Nevada History by John C. Evanoff

Visitreno.com is excited to present this series of articles by noted author and poet, John C. Evanoff. John will tell us about Nevada history and cover some of the more remote and unusual things to see and do in Northern Nevada.

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The Forty Mile Desert

by John C. Evanoff
May, 2005

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 the horned-toad.

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 Fallon Museum.

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.


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