This past spring your Basque Books Editor had the chance to climb Elephant Mountain, in the far northwestern corner of the Black Rock Wilderness Area, about 7 hours north of Reno by car. This wild and remote mountain, really just a foothill outcropping of the larger Black Rock Range, gets its name from its appearance, of being a elephant charging up the desert. Growing up in this corner of Northern Nevada I spent many days dreaming about that mountain, which in addition to it’s distinctive, imagination-shaping form also served as the edge of the horizon, so, as it were for a young boy riding a horse, it was the very edge of the world.
But it wasn’t until a recent weekend that I had the chance to actually scramble up it. On a overcast day we drove south and climbed up along one of its ears. We stopped for lunch in the saddle where ear turns into head and then continued upward. It was a short, steep climb until nearing the top it rounded out and the vast expanse of desert and mountain range after mountain range opened up before us. Loving to explore in the desert moutains, the expanse did not surprise me, but the presence of what was most likely a harri mutil (“stone boy”) did. On the crest, looking generally northward toward the Pine Forest Mountains and eastward toward the Jackson Mountains, and with the full sweep of the desert at its feet, was a large stone marker or, according to Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe in Speaking through Aspens, a “sheepherder’s monument.” These large stone cairns were made by the sheepherders to demarcate ranges, but may have had other uses as well.
It was such a pleasure to find this marker, here at the edge of what was once my world, showing what went beyond. I recently had the opportunity to make an oral history interview with Frank Bidart (only 94 years young!) who also grew up in this area when they still ran sheep, and he had told me about trailing sheep down across the desert “almost to Lovelock” in the winter. They would have trailed them just below, maybe across, where I stood. “That was good sheep country,” he had said. Maybe he had climbed here and added his own stones to this harri mutil; maybe he had, as a young man, dreamed about what went beyond it.