It was a quarter past two in the afternoon when I left Reno and I had lost a good eight hours of riding time. The snow had ceased falling, but the skies were still overcast and the ground very wet as I set forth toward Wadsworth and the great Nevada desert. For about 18 miles the road was fair, and then it began to get sandy. Sand in Nevada means stuff in which you sink up to your ankles every time you attempt to take a step. To further enliven matters it began to rain. Every now and then I had to dismount and walk for a stretch of a quarter of a mile. Several times the soft sand threw me because I did not respect it enough to dismount in time. A bicycle with a six horsepower motor could not get through such sand. The wheel just swings out from under, and the faster you try to go the worse it is. Walking and riding. I managed, however, to make the 36 miles from Reno to Wadsworth in four hours and there I pitched camp for the night.
It is well to put in a word of warning and explanation right here: When mention is made of the places at which I stopped and through which I passed it must not be imagined that they are all cities, or towns, or villages, or hamlets, or anything in the nature of civilized settlements. The majority of them are nothing of the sort. They are just places - and it seems a waste of good English to call them that. It is to be remembered that I started out determined to follow the line of the Southern Pacific and Union Pacific railroads as far east as Omaha, because it is the direct route. The road runs almost in a straight line across the great alkali desert between the mountain summits. To have gone around the desert, through the mountains to the north would have meant traveling many hundreds of miles more, and I would of a certainty have been lost many times, for there are nothing but trails to follow and often not any visible trail.
If you take a map of the Union Pacific Railroad you will see the line of it studded with names as closely as they can be printed. and if you have not crossed the continent you will very naturally be deluded into thinking of them as villages at least. These are the "places" through which I passed, or, rather past which I rode, for I was riding right on the tracks most of the way. They are localities arbitrarily created by the railroad. Many of them are nothing more than names given by the railroad officials to designate a sidetracking junction, and when you reach it all you see is the sidetrack and a signpost put there by the railroad; other places bearing names are mere telegraph stations, one eating stations for passenger trains, while still others are what are known as stations. These places all exist because of the railroad. It is to be remembered that it is a single track road all the way from Omaha to San Francisco, and therefore there is need of sidetracking at frequent intervals. This means telegraph houses or sheds for the operators, and in order to issue instructions definitely all places must be named. There are the section hands and their foremen - they make a place for themselves and it gets a name and a position on the map, even though there is only the house of the foreman and a couple of others for the laborers, as is often the case.
The divisions are places where the freight and passenger trains change engines. Quite often they are something of places, with from 200 to 5,000 population. There, two or three hotels will be found, several saloons, and a couple of stores. The stranger marvels to find a community even of this size in such a God-forsaken country. He wonders why anyone lives there, but if he is wise he does not ask any such question, for even though the wildest days have passed, it is a hot-blooded country still, where fingers are heavy and guns have hair triggers. At the division settlements in the heart of these wildernesses there is a great deal of home pride, and the traveler can get along best by praising the place he is in and "knocking" the nearest neighboring settlement. These settlements are supported partly by the money that is circulated by the railroad employees, the passengers who stop for meals and the ranchmen who come into the valley of the desert "to town" to get mail, ship goods and have a good time. These division towns are the rendezvous of the polyglot laborers on the railroad sections and the sportive cowboy alike, and as these elements don't mix any more than oil and water, there are some "hot times in the old town" occasionally. The reason why there is no more trouble than there is "shooting up the town" is that wily sheriffs "round up" the ranchmen when they strike town. Then it's a case of "Now, boys, let me have your guns we don't want any trouble, and I'll take care of your shooters. Be reasonable ." The boys are reasonable and as the sheriff treats all alike, they hand over their shooting irons and they are tagged by the sheriff with the owner's name and kept by him till the spree is over. Occasionally, though, the men get to drinking and the fun begins before the sheriff is aware there is a party in town.
Wadsworth is one of these division settlements and I took a snapshot of it that gives a fair idea of the place. Like many railroad towns of the sort, it will soon become only a memory, for the Southern Pacific shops there now are to be removed to Reno and this will practically wipe out the town, which now has a population of perhaps 3,000. It is ever thus with the settlements in this region - here today and gone tomorrow. New places spring up in a week, and by the time some traveler has seen them and described them some shift of railroad interests has caused them be deserted villages and the next traveler cannot at all rely on finding things as described by his predecessor.
At Wadsworth I found lodgings at a hotel patronized by railroad men, and got some luscious strawberries for supper. I left Wadsworth at 7 o'clock on the morning of May 22 and, leaving it, said farewell to the Truckee River, and what few vestiges of trees and grass there were in this part of Nevada. Out of Wadsworth I was facing the great desert, the plains of alkali that sifts down from the mountains on each side, and which are barren of everything except sagebrush. As I stand before mounting and gaze across that parched, dull-gray waste of sand, alkali and rocks, with the spots of gray-green sagebrush, and think of parting from the Truckee River, which seemed so trivial a water course before, a pang of regret shoots through me. I know I shall miss the gurgling stream, and there is a sinking of the spirits that cannot be overcome as I face the leaden-hued skies and sands so unutterably dreary. Almost one can, in fancy, see the sign of "leave hope behind all who venture here." This is the Forty Mile Desert of Nevada that was so dreaded by the immigrants in the days when the prairie schooner, the bronco, and the mule were the only conveyances used by man to cross it. Many perished in this desert from want, and many more from the attacks of the then hostile Indians. The old overland trail is what I was following. It is what the railroad follows, and in many places the rails have been laid directly over the old wagon tracks. At times the old trail runs right alongside of the rails, and now and then it swings off for a few hundred yards, a quarter or a half mile maybe, only to wind back again to where the surveyors kept to a straight line for the railroad and removed the rocks and sand dunes that the prairie schooners digressed to avoid.
It took the biggest plug I had, one with a mushroom two inches in diameter, to fix that cut, and a yard of tire tape to bind it properly.
Fifteen miles from Massie I passed a section gang's settlement
called Upsal; 12 miles further I passed the great metropolis known as Brown's, consisting of one house and a signpost. All about there was the same interminable landscape of sickish drab and dirt white sand and gray-green sagebrush and I was steadily bumping over the railroad ties, now between the rails and again on the outside of them, according to the depth and levelness of the sand. So far as signs of life other than my own were concerned I might have been a pre-Adamite soul wandering in the void world before the work of creation began; but the railroad was there to testify to the presence of man prior to me, and with that before me, I imagine myself to be the last of the race, who by some strange freak has escaped the blight that caused the end of the world and had been left alone on the dead planet, over which I was now coursing in search of a habitable spot. Perhaps you can picture the cheerfulness of the place that inspired such fancies in my mind. Imaginings of this sort are the legitimate offspring of the desert. One finds it hard to picture in the mind what meadows and pastureland and brooks and trees are like. It is not strange that men go mad in a waste of sand so broad that to the eye it is as limitless as the sky, so dead that one feels a thrill of relief at the sight of a lizard or a swooping vulture; the wonder is that any man can see it and afterward be sane. One or two vultures were all the flying I saw in this section in all my long, lonely bouncing over the ties. Lizards and coyotes were more plentiful - the dirty, grayish horned lizard of the desert - and while it seemed slightly to lessen the weirdness of the place to see even those forms of life, my feelings of revulsion toward the lizard, the buzzard, and the coyote augmented by a new touch of contempt for them because they would live in such a place. Sometimes the mountain ranges to north and south that enclose the desert were visible, looking in the afternoon, like a rough edged ribbon of turquoise blue stretched, like a dado, taut against a leathern sky. More often there was visible only the sand and the dome of the sky above it, now coppery, greenish, black, gray or mottled blue, but always sullen, vicious-looking, and never calmly beautiful, for even the skies do not smile on the face of that void place.
If any of those who read this ever have ridden in one of the bowls made of slats that are known as cycle whirls, a very fair idea can be formed by them of what bouncing over railroad ties on a cycle is like unto. I have ridden an ordinary bicycle in a cycle whirl and know that it is similar in the sensation it affords to that of cycling over the ties. Before I had traveled half of the desert I was having trouble with my inner organs, and violent pains in the region of the kidneys compelled occasional dismounts and rests. In the whole stretch between Wadsworth and Lovelock's, 63 miles, I was riding the railroad with the exception of 8 or 10 miles, where I found the sand in the trail alongside hard enough to be ridden over. My education as a tie-pounder included a little trick of crossing culverts of which I became quite proud, for it was not easy; failure would have meant a plunge downward of from 10 to 50 feet. These culverts are mere cuts in the sand under the railroad, to let the water escape without washing out the roadbed. Rainstorms in the desert came up in a minute and they are cloudbursts. The whole country is flooded for an hour and the water races through these culverts like mountain torrents, water soaks into the sand so rapidly though, that half an hour after rain has ceased to fall, the drains and the surrounding country look as if there never had been a shower. I was caught in these showers a couple of times. The drains under the railroad are 30 to 40 feet wide, and across them is a big beam that runs along-side the iron rails. The space between the rail and the beam about seven inches. If I had been riding between the rails I steered the wheels into this space, and by keeping the outside pedal straight up would skip across without hitting either rail or beam. If I had been riding outside the rails I rode across the drain margin of ties projecting outside the beams keeping the inside pedal high.
Sixteen miles east of Brown's I reached Lovelock's and the Forty Mile Desert had been crossed. I don't know who named it but he had a poor sense of justice to deprive the desert of any part or due in distance when he gave it the Forty Mile title. It is 63 miles on the straight rails from the station at Wadsworth to that at Lovelock's and the green growth of the town does not encroach upon the 63 miles of desert for more the 8 or 9 miles. l am speaking by railroad statistics now, for I lost my cyclometer between Reno and Wadsworth, and could not tell what my mileage was. This was the second cyclometer, the first having been bounced off the bridge over the Sacramento. I bought a third one at Lovelock's, but I had learned by this time to depend upon the timetable of the Southern Pacific for my guide as to distance and knowledge of where I was. They kept wearing out from handling, but I got new ones at the stations. Of course, I traveled many miles more than is covered by the railroad, because of the detours I made on the roads, but on account of my luck with cyclometers I never will know what my actual mileage was. In relation to the railroad timetables, they are handy for other information besides that of locality and distance, and this is the altitude. It must not be imagined by those unacquainted with the country of the deserts that because they are spoken of as alkali plains that they lie in a flat lowland.
From Sacramento to Summit I was steadily rising as I have told in a previous installment of my story, the elevation at Summit being 7,017 feet. From Summit eastward there is a gradual drop, but the altitude is still high compared with sea level prairies. At Reno the elevation is 4,497 feet; at Wadsworth it is 4,085 feet; at Upsal, 4,247 feet, and at Lovelock's, 3,977 feet. This may help to give some idea of the dips and rises of the desert. It is all comparatively high ground. and I quickly took on the color of a mulatto riding through it.
Lovelock's is much like an oasis, for while the Forty Mile Desert of Nevada ends there, to the east of it is the Great American Desert of Utah, and eastward beyond that is again the Red Desert of Wyoming, and I learned that the worst is not always over when the alkali wastes of Nevada have been crossed. This oasis of Lovelock's is about 20 miles across, and there is some excellent farming land on it. It is quite a place, but I reached it in the middle of the afternoon, and did not stop, except to get some gasoline and a cyclometer. I pushed on through Lovelock's to Humboldt, 33 miles beyond for my overnight stop. This made my mileage for the day 96 miles, most of it over the railroad ties. I want no more such days as that was. For 10 miles out of Lovelock's I managed to follow the road, but then it got too sandy, and I went back to my old friends the railroad ties and bounced into Humboldt on them at 6 p.m. Humboldt is a pretty place. You are convinced of that when you look at the surrounding country, which is desert waste. All there is of Humboldt is shown in the picture of it that I snapped with my little Kodak. The house that occupies the foreground, background and sides, and which surrounds the town, is that of the station agent, telegraph operator, and keeper of the restaurant for the passengers. the house has a false front, and it is really a gabled structure, and climbing up the ladder to my room, I banged my head on the sloping roof. The land immediately about the house has been cultivated by strenuous attention, and the transplanted trees that grow before the front door of this town are a source of great pride to the proprietor. I think it is because of the trees that he charges 50 cents a meal. The prevailing prices for meals In this country are 25 and 35 cents, the former price being the most common charge.
The people in that country did not get up early enough to suit me, and I left Humboldt at 5:40 a.m. without breakfast. I struck sandy going at once, and took to the everlasting crossties and kept on them nearly all the way to Winnemucca, 45 miles from Humboldt. Seven miles west of Winnemucca I came to a stretch where I could see the place in the distance, and I left the railroad to take what I thought to be a shortcut over a trail that runs along an old watercourse, diverging gradually from the railroad. This is where I made a sad mistake. A 10-mule team could not haul a buggy through the sand there, and after going 3 miles and getting half a mile away from the railroad tracks, I got stuck in the sand hopelessly. I found that the trail did not lead to Winnemucca anyhow. It took me an hour to push the bicycle by hand back again to the tracks across the sand hills. When I wanted to rest, though, the sand was useful, for the bicycle stood alone, and once I took a snapshot of it while it was thus set in the sand. This is the place where the automobiles that try to cross the continent come to grief. If they get to Winnemucca they have a chance of getting through. In the struggle with the bicycle, I lost my revolver and my wrench through a hole in my pocket, and I lost an hour looking for them, but I found them in the sand. I wouldn't have lost that revolver for a great deal. It furnished me with all the fun I had in my loneliness. I did not have any occasion to draw it in self-defense, but I practiced my marksmanship with it on coyotes - they pronounce it ki-o-tee out here, with the accent on the first syllable. It is a long .38 that I carry, and a remarkably good shooter. I could hit a coyote with it at 200 yards, and left several carcasses of them in the desert. There is a bounty paid for their hides, but I did not have time to skin them and collect the money. The buzzards - it is against the law to shoot them and I let them alone. In the greener spots of the country I had shots at rabbits and doves, and I guess I could have had a bagful of game every day if I had looked for it.
Winnemucca, a cattle town is quite a place. I got some gasoline
there, and put a plug of food in my stomach, which had been without breakfast. At noon I started for Battle Mountain, 63 miles away. The first 10 miles out I found the road fairly good, but then I had to take to the tracks again. For about 4 miles I had the best bit of time between the tracks that I had between the tracks since I left Frisco. Then I had to walk for 6 miles because the sand lay in ridges between the ties. They are laying a new stretch of road along there, and after my walk I came to a place where I ran the motor at top speed for 10 miles. Then my handlebar broke while I was going full-tilt, and I had a close call from striking my head on the rail. I missed it by a few inches. After a walk of a mile I reached a boxcar camp and got a lineman to help me improvise a bar out of a piece of hardwood, which we bound on with tarred twine. I made as good a job of it as possible, for it is a poor country for bicycle supplies, and I realized that I would not be able to get a pair of new bars until I got to Ogden, nearly 400 miles beyond. In spite of my troubles I reached Battle Mountain at 7:15 p.m, having made 109 miles for the day.
Battle Mountain is somewhat of a historic spot, in a bit of fertile farming land that is about 40 miles across. It is said that they reap more grain and hay to the acre there than anywhere else in the State. I had been gradually ascending since leaving Humboldt. Battle Mountain has an elevation of 4,511 feet. It was near there that there was a great Mormon massacre. Going out of the town, toward the east, one can see upon the mountain the cross that marks the "Maiden's Grave." The town itself is the usual frontier settlement - a store and several saloons. I put up at the house of a Mrs. Brady, and, to tell the whole truth, I went to bed thoroughly disgusted with my bargain. I felt as if I was a fool for attempting to cross the continent on a motor bicycle. I was tired of sand and sagebrush and railroad ties. My back ached, and I fell asleep feeling as if I did not care whether I ever reported to the Motorcycle Magazine in New York or not. In the morning it was different, and I was as determined as ever to finish the task, and was eager to be off. It is a mighty bilious country, this Nevada of ours, but they feed you well. Indeed, all through the real West I got better living for the same money than I did as I worked East. I left the Battle Mountain at 7 a.m., and found hard going. It had rained over night. The mud on the road blocked the wheels and I went to the railroad. That was just as bad, the roadbed being of dirt instead of gravel. After a walk of 10 miles, I managed to drive the motor along slowly. I swore on that stretch that I would not ride a bicycle through Nevada again for $5,000. The only way to travel there is in an airship, and then I believe it would somehow give out and strand the vessel. I made 36 miles in 5 hours and stopped for lunch at Palisade, a telegraph station in the canyon. I had little more than got started again when I got caught in a thunderstorm, and in less than a minute I was as wet as if I had fallen in the river. After the shower the mud was so sticky that I had to stop every 30 yards and scrape off the wheel in order to let it turn around. A lovely country; yes! I thought at times I would have to let the motor stay in the mud and hunt up a wagon to haul it and me to the next place giving an imitation of civilization. When I was almost ready to give up I struck a stretch of gravel roadbed, and got a rest for awhile. A little further on I had to walk through the mud again. I finally got to Carlin at 7 p.m., having made 58 miles after the hardest day of work I had yet had. I turned a fire hose on the motorcycle at Carlin in order to soften the mud so that I could wipe it off. This was on May 24, a memorable day, and I was a week out from Sacramento. Carlin is a division town in a canyon, Its surveyed elevation is 4,807 feet, but the place is a liberal dispenser of "Old Scratch" That's what the whiskey is called out there. When the natives drink plenty of "Old Scratch" the elevation of the town rises to unsurveyable heights. Like most of the other settlements of the region, gambling is one of the chief industries.
Wells is a division town of about 200 population, with the biggest hotel I had seen since leaving Reno. The dining room there for railroad passengers would have seated the whole population of the place. They feed largely for 50 cents a meal, and I never left anything on the dishes. Riding over the ties must have jolted my food down to my boots. I was always empty, and I doubt if any restaurant made anything on me, even the high priced ones, where they charge 50 cents a meal. Mentioning prices, the highest figure for a meal I saw posted was 75 cents, but this was on a very nicely graduated scale of prices, one calculated to fit the different sorts of eaters and give satisfaction all around. This high price was on a board nailed on the outside wall of a dugout at a section station. The sign read:
Meal.................................................. 25 cents
Square meal........................................ 50 cents
Gorge................................................. 75 cents
I am afraid that if all the restaurants had such a schedule and lived up to it I would have paid 75 cents apiece for all my meals.
At Wells I had to tighten up the spokes of the wheels on my motorcycle, as I often did at other places. Pounding over the ties was a terrible strain on the bicycle. I marveled every day that it stood it so well. It is well I knew better than to congratulate myself when over the Forty Mile Desert. That was only a sort of initiation for me. The Great American Desert, which stretches from Elko, Nevada, to Kelton, Utah, is nearly 200 miles across, or 5 times as big as the first one. I struck the alkali sand of the Great American Desert going out of Wells, and for three miles found a stretch hard enough to ride on. Then I walked for two miles, and went over the railroad, where I found fair tie-pounding. I was interested in this part of the desert to find that the picturesque old prairie schooner of the Forty-niners, who traveled this overland trail, is not extinct. I passed quite a few of them at different times. Most of them carried parties of farmer families who were moving from one section of the country to another, and several were occupied by gypsies, or rovers, as the natives call the Romany people.
This day, between Wells and Terrace, May 26, 1 had two experiences more interesting to read about than to pass through. It is rather high altitude there, the elevation at Wells being 5,628 feet, and at Fenelon, the name of a side switch without a house near it, 20 miles east, the elevation is 6,154 feet. There was a heavy frost on the ground in the morning when I left Wells at 6 o'clock, as, indeed, there was nearly every morning during that week. It was bitter cold, and before I had gone 20 miles my ears were severely frosted. There was no snow to rub on them though, and I had to doctor them the best I could with water first and then lubricating oil. In the afternoon of the same day it grew very hot, and my ears got badly sunburned, in common with my face. That gives an idea of the climate of the country. The other experience of the day was not so painful; it would commonly be considered a treat; but it was a distinct shock to me because, not being in condition to use my wits properly, I did not understand. I was about 70 miles east from Wells, near Tacoma, and riding on the finest stretch of trail that I had struck in several hundred miles, when I saw coming toward me in the distance one of the Conestoga wagons drawn by a team of horses with two men walking along beside the horses. I was somewhat doubtful about the road I was following, afraid it would lead me too far from the railroad, and I was delighted to meet with someone who could tell me where the road led. As the wagon approached it was lost to sight behind a bunch of sagebrush in a turn of the road. I kept riding toward it, and when I got to the spot there was nothing there. The desert was all about, devoid of any human being except myself, and there was no place behind a cliff or any hollow of the land where a team and wagon could disappear. I was dumb with amazement, and dismounted in a daze, wondering if the sun had affected my head. My mind could not have been working clearly, for I never thought of its being a mirage, as I afterward knew it to be, I was afraid I was losing my mind, and went on silently with a feeling of dread. The stretch of road was of red gravel, and lasted 10 miles beyond the mirage. I covered it in 30 minutes. Then it began to rain, and I got back to the track and rode into Terrace, Utah, at 7:30 p.m. having covered 98 miles during the day of 13 hours.
Terrace, where I stopped overnight on May 26, is in Utah, and is another division of some size. It is the biggest eating station on the Southern Pacific road between San Francisco and Ogden. I crossed the line between Nevada and Utah when I was about 30 miles out of Welk, and at Terrace was about three-fourths of the way through the Great American Desert. Around this place I saw the greatest collection of dugouts and log houses built of railroad ties that I had yet seen. Such dwellings are common on the outskirts of the division towns and in the settlements of section hands, but one sees only two or three at a time ordinarily, while at Terrace there is a swarm of them. For the dugouts the owners dig cellars about four feet deep and build up, criblike, four feet above the ground, giving the interior one or two rooms eight feet in height. Foreigners mostly live in these and the tie houses, which are simply log shanties made of cross ties, and plastered up with adobe mud. Sometimes Indians of the blanket variety occupy these dugouts, but more often the aborigine stragglers from the reservations occupy tepees on the outskirts of the towns, if these places of a couple of dozen houses can be called towns.
While I saw plenty of Indians on my trip, I did not have any adventures with them. I did not have time to work up adventures; enough came without seeking; besides, the Indians I saw are not of the adventurous sort. They are a lazy, dirty lot that sulk about while their squaws work in the eating houses and elsewhere to get money for extra tobacco for the bucks. The only time I spoke to an Indian during my trip was to ask a slouching fellow about a route and I could not understand his reply enough to derive any satisfaction. So that settles the Indian matter, for I don't propose to manufacture any dime-novel incident just for the sake of adding color.
It rained the night I stopped in Terrace, and, starting the next morning at 5:10 o'clock, I had to walk for several miles along the tracks; then I struck the desert, and found that the rain had left the sand hard enough to make good riding. It was an uneventful day, and I made 104 miles, the road winding along the northern shore of the Great Salt Lake, of which I caught frequent glimpses. I stopped 19 miles west of Ogden because it began to rain. I put up at a section house, that of the foreman of the gang, and he gave me a bed for the night. The railroad furnishes these section houses for the men, and I found them more comfy than I expected. There were no carpets, but the bed had a springy wire bottom, a good mattress and fine sheets. The hands do not fare like the foreman, though: they huddle together a dozen in a house in the other two buildings that constitute the "place." The place where I stopped is down on the time table as Zenda, but I was no prisoner there, and there was no romance to the situation. l am glad the foreman took me in, for a section gang is a motley lot, a regular cocktail of nationalities, and full of fighting qualities. At some of the places I passed I saw Chinamen at work on the railroads, and this was a new thing to me accustomed, as I am, to the pigtails of the Pacific coast. It is not often that John engages himself in such arduous and un-remunerative labor. The next morning the ground was so wet that I walked half the way to Ogden.
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