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Parade, games, dancing to highlight Elko’s Basque festival

Independence Day weekend brings a unique double celebration to Elko.

After the observance of the Fourth of July holiday with patriotic events capped by an evening fireworks show, the historic town will host the 50th annual National Basque Festival from July 5 to 7.

Elko, set against the backdrop of the beautiful Ruby Mountains in the northeastern corner of Nevada, is 430 miles from Las Vegas. Follow Interstate 15 north about 20 miles to the turnoff onto U.S. Highway 93. U.S. 93 runs north along a scenic corridor to intersect with Interstate 80. Head west on I-80 to Elko.

If you plan to attend the festivities the first week of July, make reservations soon, as Elko will fill up quickly. Options for visitors include dude ranches, private RV parks, and camping facilities in nearby forest areas and state parks.

The Basques have been part of Elko’s history for much of the past 150 years.

Basque sheepherders from French and Spanish provinces in the Pyrenees began to spread out across the American West in the late 1800s. They brought with them an ancient heritage of language, customs, music, dance, games and food. Drawn from their troubled homeland by work on sheep ranches in parts of the United States that were still sparsely populated, these mostly young, single men faced lonely months tending huge flocks, accompanied by only their dogs.

Many Basques never returned to the old country, staying on to work in ranching, mining and many other fields. They married, started families and wove their ethnic heritage into the fabric of our culture.

Most Americans of Basque descent still live in the West, including about 6,000 in Nevada.

Travel our state’s mountainous backcountry in the summer and you may still see Basque sheepherders as they guide their sheep into the hills for summer grazing. If you spot one of the iconic sheep wagons nestled in a stand of aspen or pines near a spring or creek, the herder won’t be far from his camp. An early version of a camping trailer, the wagon is his home on wheels for the season, moved to grazing sites as needed.

In winter, the herders historically returned to civilization, often boarding in Basque hotels in towns along the railroads. Dining rooms in Basque hotels soon developed a following, for they presented copious amounts of traditional Basque fare at modest prices. In Nevada, Basque restaurants, often attached to historic hotels, can be found in Elko, Winnemucca, Fallon, Reno, Carson City and Gardnerville.

When seatings are called, waiting patrons fill spots at large tables. Courses are served family style with bowls passed hand to hand. The food will be varied and savory with plenty of onions and garlic and many side dishes to compliment the main courses. There will be flasks of red wine, fresh bread and ice cream for dessert.

Basque clubs in many Western towns created places where Basques assembled, spoke their own language and carried on traditional activities. The National Basque Festival began 50 years ago with the Elko Basque Club inviting similar clubs to the centrally located town.

Most events take place at the Elko County Fairgrounds. The festival kicks off at 6 p.m. July 5 at the handball courts. On July 6, a parade starts downtown at 10 a.m. and ends at the fairgrounds. Afternoon games and an evening dance follow. On July 7, a Mass at 11 a.m. will be followed by a picnic and traditional dancing. Admission charges vary for the events.

Margo Bartlett Pesek’s Trip of the Week column appears on Sundays.

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