The alkaline dust billowed up in front of us, so thick we could not even see our animals ten feet in front. It seeped into everything, caking our entire body with grime, so chemically charged that it blotched and blistered our lips and skin. As we trudged along in the choking silt, there was no water, no grass, and no firewood in sight. Dead horses and cattle lay bloated on the side of the trail, hundreds of them rotting in the sun. The stench and the flies were unbearable. I believe we have seen the Elephant.
Of course there were Indians, death, and disease to deal with. Between 1840 and 1860, 200,000 people traveled overland from the eastern U.S. to California, a 2,200-mile journey that typically took 120 to 160 days through a narrow window before winter storms closed the passes. It has been called the greatest peacetime migration in history.
There are many versions and explanations for the phrase “seeing the elephant.” One has it that when the first circus arrived from Europe on the shores of the New World, the elephant was so big and so unbelievable, it defied words to explain. So horrific were the conditions along the emigrant trails, the term became popular. For those who could no longer bear the hardships and turned back, they said, “We have seen the tail of the elephant.”
We had not been watching for an elephant when we turned off Highway 80 in Wells, Nevada, onto Highway 93 en route to the Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge. We were just looking for the Middle of Nowhere, our favorite campsite. Taking a side road (232), we saw the sign for the Ruby Mountain Brewing Company. Who could pass that up? Owner Steve Safford and his wife Maggie established the micro-brewery in 1994 on their working ranch. We just showed up, (you can call ahead), and Steve gave us a very informative tour of the brewing process. We took a six-pack of his award-winning Bristlecone Brown Porter for later use.
Heading south on 232, cutting back to 93 and then west on 229, the pavement ended. That was promising. It was there that we saw a sign for the Hastings Cutoff. Interesting, but not too exciting. Little did we know we were on the trail of the elephant.
The Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge encompasses 37,632 acres, including 17,000 acres of bulrush marsh interspersed with pockets of water connected by a maze of channels. May and June bring concentrations of nesting and migrating songbirds, and thousands of waterfowl nest there in September and October. Rainbow, brook, and brown trout are stocked, and angling for largemouth bass is good. We slipped our Old Town canoe in for a little paddle after picking up a detailed map of the convoluted waterway at the park headquarters. The high grass is impossible to see over, so there are numbered pole markers, each with a GPS coordinate and each visible from the previous one. That was comforting. Fishing was good enough for dinner.
Following a hunting trail up into the slopes of the Ruby Mountains, we found good camping in a forest of fragrant juniper. Deer mice skittered about. A couple of coyotes laughed at each other in the dark.
In the morning, we sipped coffee and savored the silence. Winding our way back to 229, we followed the gravel south to a point where a one-lane road (228) turned west around the base of the Ruby Mountains, snaking through pinyon pine, juniper, and sage. We stopped at another marker for the Hastings Cutoff and a sign informing that this was also part of the historic Pony Express route in 1860. Soon we came to a two-track that sort of followed Huntington Creek north. This would have been the logical path for wagon trains. Of course we had to follow it.
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.)
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.
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.
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.”