Stevens' Route in Nevada
OVER THE DESERTS OF NEVADA.
Gradually I leave the pine-clad slopes of the Sierras behind, and every revolution of my wheel reveals scenes that constantly remind me that I am in the great "Sage-brush State." How appropriate indeed is the name. Sage-brush is the first thing seen on entering Nevada, almost the only vegetation seen while passing through it, and the last thing seen on leaving it. Clear down to the edge of the rippling waters of the Truckee, on the otherwise barren plain, covering the elevated table-lands, up the hills, even to the mountain-tops-everywhere, everywhere, nothing but sagebrush. In plain view to the right, as I roll on toward Reno, are the mountains on which the world-renowned Comstock Lode is situated, and Reno was formerly the point from which this celebrated mining-camp was reached.
Before reaching Reno I meet a lone Washoe Indian; he is riding a diminutive, scraggy-looking mustang. One of his legs is muffled up in a red blanket, and in one hand he carries a rudely-invented crutch. "How will you trade horses?" I banteringly ask as we meet in the road; and I dismount for an interview, to find out what kind of Indians these Washoes are. To my friendly chaff he vouchsafes no reply, but simply sits motionless on his pony, and fixes a regular "Injun stare" on the bicycle. "What's the matter with your leg?" I persist, pointing at the blanket-be-muffled member.
"Heap sick foot" is the reply, given with the characteristic brevity of the savage; and, now that the ice of his aboriginal reserve is broken, he manages to find words enough to ask me for tobacco. I have no tobacco, but the ride through the crisp morning air has been productive of a surplus amount of animal spirits, and I feel like doing something funny; so I volunteer to cure his "sick foot" by sundry dark and mysterious manoeuvres, that I unbiushingly intimate are "heap good medicine." With owlish solemnity my small monkey-wrench is taken from the tool-bag and waved around the "sick foot" a few times, and the operation is completed by squirting a few drops from my oil-can through a hole in the blanket. Before going I give him to understand that, in order to have the "good medicine " operate to his advantage, he will have to soak his copper-colored hide in a bath every morning for a week, flattering myself that, while my mystic manoeuvres will do him no harm, the latter prescription will certainly do him good if he acts on it, which, however, is extremely doubtful. Boiling into Reno at 10.30 A.M. the characteristic whiskey- straight hospitality of the Far West at once asserts itself, and one individual with sporting proclivities invites me to stop over a day or two and assist him to "paint Reno red" at his expense. Leaving Reno, my route leads through the famous Truckee meadows - a strip of very good agricultural land, where plenty of money used to be made by raising produce for the Virginia City market." But there's nothing in it any more, since the Comstock's played out," glumly remarks a ranchman, at whose place I get dinner. "I'll take less for my ranch now than I was offered ten years ago," he continues.
The "meadows" gradually contract, and soon after dinner I find myself again following the Truckee down a narrow space between mountains, whose volcanic-looking rocks are destitute of all vegetation save stunted sage- brush. All down here the road is ridable in patches; but many dismounts have to be made, and the walking to be done aggregates at least one-third of the whole distance travelled during the day. Sneakish coyotes prowl about these mountains, from whence they pay neighborly visits to the chicken-roosts of the ranchers in the Truckee meadows near by. Toward night a pair of these animals are observed following behind at the respectful distance of five hundred yards. One need not be apprehensive of danger from these contemptible animals, however; they are simply following behind in a frame of mind similar to that of a hungry school-boy's when gazing longingly into a confectioner's window. Still, night is gathering around, and it begins to look as though I will have to pillow my head on the soft side of a bowlder, and take lodgings on the footsteps of a bald mountain to-night; and it will scarcely invite sleep to know that two pairs of sharp, wolfish eyes are peering wistfully through the darkness at one's prostrate form, and two red tongues are licking about in hungry anticipation of one's blood. Moreover, these animals have an unpleasant habit of congregating after night to pay their compliments to the pale moon, and to hold concerts that would put to shame a whole regiment of Kilkenny cats; though there is but little comparison between the two, save that one howls and the other yowls, and either is equally effective in driving away the drowsy Goddess.
I try to draw these two animals within range of my revolver by hiding behind rocks; but they are too chary of their precious carcasses to take any risks, and the moment I disappear from their sight behind a rock they are on the alert, and looking " forty ways at the same time," to make sure that I am not creeping up on them from some other direction. Fate, however, has decreed that I am not to sleep out to-night - not quite out. A lone shanty looms up through the gathering darkness, and I immediately turn my footsteps thitherwise. I find it occupied. I am all right now for the night. Hold on, though! not so fast. "There is many a slip," etc. The little shanty, with a few acres of rather rocky ground, on the bank of the Truckee, is presided over by a lonely bachelor of German extraction, who eyes me with evident suspicion, as, leaning on my bicycle in front of his rude cabin door I ask to be accommodated for the night.
Were it a man on horseback, or a man with a team, this hermit-like rancher could satisfy himself to some extent as to the character of his visitor, for he sees men on horseback or men in wagons, on an average, perhaps, once a week during the summer, and can see plenty of them any day by going to Reno. But me and the bicycle he cannot "size up" so readily. He never saw the like of us before, and we are beyond his Teutonic frontier-like comprehension. He gives us up; he fails to solve the puzzle; he knows not how to unravel the mystery; and, with characteristic Teutonic bluntness, he advises us to push on through fifteen miles of rocks, sand, and darkness, to Wadsworth. The prospect of worrying my way, hungry and weary, through fifteen miles of rough, unknown country, after dark, looms up as rather a formidable task. So summoning my reserve stock of persuasive eloquence, backed up by sundry significant movements, such as setting the bicycle up against his cabin-wall, and sitting down on a block of wood under the window, I finally prevail upon him to accommodate me with a blanket on the floor of the shanty.
He has just finished supper, and the remnants of the frugal repast are still on the table; but he says nothing about any supper for me: he scarcely feels satisfied with himself yet: he feels that I have, in some mysterious manner, gained an unfair advantage over him, and obtained a foothold in his shanty against his own wish-jumped his claim, so to speak. Not that I think the man really inhospitable at heart; but he has been so habitually alone, away from his fellowmen so much, that the presence of a stranger in his cabin makes him feel uneasy; and when that stranger is accompanied by a queer-looking piece of machinery that cannot stand alone, but which he nevertheless says he rides on, our lonely rancher is perhaps not so much to be wondered at, after all, for his absent-mindedness in regard to my supper. His mind is occupied with other thoughts. "You couldn't accommodate a fellow with a bite to eat, could you." I timidly venture, after devouring what eatables are in sight, over and over again, with my eyes. "I have plenty of money to pay for any accommodation I get," I think it policy to add, by way of cornering him up and giving him as little chance to refuse as possible, for I am decidedly hungry, and if money or diplomacy, or both, will produce supper, I don't propose to go to bed supperless. I am not much surprised to see him bear out my faith in his innate hospitality by apologizing for not thinking of my supper before, and insisting, against my expressed wishes, on lighting the fire and getting me a warm meal of fried ham and coffee, for which I beg leave to withdraw any unfavorable impressions in regard to him which my previous remarks may possibly have made on the reader's mind.
After supper he thaws out a little, and I wheedle out of him a part of his history. He settled on this spot of semi-cultivable land during the flush times on the Comstock, and used to prosper very well by raising vegetables, with the aid of Truckee-River water, and hauling them to the mining-camps; but the palmy days of the Comstock have departed and with them our lonely rancher's prosperity. Mine host has barely blankets enough for his own narrow bunk, and it is really an act of generosity on his part when he takes a blanket off his bed and invites me to extract what comfort I can get out of it for the night. Snowy mountains are round about, and curled up on the floor of the shanty, like a kitten under a stove in mid-winter, I shiver the long hours away, and endeavor to feel thankful that it is no worse.
For a short distance, next morning, the road is ridable, but nearing Wadsworth it gets sandy, and "sandy," in Nevada means deep, loose sand, in which one sinks almost to his ankles at every step, and where the possession of a bicycle fails to awaken that degree of enthusiasm that it does on a smooth, hard road. At Wadsworth I have to bid farewell to the Truckee River, and start across the Forty-mile Desert, which lies between the Truckee and Humboldt Rivers. Standing on a sand-hill and looking eastward across the dreary, desolate waste of sand, rocks, and alkali, it is with positive regret that I think of leaving the cool, sparkling stream that has been my almost constant companion for nearly a hundred miles. It has always been at hand to quench my thirst or furnish a refreshing bath. More than once have I beguiled the tedium of some uninteresting part of the journey by racing with some trifling object hurried along on its rippling surface. I shall miss the murmuring music of its dancing waters as one would miss the conversation of a companion.
This Forty-mile Desert is the place that was so much dreaded by the emigrants en route to the gold-fields of California, there being not a blade of grass nor drop of water for the whole forty miles; nothing but a dreary waste of sand and rocks that reflects the heat of the sun, and renders the desert a veritable furnace in midsummer; and the stock of the emigrants, worn out by the long journey from the States, would succumb by the score in crossing. Though much of the trail is totally unfit for cycling, there are occasional alkali flats that are smooth and hard enough to play croquet on; and this afternoon, while riding with careless ease across one of these places, I am struck with the novelty of the situation. I am in the midst of the dreariest, deadest-looking country imaginable. Whirlwinds of sand, looking at a distance like huge columns of smoke, are wandering erratically over the plains in all directions. The blazing sun casts, with startling vividness on the smooth white alkali, that awful scraggy, straggling shadow that, like a vengeful fate, always accompanies the cycler on a sunny day, and which is the bane of a sensitive wheelman's life. The only representative of animated nature hereabouts is a species of small gray lizard that scuttles over the bare ground with astonishing rapidity. Not even a bird is seen in the air. All living things seem instinctively to avoid this dread spot save the lizard. A desert forty miles wide is not a particularly large one; but when one is in the middle of it, it might as well be as extensive as Sahara itself, for anything he can see to the contrary, and away off to the right I behold as perfect a mirage as one could wish to see. A person can scarce help believing his own eyes, and did one not have some knowledge of these strange and wondrous phenomena, one's orbs of vision would indeed open with astonishment; for seemingly but a few miles away is a beautiful lake, whose shores are fringed with wavy foliage, and whose cool waters seem to lave the burning desert sands at its edge.
The Forty-mile Desert
A short distance to the right of Hot Springs Station broken clouds of steam are seen rising from the ground, as though huge caldrons of water were being heated there. Going to the spot I find, indeed, " caldrons of boiling water;" but the caldrons are in the depths. At irregular openings in the rocky ground the bubbling water wells to the surface, and the fires-ah! where are the fires. On another part of this desert are curious springs that look demure and innocuous enough most of the time, but occasionally they emit columns of spray and steam. It is related of these springs that once a party of emigrants passed by, and one of the men knelt down to take a drink of the clear, nice-looking water. At the instant he leaned over, the spring spurted a quantity of steam and spray all over him, scaring him nearly out of his wits. The man sprang up, and ran as if for his life, frantically beckoning the wagons to move on, at the same time shouting, at the top of his voice, "Drive on! drive on! hell's no great distance from here!"
From the Forty-mile Desert my road leads up the valley of the Humboldt River. On the shores of Humboldt Lake are camped a dozen Piute lodges, and I make a half-hour halt to pay them a visit. I shall never know whether I am a welcome visitor or not; they show no signs of pleasure or displeasure as I trundle the bicycle through the sage-brush toward them. Leaning it familiarly up against one of their teepes, I wander among them and pry into their domestic affairs like a health-officer in a New York tenement. I know I have no right to do this without saying, "By your leave," but item-hunters the world over do likewise, so I feel little squeamishness about it. Moreover, when I come back I find the Indians are playing "tit-for-tat" against me. Not only are they curiously examining the bicycle as a whole, but they have opened the toolbag and are examining the tools, handing them around among themselves.
I don't think these Piutes are smart or bold enough to steal nowadays; their intercourse with the whites along the railroad has, in a measure, relieved them of those aboriginal traits of character that would incite them to steal a brass button off their pale-faced brother's coat, or screw a nut off his bicycle; but they have learned to beg; the noble Piute of to-day is an incorrigible mendicant. Gathering up my tools from among them, the monkey-wrench seems to have found favor in the eyes of a wrinkled-faced brave, who, it seems, is a chief. He hands the wrench over with a smile that is meant to be captivating, and points at it as I am putting it back into the bag, and grunts, " Ugh. Piute likum. Piute likum!" As I hold it up, and ask him if this is what he means, he again points and repeats, " Piute likum;" and this time two others standing by point at him and also smile and say, " Him big chief; big Piute chief, him;" thinking, no doubt, this latter would be a clincher, and that I would at once recognize in " big Piute chief, him " a vastly superior being and hand him over the wrench. In this, however, they are mistaken, for the wrench I cannot spare; neither can I see any lingering trace of royalty about him, no kingliness of mien, or extra cleanliness; nor is there anything winning about his smile - nor any of their smiles for that matter. The Piute smile seems to me to be simply a cold, passionless expansion of the vast horizontal slit that reaches almost from one ear to the other, and separates the upper and lower sections of their expressionless faces. Even the smiles of the squaws are of the same unlovely pattern, though they seem to be perfectly oblivious of any ugliness whatever, and whenever a pale-faced visitor appears near their teepe they straightway present him with one of those repulsive, unwinning smiles.
Sunday, May 4th, finds me anchored for the day at the village of Lovelocks, on the Humboldt River, where I spend quite a remarkable day. Never before did such a strangely assorted crowd gather to see the first bicycle ride they ever saw, as the crowd that gathers behind the station at Lovelocks to-day to see me. There are perhaps one hundred and fifty people, of whom a hundred are Piute and Shoshone Indians, and the remainder a mingled company of whites and Chinese railroaders; and among them all it is difficult to say who are the most taken with the novelty of the exhibition - the red, the yellow, or the white. Later in the evening I accept the invitation of a Piute brave to come out to their camp, behind the village, and witness rival teams of Shoshone and Piute squaws play a match-game of "Fi-re-fla," the national game of both the Shoshone and Piute tribes. The principle of the game is similar to polo. The squaws are armed with long sticks, with which they endeavor to carry a shorter one to the goal. It is a picturesque and novel sight to see the squaws, dressed in costumes in which the garb of savagery and civilization is strangely mingled and the many colors of the rainbow are promiscuously blended, flitting about the field with the agility of a team of professional polo-players; while the bucks and old squaws, with their pappooses, sit around and watch the game with unmistakable enthusiasm. The Shoshone team wins and looks pleased.
Here, at Lovelocks, I fall in with one of those strange and seemingly incongruous characters that are occasionally met with in the West. He is conversing with a small gathering of Piutes in their own tongue, and I introduce myself by asking him the probable age of one of the Indians, whose wrinkled and leathery countenance would indicate unusual longevity. He tells me the Indian is probably ninety years old; but the Indians themselves never know their age, as they count everything by the changes of the moon and the seasons, having no knowledge whatever of the calendar year. While talking on this subject, imagine my surprise to hear my informant - who looks as if the Scriptures are the last thing in the world for him to speak of - volunteer the information that our venerable and venerated ancestors, the antediluvians, used to count time in the same way as the Indians, and that instead of Methuselah being nine hundred and sixty-nine years of age, it ought to be revised so as to read " nine hundred and sixty-nine moons," which would bring that ancient and long-lived person-the oldest man that ever lived-down to the venerable but by no means extraordinary age of eighty years and nine months. This is the first time I have heard this theory, and my astonishment at hearing it from the lips of a rough-looking habitue of the Nevada plains, seated in the midst of a group of illiterate Indians, can easily be imagined.
On, up the Humboldt valley I continue, now riding over a smooth, alkali flat, and again slavishly trundling through deep sand, a dozen snowy mountain peaks round about, the Humboldt sluggishly winding its way through the alkali plain; on past Eye Patch, to the right of which are more hot springs, and farther on mines of pure sulphur-all these things, especially the latter, unpleasantly suggestive of a certain place where the climate is popularly supposed to be uncomfortably warm; on, past Humboldt Station, near which place I wantonly shoot a poor harmless badger, who peers inquisitively out of his hole as I ride past. There is something peculiarly pathetic about the actions of a dying badger, and no sooner has the thoughtless shot sped on its mission of death than I am sorry for doing it.
Going out of Mill City next morning I lose the way, and find myself up near a small mining camp among the mountains south of the railroad. Thinking to regain the road quickly by going across country through the sage-brush, I get into a place where that enterprising shrub is go thick and high that I have to hold the bicycle up overhead to get through.
At three o'clock in the afternoon I come to a railroad section-house. At the Chinese bunk-house I find a lone Celestial who, for some reason, is staying at home. Having had nothing to eat or drink since six o'clock this morning, I present the Chinaman with a smile that is intended to win his heathen heart over to any gastronomic scheme I may propose; but smiles are thrown away on John Chinaman.
"John, can you fix me up something to eat. "No; Chinaman no savvy whi' man eatee; bossee ow on thlack. Chinaman eatee nothing bu' licee [rice]; no licee cookee." This sounds pretty conclusive; nevertheless I don't intend to be thus put off so easily. There is nothing particularly beautiful about a silver half-dollar, but in the almond-shaped eyes of the Chinaman scenes of paradisiacal loveliness are nothing compared to the dull surface of a twenty-year-old fifty-cent piece; and the jingle of the silver coins contains more melody for Chin Chin's unromantic ear than a whole musical festival.