I thought Jim was testing his truck brakes when he came to a sudden stop on New Airport Road. He wasn’t. He had been distracted by the wild mustangs in the field by the Ridge Golf Course. He needn’t have braked. They are not going anywhere. As most long-time Auburn residents know, these galloping horses are sculptures.
Jim isn’t easily impressed so his admiration for the sculptures gave me an idea for his upcoming birthday. On a solo trip to Auburn, I stopped by the golf course hoping to find a painting or a framed photograph of the Mustangs in the gift shop.
Douglas Van Howd, an internationally acclaimed artist, created the sculptures, I was told by the Ridge staff person, and he directed me down the street to the artist’s gallery and studio. I pulled on the trunk of the elephant door handle and entered.
If you haven’t been to the Van Howd Western and Wildlife Art Gallery, you should go. What a treat. In the center of the spacious gallery is a monument of the iconic Pony Express Rider flinging himself onto a galloping horse. Bronze sculptures of wildlife, and of people commemorating various cultural and historical events, fairly leap off their marble pedestals. Mr. Van Howd’s talents as a painter are also evident in the superb collection of wildlife art displayed on the gallery walls.
I had to bring Jim in here. I knew he’d be as fascinated by the sculptures and art in the studio as he was by the mustangs in the field. I also knew there would be one sculpture that would moisten his eyes: The Basque Shepherd wearing a beret, holding a staff in his right hand, a lamb in his left, and his faithful sheepdog looking up at him.
Jim’s grandfather, affectionately known as “Poppa” was a Basque sheepherder. Like thousands from the Basque region in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain, he made the harrowing journey to California during World War I. He was 16, a young sheepherder like Mr. Van Howd’s sculpture.
As striking as the Basque Shepherd sculpture was, I thought it seemed out of place amongst the African wildlife and the famous.
Tracie Van Wicklin, the gallery’s engaging administrative assistant, provided the answer to my unasked question. She explained that Douglas Van Howd had grown up in Nevada, and he and his father developed a bond with the many Basque they met during their outdoor trips.
This relationship with the Basque provided Mr. Van Howd with the inspiration he needed when commissioned by John Ascuaga to create an 11-foot sculpture as a tribute to the Basque people who pioneered Nevada. The monument was displayed for years outside Ascuaga’s Nugget Casino in Sparks.
Jim made it to the Van Howd gallery and was as awed as I thought he’d be. The Basque statue did bring a tear to his eye. As we admired it, we reminisced about the trip we’d made to France to search for his grandfather’s house. Through a serendipitous event — finding Theresa, a Basque cousin, who owned the restaurant we just happened to stop in for lunch — we met Theresa’s husband, Michael. He offered to lead us to Poppa’s house.
After a long winding drive, Michael had stopped the car and pointed to a narrow trail with a sign indicating no cars allowed; we made the rest of the journey on foot. It was hot, and we were unprepared for the narrow, dusty and rocky trail. After what seemed an hour, and was probably a lot less, Jim pointed to a building a short distance ahead.
“I think that’s it,” Jim had said quietly. We walked on, and then stopped by a large rock house built close to the edge of the trail. Jim pulled a piece of folded paper from his trouser pocket, and we studied the scanned photograph.
“It is the house,” I agreed. “It looks like it has had some minor renovations, but look, it’s the same roofline, same chimney, the same doorway and number of windows.”
“Same rock wall,” Jim added.
We walked further up the trail to look at the house from a different angle. There was a slow-moving stream running along the back of the property.
“To think,” my husband had said, “when Poppa was a boy, he fished in this stream. Look how much this area resembles Hope Valley and the West Carson River where Poppa tended his sheep. You know something else?” Jim had said, pulling a crumpled map from his pocket. “Poppa wasn’t kidding when he told us that his house was the last house before Spain.”
Pauline Nevins is the author of “Bonkers for Conkers,” a compilation of personal essays, and the memoir, “‘Fudge’ The Downs and Ups of a Biracial, Half-Irish British War Baby.” Pauline is a member of Auburn’s Gold Country Writers. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.