Into the Fire
As a child growing up in the 1950s and 60s I was exposed to many cowboy movies and TV shows. Roy Rogers was my favorite because of his kind and honest ways, and the way he treated his horse, Trigger, and his dog, Bullet. The Lone Ranger was a close second because he had an Indian (Native American) best friend, as did I.
My older brother was so impressed with John Wayne (almost to the point of a religion), that he became an expert about and with the firearms of the old west. He is a phenomenal shot with a "six-gun" (like the Colt .45) and has competed in many quick draw contests.
Where my brother related to the image of the cowboy and the clothing and hardware became his focus, I was more interested in riding the horses and experiencing what they did for real. To that end I rode anything I could get on, be it a quarter-horse with a western saddle, a race horse on the track, or even riding bulls in the rodeo.
As an adult I have ridden horses, donkeys, mules (and camels) in faraway places that resembled the "wild west" of 1800s America in its primitiveness and abundant gunfire.
All of this gave me a greater appreciation for the true history of the westward settlement of the United States, which wasn't always as pretty and kind as those films of my youth. I knew from reading the many stories that exist about the period, that this was truly a time of great courage and sacrifice for those who sought a better way of life and a brighter future.
In the years between 1845 and 1870 a great westward migration took place and many lives were lost. It is estimated that 65,000 people died during the rush towards the setting sun. Television and the movies would have us blame the "marauding Indians" as the greatest cause of human demise, but that is completely false.
Let me explain a little of the harsh realities of travel in the old west, including on the Carson route of the California Trail.
How things really were
Conestoga Wagons (the main mode of transport), typically measured eleven feet long, by four feet wide and had two feet high sideboards. Above that were bowed ribs arching up another five feet and covered with sail canvas. The usable floor space in the wagon would be the same as a 4' x 8' sheet of plywood.
Upon this area you must place everything that you need to survive the trip, and hold all of the members of your party in bad weather, etc. Keepsakes and extras were carried at a dire premium.
The wheels were made from wood with an iron rim hammered around it to protect against rocks and make them last -- more about them later.
The wagon body only had one set of crude springs under the driver's bench seat and none over the axles, making them quite literally a pain in the butt to ride in. Which is why most of the people who didn't have a horse to ride, walked.
Walking in worn out, poorly fitted, or hand-me-down shoes or boots broken-in to another person's foot, could (and did) lead to blisters; blisters that bled and got dirt in them, leading to infections. There were no drugs to treat infections other than home-remedies which likely had run out.
I might also add that the footwear of the period did not include any sort of cushioning (no Air Jordan’s) or rubber soles. They were hard leather soles with hard leather stacked heels nailed on.
After four to six months of walking ten to fifteen miles a day and wading creeks and rivers and walking on sharp rocks, etc., you can just imagine the condition they were in.
The real killers
Sanitation in those days was whatever you could do. There were no toilets or toilet paper and water was too precious to waste washing anything.
Bacteria are not a modern invention, they were present then too, but the travelers didn't know about it. Germs spread via contaminated hands, dirty plates and cups, or people and animals drinking from the same water.
Especially harmful was the fact that everyone and everything, from each successive party, went to the bathroom around the best campsites, (which were where water was found), which meant an extremely high chance of disease transmission.
Dysentery killed more people than all of the Indian attacks in history put together. Cholera and Typhoid (and countless other things like e-coli) were spread from one contaminated person to another via the polluted water, garbage, and dead animals all along the trail.
Accidents, the other big killer
People fell down a lot and were crushed by wagon wheels or were trampled by livestock. They broke arms, legs, backs, etc., falling down hillsides, into holes, and off of wagons.
Livestock also stampeded for any number of reasons and humans on foot were at a distinct disadvantage.
The most mentioned accident was crazy for a society that lived and worked with firearms daily. Numerous accounts tell of pioneers accidentally shooting themselves, a family member or friend, or one of their animals.
Water: the most pressing issue of all
From where the pitiful Humboldt River dives into the ground at the Humboldt Sink, until you reach either the Truckee River on the north route, or the Carson River on the southern branch of the trail, there is 40 miles of no usable water.
The last few miles of the Humboldt River were frustratingly poor in both volume and quality. The alkali content increased as you went, so those who didn't know better, or procrastinated about filling their barrels, were especially hard hit. If they filled at the last water hole they had to use very poor water with a high salt content, which drastically reduced their chances of survival.
How tough are you
The settlers made the 2,000 mile trek suffering from all of the maladies noted above, exhausted, weak, and nearly at wits end and then faced one of the nastiest bits of the journey; the 40-mile desert of Nevada Territory.
To get to California and the goldfields, you had to pass through this place, one of the hottest, most unforgiving stretches of real estate imaginable.
Here the intense heat will dehydrate and broil you and your party, with only the water you can carry to keep you all alive and no shade to shield you from the relentless sun that makes you see things that aren’t there, and fear the things that are. The only water found across the forty-mile is bad, filled with alkali and would make you go crazy if you drank it, as many found out.
So why do it now
In February of 1985 I was transferred to NAS Fallon, Nevada and within a short period of time I had acquired the most fantastic buckskin quarter horse that ever lived. I got him from a cousin who had moved on to younger horses for competition and no longer wanted to just "keep him around" without a purpose.
My new horse had a long and odd registered name that seemed completely unnecessary for an old gelding of seventeen. I was quite happy to shorten it to Bob.
He was intelligent and rock steady, trustworthy in every way and a great partner for adventures... not unlike Trigger was for Roy.
I had done my homework and read the stories about the travelers through my new home area before we ever got to Nevada. When I was able to actually ride the local terrain on horseback it became more real to me than ever.
It was during a ride in the mountains east of Fallon with a friend that I decided that I really wanted to experience the path taken by the pioneers in the middle 1800s.
My friend’s responses were skeptical, thinking that I was only joking, until I said that I also wanted to do it in the summer so that I could get "the full effect." At that point he said that I was crazy and that he wanted join me, because it was too good of an adventure to pass up. I guess he was crazy too.
Since we regularly rode in 100F (and higher) heat around the local desert and spent multiple days out in it, the challenge did not seem that great to me. I felt that it was more of a psychological barrier, knowing that 953 people (and thousands of animals) had died along the trail that I planned to ride.
My amigo Bret brought up the subject of ghosts multiple times, something which he attributed to his early Catholic orphanage upbringing where the nuns used fear to keep the kids in their dormitory beds at night.
He asked me if the people who died along the trail would still be out there, forever stuck because they died and were buried without benefit of proper clergy attendance. I told him that he was damaged goods, but promised him that if we met up with any ghosts, I would personally anoint them with whiskey and put them to rest. He didn’t seem completely reassured, but did drop it finally.
We planned for an August ride to try and be authentic, or historically correct. This would put us in the correct month for the heaviest traffic during the peak period, which was during the gold rush years of 1848 to 1865.
Events beyond our control pushed our trip back to a late July time frame as Brett was told that he was going on a military exercise for the entire month of August.
We had a friend willing to shuttle Brett back to our starting point once he had had dropped off our truck and trailer at Ragtown station (on U.S.highway 50 west of Fallon) while I waited with the horses at our starting point near Lovelock, NV. That solved the biggest major stumbling block for any one way transit whether it is by horse or canoe. I would just set up camp at a friendly spot and wait for his return, planning on departing the next morning.
Our supply requirements were meager for a three day trip, and all readily available. The most cumbersome item being the water containers as we had to supply the needs of our horses as well as our own.
Fortunately we rode Nevada horses, well used to the heat and hardy animals. Brett owned a “rehabilitated” wild mustang that while being a bit flighty was certainly one of the toughest mounts to ever strap on a rider.
We felt ready and both had our time off arranged and all logistical needs met. The only challenge to our success was waiting out the time, or so we thought.
Two days before our scheduled departure, Brett’s wife had a miscarriage and nearly lost her life along with losing their baby due to blood loss. She was only three months along but something inside of her had burst and she nearly died in their bathroom alone. A neighbor came by to borrow something (it was base housing and everybody visited) and noticed the mixer running on the kitchen counter. Her quick response and good instincts saved the young woman’s life.
Brett was both devastated and torn at the same time. He knew that his place was with his wife and that is where he would be to console her and share her grief. But, he also felt that he had somehow let me down by having to back out at the last minute. Such was the bond between two veterans and crazed horsemen who rode the desert together; true amigos. I insisted that he stay with his wife telling him that there was no choice to make and that I was good with it.
The only thing left to do was make the ride alone. It made Brett feel better that I didn’t have to cancel, and I was fine with riding alone on old Bob. I knew that he wouldn’t run off on me and he had great trail sense, never making a misstep, even if I wanted him to.
Funny, among all of the options that I entertained when I found out that Brett couldn’t go, not going didn’t ever enter my mind.
Riding the 40-mile desert
I was dropped off southeast of the intersection of I-80 and U.S. 95 on a Tuesday at mid-day… that’s right, high noon. Cue the music…
This was a modification of the original plan which had us starting from the Lovelock, NV fairgrounds and following the original Carson route.
I moved the starting point farther west and decided to ride north and west of the marked route which had become a tourist trail complete with beer cans and gravel roads. That just didn’t say “old west” to me.
Since I was by myself and ready to ride, I asked old Bob if he was ready to go and he shook his head yes. The old guy knew that adventure was in the wind and he was ready too. So I just headed out instead of camping.
We were too near civilization for our liking anyway. The stink of car exhaust fumes was strong in the air; I can only imagine how bad it was for a horse with their more sensitive nose.
I had a map, a compass, and a good sense of direction to guide me and whether in the city or the desert the sun still rose in the east and set in the west, so we were good.
The plan was for me to exit the trail at Ragtown (where the 40-mile desert meets the Carson River) on Friday. I was certain that was a doable objective with time to spare.
Brett (or his friend) would be there with the trailer by four p.m. if I didn’t call him sooner from the bar at Ragtown. Reminder: Cell phones were not carried by everyone in 1985. You had to find a landline and hope that you could get permission to use it for a call. Some people were very fussy about who used their telephone and I was sure to be rather “trail worn” (filthy and smelly) by then.
Into the Fire
The old horse and I ambled west at an easy pace, taking our time to get through the trappings of civilization. Paved road crossings, railroad tracks and Texas gates are all part of the terrain of modern Nevada, but things were not like that in the time that I was about to enter.
Neither were there honking cars and trucks with their well-intentioned, but poorly judged send off for a lone horse and rider. How would it have been if the noise had spooked my horse and I was thrown at the gates of history? Miserable, I would say.
Bob paid less attention to the horns than I did -- his nose already in the wind and deciphering messages. “Were they from ghost riders?” I wondered.
Crossing U.S. Highway 95 was my immediate goal and west of that was where I planned to break from the “published” trail route.
Passing under the last telephone and/or power lines that I hoped to encounter for three days, my eyes transformed them into telegraph wires of the old west. Those singing wires were also absent in the time and place I was riding into.
I must explain that I used topographical maps to lay out my route and modified my path to a compromise between the northern or Truckee route, and the actual southern or Carson route.
I started out following the Truckee route, and then took up my own path in the middle. My journey would not follow either route during the middle as it brought me into contact with too much civilization. Civilization meaning paved roads, railroad tracks, power lines, manufacturing plants, and dump sites. Turning south after my second day I would follow a path to exit at the terminus of the Carson route at Ragtown Station.
The sun was baking us and the air was dry, but we didn’t care. We just rode on.
I didn’t even look back until we had ridden for three hours after crossing the highway because I was afraid that I would see something modern. Likewise I didn’t spend any time gazing upwards lest I see a contrail from a passing jet.
Quiet surrounded us with the beauty of natural balance. Things only made a sound when there was a need for it, like the cry of a hunting hawk or bushes scraping against each other as they tumbled by propelled by the wind.
As any horse person can tell you, especially those who ride in the heat, there is nothing quite like the aroma of hot leather and horse sweat.
It is an intoxicating smell and must be part of nature’s aroma therapy because it brings a great sense of peace and belonging to those who experience it. I have heard the same thing said in a slightly different way by people who do equine therapy for autistic children or disabled adults. Their patients are calmer and happier when in contact with a warm horse than any other time.
Bob shook his head and jerked me back to attention with the reins, which he used to control me, as we approached a gully. He had a lot of patience with me.
Some people have the misguided idea that Nevada deserts are flat like a table top -- they are not. Even when it appears from the edge looking across them that the ground is level, it is an illusion. There are places like old lake bottoms that are mostly even, but they are exceptions, not the rule.
Where we were riding was south and east of Cinnabar Hill and keeping the Hot Springs mountains on our right side
We had a schedule to keep, but nothing that required me to be foolish, and I had found that not trusting this old horse fell into that category.
Bob came to an abrupt stop and then stood calmly, as I scanned the terrain trying to identify what upset my partner.
What was obvious to him was still hidden from me, so I nudged him to go forward and down the slope of the gully. The big horse wheeled sideways and turned a complete circle before stopping again.
I tried harder to spot what it was that had him uncooperative but all I could see was brush, rocks and sand. The slope was fairly gentle for a human, which meant it was nothing for a four legged powerhouse to handle.
Fortunately I listened to the inner voice which told me to trust my horse and not be impatient. I asked him to back up to where I could grab a piece of dry brush without dismounting and broke a chunk off of it.
Riding back up to where Bob refused to go farther I stopped him and held the reins in check as I flung the piece of brushwood ahead of us into the gully.
The sound that immediately arose from the brush was like a thousand angry bees, but those weren’t bees.
My old horse had kept us from riding into a colony of western diamondback rattlesnakes that were resting in the shade of a couple of big sagebrush plants on either side of the trail we were riding. It would have been disastrous for us to have stepped into that arena.
The trail was the easiest path through the terrain, but my horse was willing to find another way. I must have nearly exasperated his patience as he worked to make me understand what was wrong. Humans can be so dense at times.
As we traveled into the setting sun my thoughts were everywhere at once as history was coming alive in my presence.
The ground still showed the scars of human crossing as evidenced by the ruts and grooves made by the metal rims of hundreds of wagon wheels cutting into the rock and hard ground as the wagons passed through.
A perfect sameness of construction by hard working wagon builders made each successive wagon wheel mark the earth in the identical place of the one that went before it. Those marks became tracks, which became grooves, and then ruts as the seasons applied their modifications of wind, cold, and water.
I found places where it was still obvious that wagon after wagon got stuck. High spots that showed grooves in the middle where the gear under the wagon drug across it.
Knowing that the temperature drops significantly when the sun goes down, I located a nice spot out of the wind and where there was enough dead brush to gather up for a small cook fire and stopped about thirty minutes before sunset.
Taking a cue from my steed I rode him completely around the planned camp site to check for problems before I stopped him to dismount. Finding no objections from my wise four legged companion I called a halt to the day.
Unpacking a horse is far easier than unloading most cars I have owned. The gear is all tied to the saddle. You can just dump it all at once if necessary, but I liked things a bit more organized.
I stepped off and walked around for a minute or two to make my legs work again and then unloaded the water containers. Once they were down I loosened the cinch strap.
This may sound funny, but I asked Bob if he wanted to drink from a bottle or my hat. He lifted his head up and curled his lip back telling me he wanted the bottle.
The old boy had learned before I ever got him to drink anything that a human had in a bottle, whether it was beer, Pepsi or water. He would put his mouth over the bottle and lift his head up causing the liquid to pour down his throat. Then he would drop the bottle at your feet.
He had stolen many a drink from unsuspecting cowboys or party attendees who sat their drink down where he could reach it. He was incorrigible! We found out the hard way that he doesn’t handle tequila well after he got drunk and fell into the water trough. It is tough to fish twelve hundred pounds of limp horse out of a slippery tank.
I did bring a half pint bottle of whiskey along for the ride, but had snuck it into a saddle bag when Bob wasn’t looking. I hadn’t even broken the seal on it so I didn’t think that he could smell it.
I gave the horse a gallon of water, refilling the bottle repeatedly until he was done. The big guy didn’t spill a drop for which I was grateful -- we didn’t have water to waste.
If you are curious, had he wanted to drink from my cowboy hat, (which he would indicate by holding his head down) I would have poured water into it for him to suck back out, much as you would fill a pan or bucket. A good felt cowboy hat will hold water and what is absorbed by the material will then help cool the wearer’s head as it evaporates. I think the bottle method makes the most out of the water available unless “butter lips” drops a bottle and it spills. He rarely spilled anything, especially beer.
After watering the horse, I drank my share of water and then took the bedroll and saddle bags off the saddle and finally removed the saddle itself.
Before I did any camp set up I got his brush and gave Bob a good grooming and made sure that he didn’t have any rub spots or injuries anywhere on his body. If I was hurt we could still get home fine, but if the big guy wasn’t OK, we both had a serious problem.
My buckskin buddy was in fine shape and tossing his head around wanting his grain treat that he always got after a grooming. It was a good thing that I had packed some or I might have had a mutiny on my hands.
My little camp fire was the only light visible other than the moon and stars and its warmth was very welcome as the night fell pulling its cold blanket over us.
I gave Bob one of the grain and hay packets that I had prepared before the trip and he was quite happy with it. I wrapped the others back up in the tarp and secured the bundle inside a saddle bag. If I had forgotten to do so that crafty old horse would have gotten into the bundle and eaten all of the grain out of it.
There was no worry about my buddy taking off on me, we had done several overnight trips and he always stayed close. Bob actually liked human company. Had Brett come along we would have had to hobble and put a long rope on his nag, because she would take off at the first opportunity. That mare might have been saddle broke, but she was still a mustang at heart.
Once my responsibilities for my mount were handled, I heated up a can of beans and got out a ration of beef jerky for my dinner.
I had placed my wrist watch inside a saddlebag when I started the ride and thought about seeing what time it was. I resisted the brief curiosity and just told myself to go with the natural flow of things. It was dark, so I did what you do at night and didn’t place artificial restrictions on myself. It was a good choice.
Bob grazed closer and made little horse sounds as I ate my beans and jerky and watched the moon ride across the sky. His nickering was comforting because I knew that he was talking to me, his friend. If there had been another horse around I wouldn’t have been as sure.
I had gathered enough firewood to cook my beans and take a little chill off before I crawled inside my bedroll, and not much more. As the fire died down, the darkness became more complete and gradually my eyes adjusted to the moonlight.
This had to be pretty much what the settlers saw as they camped for the night, as I doubt that they would have had much more firewood than what I gathered up. The difference in what they could gather as a group would have also been consumed at a higher rate with more fires and people to cook for.
Some of the groups had tried to cross the desert during the cool hours of darkness when they happened to arrive during times of the full moon, but found that staying in one spot during the heat of the day didn’t work well either.
I thought that I could see quite well as I walked a little ways from the fire to relieve myself, and nearly fell in a hole. Depth perception was a bit tricky by moonlight. I swear that old horse laughed at me when I stumbled again while walking back to my bedroll.
My head had barely hit my saddle (which I used for a pillow) and I was out. Sometime during the night I awoke to the sound of my horse nickering close to my head and opened my eyes.
Bob was standing still just a few feet beyond my head and facing me. He shook his head up and down a couple of times and snorted. I caught movement out of the corner of my eye and turned to see a coyote scampering away. We had a visitor!
There was really nothing to worry about as both Bob and I were too big for a coyote to consider attacking. I had eaten all of my beans and jerky but the pan was still sitting by the glowing embers of the fire. That was undoubtedly the item of interest for our furry friend. There was nothing that could be gotten into or pilfered so I wasn’t worried.
As it was pretty chilly and Bob wasn’t upset, I just went back to sleep, trusting my horse to keep watch.
Getting up with the rising sun I inspected the ground around my little camp and saw that the coyote had indeed been everywhere. There were tracks all around my bedroll and the gear. It had licked my pan clean and pooped right by where I nearly fell in the hole during my stroll.
It was probably marking my scent with its own, a ranger friend told me later. There hadn’t been many humans (if any) in its neighborhood during that coyote’s lifetime and it may have been asserting territorial dominance.
I got Bob a drink of water and then saddled him up to get ready for the day.
It was going to be my longest and hardest day in the saddle and I was being careful to place the saddle blanket just right and position the saddle so that it was least likely to cause the big horse any discomfort.
I didn’t see Bob as just a beast of burden or creature destined to serve me, but as my friend and companion on this journey. He was doing all of the work while I got to sight see from the great vantage point of his mighty back. The least that I could do was make sure that I wasn’t causing him pain while he did his part.
When all was loaded and settled I gave the buckskin beauty half of an apple and I tried to eat the other half myself before stepping up onto his back. I wasn’t quick enough and the big mooch begged half of what I had left and took it from my mouth. Who could say no to such a nice horse?
Bob had not had a bit in his mouth since shortly after I got him. I used a hackamore bridle and could honestly have just used his halter. I did use the halter sometimes just to freak other riders out. This was the most cooperative horse that I had ever had the pleasure of knowing.
Much of the time I directed him by weight shifts or knee pressure and that was pretty much just fine tuning. He seemed to know where to go instinctively. At seventeen he had seen an awful lot of trails and had a good idea of what his human wanted. He was kind to me and kept me from making mistakes most of the time.
As we rode into the day it got progressively warmer and the ground seemed to really blast the heat back up at us. I tried to avoid the glaring white alkali patches as much as possible.
Bob settled into a plodding walk that kept us going, but used as little energy as possible.
While traveling along I spotted pieces of rusted iron protruding from the sand that would have been barrel hoops on the water barrels carried on the side of the Conestoga wagons. It appeared that the wind had uncovered the metal bones of the skeleton of a wagon.
Riding over to it I dismounted and fetched a bottle of water for my horse as I poked around.
I used a stick to move the iron, not daring to touch history. I didn’t think that I would disturb a ghost as my friend Brett would have said, but rather didn’t want to break the spell and have it disappear somehow.
Lying buried just under the shifting sand were the rims that bound and protected the great wheels of the wagon. I was now sure; this was the grave of a family’s hope. All that they owned and carried with them across the country had ended here.
If they went on it was with what few possessions they could carry on their backs, as they would not ask another family to risk everything they had by taking on more of a load in their wagon.
Perhaps it was the heat, or maybe my imagination wanting to fill in the blanks, but I began to visualize the wagon and the oxen whose skulls were at the west end of that arrangement of relics.
I could nearly hear the father telling his wife and children that the oxen were done for and to gather what food and water they could carry. The mother crying over the last few things that meant home sitting in that abandoned wagon as she had to gather the strength and courage to force her sick child to walk beside a wagon in as much shade as there was to be for days. Theirs would be a strained relationship with the others now, as everyone struggled to stay alive on the meager resources remaining.
The wind and sand had kept this piece of history buried for over one hundred years and uncovered it in time for me to see and feel the lives represented there. Was it a gift for me, or merely a reminder of just how frail we adventurous human beings are?
There were round holes in the oxen skulls indicating that the owner was a compassionate person who had to put an end to his animals suffering, even as his own was getting worse.
I stopped poking around at that point, fearing that I would find a human skull also possibly bearing a round hole in it. I didn’t want to experience that much of his pain.
I took no souvenirs and made sure that everything was exactly as I found it. This was a place worthy of respect and not deserving to be looted or exploited.
Bob had been standing quietly where he dropped his empty bottle and when I bent over to pick it up he shoved me with his nose. Horse language for “lighten up dude!” He was very pleased with himself and raised his head up high and curled his lip back and then nodded his head “yes” a couple of times. What a character!
Back in the saddle again I took a good look around and checked my landmarks to make sure that we were going the right way. Everything was where it should be so we rode on.
Seven years earlier I had crossed a section of the Sahara desert on a camel with Tuareg tribesmen. I had been to the timeless ocean of sand and endured it without any feeling of doom, but had learned a great respect for the forces of nature.
I had made a point of going on long rides of several hours duration every time the mercury went above 100F. Twice Brett and I did eight hour rides with the temperature between 105F and 110F. We had done several three day rides in the months preceding this undertaking so I felt well prepared for the desert.
There is quite a difference between being out in the heat for eight hours and never getting off of the frying pan for days at a time. I was truly glad that I had done the preparation work to condition myself, but I was also getting an education about alkali hardpans. They brought an element to the mixture that other desert environments did not.
The reflected heat was only part of the problem, the white hardpan also reflected the intense light back into your eyes causing them to burn and hurt.
A hot, dry wind teased you into almost calling it a breeze, but it was really just a demon sucking moisture from your over heated skin and dehydrating you faster.
Fine alkali particulate was picked up by the hot air and whisked into every opening of your body and coated everything that traveled through it. The powder was caustic to breathe and furthered the problems with our eyes.
Even though I was riding in the same desert, with all of the environmental conditions that the settlers faced, it was different.
I had the security of knowing exactly where I was, what lie ahead, and that safety and comfort were close at hand. The seemingly infinite alkali hardpan stretching out ahead of me that broke the hearts of every parent forcing their children to march forward like lemmings going towards a cliff, had an end and I knew that.
Bob snorted and tossed his head as a noise got louder and suddenly a U.S. Navy F-14 (fighter jet) screamed over us northbound at about 200 feet elevation. Thankfully, my horse had seen many such sights and sounds and was not spooked, or impressed I dare say. That would not have been a problem in 1849.
We pushed on until nearly sundown in an effort to find a spot that wasn’t on the alkali pan. As we were about to give up and just make do with a dusty cold camp we regained the low hills and found a suitable place.
A quick check of my terrain markers proved that we were about at the place where we would turn south.
As I went through the routine of caring for my horse and preparing my camp I thought about my decision to abandon the historical accuracy of the established trail route.
It was a conscious choice to forgo what certainly would have provided more “relic” sightings and secured the claim of riding the Carson or Truckee trail. I chose instead the more experiential and alone path that would insulate me as much as possible from the modern world. I wanted to feel what the settler crossing that inhospitable desert felt.
But again, the knowledge that I was riding in an area bordered on all sides by paved highways, (I-80, U.S. Highways 95 & 50) made me feel like I was somehow cheating. I finally decided that the threat and possibility of death was just as real in 1985 as it was in 1849.
That night as Bob munched on his hay and grain and I cooked my beans and jerky over a sagebrush fire the coyotes sang us songs, much as their ancestors did when thousands of white people wandered about in their desert. I would imagine that the settlers provided many unintentional meals for the carnivores of the region.
I had been careful to keep my skin covered against the ravages on the sun and even put sun block on Bob’s nose and ears. Since I had extra water I made a point of washing his eyes and nose out each evening to remove as much alkali as possible. He didn’t mind the extra attention, as long as I kept my fingers out of his ears --he was ticklish.
As tired as I was, sleep eluded me knowing that I was going to leave the adventure behind in a couple of days. I wondered if I had been true enough to the real experience to give it an honest test.
My horse was probably healthier and I had the luxury of better water containers which allowed for safe, clean water for both of us. In the old days the horse would have suffered the shortage of water more than its rider with his canteen.
My bedroll was the same, two blankets and a poncho in case of bad weather. Our food was similar, albeit much fresher. I had a better map for sure, but the same type of compass (no electronic devices.)
I was satisfied that I was doing the best that I could short of getting a wagon and some oxen in St. Joseph, MO and setting off walking. Even then I would have better shoes and more knowledge of the route and terrain. Yep, I was good.
That bit of self-examination was all it took and I was out, dreaming of having to physically help turn wagon wheels to get them over a hill while the oxen struggled.
Bob woke me early the next morning before the sun was even up by nosing the saddle bag under my shoulder. He wanted a snack and was tired of waiting for me to get it. I grumbled at him to go away but he persisted and I gave up. It wouldn’t hurt anything to make some miles early in the day, before the mercury topped the century mark again.
The night before, I had pulled off my Tony Lama boots (which fit me so well and were soft and comfortable), because I wanted to check my feet. I did have some redness on the inside of my arch where I was rubbing against the stirrup, so I changed to my thicker pair of socks and decided to leave the boots off for the night.
In the morning when I crawled out of my blankets I started to just pull my boot on when the voice in my head said, “Check you boot first.” It was a good thing that I did, as a little pale scorpion about three inches long was inside of it. That wouldn’t have turned out well as I am allergic to bee sting and have no idea what that scorpion venom would do to me.
That brought about thoughts of what would old Bob do if I had to tie myself in the saddle and tell him to go home. Would he go back the way we came? That would be fatal. Would he smell humans/civilization south of us and go there? No way of knowing.
With the rising sun on my left I headed my trusty steed south towards the general area of our destination.
I realized at that point that I was hours ahead of our original plan as I had started almost a day’s ride west of the first starting point, and on Tuesday afternoon instead of Wednesday morning. My modification to the path had certainly absorbed some of that, but I wasn’t sure how much. I knew that I would have to cross the Southern Pacific railroad tracks on my way south and Ragtown was a day’s ride from there, if I hit the right spot. Horses walk at about three miles per hour on flat ground, less in sand or hilly terrain.
Bob and I made the decision (he didn’t say no) to camp on the south side of the railroad tracks, whatever time we got there. That way we would arrive as close to the planned pick up time as possible.
I was a little concerned about my route change possibly taking me to locked gates on the west side of Soda Lake, but I figured that I could find a way through. Even if I had to ride west a little ways to Trento Lane, I could still make it on time.
Riding in mid-day sun the terrain was alternately low hills and sand dunes, which made progress slower than anticipated, and heated my horse up more as he worked harder.
As I topped a hill I could see a freight train westbound in the distance going across our horizon from left to right. I adjusted our direction slightly and urged my horse on.
Those tracks seemed close, but after riding for three hours I learned that I had been fooled by the desert, much as the settlers who struggled along trying to wish their way to water were.
My chosen trail had now generally rejoined the path of the Carson route, as evidenced by ruts and occasional sightings of metal pieces. There were no complete hoops or wagon rims in view and the fragments of bones and skulls were more likely to be modern cattle that wandered too far out in the free “open range” area.
To my dismay, evidence of modern humans began to be seen in the form of trash and destruction. Dirt bike tracks went right over what would have been wagon or possessions “graves,” and a cow skull was propped up and had multiple bullet holes in it from a small caliber weapon.
Beer cans, bottles, and McDonald’s bags and cups were piled up with rocks on them, like that made it alright to leave them behind. I realize that the settlers did the same thing, shedding what they could no longer use as they traveled, but this seemed somehow more offensive. These people had a choice and knew better.
When we got to the railroad tracks we stopped and sat for a few minutes, taking in the sight. I wondered what sensations or thoughts that those long strips of iron caused the Native Americans that came upon them. They seemed vastly out of place to me after riding through the open desert for a few days and I knew what they were.
Crossing over to the other side I resisted the strange urge to dismount and place my ear on the rail to see if I could hear the train coming. Too many movies and stories for me I guess.
Bob tossed his head around indicating irritation, which seemed to be caused by a smell coming from a pile of discarded, broken railroad ties. It was a nasty, acrid stink which got worse as we followed a path past them.
The chunks of creosote soaked timbers were stacked roughly into a pyramid shape and had been set on fire in the not too distant past. There was no smoke visible but the fire smell was still very strong.
Horses in general do not like fire or the smell of smoke, but Bob was pretty tolerant of campfires and such. He definitely didn’t like what he smelled from that pyre.
Once again, the senses and whatever you want to call it, wisdom, intuition, etc, of my horse proved superior.
Nailed to the back of the stack was a charred small animal body arranged in a crucifix position and wearing a chain collar. I did not ride any closer so I don’t know what it was for sure. I let Bob have his head and we quickly departed the area, this was not how I wanted to end my ride.
For the curious, yes I did report what I saw to the county sheriff’s department when I got home, but I seriously doubt that they did anything with the information.
Finding a convenient spot out of range of the odor, I stopped my horse and then rode in a circle to be sure that we had a safe camping spot. I was truly unsettled by what I had seen and not sure that I was ready to be among human beings again.
Working quickly, I unloaded the gear and stripped the saddle off of Bob and arranged it all in my usual set up. I gave him water and then got out my hammer and checked his shoes, tightening up a couple of nails and picking a rock out of one hoof. I was agitated and upset for the first time in days.
I finally figured out that for the first time on this ride I was nervous. Facing death from heat stroke, dehydration, rattlesnake bite, or being lost and wandering the desert didn’t faze me.
What I would do if I caught someone torturing an animal worried me, because I was ready to return the favor. The motorcycle and ATV tracks were fresh and followed the trail I was riding. I did make a point of riding off the trail to the west for several minutes before stopping.
I didn’t bother with building a fire that night and just cold camped. Bob didn’t care, he likes his grain and hay raw anyway.
The stars were out but there was a faint glow in the sky both to the southeast and southwest where humans had big lights polluting the night. I missed the blackness of the desert sky from the previous camps.
I tried to think about the cool things that I had seen and the people who had walked and ridden where I did. I reminded myself that they were seeking a better life and new beginnings in places that they had only heard about.
We forget that the people who made this journey and populated our area only had the descriptions written by others to go on. There was no TV, no radio, and generally no pictures unless they were painted, for them to get information from.
Their journey was based upon trust and the desire to give their families something more. There had to be a fair amount of a sense of adventure too though, the trek would be too daunting without that spark to start them on their way.
Many of the journal entries that I read while studying for this trip mentioned a similar sentiment. If they had known what it would cost them in lives lost and precious parts of their past cast aside in order to survive, they would have stayed in Indiana, or Ohio, or Pennsylvania, etc.
They knew before they left home that there would be hardships, but could not have imagined the suffering they would endure, and die from. By the time that they knew it was too late to stop, they had to push on or die where they stood.
The settlers who made it through the 40-mile desert had walked through Hell and faced only the crossing of mountains before they reached the Promised Land. The place where supposedly chunks of gold as big as cannon balls fairly rolled down the stream beds and anything that hit the ground would sprout and grow on the spot.
All of those thoughts lasted about as long as it took to read them here and then I just wrapped my blanket tighter and waited for sleep. I tossed and turned for what seemed like hours.
I had fallen asleep and was startled awake by Bob snorting in my ear as a freight train rumbled by and rattled and creaked louder than I would have thought possible. The stillness of the chilled night air carried the sound really well.
The old horse didn’t know about trains, but he did know me, I was his problem solver. I was hoping that he wasn’t going to crawl into my blankets with me for protection.
I started to nod off again and the train gave a blast on his horn, for what reason I didn’t know, and that sudden sound jerked me upright. OK, so now I was even with Bob, the train spooked me too.
As I sat there trying to gather my wits, I happened to look towards the tracks and sitting about ten feet away from me was a coyote. My eyes were well adjusted to the night and I have better than average night vision anyway, so there was no doubt about what I was looking at.
The critter was sitting on his haunches like a dog and very calmly studying me, possibly to see if I was a threat, or if I possessed something edible in my gear. For several minutes we maintained this calm mutual posture until getting bored, the coyote stood up, stretched, and wandered back towards the tracks disappearing into the night. A few minutes later I could hear the coyote pack calling to each other as they hunted through the brush.
I never felt threatened in any way and was kind of feeling privileged that this creature chose to spend some time with me. They are certainly well versed in humans and the trouble we bring, and know also that many a meal can be found where we exist. It was a cool experience.
Dawn came and I was in the saddle when the golden orb rose above the eastern horizon. I had enough left to the ride that I wanted to get an early start and do as much as I could early in the day.
I anticipated that there would be barking dogs, fence problems, and traffic not willing to be kind around horses. It used to be that everyone slowed down and was cautious about spooking horses, but that wasn’t true all of the time any more. More than once I had someone honk their horn, seemingly as if to intentionally spook the horse and cause a bucking session.
Old Bob was rock steady though and normally wouldn’t spook on me. I on the other hand, would go ballistic on people who tried such stupid things. I usually carried car lug nuts in my jacket or shirt pocket to throw at windshields of people who did such things. I didn’t bring any lug nuts with me on that ride, but I bet that a can of beans would work just as well!
There were only minor incidents and I held my temper and just focused on getting to Ragtown.
By noon I was riding around the west side of Big Soda Lake, which is the water filled tip of an ancient volcano. It was mentioned in many settlers journals and I know the place well.
For a couple of miles I had a three dog escort running along beside us. Not barking or causing problems, they just thought that it was their job to escort us through. When I reached a fence line with an opening and no gate the dogs stopped and stared at us for a while and then turned and ran back the way we came. For some reason I felt compelled to wave goodbye to them. They didn’t wave back, unless tails count.
We were now back in sight of dwellings and each one had one or more barking dogs which would come out and challenge us. Only once did I have any concern which was when a trio of full grown Rottweilers came after us and one snapped at my boot.
It was a mistake soon rectified as the huge dog took its eye off of my old horse and Bob nailed it with a rear hoof. The dogs retreated back to their house at a run after their yelping partner and caused no more trouble. The big horse had dealt with many a dog and several coyotes in his day. He wasn’t afraid of any of them. Personally I was glad that I was sitting high up on his back as I didn’t want any part of three angry Rottweilers from down at their level.
The rest of the ride down the side of the paved road was long but uneventful. Cars slowed down or gave me a wide berth, usually both. I waved at everyone who did so to let them know that I appreciated the gesture. Most of them waved back.
I got to U.S. Highway 50 by two in the afternoon and waited a couple of minutes for a long enough break in traffic to cross it safely. I knew that I was being over cautious but I didn’t want to end my journey with a horse slipping on pavement or doing something unexpected.
If they were going to do something bizarre, it was always at the worst possible moment -- it was an unwritten Murphy’s Law of “horsedom.” The transition couldn’t have gone any better if we had a kindergarten crossing guard lady with her big red stop sign protecting us.
The ride west along the south side of U.S. Highway 50 was easy and calm, like a stroll in the park. Bob just ambled along like we didn’t have a care in the world and he hadn’t just traversed some of the most feared terrain on the continent.
Brett and his friend were both waiting for us and they had even arranged to use a garden hose to give Bob a drink and a quick wash down, both of which he loved.
When they were done he proceeded to roll in the mud that they had just made and then he was really happy. He was a muddy mess, but he was happy, so I didn’t care.
All of the gear was packed into the back of the truck and all I had left to do was load the horse, which I was about to do when my friend stopped me.
Brett said that his friend Russ didn’t believe that I could put the big buckskin into the trailer without touching him. Brett knew better so I knew that he was setting his pal up to be taken.
I couldn’t resist the chance to play with the new member of our group so I told him that I would wager ten dollars that I could load the horse without touching him. His eyes lit up and I knew that I had him.
I said, “I tell you what, for twenty dollars I will take him across the parking lot and turn my back, and put him in the trailer. Is it a deal?”
Russ was all over that, he didn’t know what the trick could be, but just in case he asked, “Brett can’t touch him either, right?” To which I agreed and we each gave Brett twenty dollar bills to hold.
Bob and I walked across the lot to the trailer and then turned and walked to the other side of the big sand parking area. I flipped his lead rope up over his back and asked Russ if he was ready. He said that he was and squared his shoulders like he was about to play football or something.
I said in calm voice, “Bob, get in the trailer.” The big horse turned around walked over to the trailer and stepped up inside like he was on automatic.
Russ just stood there with his mouth hanging open causing Brett to nearly fall on the ground laughing.
Bob had been raised eating his meals in a horse trailer nearly every day of his young life and many more since I had him. A horse trailer was his favorite place in the world because it always meant food to him. It was a fact that he had a flake of hay, a cup of grain, and an apple waiting for him in the feed bin at the front of that trailer. I had asked Brett to make sure that he would have food waiting for him after our hard ride.
On the ride back it dawned on Russ that Brett had known that Bob would load like that and he had been taken for twenty dollars. I told him, “don’t think of it as being out twenty bucks, just think of it as Russ buys the beer!” He was much happier with that idea.