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Basking in the Basque spirit

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Times Staff Writer

THE ranger directed us up the dirt mountain road to Genoa Peak, where a century ago Basque sheepherders carved names and pictures into the bark of the aspens.

Find the spindly gray-white trees and you’ll find carvings, the ranger said. Half an hour later, scrambling across a slick yellow carpet of late fall leaves, we were less sure we could distinguish a shepherd’s lonely scribble from the lovelorn message of a local teen or nature’s ghostly knots.

During an October visit to this region east of Lake Tahoe, we found that the Basque spirit lingers here -- in the elusive tree carvings and a trail of Basque restaurants. Starting in the late 1800s, Basques from the region straddling France and Spain emigrated to the western United States as sheepherders. They brought their distinct language and cuisine, dished up nightly at a network of hotels along the herding routes. These inns became outposts of Basque culture in America, places where shepherds could retrieve mail, socialize with their countrymen and devour heavy Basque stews.

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Today, these restaurants cling to the highway just 30 minutes from South Lake Tahoe but a century removed from its glitzy ski resorts. Here in the Carson Valley you’ll find hiking, soothing mineral hot springs and picturesque Genoa, which claims to be Nevada’s oldest settlement.

Genoa is the crossroads of today’s Carson Valley, with Nevada’s first bar and its most unlikely French restaurant.

My wife and I, with 3-month-old daughter Evelyn in tow, flew from Los Angeles to Reno on a Friday evening, arriving about 7. As we drove south through the Carson Valley, the suburban sprawl and inevitable big-box retail south of Carson City gave way to the twin towns of Gardnerville and Minden, where antiques stores hawk tin signs and tea sets and aging casinos along the highway promise discount prime rib.

Less than 90 minutes later, we steered our rental car into the driveway of David Walley’s Resort, Hot Springs & Spa 1 1/2 miles south of Genoa, our base for the weekend.

Carved into the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, the resort has been around in one form or another since 1862. Back then, New Yorker David Walley stumbled onto the natural hot springs. Sensing a get-rich scheme more assured than venturing into the state’s notorious silver mines, he began charging dirty fortune-seekers 50 cents to get warm and clean.

References to the resort’s frontier past dot the landscape, including an old stone hot tub long since retired. These days, the tubs are clean and white and David Walley’s is as modern and convenient -- and in some ways as charmless -- as any chain hotel.

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The old spa building remains, along with four rustic cabins that date to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and a restaurant of more recent vintage. Three new apartment-style time-share complexes loom nearby.

With an uncertain grasp of late-fall Nevada weather, we chose new over quaint. For $145 a night, we got a shotgun room with a balcony overlooking a wetlands and the yellow and gray sagebrush of the Carson Valley beyond. The kitchenette stocked with bowls and plates was crucial on our first night, when we sacked in with takeout from the resort bar.

We had a few unhappy surprises. DW’s Restaurant didn’t do takeout, and it closes at 9 p.m. (The adjacent bar, fortunately, had a limited takeout menu and a long and eclectic wine list, freely poured into plastic cups by friendly bartenders.) Our second night was marred by a haywire heating system that seemed determined to roast us in our bed.

From the 1890s to the1980s

STILL, there were charms that offset the inconvenience. The biggest one: the 140-degree hot springs cooled and poured into six public spas and a small swimming pool. The silky mineral water soothes aching muscles, although it won’t cure “rheumatism and scrofulous affections,” as the spa’s owners once promised.

In the locker room I met a man who for 25 years has driven the 14 miles from South Lake Tahoe to nurse his aching leg. He recalled the resort’s early 1980s heyday, when skiers and locals spilled out of the bar patio into the hot tubs. He sketched a goblet in the air with his hands and described the bar’s Bloody Mary of yore, with jumbo shrimp perched on top.

Looking around at older couples and families, I asked why he still came. He waved his arm toward the scraggly backside of the Sierra Nevada and the high desert sky. “Out here, you live for the moment,” he said.

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A few hundred yards west of the resort, the Sierra Nevada rise. The mountains absorb much of the Pacific moisture and lose their chiseled shape on the Carson Valley side. The Carson River feeds pastureland and a bird sanctuary behind the resort, and the slanting fall light melts the morning mist and quickly warms the bowl. By January daytime temperatures fall to 40 degrees, and thin snow drapes the valley, but in October it’s dry-heat perfection.

Besides David Walley’s, there are several bed and breakfasts in and around Genoa, a community struggling to balance its historic tourist trade with the valley’s population growth -- a more than 60% increase since 1990. The Legend Country Inn, a generic-feeling hotel built a few years ago, sparked a zoning controversy that hints of battles to come. For now, Genoa’s historic buildings and manicured hillside homes lie along a perfect strip of black asphalt that begs to be ridden or, if you can tackle the steady traffic of motorcycles and SUVs, walked. The friendly Friday-night bartenders pointed us to the Sugarplum Bakery for a light breakfast before we headed south to the adjacent towns of Minden and Gardnerville, which boast Basque eateries amid the exurban sprawl. We ate sparingly. After splitting a quiche, we felt ready to tackle those storied Basque meals.

We were not. A Lenten fast could not have prepared us for the frontal assault of Basque dining, a cuisine suited to calorie-starved drovers, not drivers.

In Gardnerville, the J.T. Basque Bar and Dining Room was hopping at 1 p.m. A group of elderly men leaned against the bar, speaking in the Basque language, which we learned is called Euskara. Judging from the menu there is no word for “or” in Euskara. We bypassed the $19.50 lunch, with its sweetbreads and steaks, for a bottomless bowl of soup and the stew of the day.

A French welcome

THEN it was time to seek the tree carvings. We drove over the Kingsbury Grade and along Lake Tahoe to a highway maintenance station that hid the route to Genoa Peak. According to “Speaking Through the Aspens: Basque Tree Carvings in California and Nevada,” a book by Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe of the University of Nevada, sheepherders carved their names and occasionally bawdy fantasies into the aspens’ paper-like bark.

The nearly naked branches scraped in the wind, and the lake glittered through the conifers. Alas, we found no lewd arboglyphs, though we did find peacenik musings from Tahoe’s summer of love.

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We wound our way out of the mountains that evening and arrived in Genoa in time for the Nevada Day celebrations of the state’s 1864 entry into the union. Founded in 1851, the town bills itself as Nevada’s oldest settlement, and a crowd in faux six-shooters and hoop skirts packed Genoa Bar. Across the street, La Ferme was just opening.

When we stepped into the sloping French restaurant, a welcoming fire was already crackling in the fireplace, but owner Gilles LaGourgue was apologetic. Yes, we needed reservations. Then he saw the baby, and his face collapsed with goofy Gallic glee. If we wanted, he said, we could have appetizers and wine at the bar.

As Nevada Day refugees trickled in, our appetizers turned to a dinner of ravioli and salmon roulade -- with baby-sitting thrown in free. Was there anything Basque on the menu? we wondered. No, said LaGourgue. But guarding the geese and ducks penned up outside were two Basque sheepdogs, Great Pyrenees, a breed driven to near extinction in its homeland, now thriving in the shrinking Nevada rangeland.

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Genoa congeniality

GETTING THERE:

From Los Angeles, it’s about a 480-mile drive to Genoa and the Carson Valley. From LAX, Burbank, Orange County and Long Beach, Alaska, American and Southwest fly nonstop to Reno. From Ontario, America West has connecting service. Restricted, round-trip fares start at $178. From Reno airport, drive 40 miles south on U.S. 395 to Genoa Lane, turn right and go 3.5 miles to Genoa.

WHERE TO STAY:

David Walley’s Resort, Hot Springs & Spa, 2001 Foothill Road, Genoa; (775) 782-8155, www.davidwalleys.com. Rustic and time-share modern collide 1.5 miles south of Genoa. $145 for hotel-style doubles, cabins from $90.

Legend Country Inn, 2292 Main St., Genoa; (775) 783-0906, www.legendcountryinn.com. Downtown location, generic rooms. Doubles $109-$139.

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Genoa House Inn, 180 Nixon St., Genoa; (775) 782-7075, www.genoahouseinn.com. Heavily decorated rooms off the main drag. Doubles $135-$165.

WHERE TO EAT:

La Ferme, 2291 Main St., Genoa; (775) 783-1004. Charming French restaurant and bar draws locals and tourists; reservations recommended. Entrees from $20.

J.T. Basque Bar and Dining Room, 1426 Highway 395, Gardnerville; (775) 782-2074. Hearty Basque meals in a friendly setting. Lunch and dinner $10-$20.

DW’s Restaurant, (775) 782-8155, Ext. 8953. Meats, pastas and prime rib at David Walley’s Resort. Entrees from $20.

Sugarplum Bakery, 2292 Main St., Genoa; (775) 783-8828. Overwrought baked goods and tasty quiches.

TO LEARN MORE:

“Speaking Through the Aspens: Basque Tree Carvings in California and Nevada,” by Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe, is at bookstores or www.nvbooks.nevada.edu. Excerpts at basque.unr.edu/trees.

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The Nevada Commission on Tourism website includes guides for hikes, accommodations and attractions. (800) 638-2328 or www.travelnevada.com.

-- Michael Soller

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