The ruts under our KM2s were not created by rubber tires, but the steel-banded wheels of h
Alkali Flats and theTrail of Death
With the discovery of California gold in 1849 and published accounts of places like Honey Lake, where thumb-sized nuggets were rumored to litter the shoreline, a euphoric obsession was welling to the east: "Go West, young man, go West!" From places like Council Bluffs and the appropriately named Independence, Missouri, entrepreneurs, teamsters, sharecroppers, and ladies of questionable intent lined up to secure a spot on one of the thousands of wagon trains heading to California. Following the Donner party tragedy in the Sierra Nevada, there was a significant movement to establish a less difficult route to California. And because new people meant commerce to California merchants and landowners, there was also a fair amount of jockeying from landowners to draw California's newest citizens.
Pete Lassen, a prominent northern California rancher, attempted to attract settlers to his land by volunteering to lead westbound wagon trains. When his first group approached the Humboldt River, Nevada, near the turnout to the California trail, he veered north along a faint wagon track left by explorer Lindsay Applegate. Despite the fact that Lassen's new route posed unexpected challenges and added 200 miles to the journey, reputable eastern newspapers hailed it as an easier and shorter route to California.
Although the High Rock area receives few visitors, and those who've passed through have le
In 1849, there were an estimated 22,000 emigrants stretched out along the 1,500-mile route to California. By August, one wagon train after another had followed Lassen's tracks into the dry and desolate wasteland now known as the Black Rock Desert. Though the first groups had sufficient water and grass for their livestock, resources were quickly depleted. "Verifiable" reports of plentiful water and grass quickly proved false, and by late summer, the situation became desperate. Without food and water, ox teams began to suffer. In states of delirium, the livestock stampeded towards a distant "lake"-the same mirage we were seeing-only to collapse on the baked and barren playa, perishing where they fell. Their human counterparts would soon succumb to the relentless heat of the desert. By late summer, abandoned wagons and gravesites littered the desertscape, and turkey vultures picked through the bloated remains of hundreds of livestock. The Applegate-Lassen trail would come to be known as "The 1849 Trail of Death."
You've seen Black Rock playa before. It's been used in TV commercials and magazine ads, and plays host to the annual Burning Man Festival. With 30 miles of alkali flats and no speed limit, it also the site of the world land speed record (over 700 mph). We spun the JK's speedometer to about 70-uh, okay, maybe 80-and headed for a hot spring at the base of Black Rock. It was mid-June, and the region had received rain on 18 of the past 20 days. The white surface of the lakebed, which should have been as dry as six-day road kill, began to turn a dark brown. I realized, suddenly, as mud began to splatter up the side of the JK, that the distant "lake" that we thought was a mirage actually was a lake! And we were about to be in deep doo-doo.
Typical of mining-era construction, these old homesteads near High Rock Lake were construc
We were dead center in the middle of the playa, and 15 miles from the nearest vehicle-or winch anchor. Burying the JK could become a big problem (not to mention I'd have to tell Scott Brown at Jeep, "Sorry buddy, I lost your JK"). The trick to getting out of this situation is to pray-and don't stop! If you do stop, you'll sink like a dinosaur in the La Brea Tar Pits. I lifted from the accelerator and carved a slow 30mph arc towards higher ground (sweating bullets the whole time-sorry, no pics in situations like this). Clear of the Black Rock quagmire, we muddled through three or four more attempts before retreating to the graded dirt track. The JK was a muddy mess, but with the help of the 35-inch BFG KM2s and some masterful driving (yeah, right), at least we'd be sleeping in a camp of our choosing tonight.