Following the Tail of the Elephant
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.