The Laxalt Sheep Camp at Marlette Lake, by Clare O’Toole
A favorite retreat of the Laxalt children was their father Dominique’s sheep camp up at Marlette Lake, where he had purchased more than a hundred acres of grazing land high in the Sierras, two thousand feet above the eastern shores of Lake Tahoe. Dominique is said to have herded sheep in these mountains for decades, operating out of his base camp at Marlette.
The experience of accompanying their father onto the wild hillsides where, in the Basque immigrant tradition, he had proudly braved the elements, the isolation, lack of home comforts and all the dangers of predators, made an indelible impression on the younger Laxalts. Robert Laxalt immortalized his father’s experiences in his literary classic, “Sweet Promised Land.” Paul Laxalt chose Marlette to mull over his political future when, in 1986 he was considering making a run in the upcoming, 1988 presidential elections to replace his friend, Ronald Reagan. Back in his days as governor of Nevada, Paul had cooperated with Reagan, then governor of neighboring California to launch the Tahoe Regional Planning Association in 1968, intended to prevent environmental damage from overdevelopment. Reagan had been a visitor to the Laxalt sheep camp and, according to author Joxe Mallae-Olaetxe, carved his name on one of the trees. *“Speaking through the Aspens: Basque tree carvings in California” (University of Nevada Press, 2000)
Reporter Brendan Riley quoted Laxalt as saying, “these last few days, I sit in the middle of all of this and I know if I go [for president] and I’m elected, this is gone…The fringes of the presidency have no appeal for me now. If I could run the country right out of Marlette, by myself, it would be very simple.”
Riley described the camp as a collection of tents and weathered buildings, a beat-up old truck, split-log tables and no telephone.
Gabriel Urza, Dominique’s great granddaughter recently wrote in a ski blog extolling the virtues of the slopes near Marlette and the joys of staying in a rustic ski cabin: “My family still maintains about 180 acres of land in an area otherwise surrounded by National Forestland, the last remnants of a sheep grazing range that my great grandfather had purchased in the early part of the last century.” While the outdoor pursuit may have changed from sheepherding to skiing, the pleasure of the wild escape is clearly still in the Laxalt blood.
The Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, has a revolving display of artifacts donated by the Laxalt family, garnered from the sheep camp at Marlette. As evidenced in the accompanying photographs, the items are representative of the simple life of the sheepherder, showing cooking equipment, a pack saddle and sheepherding gear.
*Speaking through the Aspens: Basque tree carvings in California (University of Nevada Press, 2000)