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Great Outdoors: Bark with a Bite

Colorado's disappearing aspen carvings illustrate the state's herding past.

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Great Outdoors: Bark with a Bite

Eloy Trujillo had a thing for silk stockings. A fetish, perhaps. He liked to imagine women hiking up their skirts to expose the ruffled garters encircling their thighs. Sometimes he’d draw ladies dancing on a table. Other times there was no table, just the curvy gams of Trujillo’s Venus. But Trujillo did not immortalize his women on canvas or paper—he emblazoned them on Colorado’s aspen bark.

A shepherd who tended flocks in Routt National Forest some 80 years ago, Trujillo clearly endured the kind of unfulfilled longings you’d expect when woolly beasts are a guy’s sole companions for months on end. And like many others who herded sheep throughout Colorado, Trujillo gave expression to those desires by carving on the state’s signature aspen trees. Those poignant images speak volumes about the life and desires of their creators: Some carvings are religious; some, like the carving of an enormous mosquito, offer insight into the day-to-day hassles of herding sheep; others communicated with herders following behind, an early tree-trunk version of text-messaging. But many are of nude women, and even when they’re of the less risqué variety they seem plenty steamy when they surprise you during a wildflower hike.

Herders are far from the only people to get their kicks by carving trees. There’s something irresistible about turning an aspen’s smooth, pale bark into a canvas for self-expression, and, along with the ubiquitous lovers, hunters sometimes sketch elk or deer into the bark. But most carvers have little to express beyond “J.C. + M.R.,” and initials gouged into a tree somehow seem more like boredom-induced scribblings than art.

Sheepherders, though, had plenty of time—their one luxury—and few ways to fill those hours save reflection. As a result, they often created arboreal masterpieces you can still see today.

Hike through the San Juan and Routt national forests, where aspens are numerous and sheep were heavily grazed, and you’ll be amazed by the artistry of some of the tree carvings, or arborglyphs. Some are solo pieces, but aspen art often adorns entire groves, all carved by the same artist. Most are found on the edges of meadows, where a herder could enjoy some shade while watching his sheep graze the open grasses.

Trujillo’s natural studio was on Buffalo Pass, near Steamboat Springs. He moved flocks along the stock corridor linking southern Wyoming and northern Colorado. It was the Summit Lake area that inspired him to sketch several elegant, stocking-clad nudes, their long hair cascading down in waves that echo their curvaceous legs.

If Trujillo rendered his ladies tastefully, in Victoria’s Secret-style, Odi Lan, another carver, took more of a Frederick’s of Hollywood approach. “Eloy was an artist, but Odi put the ‘ass’ in aspen art,” says Angie Krall, heritage specialist with Routt National Forest. Krall has documented hundreds of arborglyphs throughout her career as a Forest Service archaeologist, and she says Lan, whose sketches merit an XXX rating, was the bad boy of Slater Park. And even though the trees’ growth over time enlarges drawings and makes them rounder, some body parts were obviously super-sized in Lan’s original versions. “He was definitely a lonely man,” observes Krall.

Krall and other scholars learn a great deal from herders’ tendency to sign and date their work. Case in point: Trujillo and Lan’s signed erotica represents the only lasting record they ever passed through Colorado. The messages also yield valuable information about historic construction projects and stock driveways. Researchers can glean what areas served as stock corridors by the type and number of arborglyphs appearing there, revealing certain patterns and routes the sheep industry favored. Other spots contain arborglyphs left not by sheepherders but by construction crews who built old freight lines, guard stations, and irrigation channels. Researchers date construction by crews’ names and dates carved on trees.

Yet Krall is also touched by the herders’ cravings for human contact, a longing that often goes beyond the sexual. She points to a carving that reads “Es triste a vivir solo,” or “It’s sad to live alone.” “That’s tough,” Krall says. “It’s why herding sheep isn’t a job that many people want to do.”

Since the late 1800s, Colorado’s seasonal sheepherding jobs have attracted men willing to trade companionship for money. A few were Basques from northern Spain, though most Basque sheepherders worked in Nevada, which also contains rich pockets of aspen art. Colorado’s herders were primarily Hispanic, and they still are: Herders now hail from Chile and Peru, where the news of Colorado jobs spreads by word of mouth and lures fathers away from their families in order to support them financially. During the summer it’s not unusual to see sheep wagons—small RV-like vehicles that herders actually live in—on Rabbit Ears Pass or near Durango.

Today, Trujillo and Lan are long gone, and their canvases are disappearing too. Aspens only live for 80 to 100 years, and many of the oldest carvings survive on fallen or standing dead trees. Those aspens preserve the faint echo of people who once walked these woods. Yo pienso, whispers one: I think. “You couldn’t pay me a million dollars to come back here,” shouts another.

The Forest Service and others are striving to record these voices before they’re lost. “They’re a cultural resource,” Krall emphasizes. “Defacing them in any way is a federal offense.” But what qualifies this cultural resource as anything other than garden-variety graffiti? Not much, say scholars: Recent aspen art tends to document different patterns of forest use, such as recreation. “It’s all part of our history,” Krall says, “but I’d hope people wouldn’t just run off into the woods and carve up every tree they see.”

For one thing, encountering aspen carvings can ruin the feeling of wilderness discovery, of being the only person to have visited a particularly pristine part of the woods. Most hikers don’t mind sharing the landscape with a buxom beauty, but seeing “Leroy was here” feels somehow a little more like vandalism and a little less like art.

And, of course, there’s the damage to the tree to ponder. Digging into the bark does harm the tree. By rupturing its “skin,” carving invites fungus, bacteria, and pests into the wood. Novice carvers (the Valentine types) tend to gouge deeply, leaving ugly scars that can ultimately kill the tree. But out of concern for the aspens, or because they knew a lighter touch made for better artwork, many sheepherders etched their designs only into the bark’s outer layers.

The etchings were shallow, but the yearnings ran deep—for home, community, a loving touch. Only the trees witnessed those voices, and that’s where they remain, written across Colorado’s aspens like pale pages of a personal diary.