by John C. Evanoff
Fifty years ago, our family and
a few of our friends used to spend recreation time in the desert
north and east of Reno. We had a large collection of Indian artifacts
collected, a small part of which is now part of the Nevada State
Museum's exhibits, the rest with the Nevada Historical Society.
Today, artifact collecting including arrowhead hunting is illegal
and the sacred hunting and burial grounds of the West's Indian families
are protected by the United States Government.
After spending half a century discovering
the Western Nevada desert, I'm continually awed by the stark beauty
and raw unblemished character of its landscape. It's also amazing
to me that just 150 years ago, settlers in wagon trains trudged
their way across these vast expanses just barely surviving from
day to day. Many of their remains and pieces of wagons still exist
along the old trails. In fact, my mother once picked up a two and
half dollar gold piece along the California Immigrant trail in the
middle of the infamous "Forty Mile Desert" between Lovelock
and Fernley along US Interstate 80. It was near there that I also
picked up the rusted barrel of a flintlock with a musket ball still
in its chamber and a US Calvary Belt Buckle. This area is still
a favorite with off-road drivers in the summer but can be treacherous
in the winter and spring because the alkali flats turn to a soft
gummy mud which is almost impossible to escape from if you become
stuck. Walking on it can be hazardous as well. Every step taken
adds another layer of goop on your shoes until the sheer weight
of all of it makes moving just a few steps intolerable.
Some of the roads that lead off
to mining towns and hot springs can be extremely enjoyable for sightseeing
and discovery though. About five miles east of Fernley on I-80 begins
the Fernley Wildlife Area. On both sides of the highway, you'll
see all kinds of waterfowl including yellow-headed blackbirds, robin,
meadowlark, western tanager, raven, desert wren, coots (mud hen),
mallards, teal, stilt, grebe, geese, killdeer, mergansers, egret,
grebe, heron, goshawk, red-tailed hawk, American kestrel, prairie
falcons, turkey vultures, magpie and an occasional peregrine falcon.
The Great Horned Owl and ground owl make their homes in the high
desert here as well but spend most of their time asleep or resting
during the day and awake and hunting at night when the kangaroo
rat, desert chipmunk and many kinds of lizard come out to eat. There
are also assorted species of bat that live in these deserts because
of easy prey in the multitude of flying insects. And of course,
you'll often see coyote, jackrabbit, cottontail, badger and assorted
mice and squirrel. Less frequently, you may see the western diamondback
rattlesnake and sidewinder which also live here, so be careful and
carry a snake kit and long walking stick. Other snakes include the
bull, king and gardener. You'll see many kinds of lizard including
A little further down I-80 on the
right, you'll see a dehydrating plant where onions are dried for
spices and a small geothermal power station. This was once known
as Brady's Hot Springs where many years ago a way-stop gave travelers
a chance to rest up at the bar there or dive into a thermal pool.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt was said to stop and stretch out
in the pool on his many trips across the country. On the other side
of the highway headed north you can take a drivable dirt rode thru
Nightingale pass all the way to SR447 just north of Winnemucca Lake
on the Pyramid Lake Highway. You'll come out just below Mount Limbo
and Purgatory Peak, well named for the area. Just over the rise
a couple miles past Brady's on I-80, you'll come to the edge of
the massive Humboldt Sink. This is the territory feared and loathed
by Immigrants moving west in the mid to late 1800's. It is the very
pit of the "40 mile desert" between the less inhospitable
Lovelock Valley and the Truckee River at Wadsworth on the west end
and the Carson River at Ragtown near Fallon on the southwest end.
This is where the settlers took a fork in the road. Those going
over the Carson Pass would take the southwest route towards what
is now Fallon and those going over the Donner Pass would take the
western route towards what is now Wadsworth. Either way was extremely
tough. In the spring, settlers had to stay up along the hills or
risk losing their wagons in the viscous alkali bog and in the summer
and early autumn they had to move at night because of the intense
heat. Most of the animals including the oxen, cattle and horses
were exhausted by the time they reached this excruciating expanse
and the men, women and children were also overwhelmed and drained.
But the trail guides knew they were only forty miles away from fresh
water, grass and tree shade so they kept moving sometimes only four
or five miles a day to reach their destination. Some of the diary
stories written by the settlers told of tons of furniture and household
items and hundreds of animals being left behind along this wretched
and forbidding section.
A few miles further, the Jessup
turnoff will take you on a dirt road north up into the hills. A
small mining town once prospered here and you will see a few of
the foundations lying around the area. Interstate 80 then comes
to a junction heading southward. This is Highway 95 which goes to
Fallon along the exact path the immigrants took as they headed for
the Carson Pass. If you want to get a feel for the task the settlers
had to endure here, take a walk away from the road and a few hundred
yards to the right of the railroad tracks running southwest to Fallon
through the Carson Sink. Do it in the summer to get the full effect.
Now try to envision your family, already desperately ill from dehydration
and your Conestoga wagon throwing up dusty clouds of alkali behind
oxen barely moving their weary legs forward. After three or four
miles, you'll understand the desperation and panic in the minds
of the settlers.
The Paiute Indians who lived in
these inhospitable surroundings were extremely resourceful. When
the water in Toy Flats, well to the east of highway 95, or the Humboldt
Sink were high enough, the fishing was good and the waterfowl were
plenty. Several families of Northern Paiute called this region home
for thousands of years. Some of the remains of their culture can
be found at Hidden Cave south of Fallon on Highway 50 and at the
Where Highway 95 intersects with
Highway 50, named the loneliest highway, you will find Ragtown.
This site along the Carson River was once the salvation of animals
and settlers who threw themselves into the river to partake in the
fresh running water. Every stitch of clothing and canvas was washed
and rung out at this point. Then the many pieces were hauled up
on the trees and bushes to dry making for an unusual scene. When
the settlers wrote about the setting, the name of the place stuck.
Ragtown was born.
Exploring the 40 Mile Desert can
be fun and educational but remember to take a good digital camera
with you and plenty of water and food. A cell phone won't hurt either.
This is spectacular desert countryside and some of the cloud formations,
colorful mountain sides, desert apparitions, flora, fauna and ethereal
shadows will give you pictures to remember for a lifetime and even
possibly win you an amateur or professional photography contest.