Rarely do I get invited on rides I have been itching to do. Over the last few years Pete Rissler has been sharing his research of the Fortymile Desert and the options the California-bound emigrants of the 1800’s faced when making their journey west. With the conveniences of modern travel it is impossible to imagine the despair of these early settlers that led to them abandoning their livestock and worldly possessions to ensure their survival. The historical markers along with traveling in the late summer heat aided our imaginations. And travel by bicycle does make you work for it.
The route we followed started at the crossroads of the California Trail where those who went right followed the Truckee Route and those who went left followed the Carson. Neither choice seem good in August heat, with a young family and all your possessions in a covered wagon being pulled by oxen or mules. From where we stood on the Humboldt Bar both options looked hopeless. There is no green on the horizon, nothing to indicate water or feed for livestock.
First we followed the bar to the cut engineered by the railroad. The Humboldt Bar (Dike) truly is a bazaar feature. As a natural damn of pebbles, clay and sand it stretches from the Trinity Range in the north to the West Humboldt Range in the south. In conjunction with the natural constriction of the valley the bar forms the west boundary of the Humboldt Sink. The cut made by the railway really shows what a feature of the landscape the Humboldt Dike really is.
The next break in the bar is at the Lower Humboldt Drain. This is a historic crossing from the 1800’s still has remains of the bridge and ranch out buildings that were evident on historic maps. Fortunately the drain was dry to the northwest and we could cross and backtrack to the Carson River Route. We cruised along the West Humboldt Range and Mopung Hills to the Humboldt Double Wells.
We crossed US 95 and followed the railroad south. Pete showed me a beehive charcoal oven. It was the first I had seen in person. Continuing south we missed a jog to the west. According to the approximate historic route on the USGS topo we should come across two historical markers along the base of the Hot Springs Mountains. The ability to see our route overlayed on a variety of maps is a great tool with Ride with GPS for making future plans. Now I want to go back to ride east along the West Humboldt Range to the Lovelock Caves, Ocala Indian Caves, and make this correction to our route following the Carson River Route. The USGS map indicates historical markers so that will be a fun treasure hunt. At some point the road got soft enough that we opted for the highway.
We crossed the Humboldt Slough an turned off onto the CRR. Route finding in the desert is no easy task. There are few signs to suggest you are on route. Pete’s route finding was fantastic. There were star shaped crossroads that could lead you nowhere. But there you are. It looks like if navigable we could correct our route and add 8 miles of Emigrant Trail to this project. We passed three more marker/monuments in this section to Upsal Hogback, a prominent geological feature in the otherwise flat desert.
The next feature we skirted was a pond created by the Newlands Reclamation Project under President Teddy Roosevelt, “a utilitarian conservationist who believed our natural resources should be used not wasted,” Truckee-Carson Irrigation District website. I had never heard this term used and I thought, what ever makes you feel better about yourself. The pond covers a short section of the route. But now we were approaching outer-Fallon. Now every couple of minutes we were passing signs for the CRR. We dropped into a neighborhood and started zig-zagging our way to Highway 50.
Our final marker was a real beauty! At Ragtown Crossing is a pair of wagon wheels set in a concrete marker dedicated to the pioneers who crossed the Fortymile desert. Ragtown was not a town at all but a point on the Carson River where the emigrants spread their laundry to dry. Such great imagery! But Pete and I had completed our crossing of the Fortymile Desert. It wasn’t easy. But we will repeat the route to try to include the missed portions. Thanks to the groups who research these emigrant trails and the wide-open public lands we can follow these historic routes as a part of our own explorations.
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