Baker, Nev. • Just a few minutes into the march Saturday, the second annual Mardi Gras parade down the snow and mud-covered streets of remote Baker, Nev., had already gone to the dogs — and cats.
In keeping with the theme “It’s raining cats and dogs,” the dogs of Baker and their owners promenaded down Baker Avenue. Kelli Eichler and Joyce Brown, toting parasols and outfitted in white doggy and black feline drag, respectively, led the procession.
Other than that, not much changed from the unincorporated town’s inaugural Mardi Gras — nothing, that is, except for three American presidents, the Chicago Cubs finally winning a World Series and the passage of more than two decades.
That’s because Saturday’s event came 21 years after Baker’s first legendary Nawlins’-style bash in 2003.
“We gave it up for Lent,” cracked rancher Dave Baker, who shared the parade grand marshal title with his brothers Craig and Tom.
Dean Baker, the ‘03 grand marshal and the boys’ father passed away several years ago, so his sons shoehorned into a vintage Jeep to carry on the tradition. Many hands make for light work. And with three grand marshals instead of one, the parade-wave chores were not quite as grueling.
Oddballs and colorful characters
Other than that, the sequel in this burg just off the beaten path — U.S. 50, “America’s Loneliest Road” — closely paralleled the original. The canine crew was followed by Baker residents and their Snake Valley neighbors’ most colorful characters.
Chief among them was Liz Woolsey, Baker’s unofficial CEO (chief enthusiasm officer) and CFO (chief fun officer). The Stargazer Inn and Bristlecone General Store co-owner pulled a float topped with her famous orange chair. She often snaps pictures of the chair perched on lonely roads and mountain peaks for her “you could be here” posts on social media. Her husband, James, who retired as superintendent of Great Basin National Park five months ago, minded the store in her absence.
“Liz is the one who really organized this and made it happen,” said retired social worker-turned-Mardi Gras-hippie David Cochrane, who teamed up with Sharon Mason to toss beads and tow a wagon with a covered upright vacuum painted to resemble maple syrup icon Mrs. Butterworth.
Royalty also took part. Baker’s Mardi Gras was presided over by a British empress and a prince consort, North London transplant Rowena and husband Rex Leonard, who were draped in royal robes and held court in the bed of pickup, dispensing candy and faux doubloons to onlookers in lieu of decrees or proclamations.
Keeping pace was the Eskdale High School cast of “Les Misérables,” waving French flags and hoofing it on foot along with other costumed entrants. Rounding out the motley retinue was a flotilla of vehicles, including the Snake Valley fire truck, a souped-up race car and a purple mask-bespectacled Honda SUV. Also cropping up was a John Deere combine piloted by a couple and their dog.
“Wow, this is so fun and so unexpected,” exclaimed Denver resident Tricia Riggs, who was passing through Baker with a friend en route to Yosemite National Park but decided to stick around for the festivities.
Putting the ‘irk’ in quirk
Local folk regularly defy expectations. For starters, there is the Mardi Gras event itself. The 2003 event was the brainchild of some members of the School of the Natural Order, who conjured up the event to stoke community spirit and sweeten a sour economy.
Founded in 1946 by Gnostic philosopher Vitvan, the school mixes Eastern philosophy with Western science. In its heyday, the denizens of Home Farm, the name given the 325-acre retreat, boasted scores of residents. Today, barely a trickle hangs on and still hangs out in Baker.
“The people here are so diverse,” said Mason, a retired university instructor who moved to Baker with her husband, Bob Foster. “They are so tolerant and supportive of each other.”
Indeed, the area is a haven for the unconventional. Snake Valley is home to the Eskdale Christian commune — a breakaway sect from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — across the border in Utah, where members claim to trace their lineage back to the House of Israel’s lost tribe of Levi.
Baker also once attracted the Long Now Foundation, a San Franciso-based group dedicated to “slower, better thinking” and constructing a “millennium clock” that would chime the next 10,000 years. Initially, the group aimed to bury the timepiece beneath bristlecone pines on nearby Mount Washington but that effort has since resurfaced in Texas.
“Baker is very quirky, which is why we live here,” said Tabitha Degnan, who runs the Sugar, Salt and Malt restaurant with her twin sister, Cherie Phillips, and has flirted with inscribing the eatery’s shot glasses with the slogan “we put the ‘irk’ in quirk.”
Last year, the twins hosted a birthday bash for a woman’s tabby at which all the guests showed up wearing cat ears and whiskers. Seasonal park ranger John Yacapraro recalls residents bowling on Main Street and using traffic cones for pins.
Not only are many Bakerites quirky but they are often well-schooled. Nomi Sheppard, for example, a former Home School resident with a Ph.D. from Stanford, has worked as a school administrator and for the Great Basin Heritage Area but now runs Soulfood Studios, an art nonprofit she runs out of the former post office that provides opportunities to underserved rural youth and communities.
Sheppard, like many others in the area with advanced degrees, settled in Baker years ago seeking more open space and a slower pace of life. Now that she has found it, she stays put and seldom strays back to big cities.
“When I go visit my family in the city,” she said, “it is overwhelming.”
Being kind, banding together
Wherever they are from, regardless of their political views or whether they are avant-garde artists or more conventional folk, Snake Valley residents are renowned for their community spirit and ability to get along. They are also known for being kind.
Bob Foster recalled helping a man who took a wrong turn late at night and high-centered his vehicle in a field.
“I called the local mechanic and he said he would be there in five minutes,” Foster said. “So the mechanic arrived, pulled the car out and took it back to the shop to make sure it was OK.”
Whenever there is a need or adversity strikes, locals say, people rush to each other’s aid. They also stood strong together to help derail the federal government’s plans in the late 1970s to base the MX missile system in Utah’s Great Basin and, more recently, to prevent Las Vegas from siphoning Snake Valley’s water.
“It’s a community that takes care of each other and works together like the spokes on a wheel to keep things rolling and the spirit alive,” Mardi Gras dog walker Jenny Hamilton said.
That spirit was still in full swing hours after the parade’s end. Partygoers trudged to the Snake River Community Center to sample the food and crafts at the farmer’s market. Revelers also savored the Cajun cooking at the Whispering Elms 487 Grill. Others crammed into the Bristlecone General Store to warm up, get the lowdown on the latest news and listen to live music from the Front Porch Pickers.
One topic for conversation: Will the next Mardi Gras celebration be even better than this one? The good news, the Woolseys vow, is that no one will have to wait 21 years to find out.
“We plan to make this a truly annual event,” Liz said.