Thursday, June 29, 2017


On the road to the Jackson Hole Writers Conference

Whisking across Nevada’s Interstate 80 in 100-degree temperatures makes me wonder how those who did this 150 years ago survived.  In eight minutes on the big Triumph Thunderbird, I can cover what those stalwarts accomplished in one day, if they were lucky. In my teaching days, I shared with students stories of immigrant privations, of losing livestock, jettisoning furnishings, busted axles and death. One could chart their course across Nevada by simply following the detritus and graves of those who came before, I told ‘em.  I don’t think all of my kids believed me.

In eastern Nevada, ancient eroded ranges are divided by large playas filled with eons of sediment in this land of little rain.  Still, if there were a cluster of cottonwoods somewhere this side of the horizon, there’d likely be water.  The western end of the trail traverses bone-dry ridges with scant vegetation and little protection from a burning summer sun.  I’m not sure how anyone ever found a watering hole in these parts.  In fact, there’s a storied forty-five-plus mile stretch where, indeed, there is no water available.

The fur company trappers, mountain men who preceded the gold seekers by a generation, had plotted many a route and many alternatives to cross the arid basin and range.  One, the Hastings Cut-off rejoins the California Trail at the site of this interpretive installation.  Hastings devised an alternate route that he claimed would bypass Nevada’s Ruby Mountains, but it added nearly 100 miles to the trek.  Those hundred miles proved pivotal to the fate of the party captained by James F. Reed and George Donner in 1846.

I stopped in at the recently constructed California Trail Interpretive Center, just west of Elko.  Located at the junction of the California trail and the infamous Hastings Cut-off, the displays verify that what I told my students was true and that crossing the high, parched desert on the big Triumph, no matter how uncomfortable, was vastly superior to the choices available to our pioneering ancestors. 

The exhibit hall beautifully renders the cavalcade of history from Paiute days to the present.  Of great interest, of course, are the dioramas depicting the hardships of the easterners seeking fortune in the west.  Outside, however, the displays really touch on what these folks endured. 

A circle of wagons speaks to community and interdependence.  Survival, indeed, depended upon it.

Random collections including, perhaps a chair, a steamer trunk, cast iron cookery and some shreds of cloth illustrate choices and loss.

A discarded fiddle sings to the unifying nature of music, how people in the worst of circumstances find solace in performance – in art. 

The distant Ruby Mountains rise through a mid-summer haze.

I ride away consumed by the struggles of those who attempted this crossing while the soundtrack for the next hundred miles is a baleful tune scratched out on a tired old violin.


More about the California Trail Interpretive Center:

© 2017
Church of the Open Road Press

1 comment:

  1. Born in 1971 I've always said my generation is one to have it pretty easy. I can't even imagine the hardships faced by my grandparents generation let alone those that came west on the wagon trains.