra Nevada for almost a month, without a crisis or two along the way.

The most desperate was the day one of his dogs was bitten by a rattlesnake – and probably had only a few minutes to live. Mendiara grabbed his knife and cut open the wound, made a tourniquet above the bite with a rope and washed the wound thoroughly at a steam. For the next several days the dog hobbled painfully alongside the procession, but after a week or so was fully recovered. The journey was taxing for them all, however. Mendiara lost three or four sheep from snakebites, old age or other ailments – not unexpected.

The same thing happened the following spring. The sheepherder quit and Mendiara stepped in. This time, the journey took 32 days.

Eventually Mendiara stepped into another career –  bartender. For almost 50 years now he has been pouring drinks, talking sports and counseling marriages – that’s what bartenders do, after all –  at a handful of Basque restaurants, as well as Rice Bowl Chinese and Red Pepper, when the Mexican Restaurant was on Sumner Street, near the Noriega Hotel. He married his wife Jessica in 1985 and they’ve been in the same house near Garces High School for 30-something years.

Retirement has been discussed, and sometimes, when Mendiara has been standing on his two replaced knees for six or eight hours, it seems attractive. But his fans need him – at least according to his fans. So, for the time being Mendiara will keep working the day shift, Wednesdays and Thursday, at Chalet Basque.

Sixty years ago Joaquin Mendiara was living the life we in Bakersfield associate with Basque immigrants. Today he is a walking, talking, drink-mixing historical record of those days, still on the job right there on Oak Street.