Where Angels Fear to Tread

Words and Photographs by Chris Collard Words and Photographs by Chris Collard

Part 2 of our North American Journey, Where Chris Collard and his posse continue their 3 200km trek west, along wagon trails forged by American Emigrants.

In the distance, maybe 48 km to the north, a monolithic peak rises from the horizon. Its grey-black form, sandwiched between a Dodger blue sky and chalky-white desert floor, demands my undivided attention. A glassy reflection has settled on the far reaches of the alkali flat we’re driving across, appearing to be a widespread body of water.

I find it difficult to fathom water in this place, where the midsummer sun has elevated temperatures into the high-digit range. Yet, scanning the mountains to the east and west, I trace waterlines hundreds of feet above the valley floor. I shift into high gear and charge across the anvil-flat surface, my speedometer settling on the 120 km/h mark.

The sun-baked desert air whips through my open window and eddies around the cab like a blast furnace, providing a cooling effect as it drives sweat around the back of my neck - Mother Nature’s way of balancing extremes, I suppose.

Glancing in my side mirror, I see a red speck welling trails of dust. My eyes return north to the task at hand, but another quick take in the mirror reveals a creamy cloud as my travel mates, Matt and Kimber Hoey, fly past my window. My Tacoma is no match for their Ford Raptor, and I drift over to avoid a maelstrom of dust.

The monolith, branded Black Rock by pioneer Lindsay Applegate, has been known to the white man for only 170 years. Prior to that, the custodians of this vast desert were the American Indians. Somewhere near its base, we are to meet friends from our 4WD club, the Sierra Treasure Hunters. There’s history in this region, and we’ll spend the next few days exploring it before heading west.

Several months earlier, we’d departed from Fort Bridger (Wyoming) on a quest to follow the tracks of the American emigrants. During that trip, we’d covered a fraction more than 2 400 km of mostly dirt-roads, before needing to head home to the realities of work and other obligations.

Returning to our break-off point near Gerlach (Nevada), we were now committed to the infamous Applegate-Lassen Trail. If we were successful, we’d make our way over the Sierra Nevada to the location of Pete Lassen’s ranch in Vina, California.

The 1840s and the California Gold Rush brought a migration of humanity that America has experienced, and will experience, only once. Like the flow of an incoming tide, tens of thousands of rugged individuals loaded their worldly possessions into buckboard wagons and headed west, enticed by the prospect of free land and the rumours of gold for anyone who would stop to pick it up.

Newspaper reports of places like Gold Lake (California), where thumb-sized nuggets were rumoured to litter the shoreline, created a euphoric enthusiasm for the West. Entrepreneurs, teamsters, adventurers, sharecroppers, and ladies in questionable professions all lined up to claim their share of California’s riches. The jumping-off points for wagon trains heading west were bustling towns like Council Bluffs, Iowa, Fort Kearny, Nebraska, and the appropriately-named Independence, Missouri.

In order to reach California, it was crucial to depart in mid-spring. Grasses would be sufficient for grazing livestock across the Great Plains, and if all went well – and they survived the crossing of the feared Forty Mile Desert in the dead of summer – the emigrants would reach the 7 000-foot passes of the Sierra Nevada before heavy snows set in.

After the fateful news of the Donner Party tragedy in 1846, there was significant pressure to establish a shorter, less dangerous route to the gold fields.

In California, new settlers meant money to merchants and landowners, and there was a fair amount of jockeying to draw the region’s newest citizens. One such landowner was Pete Lassen, a Danish emigrant and blacksmith who held a 22 000- acre Mexican land grant, known as Rancho Bosquejo Terreno (Wooded Ground).

In an attempt to populate his land, Lassen travelled east in 1847, and presented himself as a guide to westbound wagon trains. When his first group of “clients” approached the Marys River (Nevada), near the turnout to the California Trail and the Forty Mile Desert, he led them north along a faint wagon track left by pioneer Lindsay Applegate a year before.

Though he’d never travelled the route, Lassen’s hunch was that it would deposit his party near his ranch. Despite the fact that Lassen’s new route posed unexpected challenges, costly delays, and added 320 km to the journey, several reputable eastern newspapers – including the New York Herald – praised Lassen and reported the Applegate-Lassen as an easier and shorter route to California.

We’d left the town of Gerlach, whose motto is, “Gerlach, where the pavement ends and the West begins.” It’s the last fuel depot before entering the Black Rock, and most of its commercial enterprise is owned by a curmudgeonly old Italian fellow named Bruno – Bruno’s Country Club Café is the only dining option, a bed for the night can be found at Bruno’s Motel, a cold beer can be had at Bruno’s Bar, and of course, he owns the only fuel station, Bruno’s Shell. Positioned on the southern reaches of the Black Rock Playa, the town’s slogan is fitting for a place that sits on the edge of emptiness.

Fifteen miles into the expanse, we eased off the throttle and rolled to a silent standstill. By early summer, the penetrating desert heat had desiccated the lake bed, and deep fissures spread across the playa like the web of a spider. The sun beat down ruthlessly - and the only shade for 16 km in any direction was underneath our vehicles.

Lying down on my stomach to take a photograph, I could smell the desert’s burnt soul and feel its latent heat radiate through my being. I thought of the emigrants trudging along at an oxen’s pace in late summer, watching their feet pass across the fractured soil, and hoping that the next time they raised their eyes the mountains on the horizon would appear closer. In less than 20 minutes, we’d covered a distance that would take a wagon train almost two gruelling days to complete. However, if the emigrants feared the Forty Mile Desert, it must surely have seemed tame in comparison to the Black Rock.

In 1849 there were an estimated 22 000 emigrants stretched along the 2 400 km route to California. By mid-July, one wagon train after another had followed Lassen’s tracks into this dry and desolate wasteland. Rabbit Hole Springs was the last source of water before entering the Black Rock, and while the first groups to pass through found sufficient water and feed for their livestock, trailing wagons found only a muddy trickle and little, if any, grass. By late summer, conditions had deteriorated and the situation had become desperate. The highly touted reports of a safe passage were quickly proved false.

Man and beast began to suffer the effects of the unrelenting desert sun. In a state of delirium, livestock would stampede towards aqueous mirages in the distance, only to collapse in exhaustion and perish where they fell. The survival rate for their human counterparts wasn’t much better. By late summer, abandoned wagons and makeshift gravesites littered the desert landscape. It is said that wooden crosses from less-fortunate travellers would be passed every few hundred yards along the route that year. For travellers heading west, the Applegate-Lassen Trail would come to be known as The Death Route.

We met our group (the Sierra Treasure Hunters) and made our way to the base of the Black Rock near Black Rock Springs. Locating this spring is like finding an oasis in the Sahara. As if playing a twisted game of Truth or Dare, Mother Nature placed this large, freshwater hot spring on the far side of the playa; if settlers survived the crossing, they would at least be able to replenish their water supplies. This night, some 240 km from the dazzling lights of Reno (Nevada), we set up camp on Hidden Playa under a brilliant desert sky.

As recently as 8 000 years ago, Lake Lahontan, an endorheic body from the Pleistocene period, covered more than 8 500 square miles of Northern Nevada and California. Ancestors of the current Paiute Indians fished its waters, hunted along its marshes and reed-lined shores, and inhabited the surrounding mountains – which were still islands at the time. It was hard to imagine that the roads we were traversing would’ve been several hundred feet under water.

At the end of the last ice age, water levels began to recede; eventually to the point that all that was left were vast mud flats, which eventually became the hundreds of alkali flats that pepper the region. The mysterious waterlines I’d seen, now made sense; and it’s said that arrowheads can still be found along these elevated prehistoric shorelines.

From Hidden Playa we turned north along the eastern edge of the valley, passing Double Hot Springs, the ruins of Hardin City, and Murder Rock - site of the demise of Pete Lassen and his prospecting partner, Ed Clapper, in 1859. Double Hot Springs is a place where great caution is necessary. With its steep banks, a standing water temperature of about 85°C, and almost no landing at the water’s edge, a missed step would be deadly.

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