Westerners Hike the Basque Country
Faithful readers of this column, chronicling the hiking adventures of the Sedona Westerners, know that the club will occasionally hike the Flagstaff area. Flagstaff, and the San Francisco Peaks, can offer Sedona hikers cooler weather, mature forests, above-the-treeline adventures, and snow. Unknown to many, though, is the extraordinarily rich history of Basque shepherding in the area, and the evidence they left behind.
On a recent Thursday, a Westerner “Mustang” group of ten hikers under the leadership of Mike Nelson and Andy Beeler traveled a few miles north of Flagstaff to the BearJaw-Abineau trail. This trail, and others in the area, follow century-old Basque sheep trails and are lined with Dendroglyphs, tree carvings etched in Aspen trunks years ago by cold, tired, and homesick shepherds. Starting in the late 1890’s raising sheep became a profitable enterprise, and the cool Flagstaff weather made it a popular summer grazing area. Skilled shepherds were needed, and were recruited from the Basque area of northern Spain (in addition to Mexico and Peru). Basque historians state that, during the early 1900’s, working here became so lucrative that every Basque family would attempt to send one son to America to herd sheep (any other sons were expected to become Priests). As the number of imported shepherds grew, a local backlash followed, and the 1920’s saw laws enacted severely limiting Basque immigration and restricting areas where sheep could be grazed. After WWII, however, the demand for skilled shepherds became so great that the restrictions were eased, and thousands again “flocked” to the area, working sheep in the San Francisco peaks until the 1980’s.
There are literally hundreds of aspens lining the BearJaw-Abineau trail bearing the deeply carved messages of these shepherds. Many carved their names, place of origin, and date. Others left drawings of themselves, their farmhouses or horses back home, or women they imagined. Occasionally, a message in Spanish such as “I miss my dog.”, or “Thank God I am soon leaving this miserable place!” serve as reminders that these were lonely young men, far from home. Each carving is unique, and finite. The average life span of an aspen ranges from 60 to 100 years, and when they fall, so too fall these signatures of living history.
The Abineau trail climbs steeply up to the shoulder of Humphries, and offered the hikers stunning views of the newly snow-covered peaks. At over 10,000 feet elevation, the trail then follows the old Waterline Road through aspen groves that were literally exploding with fall color. Eventually, the road intersects the BearJaw trail (where most of the carvings are easily seen) which then descends back to the trail head. The trail head is well marked, and easily accessible via State Hwy 180 north of Flagstaff. The Westerners completed the eight mile loop in fine style, with good food, conversation, candy treats, and a better understanding of the people who carved their history into this rugged and beautiful place.
The Westerners always welcome new members. If you are interested in joining the club, log onto our website: www.sedonawesterners.org. You may also join by attending a monthly meeting, our next one will be on Thursday, November 11th, beginning at 7p.m. at the Jewish Community of Sedona and the Verde Valley Center, 100 Meadowlark Drive, Sedona.