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Basque Shepherds and Arborglyphs

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Learn About The Basque Culture

Our first morning in Sun Valley was rather appropriately spent in a sunny valley. We hiked through the Colorado Gulch just outside Hailey and into a grove of Aspen trees which feature arborglyphs: a unique form of graffiti left by Basque shepherds during their lonely days spent on the hills.


The Basques began emigrating in the 1800s, due to financial troubles back home. The rolling landscape of south-central Idaho suited them, reminiscent of the hills in northern Spain, and they settled in nicely here. The men were honest and the women hard-working, and the newcomers were welcomed with open arms by Idahoans. Another wave of Basques arrived in the mid-20th century, fleeing the brutal anti-Basque policies of Francisco Franco. As a result, Idaho lays claim to America’s strongest population of people of Basque descent.

While in the Sun Valley, we had the opportunity to meet a couple of transplanted Basques, including Alberto Uranga, who came to America in 1968. Back in the Basque country, he had been a tuna fisherman, but in Idaho he was put to work tending sheep. Apparently, that’s just what Idaho believed Basques excelled at. Alberto is fluent in Basque, English and Spanish, and eventually left sheep for finance, founding a retirement investment firm in Boise. After finding out that Jürgen and I are based in Spain, he engaged us in conversation, boasting about the resurgent Real Sociedad soccer team, and bitterly recounting the story of his departure, which had been so rushed and chaotic that he didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye to his father.

Tree Art

During the boring hours, days, and even weeks which they spent in the hills tending sheep, Sun Valley’s Basque shepherds left their mark on the land by carving into the Aspen trees. These markings are called arborglyphs and are now considered an important cultural relic. They take the form of names or phrases, in Basque and English, and sometimes drawings. A house, for instance, which reminded the artist of his home. Or the shapely curves of a buxom lady.

We took a gorgeous hike through Colorado Gulch to find some of the arborglyphs. The Aspen trees were in their autumnal glory, with leaves glowing yellow, and we hiked for about a mile into the hills before encountering some of the tree carvings. Nearby, was a modern-day shepherd’s trailer. The shepherd was nowhere to be found, out tending his flock, so we chanced a peek through the windows of his trailer. Very simple, just a bed, some canned food and a few empty soda cans. Nowadays, I suppose shepherds have cellphones to stay entertained and connected, but 50 years ago? I can’t even imagine how lonely it must have been.

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November 15, 2012 at 3:20 am Comments (5)

The Spirit of Boise Balloon Classic

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Hot Air Balloon Models

“Which one is it going to be?” I whispered to Jürgen after the pilots had finished up their morning briefing and were beginning to mingle with the passengers. “Hopefully that guy with the handlebar moustache!” As luck would have it, it was. The awesome dude with the handlebar moustache had seen his name on the placard we were holding, and approached us. “Quinn”, he said, putting his hand out. “Eric Quinn”.


We were at the Spirit of Boise Baloon Classic, and had just met our pilot for the day. He introduced us to his team, which included his wife Tara, and then put us to work preparing the balloon. Tara is a pilot, too, and we would later learn that the Quinns’ incursion into the world of ballooning had been her idea to begin with. She was the one who had become enraptured of the idea, and was also the first to obtain a license. And the balloon we’d be riding in, the Millennium Spirit, had been a birthday present from him to her. (Which, I hate to point out, makes the sweater I got last year look pretty lame, Jürgen!)

Setting up the balloon was a lot of fun, and enough work to keep the eight members of our team busy. After filling it with air, it was time for Jürgen and I to step into the basket. At this point, the butterflies seriously began tickling my stomach — I was just about to fret to Jürgen about the take-off, when I realized that we were already airborne. It had been so smooth, I hadn’t even noticed leaving the ground. The whole trip, in fact, was more serene than I had expected. We were just floating; there was nothing the least bit jerky or jarring about it.

It was amazing. This had been something I’d always wanted to experience, and now here we were, soaring above Boise. Eric could raise the balloon by blasting the fire, or lower it by letting air into the top. He was even able to roughly control the direction in which we floated by monitoring the air currents at different altitudes. At one level, we’d be going west, and then we’d ascend twenty feet and be pushed toward the south.


We weren’t alone in the sky. There were about thirty balloons participating in the Classic, which has been held annually since 1991. One of Eric’s friends, who was piloting a balloon similar in design to ours, approached and gave us a “kiss” — which meant bumping the balloons together. “Hey Eric”, he called over from his basket, “That was nice, but I would have rather kissed your wife!”

After we had landed and everything was packed, Jürgen and I began to say our goodbyes, but the Quinns stopped us short. “Whoa, you’re not going anywhere yet!” Oh, no? “Nope. You’re first-timers, and that means you’ll have to complete… [boom boom boom] The Ceremony!!!” They took us into a grassy field and laid out a small carpet. We knelt before Eric while he related the tale of history’s original balloon trip. Then after swearing an oath, we bent over, took our paper champagne glasses between our teeth, and drained them without using our hands.

It was an incredible day out and we couldn’t have found a better team to ride with than the Quinns. Hot air ballooning is now something I can scratch off my life’s “to-do list”. Although, maybe I won’t. I wouldn’t mind the excuse to do it again. Floating silently through the air, carried by the wind, looking down on the tiny people waving up at me… it’s something I could get addicted to.

Spirit of Boise Balloon Classic – Website

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September 3, 2012 at 9:14 pm Comments (6)
Basque Shepherds and Arborglyphs Our first morning in Sun Valley was rather appropriately spent in a sunny valley. We hiked through the Colorado Gulch just outside Hailey and into a grove of Aspen trees which feature arborglyphs: a unique form of graffiti left by Basque shepherds during their lonely days spent on the hills.
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