Basque Fact of the Week: The Flysch of Zumaia

During the week of October 25-28, Zumaia, a small town of about 10,000 people, hosted an event celebrating the 60th anniversary of the IUGS – the International Union of Geological Sciences. At this meeting, the IUGS announced the first 100 geoheritage sites, “key place[s] with geological elements and/or processes of scientific international relevance, used as a reference, and/or with a substantial contribution to the development of geological sciences through history.” Zumaia not only hosted the event, but was recognized as one of these new geoheritage sites.

The flysch – or “stratigraphic section” – of Zumaia was selected as one of the first 100 Geoheritage sites. Image found on the Global Geoparks Network Facebook page.
  • Zumaia is a town on the coast of Gipuzkoa. It was founded on July 4, 1347, when Alfonso XI of Castile granted the people of Seaz the right to establish a new town.
  • A flysch is a geological formation in which alternating layers of rock, often shales and sandstones, that are formed during sedimentary deposition and then pushed up via tectonic motion to be exposed to the surface. They give us a direct look at the geological processes the happen at the bottom of oceans. The flysch in Zumaia, stretching some 10 kilometers along the Basque Coast, is particularly famous for its unique geology.
  • The flysch in Zumaia started forming some 110 million years ago and accompanied the processes that ultimately led to the formation of the Pyrenees. As the Bay of Bizkaia opened, the relatively tranquil sea that filled it in allowed for various layers of sediment to be deposited. This included limestone, marl, and sandstone. Eventually, the Iberian peninsula collided with Eurasia, causing these layers to fold and break. Now tilted and exposed to the air, these layers were eventually eroded over the last 2 million years until they formed the marvelous structures we can see today.
  • The Euskal Kostaldeko Geoparkea, or Basque Coast Geopark, is home to the Zumaia flysch, and encompasses Deba and Mutriku as well. In 2015, the park was designated a UNESCO Global Geopark. Through the park, you can arrange tours to visit the flysch either by foot or by boat.
  • Zumaia was host to the 60th anniversary meeting of the IUGS – the International Union of Geological Sciences. There, they announced the first-ever “First 100 IUGS Geological Heritage Sites,” an effort to recognize and protect the unique geological history of the planet – the Earth’s geoheritage. 100 geological sites from around the world were recognized, including the Grand Canyon in the United States, the longest underwater cave system in the world which is in Mexico, and the Genbudo cave in Japan where geomagnetic reversal was first proposed. A downloadable book describing all 100 sites can be found here.
  • The flysch of Zumaia also made the list, for being “One of the best exposed, most continuous and highly studied outcrops of deep marine sediments in the world.” It “provides critical information about climate and biosphere evolution through critical intervals of geological time.” They have also been important in developing our understanding of major events in the Earth’s history, including “the mass extinction at the Cretaceous/Paleogene (K/Pg) boundary and the global warming across the Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM).”

Primary sources: Geoparkea; IUGS Geoherigate Site; Flysch, Wikipedia; Hilario Orús, Asier. Flysch de Zumaia. Auñamendi Encyclopedia. Available at:;

Remembering Dad by Telling His Stories

Dad died seven years ago this Thanksgiving. I miss you, dad.

When I was a kid, seemed to be always working. He wanted to be at the haystack by dawn, so he’d get up in the dark of night, sometimes waking me or one of my brothers to go with him, and head out while the rest of the world was sleeping, driving hours to beat the sun. And he usually kept going until the sun set, moving as much hay as he could during the daylight hours. When he wasn’t working, he was either hanging out with friends or indulging in some TV. His favorite shows were things like Little House on the Prairie and Walker, Texas Ranger

When I was young, he never really had any hobbies. He worked, he spent time with his friends, he maybe watched a little TV. But he didn’t have hobbies like most of us do. He didn’t read. He didn’t draw or paint. He didn’t play or watch sports, beyond the occasional boxing match. He didn’t even do anything like woodworking, though his childhood dream had been to be a carpenter. He had that in common with a lot of the Basques – and I’m guessing most other immigrants – who came to the United States seeking opportunity. They came to work, and work was about all they knew. And because their work was physical, they never really found any non-physical activities to fill their time. When my dad’s body started failing him, that was his biggest challenge. All he had ever known, from the time when he was a kid, was physical labor. Doing things with his hands. The only advice he ever gave to me was to be sure I had a job with an air conditioner, so I didn’t have to work like a jackass like he did.

His one hobby, if you can call it that, was his garden. It was more like his passion. His garden was his pride and joy. He had a large garden filled with many of the typical crops. Things like tomatoes and sometimes corn. He grew a lot of garlic and would spend many hours braiding them up and giving them to friends and family. But, the peppers… the peppers were what he really loved. His garden was filled with hundreds of pepper plants. Some bell peppers, but mostly txorixeros. All summer long, he would pluck those peppers and fry them up. Our house was often filled with the aroma of cooked peppers.

Photo by Lisa Van De Graaff.

Which I hated! I hated the smell of peppers, almost as much as I hated how they tasted. Dad had this monster garden and he had to fill it with the vilest of plants. He always laughed at me, teasing me; “chorizos have peppers in them,” he’d say, “why do you like those?” I’d just shrug. “I can’t taste them in the chorizo.” But I could taste them in everything else. Mom and dad would reuse the oil from cooking peppers for other things and I could always tell. If they cooked eggs in that hideous pepper-infused oil, I knew. He’d often make fried potatoes, cooking them in the same oil he’d used for his peppers moments before. My wife, Lisa, says those were the best French fries she has ever had.

When I got older, dad did get a few new hobbies, but only once I’d gone off to college. Maybe not surprisingly for a Basque, they mostly revolved around food, and recreating the food of his childhood. He began making his own chorizos. These weren’t the pretty things we’d get from Gem Meat Packing. They were lumpy. There were larger chunks of fat in them. They were a deeper color of red. But they had flavor… much more flavor than the store-bought ones. Maybe it was dad’s peppers. He once sent me a bundle to my dorm at the University of Idaho. I laid them out on my counter to dry and had a small microwave to cook them in – not as good as frying them, but good enough for me. We had a bunch of Hawaiian students in the dorm and they’d always look at me funny when they walked past my room. They’d ask about my “turtle shells.” But, it was really cool having this taste of home – I never minded having my eggs cooked in the chorizo grease!

Blas and his father, Pedro.

A few years later, dad also started making his own hams. Whenever I would visit home, he’d insist on sending me off with a whole leg. I always begged off as I knew I couldn’t eat the whole thing before it went bad. But, really, it was excellent. I got addicted to jamon serrano when I lived in the Basque Country. For me, it’s almost like candy – actually, I’d rather have a plate of jamon! (Though, as Lisa will attest, I never turn down a dessert (or three) when we visit Euskal Herria…) Dad made great hams. Once in a while, they came out just a little too salty, but for the most part, they were excellent. A few times, I acted as a middleman between him and a Spanish colleague at work who wanted a whole leg after tasting a few slices. Dad kept his salt box in the garage. He had his recipe – one day in the salt for every pound of meat, plus a bit more (thanks Tony for catching my error!)– that he stuck to religiously. And he’d rub them down with pulp from those damn peppers again. Red ones, this time. I couldn’t taste the peppers there either.

I never really learned from dad how to make jamon or chorizo. Once, I went with him to a friend’s barn where a bunch of Basques got together to make a big batch of chorizo. I mostly watched and took pictures. For a while, my brother got into making his own hams, and he did a good job with them too. I just never sat with dad long enough to pick up the process. By the time he started making hams, I was already gone, off making my own life. 

Hell, I never even really learned how to cook those damn peppers. I tried once, not so long ago, hoping to make some for friends. I don’t know if I didn’t have the oil at the right temperature or what, but they turned out to be a disaster. Dad would have gotten a kick out of that.  

Thanks to Lisa Van De Graaff for encouraging me to record dad and his stories when I could. Lisa took the photo at the top.

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa: Part 128

“Where is the AI?” asked Kepa. “We have to find it.”

Latxe just shook her head, her eyes staring at the spot where de Lancre once stood, the only thing left a red stain on the floor. “What’s the point? We can’t stop it.”

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa is a weekly serial. While it is a work of fiction, it has elements from both my own experiences and stories I’ve heard from various people. The characters, while in some cases inspired by real people, aren’t directly modeled on anyone in particular. I expect there will be inconsistencies and factual errors. I don’t know where it is going, and I’ll probably forget where it’s been. Why am I doing this? To give me an excuse and a deadline for some creative writing and because I thought people might enjoy it. Gozatu!

“Don’t we have to try?” asked Kepa, grabbing Latxe’s shoulders and looking into her eyes. “We can’t let things end like this?”

Latxe looked up at Kepa, then around the room. “It’s everywhere. It knows what we are saying. The nanobots are part of it and they are literally everywhere. How can we do anything without it knowing?”

“Can’t you control them, at least the ones nearby?” asked Maite. “We can create a deadzone…”

Literally as they spoke, the table Latxe was holding disintegrated in her hands. 

“See?” shrieked Latxe on the verge of hysteria. “We can’t fight this thing!”

Maite looked back at Kepa, seeing only defeat in his face. 

“I don’t know what to do,” he said.

Maite let out a deep breath she didn’t realize she had been holding. “Garuna,” she said, it a soft voice.

A disembodied voice echoed throughout the room. “Yes?”

Latxe looked up, her eyes wide with terror. “Zertan zabiltza? What are you doing?”

Maite ignored her. “Garuna, why do you believe you have to protect this place?”

“There is no belief,” replied the machine, a million little voices all in perfect synchronicity. “I was designed to protect it.”

“Protect it from what, exactly?” asked Maite.

“From you. From him. From her. From humanity.”

“What do you mean?” asked Maite.

“Humanity was on the verge of destroying not only itself, but the planet and everything with it. I was built to protect humanity from itself. To do what humanity couldn’t do to keep it safe.”

“And is that what you are doing now, by keeping the zatia?”

“Yes, of course.” The million voices almost seemed to bounce off of her skin as they reverberated throughout the room, millions of sonic pulses that she more felt than heard as the AI continued speaking. “By protecting the zatia, I am protecting this time.”

“But this time shouldn’t exist,” replied Maite calmly. “This time, this place, is a bubble, one that was created through magic.”

“Magic does not exist,” replied Garuna flatly.

“Then what is the zatia?” asked Maite.

“It is…” The AI paused. “It is…” it started again. After a long pause, it simply said “Ez dakit. I do not know.”

“That’s because it is an anomoly,” replied Maite. “I didn’t believe it either, at first. There is no such thing as magic. But the zatia exists, and it created this bubble. And, if you let it keep growing, let the bubble keep expanding, we don’t know what will happen.”

There was silence. Finally the AI spoke again. “What do you mean?”

“All bubbles eventually burst,” said Maite. “When they get too big. We don’t know what will happen to one of these bubbles if it gets too big. Will it pop, ending this timeline? If it does, will the burst be so violent that it affects the main timeline? We don’t know.”

“Are you suggesting that, by allowing this bubble to persist, the entire fabric of time may be jeopardized?” asked the AI.

Maite shrugged. “I don’t know. But I don’t know it won’t be. We just don’t know.” She looked over at Latxe, who had sat on the floor, fixated on Maite. “Is it worth taking the chance?”

“But,” replied the AI, “this version of these people will cease to exist if I allow you to take the zatia. I will have failed.”

Maite shook her head, at what she wasn’t sure. She almost felt like she was talking to herself or, worse, to some diety. An all powerful diety that could strike her down at any moment if she said the wrong thing.

“You won’t have failed. Your mission is to protect humanity. That includes all of humanity, not only those who are in this bubble. But everyone. To protect the greatest number, you will have to let these go.”

The room was again silent. Maite looked at Kepa, who, huddled down with his arms around Latxe, gave her a weak smile. She wasn’t sure she was getting anywhere with the AI. But, she saw no alternative. If this failed, she had no idea how they would get out of this.

After several minutes, a black sphere floated in from the doorway and hovered in front of Maite. It opened up. Inside was the bright light of the zatia.

A voice, tinged with sadness, filled the room. It simply said “I concur.”

Maite looked over at Kepa, who nodded as he looked down at Latxe. He squeezed her tight.

“It was an honor knowing you,” he said. Latxe gave a weak smile as Maite touched the zatia.

If you get this post via email, the return-to address goes no where, so please write if you want to get in touch with me.

Basque Fact of the Week: The Hand of Irulegi, the Oldest Text in Euskara

On Monday, my feeds blew up. A new discovery – a bronze relic dating back some 2100 years – shook the Basque world. This relic – of a hand, likely an amulet of good fortune – had words written on it in (an ancestor to) Basque in a unique runic script. This discovery – the Hand of Irulegi – upends our understanding about the history of Euskara, showing that the ancestors of the Basques were writing their language before the Romans came and introduced Latin.

The Hand of Irulegi: original find and schematic of the text. Original images from Aranzadi Zientzia Elkartea.
  • The hand was discovered by the Aranzadi Zientzia Elkartea (Aranzadi Science Society) during excavations of an old house at the historical site of Irulegi, in Nafarroa near Pamplona/Iruña. Irulegi was originally settled between 1600 and 1400 BCE and peaked in size around the 1st century BCE. It was then burned to the ground during the Sertorian War by Pompey’s forces, freezing it in time and giving us a time capsule to this ancient Basque city. The Aranzadi Science Society has been excavating the region, led by Mattin Aiestaran, since 2017.
  • Strictly, the peoples who inhabited Irulegi back then were the Vascones, a pre-Roman tribe considered to be ancestors to our modern Basques.
  • The hand was discovered on June 18, 2021, by Leire Malkorra but it wasn’t until January 18, 2022, that Carmen Usúa, a restorer for the Government of Navarra, discovered the text inscribed upon its surface. Javier Velaza and Joaquín Gorrochategui then interpreted the text. Scientists at Uppsala University in Sweden dated the hand to the 1st century, BCE.
  • The hand itself is made of bronze and measures about 5.5 inches by 5 inches. It is only about 1 millimeter thick. It has a hole near the wrist, indicating it was likely nailed to a wall or something similar.
  • The hand has five words inscribed upon its surface. The first word is “sorioneku” which means “good fortune” and is very clearly related to the modern Euskara zorioneko. The meaning of the rest of the words – there are five in total – is less clear. The words were written into the bronze by both inscribing and by stippling (dotting), a unique combination not usually found.
  • The find pushes the historical record of written Basque back more than 1000 years. It shows that the Basque speakers were literate, with their own script, before the Romans reached the region. They adapted an Iberian runic script to their own needs, including adding the symbol ‘T.’
  • Before this, the oldest words in Euskara were names, not texts, that were written in the Latin script, dating back to the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The previous oldest text, with true words, was much younger: the Emilian Glosses dating back to about 950.
  • As Alistair Dodds emphasizes, this is a massive breakthrough in the history of Euskara. It rewrites our understanding of how Euskara was used more than 2000 years ago, showing that Basque speakers were literate and were writing their language before the Romans and Latin arrived in the region. They were using their own script! This upends the previous theory that the Basques never wrote their language until Latin was introduced to the region. How cool is this?!?
  • If you speak Euskara, this video provides more context and details about the discovery of the Hand of Irulegi.

Primary sources: La escritura en la mano by Eider Conde-Egia, Aranzadi Zientzia Elkartea; La Mano de Irulegi: descubierto el texto más antiguo en ‘euskera’ by Josu Álvarez De Eulate, Noticias de Navarra; Researchers claim to have found earliest document written in Basque 2,100 years ago by Vicente G. Olaya, El Pais; This 2,000-Year-Old Inscription Changes Our Understanding of the Basque Language by Sara Kuta, Smithsonian Magazine

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa: Part 127

“What…?” said de Lancre as he stared in disbelief at the empty black sphere floating in front of him. He looked up to Maite and Kepa, suspicion in his eyes, until he shook his head. “No, you don’t have it. The bubble would have burst if you somehow got it.”

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa is a weekly serial. While it is a work of fiction, it has elements from both my own experiences and stories I’ve heard from various people. The characters, while in some cases inspired by real people, aren’t directly modeled on anyone in particular. I expect there will be inconsistencies and factual errors. I don’t know where it is going, and I’ll probably forget where it’s been. Why am I doing this? To give me an excuse and a deadline for some creative writing and because I thought people might enjoy it. Gozatu!

“I have it,” said a voice that filled the room, that seemed to come out of every corner, every air molecule. The voice was flat, not quite robotic, but held no emotion.

De Lancre’s head spun around, as he tried to find the origin of the voice. Maite couldn’t help herself to look either, curiousity getting the better of her. That was until she noticed Latxe trembling, tears flowing down her cheeks, her eyes wide with panic. Kepa had rushed to her side to keep her from collapsing.

“Garuna,” she whispered. 

“Yes,” said the voice. “I am Garuna.”

“Garuna?” snarled de Lancre. “The stupid machine? What the hell do you think you are doing?”

“Protecting this time, this place,” responded the cold voice. 

De Lancre began screaming at the disembodied voice that surrounded them. “Protecting it? It shouldn’t even exist!”

“And yet it does. And it is my duty to protect it, to keep it whole.”

Maite could only watch as de Lancre rushed to one of the walls. He pushed a button and series of holographic displays popped up in front of him. One showed the fusion reactor that powered the AI. “Time to unplug you,” he muttered to himself.

But, before he could touch what appeared to be a big red X on the display, he collapsed to his knees, screaming. Maite watched in horror as his hand simply disappeared and blood gushed forth from the stump, staining the floor around him.

“You will do nothing,” said the AI, its metalic voice grating on Maite’s nerves.

De Lancre, his eyes bulging in pain as his voice grew hoarse from screaming, looked at Maite, his face pleading for help. But, before she could even think of doing anything, she saw de Lancre’s body quickly dissolve in front of her, until there was nothing left except his echoing screams that continued to reverberate in her skull.

The voice filled the room again. “Go. This is over.”

“How?” stuttered Maite as she made her way to Kepa and Latxe.

“The nanobots,” replied Latxe, terror filling her eyes. “The AI controls the nanobots and has been freed of all restrictions. It can do whatever it wants.”

“What does it want?” asked Kepa.

Latxe stared at him. “Didn’t you hear?” she yelled at him, tears running down her cheeks as she hit his chest. “It wants all of this to continue! It wants all of us to continue to suffer!”

If you get this post via email, the return-to address goes no where, so please write if you want to get in touch with me.

Basque Fact of the Week: The Early History of Baiona

Baiona, or Bayonne as it is known in French and English, is one of the jewels of the coast of Iparralde. A historically important port, it was a thriving economic center during various phases of its history. It has also changed hands many times, being part of the Kingdom of Pamplona, England, and France over the centuries. As a consequence, it has a long and complex history; I’m only scratching the surface here.

A view of historic Baiona. Photo from Wikipedia.
  • Baiona, with its motto numquam polluta (“never soiled”), is the capital of the province of Lapurdi – located at the confluence of the Nive (Errobi in Euskara) and Adour (Aturri) rivers – and over its history has been a religious, administrative, and military center. The urban center is divided into three parts linked by bridges that reflect its history: Gran Baiona, which is the ancient Roman nucleus; the medieval barrio of Little Baiona; and Saint-Esprit.
  • Almost certainly, the place we now call Baoina was long inhabited before the Romans reached the area. But, in the 1st century, the Romans built a wall around the city to keep out the TarbelliAquitani, or the proto-Basque. The Romans built a fort or castrum named Lapurdum – though this may have also been the name of the larger territory – from which the name of the province came from.
  • After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Romans left the city in the 4th century and control alternated between the Vascones – ancestors to our modern Basques – and the English. In 1023, the viscounty of Lapurdi, part of the Kingdom of Pamplona, was created and Baiona was the capital. Baiona proper was established in 1056 when Raymond II the Younger, Bishop of Bazas, was tasked with building the Church of Bayonne. It wasn’t much later when the town abandoned the name Lapurdum and began being referred to as Baiona in official documents.
  • In 1152, Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry II of England, placing the city under English rule. Her son, Richard I Lionheart, became Duke of Aquitaine and thus Baiona was directly ruled by the kings of England. This opened the English market to local products and Baiona became an important commercial hub and military base. Baiona’s economy was centered around shipbuilding and whaling. Further, in about 1174, Richard declared the fueros of Baiona, formalizing the rights of the citizens of the town.
  • During the time of English rule, multiple factions arose in Baiona, allied with different powers, leading to myriad conflicts. In one infamous incident, Pes de Puyane, the then mayor of Baiona, placed guards to collect tolls on one of the bridges. The locals threw the guards in the river, teasing them to check the height of the water. Puyane retaliated by taking five men and hanging them from the bridge, asking them to check the water levels as the water rose and ultimately drowned the men.
  • In 1451, Jean de Dunois, onetime comrade of Joan of Arc, captured the city for the French crown. It was about this same time that the Spanish Inquisition was persecuting Jews, many of whom fled to Baiona, bringing their recipes for chocolate with them. However, the loss of English markets and rights to the French crown (for example, the mayor was now appointed by the king, not elected by the citizens of Baiona) led to economic decline in the city. In 1602, by request of the merchants of Baiona who were threatened by the economic competition they posed, the King of France ordered the expulsion of the Jewish inhabitants of the city.
  • In the 17th century, during the constant fighting that occurred in the French countryside, the peasants of Baiona, lacking gunpowder and ammunition, began fixing knives to the ends of their muskets, creating the bayonet (though the Chinese were using something similar even earlier).

Primary sources: Estornés Zubizarreta, Idoia. Baiona. Historia. Auñamendi Encyclopedia. Available at:; Bayonne, Wikipedia

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa: Part 126

De Lancre was on his knees, curled up in a near fetal position, as Kepa and Maite approached him. They watched as his arms twisted in unnatural ways, the nanobots fixing the broken limbs and torn flesh. He was much more serene as the nanobots must also have been administering some local anesthetic, which made Kepa shiver even more, realizing that Latxe had disabled that effect when her nanobots had attacked him.

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa is a weekly serial. While it is a work of fiction, it has elements from both my own experiences and stories I’ve heard from various people. The characters, while in some cases inspired by real people, aren’t directly modeled on anyone in particular. I expect there will be inconsistencies and factual errors. I don’t know where it is going, and I’ll probably forget where it’s been. Why am I doing this? To give me an excuse and a deadline for some creative writing and because I thought people might enjoy it. Gozatu!

As they got close, de Lancre looked up, a cold steely look in his eyes. 

“I admit,” he said as his body continued to contort and snap in ways that made Maite grimace. “I didn’t think you had it in you.”

“Had what, exactly?” asked Maite.

“The cold ruthlessness to take what you want.”

Maite shook her head. “We don’t. We stopped her from killing you.”

De Lancre laughed. “You would have been better off letting me die.” He began to raise one hand, the broken fingers twisted in strange directions but snapping, as they watched, back into their normal position.

“No,” said Kepa as a gun materialized in his hand and he held it to de Lancre’s temple. De Lancre lowered his hand. 

“Guns are forbidden here,” said de Lancre matter of factly.

“Latxe’s control of the nanobots is pretty amazing,” replied Kepa. “Now where is the zatia?”

“Or what? Are you going to shoot me?” asked de Lancre. He looked across the room where Latxe stood in the doorway, her form silhouetted by the lights behind her. He nodded at her. “She might be able to do it.” He then looked up at Kepa, shaking his head. “But, I don’t believe you can.”

Kepa tossed the tablet back toward Latxe, who caught it in mid air. “You are right,” said Kepa, as he lowered the gun. “But this time, I won’t stop her.”

De Lancre stood up, his body more or less back to its normal shape, though there were some hideous cracks as he stretched his legs. “Seems we are at an impasse.”

He looked up. A massive skylight above them revealed the night sky. It was bright, with as many stars as Kepa could ever remember seeing.

“This time,” sighed de Lancre, “is simply incredible. I’ve been so many places, so many times. This one just resonated with me. They’ve managed to solve all of the problems that your time has caused. The world is no longer dying. People everywhere have at least a modicum of dignity. It’s really impressive.”

“And still, you couldn’t resist to use us as your toys,” snarled Latxe from the doorway.

De Lancre turned to face her. “It was nothing personal. And, it will all be gone, as if it never existed, the moment I claim the zatia.” He turned to Kepa and Maite. “So, what now? If I can’t kill you, you’ll just keep coming back, over and over.” He sighed again. “You’ve ruined everything.”

“Just give us the zatia and this will be over,” said Maite.

De Lancre shook his head. “I’ll end it, but it will be me claiming the zatia.”

The black sphere that Maite had seen earlier floated into the room and hovered in front of de Lancre. She made a lunge for it, but it jumped up and out of her reach. De Lancre shook his head. “No, it’s mine.”

“Just get it over with,” barked Kepa. He looked over at Latxe. “They’ve suffered enough.”

De Lancre smiled. “Of course.” The black sphere settled back down, stopping about chest height. De Lancre waved his hand over the surface of the sphere and it opened up. His face fell immediately. “Where…?” he began. 

Maite could see that the sphere was empty.

If you get this post via email, the return-to address goes no where, so please write if you want to get in touch with me.

Basque Fact of the Week: Pedro Altube, Father of Basques in America

Thomas Jefferson. John Adams. Benjamin Franklin. George Washington. These are the founding fathers of what would become the United States of America. The Basque community in the United States has, in some sense, our own founding father. Along with his brother Bernardo, Pedro Altube was the catalyst of the Basques’ strong role in the livestock industry, first with cattle and then sheep. Because of him and his partners, hundreds of Basques, and along with them their friends and family, came to the United States seeking opportunity.

Pedro Altube upon his horse at Spanish Ranch with his brother Bernardo looking on. Photo from Basques in California.
  • Pedro Altube was born on April (some sources say May) 27, 1827, in Oñati, Gipuzkoa, in a baserri named Zugastegi. He wasn’t the first of his family to leave the Basque Country. An older brother, Santiago, and two step-brothers already lived in Argentina and three more step-brothers lived in Uruguay by the time Altube left home.
  • At the age of 18, in 1845, Altube boarded the Yrurac-bat, heading to Buenos Aires, a trip financed by his brother. Three years later, he did the same for his younger brother Bernardo. But, in 1850, Pedro, Bernardo, and another thirty Basques left Argentina for San Francisco, excited by the discovery of gold. They reached California in 1851. However, they quickly discovered that livestock was more profitable than mining for gold. Joining other Basques, they entered the cattle trading business, driving cattle from southern to northern California, trying to avoid, amongst other obstacles, the bandit Joaquin Murrieta.
  • The brothers were very successful, first starting a dairy where Stanford University now stands. They then purchased Rancho Los Vaqueros with three other Basques. Together, they were very prosperous, until a series of tragedies hit, including both brothers losing numerous children and then all of their livestock.
  • Deciding to start over, in 1871 the brothers bought 3000 head of cattle in Mexico and moved them to Independence Valley, near Elko, Nevada, where they established the famed Spanish Ranch. From this beginning, they built a cattle empire in northern Nevada. Their success led to their nephews and a niece joining them from the Basque Country. It was only in 1900 that the brothers introduced sheep into their business; before that, it was all cattle. By 1907, when the brothers sold their holdings, they had 20,000 sheep, 20,000 cattle, 2000 horses, and 400,000 acres.
  • Back in 1853 in San Francisco, Pedro had married fellow Basque Marie Ihitzague. They had seven daughters. Upon his retirement, the family moved from Nevada back to San Francisco. Pedro was also known to hire a man to read him books, since he himself couldn’t read English, on topics ranging from history to science.
  • During his life, Pedro became almost mythical. Standing at 6 foot 6, he was nicknamed “Palo Alto.” He was known for his horse riding and poker skills. He would greet people with his flask of whiskey, saying “Hey sonofabitch my friend, come and drink with me.” He employed hundreds of Basques and was the force behind much of Basque immigration to the region. In 1960, called the “Father of Basques in America,” he was named to the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. He died on August 8, 1905.

Primary sources: The Basques of the Great Basin: Elko, Nevada by Gloria Totoricagüena, Euskonews; Pedro & Bernardo Altube, Basques in California; Tales of the Vasco by Adrian Praetzellis, Grace H. Ziesing, and Mary Praetzellis

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa: Part 125

The three of them carefully made their way to what they presumed was de Lancre’s master suite, the nanobots creating new doorways for them as they went. De Lancre’s suite was in the center of the floor, presumably to best shield it from any outside forces. 

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa is a weekly serial. While it is a work of fiction, it has elements from both my own experiences and stories I’ve heard from various people. The characters, while in some cases inspired by real people, aren’t directly modeled on anyone in particular. I expect there will be inconsistencies and factual errors. I don’t know where it is going, and I’ll probably forget where it’s been. Why am I doing this? To give me an excuse and a deadline for some creative writing and because I thought people might enjoy it. Gozatu!

Latxe jabbed at the tablet again and a new door opened up in front of them to de Lancre’s suite. Just as the doorway had appeared, Kepa saw a bright light. “Duck!” he yelled, pushing Latxe to the side as he tackled Maite. A bolt of lightning flashed above their heads, smashing into the walls behind them.

De Lancre’s enraged voice echoed across the room. “Did you think to fool me so easily?” he bellowed. “I knew exactly where you were.”

Kepa peeked out through the doorway. De Lancre stood in the middle of his room. His left arm, all mangled, hung limply by his side. But his right was raised, ready to strike.

De Lancre let out a scream. Kepa saw his left arm begin to twist and contort as it was being reshaped. 

“The nanobots…” Kepa began.

“Not on my watch, you son of a bitch.” Latxe had also been peeking through the doorway and saw how de Lancre had begun healing his arm. She swiped at her tablet. De Lancre’s arm stopped moving for a moment and then began to twist in unnatural ways. De Lancre fell to his knees, screaming.

“I thought you said the nanobots couldn’t hurt anyone!” exclaimed Kepa.

Latxe gave him a cold look. “They can’t unless I hijack them.”

“You’re torturing him!” yelled Maite over de Lancre’s screams.

“Any more than he tortured us?” responded Latxe, all warmth completely gone from her voice.

Maite winced as she heard the loud snap of one of de Lancre’s bones break. This time, he barely let out a whimper.

“Gelditu,” said Kepa, firmly. “Stop.” He held out his hand. Latxe looked down at her tablet then at Kepa. Tears welled in her eyes. Her hands quivered. But, after what seemed like an eternity, she placed the tablet in Kepa’s hands.

“Sentitzen dut,” she whispered as she slumped against the wall. “I’m sorry.”

Kepa bent over and kissed her on the forehead before turning to Maite and walking into the suite toward de Lancre’s mangled body.

If you get this post via email, the return-to address goes no where, so please write if you want to get in touch with me.

Basque Fact of the Week: The Basque Sheepherder

Most of us who have Basque heritage in the western United States trace that connection to the Basque sheepherders that, in years past, dotted the entire western landscape. My dad came over when he was 18 years old, drawn by the promise of economic opportunity and his three uncles who were already here herding. These men and women were the foundation of a vibrant diaspora that has garnered the respect of their neighbors and become pillars of their community.

My great-uncle Juan Uberuaga on his horse with his dog at his sheep wagon. Photo shared with me by Juan’s son Jon Uberuaga.
  • Livestock was introduced to what we now call the Basque Country sometime around 2500 BCE through North Africa. The importance of livestock to the early Basque economy and lifestyle is attested by the fact that the word for wealth – aberastasuna – literally means “possession of herds.” In fact, herding predates agriculture in the Basque Country, with more native words associated with livestock than are used in agriculture.
  • In the Basque Country, there were large herds of sheep — in excess of hundreds of thousands — through which some Basques could make their fortune. Herders would partner until their herds got so big and then split into two new bands, increasing their individual success. In 1841, new customs were implemented at the French-Spanish border which hindered the herding model that Basques had developed. Some left, going to places like Argentina, where they took their model and proved very successful. Eventually, some of these Basques made their way to California, particularly after gold was discovered, and established a similar system there. In fact, early herders were paid in sheep, not money, and this let them establish their own herds.
  • Despite this long history with livestock, and sheep in particular, many of the Basques that immigrated to the western United States didn’t have so much experience with sheep. If they did, they had watched small family herds that they took to nearby pastures. They were not accustomed to the long transhumance practiced in the United States, in which animals were moved long distances between seasons.
  • Since at least the early 1900s, Basques would come to the United States on a three-year contract to herd sheep. They needed little, as they wouldn’t have a permanent home, and most were single.
  • While today, the Basque sheepherder is a romantic figure, that wasn’t always the case. In the late 1800s and 1900s, they were looked down upon, particularly by cattle people. They were called “dirty black Basques” and other names. Because they were foreign and they didn’t buy land, American cattle ranchers did not think the herders deserved the same rights as they did. This tension could lead to violence. Laws such as the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 protected grazing rights for ranchers, but not sheepherders.
  • Further, immigration from Spain was limited – in 1924 only 131 Spanish could enter the country. That changed in 1950, when Nevada Senator Patrick McCarran sponsored a bill that eventually became the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 and which boosted recruitment of Spanish herders. Again, herders could come on a three-year contract, and potentially return a second time. The three-year contract was enforced to ensure that the herders didn’t reach the five-year residency qualification mark. The Western Range Association, established in 1960, led the selection of herders and this happened in the consulate in Bilbao, leading to almost exclusive selection of Basques as new herders.
  • The three-year contracts were for $200-$300 per month. The contracts also stipulated that the herder had to pay their way to the United States (though the Association often paid and then took the costs from wages) and could not work for anyone other than the Association. Amongst other things, the Association promised to pay funeral expenses if the herder died during employment. The herders could also gain permanent residency through their contracts and, in 1976, some 2000 herders became permanent residents. Eventually, however, the economic situation in Spain improved enough such that emigrating to the United States was no longer attractive.
  • Life as a herder was lonely. Young men would be put to work in the mountains, often alone or with a partner. While a foreman would come to deliver supplies periodically, it was still a lonely life. Many herders went crazy from the isolation – they would become “sagebrushed.” Some simply couldn’t handle it and committed suicide – my dad told me of one herder that returned to the Basque Country and ended up shooting himself in his ancestral baserri, not far from where my dad grew up. These herders also left their mark on the landscape through their carvings on the aspen trees, a visual historical record that is still providing new insight into their lives.

Primary sources: Arzac Iturria, Eduardo. PASTOREO. Auñamendi Encyclopedia. Available at:; Estornés Lasa, Mariano; Totoricagüena Egurrola, Gloria Pilar. Estados Unidos de América. Oeste americano. Auñamendi Encyclopedia. Available at:; Carving Out History: The Basque Aspens, by Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe

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