ELKO, Nev. —
“Some people think Nevada is just one big desert," Denny Stanhope said. “That's fine. Let 'em think that way. We know different."
Apologies to my friend Stanhope, but Nevada pretty much IS just one big desert.
From one end to the other — from Lake Tahoe to the salt flats of western Utah, from the Oregon-Idaho border country south nearly to the Grand Canyon — the sparsely populated state of Nevada is the poster child for the Great Basin.
This is an expanse where rivers are born merely to die. Natural highland springs nurture streams such as the Humboldt, the Reese and the White, which then irrigate the grazing country of lower elevations before disappearing into sand and alkali far from any ocean.
Back in the 1840s and '50s, pioneer wagon trains en route to California gold found this desert to be the most daunting episode of their westward journey. Some abandoned their wagons here and continued by foot and oxcart. Others, such as the ill-fated Donner Party of 1846, were misled by trailblazers into taking “shortcuts" that added weeks to their journey. Today the graves of travelers, marked and unmarked, stand beside trailside flotsam that was long ago jettisoned.
What the pioneers didn't know is that there is more gold in these high-desert basins than was ever found in California. Today, with gold valued at about $1,800 an ounce, northeastern Nevada is the leading producer of gold in the United States, and is by some estimations No. 4 in the world after Australia, Russia and South Africa.
To be sure, there is beauty in the Nevada desert, especially in its mountains — more than 300 short north-south chains, many with peaks over 10,000 feet, divide the basin country into one rangeland after another.
It is here that Denny Stanhope feels most at home. A fourth-generation Nevadan, he spends weeks of his retirement each summer wandering alpine trails near his Wells home, marveling in the seasonal flush of wildflowers, snacking on berries from streamside bushes, smiling at the mule deer and bighorn sheep that watch him pass, and camping beside lakes named for his forbears.
He is not alone in his pride for his native state. Wherever I traveled in northern Nevada last month, I encountered residents who embrace their semi-arid homeland with a fervor I have rarely seen in more heavily populated areas.
I made my base in Elko, Nevada's largest community east of Reno and north of Las Vegas. A city of about 18,000 people, its area population is nearer to 40,000, including such suburbs as rapidly growing Spring Creek.
Founded on the Humboldt River as a railroad work camp in late 1868 when the transcontinental line was being built, Elko grew as a center for gold shipments in the 1880s.
But its population soon dwindled, and only in the last 30 years has it doubled in size.
Located on Interstate 80 some three hours' drive from Salt Lake City, 4½ hours' drive from Reno, the city doesn't position itself as a gaming destination. There are ample casinos, of course, as permitted by Nevada state law; I roosted in the Red Lion Hotel & Casino, which happens to be the only casino among the 47 hotels of the Spokane-based group.
There are also several bordellos. A highly visible quartet of these establishments cluster together barely a block from Elko's most popular Basque restaurant, The Star Hotel. But these are not the city's claim to fame.
Instead, Elko is proud of its lengthy roster of festivals, including the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in January, the National Basque Festival in July and the Ruby Mountain Balloon Festival in September.
Although smoke drifting south from Idaho forest fires affected visibility during this year's balloon fest, I was pleased to join an early morning launch with balloon pilot Bryan Hill of Page, Ariz., allowing me an aerial perspective of the city as we drifted above the rooftops.
We took off from the city's Main Park beside the convention center, barely a block from Elko's Northeastern Nevada Museum. The museum added an entire wing in 1999 to house the collection of big-game hunter Jack Wanamaker, who donated more than 300 mounted animals from five continents. But it's the other side of the building that I find more interesting.
Here I found display case after case of artifacts from Elko's colorful history, from the region's railroad days and its pioneer gold-mining settlements. I found my favorite items near the gun exhibits — clogs designed with hooves on the soles. They were worn by the notorious rustler “Crazy Tex" Hazelwood, who in the late 1920s eluded ranchers and law-enforcement officials because they could never find any boot prints when cattle were stolen.
From this museum, the Newmont Mining Co. offers half-day tours of its underground gold mines, once a month from April to October. I would consider a return visit to Elko simply to join one of these tours.
The original residents of the Humboldt River region were nomadic Shoshone Indians. Their first encounter with white Europeans may have come in late 1828, when Peter Skene Ogden of the Hudson's Bay Co. led an expedition of fur trappers through the region.
According to Gary Koy, supervisory park ranger for the California National Historic Trail Interpretive Center, the flood of immigrants began in 1841 with the Bidwell-Bartlesby Party. These pioneers struggled through the desert after abandoning their wagons near the Utah border.
The trickle of traffic was slow until 1849, after news of the gold discovery in the Sierra foothills had made its way back to the East Coast. But by 1869, when the railroad began to operate, an estimated 250,000 travelers had crossed through northern Nevada on what became known as the California Trail. Most of them were middle-class families, as poor people couldn't afford the investment in travel, while the rich had no need to leave their comfortable homes.
Most emigrants reached the Humboldt River by mid-August and followed it west. By crossing the High Sierra in September, practical minds believed, better weather would prevail. And that generally held true — for those who stayed to the main trail.
That was where the 87-member Donner Party went wrong. Leaving Missouri in May 1846, the wagon train led by George Donner and James Reed split from the main Oregon Trail at Fort Bridger (now Wyoming), choosing to follow advice given in Lansford Hastings' “The Emigrants' Guide to Oregon and California."
The route, which became known as Hastings' Cutoff, crossed the Great Salt Lake Desert and circled around the Ruby Mountains. It was an obstacle-riddled detour that cost the Donners a month of travel time. By the time they arrived at the Humboldt River, it was mid-September. When the group forged ahead to the Sierra, they were caught in an October blizzard, during which some travelers were forced to eat the frozen flesh of fallen comrades merely to survive.
At the point where Hastings' Cutoff rejoined the main California Trail, eight miles west of modern Elko, the Bureau of Land Management has established the California National Historic Trail Interpretive Center at a cost of $8 million. Formally opened only in June of this year, it operates under the direction of Koy, who until 2007 had worked at Baker City's Oregon Trail Interpretive Center.
A wall-size map, marked with historic westward-migration routes, greets visitors, who are tempted with films, exhibits and life-size dioramas of life along the California Trail — and plenty of information about the legendary Donner Party.
Open daily in summer, closed Monday and Tuesday in winter, the interpretive center welcomes dozens of guests each day at no charge.
One of its highlights is a replica Shoshone village outside the main building. Willow-frame houses made of sagebrush and ryegrass replicate the tribe's traditional shelters. Shania Cook, a young Shoshone woman studying education at Great Basin College in Elko, explained to a group of visitors how the structures were built.
“We want to make the Shoshone camp appear lived-in," said Cook, who was clad in buckskin and moccasins. “Gary (Koy) wanted a Native American to tell her own story. I assisted in creating the program."
“The California Trail was not a bright spot in the history of the native culture," Koy asserted. “We hope to demonstrate a little of what it originally had been."
That's not so different from what goes on at the Western Folklife Center. Occupying the 100-year-old Pioneer Hotel and Saloon in downtown Elko, it is a regional cultural center far different than what its red-brick exterior might suggest. Within are an exhibit gallery, a 300-seat theater, a more intimate theater and a gift shop — as well as fully operating saloon that features a mahogany-and-cherry back bar built in 1890.
It's hard to imagine a more fitting location for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Since 1985 — beginning the last week of January each year, often extending into February — the event has drawn writers and musicians together with ranchers and other folks who simply love the culture of Western Americana.
“I've heard that these few days contain the highest concentration of lies in any one place at any one time," said founding director Hal Cannon. That may or may not be true, but artistic license is definitely encouraged.
New Mexico writer Baxter Black, is one of the most popular participants. The first few lines of his poem, “The Buckskin Mare," set the mood for the Gathering very well:
“He was every burnt-out cowboy that I'd seen a million times / With dead-man penny eyes, like tarnished brass, / That reflected accusations of his critics and his crimes / And drowned them in the bottom of a glass."
Fifty-one weeks of the year, however, the Folklife Center focuses on contemporary life in the Great Basin — music, dance, arts “and stories of how life is today," said artistic director Meg Glaser.
She noted a traveling exhibit of John J. Audubon bird paintings being presented now through Nov. 3, as well as upcoming presentations of regional photography and of ranch life in Italy. A group of Italian cowboys, she said, will be honored during the 2013 Poetry Gathering.
Just across a square that extends outside the Folklife Center, modern cowboy life is alive and well at the J.M. Capriola Co. Renowned for its custom saddles, bits and spurs, the company also sells ranch wear. But its specialty is “making and repairing gear for the working cowboy," as its website states. I spoke with one employee, Armando Delgado, who has been making saddles here since 1988 — about 15 a year, or more than 300 saddles in all, he said.
Delgado won't be styling any saddles for Madeleine Pickens. The businesswoman — owner of California's Del Mar Country Club and wife of Texas philanthropist T. Boone Pickens — has a 900-square-mile ranch property east of Elko and south of Wells that she has dubbed Mustang Monument.
Pickens' horses — 548 of them, she said — are all wild mustangs. And they will remain unsaddled on this acreage, which extends over two mountain ranges to the crest of a third. She hopes to eventually accommodate 30,000 wild horses here.
It is Pickens' immediate goal to build an ecologically sensitive resort beside the old Hastings' Cutoff, offering lodging in luxury tepees and African safari tents, catered meals and ranch transportation in horse-drawn carriages.
“We think this will one day be as big as Disneyland," she said. “But it'll be a natural Disneyland. It's an opportunity to bring back the Old West."
Pickens said she envisions welcoming bus tours as early as next year. But her ranch manager, Southern Idaho realtor Clay Nannini, suggested that might be wishful thinking: The installation of electric wiring and plumbing alone might take all of 2013.
If Mustang Monument becomes as popular as Madeleine Pickens hopes, it will be a welcome event for the town of Wells, whose 1,400 citizens were struggling through hard times even before a freak 2008 earthquake — measured at 6.0 on the Richter scale — destroyed much of its historic downtown. Heaps of brick and lumber remain on back streets today.
But Wells' townspeople are resilient. When I visited, the new Trail of the 49ers Interpretive Center was welcoming visitors to study maps, photos and other exhibits in an information center and reading room in the heart of the city. And volunteers were distributing walking-tour maps for Old Town Front Street — yes, the historic downtown blocks — as well as the nearby ghost town of Metropolis.
The high country
Desert? Earthquake? By this time, I was ready to take Denny Stanhope's advice and climb as high as I reasonably could into the surrounding mountain chains.
In the East Humboldt Range, I discovered Angel Lake. A scenic 10-mile drive from Wells to an elevation of about 8,500 feet, the pretty lake rests in a natural pocket at the foot of lofty alpine peaks. It's fun to keep an eye on hopeful trout fishermen from a half-mile trail that circles the lake, and there are picnic tables by the shore for those who packed a lunch.
But without doubt, the highlight of the region is Lamoille Canyon, a cut in the Ruby Mountains that begins about 20 miles southeast of Elko. While it's not worthy of the titles “America's Alps" or “Nevada's Yosemite," as some tourism literature suggested, it is a beautiful scenic attraction well worth a detour for anyone traveling this corner of Nevada.
A scenic drive of 12 miles begins where Nevada State Highway 227 enters Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, climbing more than 2,500 feet into the Rubys. Following a tiny brook that cascades between canyon walls, the road ascends beneath stark rock walls that tower high above it to the left, spindly aspen trees changing into fall colors as they follow an old avalanche chute up a steep slope to the right. Occasional turnouts lead to viewpoints, picnic areas and campgrounds.
But it's in the final few miles, before the road ends at a parking area and trail head, that Lamoille's true beauty becomes evident. The cliffs open out into a sea of flowering shrubs, and trails can be spotted leading several directions toward tiny alpine lakes hidden among the crags at 10,000 feet.
“Try the short, four-mile hike to Liberty Lake," Stanhope had recommended. “It's a beautiful three-hour hike up a very well-groomed forest trail, just across Liberty Pass. There are three lakes back to back. They are worth the trip."
Okay, Denny, you win. Nevada is NOT just one big desert.