Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Nevada's Bawdy Basque Carvings


Bright sunlight filters through hundreds of towering, bare aspen trees. A soft wind shakes the rounded leaves, causing a few more to join the crunchy carpet of fallen plant debris covering the ground.

Then I see what I'm looking for and begin to chuckle. It's a crude, stick figure carving on one of the aspen of a man sitting before a piano on what appears to be a toilet seat. Carved above the foot-high image are the words: "E.M. 1932 . . . Playing the piano."

High above the east shore of Lake Tahoe, near Spooner Summit, is one of those unique places that make Nevada such a fascinating place to live. In this case, it's a grove of aspen trees in a high mountain meadow that once served as a summer range for Basque sheepherders and their flocks.

While not the only one found at the lake—in fact, aspen groves featuring Basque "graffiti" can be found in dozens of mountain ranges in the state—this particular place is one of the older and larger of these outdoor galleries.

The origin of these drawings has to do with the long stretches of time that Basque sheepherders spent alone, tending their flocks.

To pass the time, many would carve initials, dates and other messages in the white bark of the aspen trees. Naturally, like spray-painted graffiti on a building wall in a large city, some of these doodlings would pertain to what was on the mind of the artist.

Wandering through the Spooner aspen grove (as I'll call this area), it's possible to find dozens of carvings. While a few are rather ribald -- and reveal an excellent grasp of both male and female anatomy -- others offer more intriguing information, such as initials and dates going back seventy and eighty years.

My particular favorite, apparently also carved by the multi-talented "E.M.," depicts a man riding on a horse. Dated August 21, 1932, the drawing is detailed enough to reveal the hat and scarf on the man as well as a saddle, whip and reins.

Another interesting carving shows a fairly detailed representation of the flag of Spain, with the words, "Espana, June 25, 1939," followed by words that are difficult to decipher (possibly Basque or Spanish words). Still others simply show carvings of men in striped shirts with cowboy hats.

After weaving for a time through the thickly wooded grove, it becomes apparent that the trees are a veritable white bark chalkboard of designs, words and drawings. In a few cases, the trees have become so old (aspen live to be about 90 years) that the bark has grown around the carvings, making them impossible to read.

The Spooner grove, like others in the Sierra Nevada, were part of a cycle common among those raising sheep in Nevada. In the winter, the sheep would be kept in the desert valleys, which were warmer and more habitable than the higher elevations.

However, in the summer months, the sheepherders would move the flocks into the mountains to fatten on the thicker grasses found in the mountain meadows.

To reach the Spooner grove, travel west of Carson City on Highway 50. At the point where the road splits, heading north to Incline Village and south to Stateline, continue north for about a quarter-mile. Turn left just before the Spooner Summit Nevada Department of Transportation Maintenance Station and drive to the back of the facility.

There, you will find a paved road identified as Road 14N32. Follow the road for about three-quarters of a mile (it quickly becomes a dirt road). At that point, you reach a fork in the road and take the route to the right (you will pass a "1" painted on a tree about a fifth-of-a-mile from the fork).

From here, continue for about a mile, making sure you go left when you reach a second fork in the road (there are orange and black signs with arrows pointing to the left road).

About another quarter-of-a-mile from the second fork, you'll see a large lava rock formation to the right and the Spooner aspen grove on the left.

While the road is passable for vehicles with high clearance, a good way to visit is by hiking in the two miles from the maintenance station.

For more information, contact the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, 1536 S. Carson Street, Carson City, 775-882-2766.

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