Robin and I went to Baker for an event unique even here in Nevada where one-of-a-kind is the general rule.
It's not over until it's over, and there are still sheep moving through the open country of eastern Nevada. I saw this small band between Eureka and Ely last summer (there are several hundred more outside the picture).
It is the bittersweet Old Sheepherders' Party, the 7th annual tribute to the tough and hardy men who trailed the sheep bands through this Utah-Nevada country in years past; bitter because these old fellows are dying away as the American sheep industry itself is dying, sweet because the heartfelt show of appreciation for their years of hard labor, the good food and the fun.
Denys Koyle paid tribute to old friends who had passed on.
Denys Koyle started the event because Elko's famous Cowboy Poetry Gathering focused attention on the cattle ranching heritage of the area and she felt the sheepmen deserved attention and appreciation too. It's held in her recently enlarged Border Inn, long a landmark on Highways US50/6 at the Utah line, a lonely bright spot in those wide open spaces and already famous for its New Years Eve celebrations (multimedia presentation here.) Denys operates it with her son Gary Perea.
The Old Sheepherders' Party in full swing, Baker Nevada, January 2010.
We went with the sense we were participating in a pageant that began promptly at 5 pm. on Friday afternoon with a feast. At the tables older men in overalls, big hats and boots ate lamb stew with their wives, grown children (and fast-growing grandchildren) and fellow sheep men. The conversations were animated and friendly, and there was a lot of laughter.
And yet always hovering in the background, the awareness of shared difficulties, endless decline and market losses.
The sheep business is drying up in America, and in this part of the country, that hurts.
After dinner there was a parade of speakers and performers, introduced and put through their paces by the highly entertaining Master of Ceremonies Hank Vogler. Melanie Heckethorn sang; she is a 6th generation Snake Valley girl, and she sang beautifully, to enthusiastic applause.
Bill Rountree reminisced about a barnstorming crew of New Zealand sheep shearers who came through Baker in 1987 and whose exploits were reported in the New York Times. As Denys recalled in the article, "One of the guys took off his boots, set them on the counter and asked me to fill them up with beer. So I did. There was stuff floating around in there, but it didn't seem to matter. They all sat there and drank it anyway."
The hilarity toned down considerably when Paul Frishnecht, a Utah attorney active in the higher branches of the American sheep industry ticked off statistics pointing up the attrition in the business. At the time of the Korean War there were 50 million sheep in bands all across the American west. There are only 8 million now, just five packing plants in the whole country and no friends in Congress. New Zealand has 40 million sheep now, and China has 300 million.
There it was. The once-powerful industry that sustains these people in the life that they love is still losing ground.
Slim grew up his grandfather's northern California cattle ranch, in the long-ago days when his name was just Rick Crowder. He grew up listening to granddad's 78 rpm records, taught himself how to play music, and then played in a couple of bands. In his middle thirties he drove a UPS truck, which is when he decided to see if he could make a success out of being a vaudeville cowboy.
Among the revelers was 90 year-old Vernon Fairchild, famous locally for observing, "A wine glass and a woman's ass made a jackass out of me."
"I played on the streets of San Francisco for a few weeks when I first started in 1988," he told me. "Trying to learn how to play the accordion — my first gig, so to speak. I faked my way through a variety of shows at retirement homes, school bazaars, opening act gigs and craft festivals before I first went to Elko in January of 1990 for the Cowboy Poetry Gathering. I was very well received at the open mike and upstairs jam sessions at The Stockmen's, and that opened up a whole new world of opportunity for me which led to a main stage show at the Gathering in '91."
Sourdough Slim's Academy of Yodeling, Strawberry Music Festival, Spring 2009 with Robert Armstrong playing slide guitar.
After that he turned in his brown uniform and his keys for good and transmogrified full time into a big-hatted accordion-playing yodeling cowboy movie sidekick, but without the movie. He might have stepped out of one of those black-and-white horse operas they don't make any more, after the hero inexplicably rode off on his beautiful big palomino, leaving Slim standing there alone on the stage, suddenly in technicolor, looking out at us with a smile on his face and an accordion on his chest — just about the way he looked when he played Carnegie Hall at the 1994 Folk Festival, and performed before a sold-out house on that fabled stage.
And then he sang to us about "Yodeling Bill", in the process giving us a yodeling demonstration so spellbinding that at the end of it no-one thought to clap. But he reminded us, and we did, and from then on it was one classic western song after another.
Sourdough Slim, yodeling in the Grand Ballroom of the Border Inn.
And he confided to us how he'd been affected by the economic calamity and had to take a Christmas job as a bell-ringer outside a supermarket. "To tell you the truth it didn't pay much of anything, but the tips were outstanding!"
And then the accordion burst into music and led him into the rollicking choruses of "The Musket Came Down From the Door". He sang "Barnacle Bill"! He sang "Take My Boots Off When I Die". He let us in on the secret that he wants to be the last man on earth, just to see if all those women were lying to him or not.
He did another show the next afternoon and after he had everyone tapping our feet with big grins on our faces, he tried to teach the roomful of sheepmen and their families how to yodel. The welkin rang loud with our efforts — but we were a world away from the Alps; even the Alabama Hills were well out of range.
Slim achieved what even the great Will Rogers could not: he danced, played the accordion, twirled his lariat and yodeled — simultaneously!
In "Wahoo!" he made a jazzy little "trumpet" riff with his lips, which he credited to Bix Beiderbecke. "Yes, I was channeling the great Bix Beiderbecke, the kid from Davenport Iowa who played in Paul Whiteman's Orchestra, in a tuxedo and a nice black bow tie", Slim said. "Imagine his surprise — coming back as an accordion-playing yodeling cowboy in Baker Nevada!" He closed with "Home On The Range" and once again the room was filled with singing voices as everyone joined in. A lamb/beef banquet followed, and then The Sheepherder's Ball, with music enthusiastically provided late into the night by the Silver Sage Family Band.
A carefully preserved and nicely presented archeological dig (with a self-guided tour) gives a glimpse into the lives of villagers thousands of years ago.
This was what we had come for, to experience the simple sweet pleasure of laughing out loud together, and singing out loud together, sharing a taste of an America that seems to be vanishing even faster than the sheep.
There is an interesting variety of things to see in Baker, starting with Great Basin National Park. The small Visitor's Center at the edge of town is open and well worth a visit any time. There's also a nearby archaeological dig with a self-guided tour hinting at the nature of village life in the stone age. And there's a fish hatchery about eight miles south of town, that's pretty cool if you missed the grammar school field trip. Beyond that, there's Baker itself.
Baker in midwinter is a ghost town. What had been an engaging little community of creative and energetic souls is . . . empty, dark and still. The Silver Jack Inn, once Bill Rountree's domain and famous all over Snake Valley for its Imelda Marcos suite, is now a sophisticated bistro, but closed from November through April.
A frozen January morning in Baker.
The rocket ship Bill made out of a vacuum cleaner and a chandelier is long gone from the roofline, and there's a 'For Sale' sign in the front window. T&D's across the street is closed and for sale. At the Whispering Elms Motel where we stayed only three of the rooms were rentable and none of the RV hookups were occupied. Doc Sherman is in his grave, the few remaining artworks that he and his acolytes installed on the road up to the Park are badly weathered or gone altogether. There hasn't been a street bowling tournament in years, and Baker's joi d'vivre is nowhere to be seen. I'll come back in a warmer season before I write the little town's obituary — maybe like a living thing, it dies back in winter, and comes bursting back to life again in the spring. . . .
On the Saturday night before the sculptural extravaganza, the Northern Nevada Railway rolled out its "Fireworks Express — the only train in the country, if not in the world, where fireworks are shot off a moving train pulled by a steam locomotive above a city" and bedazzled all onlookers with a spectacular display.
There's joi d'vivre to spare in Ely, and we encountered some of it on our way home at Cave Lake, south of Ely, where the Fire & Ice Festival was in progress on the frozen lake. Teams of sculptors worked with forms and freehand to create whimsical figures on the ice. There were almost as many ice fishermen as artists, but I didn't see any fish. It was sunny and bright, but it was not warm and the ice was frozen tight. On Saturday night they'd shot fireworks from a Nevada Northern railroad car at the edge of town and on Sunday night a second fireworks display is scheduled for Cave Lake. We couldn't stay for the big show, and we didn't see many completed sculptures, but we enjoyed watching it come together in front of our eyes.
Special Valentine's Day Options
For the simple pleasure of a lovely meal together, the Carson Valley Inn is serving a Prime Rib and King Crab Legs Dinner for Two on Saturday and Sunday nights in Katie's Country Kitchen, February 13 and 14 from 4 to 10 p.m. This Valentine's Dinner Special ($39.95) includes potato, vegetable, soup or salad and a bottle of Champagne.
And for the more complicated pleasure of declaring your love for another living being, lovers are invited to Lovelock on Valentine's Day, Feb. 14 at 11 am to join other couples for the Plaza's 4th Lovers Lock Anniversary Celebration. A wedding and vow renewal ceremony will be followed by love-locking in "Lover's Lock Plaza" behind the round court house you've heard about. You can bring your own lock or buy one here. The "Lock Your Love" tradition was borrowed from China, and since 2006 more than 1,500 couples, husbands and wives, newlyweds, grandparents and grandkids, friends, pet owners and others have locked their love at Lovers Lock Plaza; couples seeking to legally marry at the ceremony will need a State of Nevada marriage license prior to the ceremony. Information: send an e-mail or call 775-273-7213 and visit online.
Quick notes from beyond the mountains:
You won't recognize Silver City — and are all those thousands of people hiding in the sagebrush? Come to think of it, I haven't noticed that high-rise, have you?. . . The Carson Valley's unique Eagles and Agriculture Event February 19-21 is offering new tours this year and is selling out fast . . . If you didn't make it to The Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, you can at least read about it and get a taste of Paul Zarzysky in the process . . . What are you wearing to the War? Carolyne and Yvonne will be hosting the VC Sewing B from 11am to 3pm the 1st and 3rd Saturday of each month from January through June, at the Tahoe House Hotel, 162 South C Street in Virginia City. They'll help ladies create their own civil war costumes on a budget by making "open drawers" out of pillowcases, petticoats out of bed ruffles, chemise, corset cover and learning how to construct your very own corset as well as your basic day dress. Call Carolyne at 775 847-5264, or Yvonne at 775-781-7917 . . . The inviting city of Mesquite is offering a pleasant getaway for women called Ladies Retreat in Mesquite. The event takes place on the weekend of February 20-21, and the package includes yoga sessions, golf lessons, and a 'girl's night out'. Registration is open through February 13th, and it makes an intriguing gift for a special friend . . .
Young Las Vegas, home of the Rat Pack
The Starbuck's in Fallon has closed, will Dayton be next? . . . Here's a nifty website featuring Nevada ghost towns and mining relics . . . Executive Chef Terry Lynch of Mon Ami Gabi at ParisLas Vegas will host cooking classes throughout the year featuring specialties from the French bistro's menu. Participants will learn how to cook a three-course, French-inspired meal with wine pairing in a fun, interactive, and non-intimidating atmosphere. Classes will be held on select Saturdays beginning Jan. 23. For more information, e-mail Nicole Gebhart . . . The Virginia & Truckee Railway will begin its first full season in May, with round trips scheduled between Carson City and Virginia City Thursday through Sunday through Nevada Day, October 31.
Last year's Nevada Day run returning from Carson City to Virginia City on the west side of Gold Canyon.
The railroad operated with two coaches last year, with a third one to be put into service for the coming season. The three coaches will accommodate 210 passengers, and with a $160,000 advertising budget the operators are hoping to average 70% ridership over the course of the season. While the Virginia City - Carson City runs are scheduled Thursdays through Sundays, the railroad operates daily trains from Virginia City to Gold Hill and back . . . But wait, there's more: The Nevada Southern Railway in Boulder City resumes operations the weekend of February 6 and 7 after the usual January hiatus. Trains run every Saturday and Sunday at 10:00, 11:30, 1:00 and 2:30; boarding begins 15 minutes before departure.
Overheard during the Old Sheepherder's Party at the Border Inn in Baker: "One big difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits."