“Expect to find the worst desert you ever saw and then find it worse than you expected.” — John Wood, 1850 Diary
From the late 1840s to the late 1860s, travelers on the Emigrant Trail through Nevada, also known as the Central Overland Trail, endured a months-long journey through often inhospitable terrain in their quest to reach California.
By all accounts, the worst part of the trip was the stretch of barren, alkali wasteland located west of today’s community of Lovelock, which was known as the Forty Mile Desert.
The seemingly endless desert trek began just past the Humboldt Sink, where the Humboldt River flowed into a dry lakebed. At this point emigrants had two choices; continue west across the desert to reach the Truckee River or head southwest, across the desert until they encountered the Carson River (around the location of the area that is now known as Ragtown).
Regardless of the route, in between were forty miles of salt flats with little grass — and very little water.
In dozens of accounts of the time, travelers wrote extensively of the challenges. They wrote of blistering heat during the day, animals — and people — dying of thirst, and of often having to discard nearly every possession along the way.
To minimize the difficulties, most waited until early evening to depart and continued through the night in order to avoid the daytime heat. And, because the trip took several days, they would attempt to rest and sleep during the heat of the day.
Compounding the situation was the fact that most travelers had to wait until late spring and early summer to begin their trek from Missouri to California to take advantage of warmer and better traveling weather, so they typically arrived at the desert in August or September.
Additionally, they had just completed more than 300 miles of following the winding Humboldt River across Nevada, which offered poor water and, as the wagon trains increased, fewer places with good grasslands for animals.
By the time that most of the travelers and their surviving animals reached the desert, both were stressed out and in poor physical condition.
In his diary, emigrant John Wood captured the mood of many travelers when he wrote, “All are preparing and dreading to cross, by the worst desert we have met yet. They, perhaps, would not mind it, and neither would I, if we had plenty to eat; but here are hundreds already lamenting their anticipated death, and suffering on the burning plain.”
Even famed writer Mark Twain, who crossed the desert in 1861 via stagecoach, noted, “It was a dreary pull and a long and thirsty one, for we had no water. From one extremity of this desert to the other, the road was white with the bones of oxen and horses. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that we could have walked the forty miles and set our feet on a bone at every step!”
According to an historical marker located at the edge of the Forty Mile Desert (at the Interstate 80 Rest Area at its intersection with U.S. Highway 95), a survey in 1850 indicated that even that early in its usage the routes had resulted in 1,061 dead mules, almost 5,000 horses, 3,750 cattle, and 953 graves.
One of the best ways to view the Forty Mile Desert is by traveling on U.S. 95, after it branches south from Interstate 80 (about 17 miles west of Lovelock). Directly to the west of the highway are the sandy, alkali flats that once challenged so many travelers.
If you pull off on one of the handful of dirt roads that lead into the desert and park, you can (once the road traffic disperses) hear the whistling wind across the flats and imagine what it must have been like to have to trudge across this forsaken landscape, dreaming of a better life at the end of your journey.
A good place to learn more about the Forty Mile Desert is the Churchill County Museum and Archives (http://ccmuseum.org/) in Fallon, which has a nice display of artifacts that have been found in the desert.
Additionally, a good book with information about the desert is Harold Curran’s “Fearful Crossing,” available at many local bookstores or online.
Rich Moreno writes about the places and people that make Nevada special.