Smoke Creek Canyon Ranch, by Clare O’Toole
About thirty five miles northeast of Reno is Pyramid Lake, the gem of Paiute Indian country, its glassy, still waters a mystical barrier between the dimensions of sky and the subterranean geothermal forces below. Beneath the stillness is a network of hot springs that release their energy to the waiting world above. Natural cathedrals of tufa rock formations line the northern shores of the lake, their distinctive primeval architecture forming the gateway to the Smoke Creek watershed area. To pass through this hauntingly beautiful landscape is a transformational experience for mind and senses.
Continuing northward along the dirt tracks you will discover an unusual and unexpected virtual oasis surrounded by mile upon mile of parched alkali desert flats, formed from a dry lake bed, reminiscent of the ancient lake system that once covered the Great Basin area in the Pleistocene era. Mud flats of this type comprise the famous playa, home to the Burning Man counterculture celebration that annually graces the nearby Black Rock desert.
The Smoke Creek region is steeped in history from primeval to early Native American, to the gold rush, the white settlers, military expeditions, government acquisitions, battles over land and water rights, the incoming railroad and the rise of the cattle and sheep industry to the relative calm of the present day. The watershed still supports seven ranches and their complements of ranch hands, running mostly cattle; although the canyon area no longer sustains a single permanent resident The ranchers, nowadays, are all visitors. This is a far cry from the height of the sheepherding era when, at the end of the nineteenth century, there would have been up to a hundred people living off the land.
Among those to take on the challenge of the shepherding life was Dominique Laxalt, a folk hero of Basque tradition in Nevada. According to Basque scholar and founder of the Basque Studies program at the University of Nevada, Reno, William A. Douglass, Dominique is believed to have shepherded for the Smoke Creek Canyon ranch. By coincidence, this property is the very ranch Douglass was able to recently purchase.
According to Dominique’s granddaughter, Monique, her grandfather would have worked from the Smoke Creek Canyon ranch during his employment as a sheepherder in the American West. In this capacity, Dominique wouldn’t have been mentioned in the U.S. census, so knowledge of his family movements rely on word of mouth passed down within the family. He would have spent much of the year up in the mountains with the sheep but would have been based at the ranch for at least part of the time.
Douglass thinks it quite probable Dominique and his wife, Theresa were at Smoke Creek Canyon during the 1920s. Their son, Robert Laxalt, Monique’s father, has written in his literary classic, Sweet Promised Land, that his father had married his mother when, ”he was rich in sheep,” but lost his own band of sheep to bad fortune and had to go back to sheepherding. He says his mother “had to bear her children in rough camps and ghosted little towns, she had taken what little money they had and bought into a small hotel in Carson City.” Later, as they prospered, his father was able to go back into the hills with his own sheep.
Robert was born in Alturas, on September 25th 1923, not terribly far, as Douglass says, from the Smoke Creek Canyon ranch. He suggests it quite likely that Theresa would have been employed as a cook at the ranch but opted to stay with Basque friends in Alturas when she was close to term in order to be nearer to medical care. This would be in keeping with Basque practice, since, as an ethnic group, they were renowned for offering each other support in dealing with life’s practicalities. It is known there were several Basque families out at Alturas at the time. The Laxalts had little connection with Alturas otherwise and so Robert’s birth there would have been consistent with his parents living nearby at Smoke Creek Canyon.
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As it stands today; the Smoke Creek Canyon ranch still withholds some secrets. It is known to be one of the older ranches in Washoe County, occupying a position close to the old settler trails and coach routes. Even the Western Pacific Railroad made it out to the eastern borders of the Salt Creek desert, bringing with it the telegraph, the post office and small stores; relative hustle and bustle compared to the vast emptiness of today. Douglass believes the ranch has been in Basque ownership at various points in its history and was likely built by Basques and possibly owned by Basques until the 1970’s. As he observes, even non-Basque owners would have hired Basques to be sheepherders. The main stone house, now derelict, strongly resembles a stone basseriak farmstead of the Basque homeland. Its structure and character is otherwise totally out of place in the Nevada desert.
He explained that in Euskal Herria (Basque Country), typically, in a two-story basseriak, the ground floor would comprise a stable for four or five milk cows and maybe a couple of pigs all cozily housed under the upstairs family living quarters . This would facilitate the type of small scale animal husbandry that was typical and essential to the Basque lifestyle with a family’s best and most valuable livestock sheltered with them under the one roof. But, as he points out, In America, livestock graze on a very different scale to that practiced in the Basque country. Douglass therefore doubts the stone cottage at Smoke Creek Canyon was used as a true basseriak. He thinks it quite likely the rancher would well have had a milk cow for domestic use but doubts animals would have stabled inside the house.
The layout does show the living quarters for the family were on the second floor but Douglass suspects the downstairs was probably used for storage. That would be one difference. Also, in the Basque country the farms are very small in scale and might comprise only eight or ten acres of land in total. This would have been farmed intensively and the crop taken upstairs to be stored. The whole attic area would have been used for storing whatever small-scale crops were grown and harvested, such as apples and potatoes. Again, Douglass doubts that practice was mirrored at Smoke Creek, although he admits it would not have been impossible. The Smoke Creek property did have an apple orchard, so it is possible that apples were stored up in the attic, but that, Douglass admits, is speculation.
Despite its unique place in Nevada history, there are currently no plans to renovate the stone house. It has long since been stripped of its furnishings and lacks any wiring or plumbing. It has suffered from subsidence, which caused a serious crack in one wall and a pronounced lean in a part of the structure. Although, in theory, it could be restored, Douglass thinks the Smoke Creek area too isolated for restoration to be worthwhile.
He is thinking of remodeling the other residence on the property; a little, white, wooden house, built in the 1980’s which could be brought up to code without too much work, although it is currently uninhabitable. The wooden house could be used as a place to stay for short periods at a time; Douglass has no plans to live up there permanently.
The group owners of the Smoke Creek Canyon ranch are leasing out the grazing rights to a cattle farmer. Cows and calves are pastured there for about six months of the year to fatten till they are moved either to market or to California for the winter. The ranch is also used to raise about three hundred acres of alfalfa that has to be cut three times a season.
The Smoke Creek area is also the annual temporary home for The Espil sheep shearing operations as the flock makes its way to the summer grazing grounds in the Warner Mountains above Alturas
Thus life continues on at Smoke Creek at a rather slow and weary pace. Ranchers hold on to their livelihoods even as the little towns, such as Gerlach, are stripped of their lifeblood in the current cruel economy. But, as life has a habit of moving in cycles, it is possible that one day the true value of the historical and anthropological secrets, held in the whispering grasses and the ancient rocks, might emerge to be fully appreciated and breathe new strength and new life into the region.