This Italian expression, roughly translated as “Happy Birthday”, holds a deeper meaning than these two words. A blend of comple (the root of complete) and anno (year), it congratulates a person for the completion of a year's cycle thru life. June is our month to celebrate and this year we're roadtripping to soak in hot mineral waters and partake in a cultural feast.
Our journey begins at the western end of the nation on US Hwy 20. A true trans-continental highway that stretches from Boston to the Pacific, it's contemporaneous with the better-known Route 66. The spring weather has been wet and mild here in Oregon and the flora has responded. As we leave the valley and begin climbing towards the Cascade crest, we're in the smells of damp earth and decay mixed with wild roses, rhododendrons, and irises. Small waterfalls emerge from road embankments around each bend. One of the most traveled mountain passes of pioneer days is just ahead and holds the first of many roadtrip surprises.
One doesn't normally equate Oregon with violent thunderstorms. But every so often a humdinger hits the Cascades. When moist warm air pushes up from the tropics and combines with the lift elevation gives, severe weather results. It caught us at Santiam Pass. All traffic on the road stopped as a wall of hail and slick roads forced us to take shelter. Very fortunate; this gives us the opportunity to enjoy our favorite Chinese restaurant in Bend.
Back on the road the next morning, we head south to pick up the Oregon Outback Scenic Byway, a lonely stretch of highway that winds through mountainous volcanic forests southeast towards the California border. Again another delay slows us; this time it's for roadwork at Picture Rock Pass (a fellow roadtripper once remarked that the color of summer is definitely “Roadworker” orange). The rock walls of this pass, used by earlier travelers to enter the well-watered high desert lake country of Summer Valley, hold petroglyphs etched into it. This area has been sparsely inhabited for at least for the past 8,000 years, indicated by the carbon dating of a pair of sandals found nearby.
The people who live in this area now seek solitude, but are willing to share their frontier spirit with others. Several unique places to stay can be found here, ranging from rustic to more refined. One place in the later category is Hunters Hot Springs Resort. Having recently changed ownership, this early 20th century resort and sanitarium is in the process of being converted into an upscale spa. Rooms and a soak are still available while this renovation work progresses; be sure to check out the active geyser in their front yard. A spot in the more rustic category is Summer Lake Hot Springs. Camp spots are plentiful and they also offer a soak in a scenic high desert setting. There's also the Lodge at Summer Lake, a restaurant and motel directly across from the entrance to the federal wildlife refuge, as well as the Summer Lake Inn. Wherever you choose, however, there are lots of other activities available: camping, hiking, fishing, and wildlife watching.
But the road for us continues south across the California border and leads east into the Three Corners Region, where the Great Basin area begins and California, Oregon, and Nevada all meet. We're heading for the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, one of many stops on the pioneer trail leading to Northern California but today better known for hosting the Burning Man festival. The same spring weather experienced in Oregon is making this desert bloom too. Wildflowers carpet the valleys and swarms of huge katydids cross the road only to coat the underside of our car. This is a true wilderness road, even less traveled than the byway, and maps warn drivers that there'll be no services for the next 98 miles. We continue south, but now a little west as well, around the south side of Pyramid Lake and into the suburbs of Reno.
Whenever we travel we seek out the culturally interesting places. Often these places will still exist on the edges between countries. One example is the Basque region in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain. Some people hear Basque and associate it with a terrorist group that continues their fight for an independent homeland, but in the 19th century they were part of the mass migration that populated Western America. Primarily sheepherders, one of the places they settled was in the Great Basin of Nevada. The Basque’s left their cuisine as one of their legacies, and an example is our destination.
Louis’s Basque Corner is only blocks from the casinos in downtown Reno, but a world away from 21st century life. Their menu claims it's “Reno’s most unique dining experience”. Served family style by waitresses wearing authentic Basque clothing, they specialize in a cuisine that's a fusion of Pyrenees staples and chuck wagon chow. Check out the little touches: long boardinghouse tables with bright tablecloths, Basque sayings on the walls, pictures and pottery from Basque France. The food is copius and arrives in waves. Everyone shares in the crusty french bread and green salad, then onto the individual entrees of roast loin of pork, lamb chops, shrimp, paella, calamari, beef tongue, shellfish, or oxtails, all washed down with a hearty house wine. An aperitif of Picon Punch can be ordered beforehand, but be advised that these are both tasty and deceptively strong.
But every bit as delicious as the food was our conversation with other diners. The side-by-side seating arrangement is typical of meals at Basque restaurants with boardinghouse roots, and just about ensures that you make new friends. The annual Reno Rodeo was in town and the place was filled with people traveling to attend it. We sat next to an older couple that are beginning a second life together. They told us their entire life story (well, not quite): how they run a ranch northwest of Phoenix, visit Basque restaurants all over the west, they were neighbors who each lost their partner and then got together. We talked of our lives and travels, what we do, how we discovered this restaurant. As we parted, the man looked at us with a touch of a tear in his eye and gave us sage advice – “cherish each other and all your times together”. These little moments are the high points of travel.
Basque restaurants are scattered throughout the western states and some of the best can be located with the link below. Look for one near you. You'll be glad.
Written by: Steve Smith and Christine Johnson