The historic Pony Express route followed part of the Hastings Cutoff in 1860.
Grass grew in the center of the road, and it was clear that this was a very seldom-used trail. Then we came to a huge pile of horse dung. Pretty fresh. We had learned in the Wild Horse Reserve near Rock Springs, Wyoming, that the lead stallion of a band of horses will return to the same spot every day to mark his territory. (Don’t try this on your favorite jeep trail.) Sure enough, just over the next rise we saw a small herd of seven or eight beautiful wild horses. We stopped. They stopped, wondering what we were doing. These were not scraggly mustangs, but really gorgeous animals.
Now only horse hooves marked the two-track. This was BLM land, and we weren’t too worried about traffic. There were a few gates to open and close. No problem for Monika. (Passenger always pulls wire, checks river crossings for snakes and alligators, and opens gates.)
Slipping our Old Town canoe in for a little paddle, we followed numbered pole markers, eac
As the sage turned to dry grass, we found another classic backroads camp by just pulling off the road for a few yards. We weren’t expecting any company. As we sat and watch the long shadows of the evening glow fade across the prairie, we had to admire how the pioneers had survived. They had to make two fires a day, morning and night, and there often was no wood of any kind. Children walked along the trail and picked up dried cow pies for fuel. Indian attacks were not the biggest threat—cholera and dysentery were responsible for more deaths—though cows and oxen became part of the food supply when the Native Americans saw the buffalo they depended on disappear.
Back on the trail, The Turtle V rumbled along in its perfect environment. As the two-track wound through arroyos and over little hills, we tried to imagine what route we might take with an overloaded covered wagon pulled by four oxen. At length, we came to a gate that was not designed to be opened. The solo track on the other side was clearly made only by cattle. We had hoped to follow this part of the two-track all the way to Highway 80. Just west of Elko, Nevada, there is a kiosk (at exit 292) and a fabulous all new California Trail Center, marking the intersection of the Hastings Cutoff and the main California Trail.
The Ruby Mountain Brewing Company was an unexpected treat. Owner Steve Safford welcomes vi
Turning around, we took an overgrown track back to Road 228 to camp at the South Fork State Recreation Area overlooking the reservoir fed by Huntington Creek. The picnic table, fire pit and bathrooms were something the pioneers would have appreciated.
The Hastings Cutoff was promoted to be faster by swinging south around the Rubies, and then north to the California Trail. In fact, it was 250 miles longer. While it was successfully used up to 1846, the route became notorious for the last party to take it that year. The tragic Donner Party, delayed by the extra distance and miserable conditions, found themselves trapped by the deadly snows of the Sierras near today’s Donner Lake. In the end, they resorted to cannibalism to survive.
The new California Trail Center, located off Highway 80 just west of Elko, Nevada, contain
For us it had been an adventure on an unexpected historic route. We unlocked the hubs, flipped on the A/C, and turned onto four-lane Interstate 80, the new California Trail. “Head ’em up—move ’em out.” Cracking the whip over our team of 225 horses, in our imagination, we had seen the Tail of the Elephant.
The Miners’ Elephant
For those planning to travel west to California, especially during the Gold Rush (1849-1852), no expression characterized the hardships associated with the experience more than the term “seeing the elephant.” Those planning to travel west announced that they were “going to see the elephant.” Those turning back claimed they had seen the “elephant’s track” or the “elephant’s tail,” and admitted that view was sufficient. In 1850, overland emigrant Aleazar Ingalls captures the meaning of the expression “Seeing the Elephant” in describing his experience crossing the 40-Mile Desert in Western Nevada: “Morning comes, and the light of day presents a scene more horrid than the bout of a defeated army: dead stock line the roads, wagons, rifles, tents, clothes, everything may be found along the trail: The desert. You must see it and feel it in an August day, when legions have crossed it before you, to realize it in all horrors. But heaven save you from the experience.”
California Trail Center
Ruby Mountain Brewing Company
Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge