Unusual legends, sightings, and history from the Black Rock Desert, Jungo, and other Northern Nevada areas.
A Black Rock Desert Winter
Snow touches the playa softly. Almost invisible at first. A mere whisper of lighter color against the alkali. Gradually, if it's a real winter storm, the alkali disappears. Snow dominates,smoothing out angularity, softening the landscape.
The softness deceptive. All the rocks, the axle breaking little gullies are still there. And, if it's a warm snow, there is mud. Nasty mud, sinking to the hubs mud! Old timers didn't drive across the playa after storms. Too much risk. They knew their desert. Miles without a problem then suddenly spinning as they hit a stretch that hadn't frozen deeply enough. A single incident involving much digging, the rousing out of a neighbor with either a sturdy rig or a good team of horses, and just the sheer embarrassment of making such a bad, and dangerous, decision, usually trained the novice.
Winter on the Black Rock is not all difficulties and risk. It is also immensely beautiful. Stretching to the horizon, a pure sweep of unbroken snow,and so very, very quiet. The modern world occasionally interrupts, planes fly over, trains on the old Western Pacific tracks, and the open pit mine on the eastern side of the desert break the stillness.
But only a little. The desert absorbs most of the sound. It dampens it down to a deep hum that blends with the constant breezes that twist through the Sage and Rabbit brush. Together manmade sound and natural play an abstract, and constantly changing symphony across thousands of acres of open land.
As beautiful as it is, as enticing, it is safer to contemplate a desert winter in your mining cabin, or ranch house. Preferably by a nicely burning wood stove with a steaming cup of coffee close to hand. Settled inside, warm, the sound the snow makes against your windows not the harbinger of danger, but only an accent note, a counterpoint to your comfort.
The Great Austin Balloon Ascension
This photo was taken about 1900 at Austin Nevada. It's the Fourth of July and the celebration organizers wanted something out of the the ordinary. They got it!
Although balloon ascensions were common enough in cities at the time, they were rare in small town Nevada. What markers were called in, what favors granted by the celebration organizers is not known. Just that their efforts were successful.
One of the first things you notice about these turn of the century balloon ascensions is the size of their ground crews. They were used to control the beast while the air inside was heated. Most of them were local volunteers. What a memory this event must have made for them!
During these years this was flight. The first fixed wing flights (with any control) were three years in the future. To have the magic of flight in your small town was the equivalent of the space shuttle landing on main street now.
Every man or boy in town wanted to be part of that ground crew. And everybody wanted to be one of the handful of lucky
passengers who actually got to climb into the wicker basket and float, even for a few brief minutes, above their town. Passengers were mostly limited to men and boys. Proper young ladies were not permitted to ascend. Only female circus performers, or other females of doubtful reputation, were allowed.
It wasn't all social mores, it was dangerous. Accidents at balloon ascensions were common. The balloonists had just switched over to propane gas and gas burners to heat the air. Prior to that they used an unstable and much more dangerous combination of alcohol spirits and straw. Even with the switchover to a better technology the balloons were prone to catch fire. Newspapers from these years report several instances of explosions, injury, and even death, at balloon ascensions.
The ascension at Austin went off problem free. The balloon went up, several times, and safely brought its crew and any passengers back to earth. It was the high point of that Fourth of July.
As a final note, there is a wagon wheel in the foreground. It wasn't staged. During the early 1900s there were very few automobiles driving anywhere in Nevada. Just a handful. Everybody went by horse and buggy or the railroad. All of this was about to change. In just a handful of years people would be coming out to watch airplanes and they'd go to see them in automobiles not wagons. Interest in balloons faded away. It'd be long decades before balloon ascensions became so popular again.
My Daytime UFO
Northern Nevada Desert, Nov. 3, 2013
I've mentioned before that there are many strange lights out in the desert. Some are caused, especially at night, by a sort of nighttime mirage that magnifies distant lights. Those lights then appear closer than they are. Others are not so easily explained.
By accident, when I was taking photos of the mountains where my mother was born, I happened to catch one of these strange lights.
The first photo is of the light in the sky. It is the small blue dot almost in the center of the picture. It is barely visible. Those mountains are approximately twelve miles away.
I wanted to see the object more clearly so I put my photo program into editing mode and cropped the picture down until the tiny dot became more visible.
Now it is visible. An electric blue energy smudge against the sky. Was it simple dumb luck that it wasn't hidden in the clouds? I don't know. I'm simply glad that I have this picture!
Again, I cropped it down so I could get a better idea of its size and where it landed.
There it is. A bright blue splotch down in one of the canyons. A pretty big bright blue splotch.
Now here's the rest of the story. I didn't deliberately take these pictures. I was taking photos of those mountains because they are my mother's birthplace and I'm sentimental. The camera saw the object. I didn't. I didn't see it at the time. I didn't hear its impact if it crashed or its landing if it was guided. These photos are entirely an accident! I only knew I had something unusual after I downloaded the pictures! Suggestions? Go to my blog, Old Tracks in the Sand. I'll put one of these photos up for comment.
There is one more photo. The last one in the series. It was taken seconds after the other two. As close as you stare at it, there is not a bit of evidence of the earlier energy object. All is quiet. No blue lights, no fires, just the wind across the desert. Another mystery!
The Shadow Lake
Black Rock Playa
Sometimes when we have particularly wet winters this happens. Enough water flows down the mountains, down seldom wet channels, and onto the playa to create a small, very shallow lake. Barely a shadow of the original glacier fed monster that spread all over the play and beyond. (Imagine the Jackson's being an island in this older lake!)
Climate change long ago dried up that lake, ancient Lake Lahontan. evaporation was the culprit according to some geologists. The temperature warmed too much to keep the lake going. Gradually over thousands of years it mostly disappeared and became the Black Rock Playa. But in wet years, just for a few weeks, we get this hint, this shadow of the original lake.
One Halloween night in the late 1930s the Humboldt County Sheriff got a call. Something about a body being in a ditch next to the road. The Sheriff sighed. He wanted to go home. He wanted to hand out candy to the kids who came around with their pillowcases and their homemade costumes. Not that there'd be very may. The weather had turned very nasty and it was snowing. A bad night to take a long drive. The report had come from the Denio area right on the state border, a hundred mile drive in bad weather. A prudent man, he thought about different men he could ask to go along. He picked a fellow who wasn't yet married so wouldn't be involved in the Halloween festivities, and even better, was a mechanic. One of the clever kind who could keep things running no matter the difficulties or the lack of parts, my dad.
Pops was agreeable. He was bored and he didn't want to hang around downtown. Also, he liked and respected the Sheriff. He bundled up, gathered some tools just in case. Packed in an extra thermos of coffee well laced with brandy. (DUI statutes were much different in those days.) a couple of sandwiches and was ready to go.
The ride up was uneventful. Long miles on unpaved roads carefully negotiated. Didn't matter that it was the main road to Denio. It was unpaved and filled with potholes, sharp rocks, and icy patches. It was also a cold ride. The heaters in those 1930s cars weren't nearly as effective as later ones. But father and the Sheriff were both bundled up and had a couple of swigs from father's thermos.
When they arrived at their destination they were both relieved. Fortunately, the Sheriff knew exactly where to go and it wasn't long before they were standing beside a man's body face down in the ditch.
Very dead, and dead for quite awhile. Both Pops and the Sheriff knew him, he was Old Johnny, a sheepherder down to the bar at Denio to celebrate. Still smelling strongly of the brandy he'd taken on. They tried moving him and found they could make his joints bend. The Sheriff covered the back seat with a canvas tarp. He was proud of his patrol car and didn't want any surprises when he delivered Old Johnny to the mortician. He rolled down the back window. He also didn't want Old Johnny unthawing on the long ride back to town. Finally the two of them wrestled him into the back seat of the Sheriff's car. It took a bit of doing and took some time but they got him wedged into the far corner and more or less sitting upright. They brushed themselves off, took another couple of swigs from father's thermos and headed down the road.
It was late, it was cold, and Old Johnny smelled, not so much of death, there was a faint scent of that, but, of brandy. As the corpse's clothes unthawed the brandy they'd been drenched with filled the patrol car. Out of self defense the Sheriff rolled down another window. By the time the two men reached Orvada they were cold, the coffee thermos was empty and they were damned tired of Old Johnny's company. They stopped at the tiny bar restaurant both to gas up and to have something to eat, and more importantly, to warm up.
There was a bit of ruckus going on when they stepped through the door. A thin, wiry man stood in the center of the bar eyeing a bar stool. "Quit moving you bastard!" The man charged the bar stool, knocked it over and fell on his face.
The harassed owner of the place came around the bar, stepped over the fallen man and approached the Sheriff. "I'll give you your dinner if you haul that fool to town. It's too cold to toss him out in the snow. He's been waiting for a friend to show and take him to town. Nobody has."
The Sheriff shrugged, gestured to my father, "He's with me. Both of us eat and we'll take him to town."
The barkeep kept his word. A wonderful hot dinner appeared. Father said it was one of the best meals he'd ever had. Roast lamb, hot bread and home made pickles. Finally they couldn't put it off any longer. With the thermos refilled complete with more brandy as a topper, they went to the bar room to collect their rider.
He was still on the floor. The Sheriff shook him awake. After much muttering, and some threats from the Sheriff, the man stumbled upright and with a little push toward the door, got going in the right direction.
Father opened the back door for their passenger and, with the Sheriff's help, pushed and heaved until they got the drunk in the back. They didn't check to see how the man arranged himself. They wanted out of the cold and on their way. They slammed the door, got in the front and headed for town.
The first few miles were uneventful. No curves. But, going up the summit, they hit the first curve. Muttering and cursing from the back. Father didn't comment. Second curve. In the rearview mirror he could see Old Johnny tipping toward the drunk.
"God damn you, you stinking bastard, keep your arms to yourself!" The drunk pushed at the corpse. Pushing hard enough that Old Johnny got wedged back into his corner.
The road straightened out for a mile or so. The back seat was correspondingly quiet. Then a real twisty set of curves. Old Johnny's perch became too unstable. Old Johnny fell across the drunk.
"Stop this car! Let me at him! Bastard's all over me! Let me at him!"
The Sheriff ignored him and kept driving. They were close to town by that time and he wanted to drop both passengers off and go home. Their first stop was the mortuary. The Sheriff pulled around to the back of the building. Father got out and rang the bell to summon the mortician. The Sheriff got out at the same time and went around to the back and opened the door.
The Orvada drunk, spitting mad by this time, howled at the Sheriff, "Let me at him! Let me at the sonofabitch! I'll teach him a lesson! Keep his goddamned paws to himself." He, very awkwardly, sat half in and half out of the car.
The mortician appeared about that time with his helper. He opened the other door and pulled Old Johnny out of the car.
"I'll take all of you on! Let loose of the bastard and let me at him!"
The Sheriff leaned close to the drunk and tapped him on the shoulder. He pointed at the sign just visible in the light from the car's head lamps. "What does that say?"
The drunk clambered the rest of the way out of the back seat to stare blearily at the sign. "M, m, mortuary." It took a moment as the drunk weaved back and forth. "Dead? Bastard's dead?"
The Sheriff nodded.
Slowly the drunk sank down toward the gravel drive of the mortuary. Father shrugged, grabbed him before he hit the ground and levered him back into the car.
The Sheriff sighed, "I'll take him up to jail. He can sleep it off there." He got back in the car and drove away.
Father watched the tail lights go up the hill. A smile, then deep gut wrenching belly laughs. He walked the short distance to his room laughing. A couple of people stared at him wondering, but he didn't share the joke. As he said years later, you sort of had to be there!
You find these old walls all over the desert. Some are very old. This wall is an example of the very old. It was built in the early 1860s by the U.S. Army.
It was designed to protect the transcontinental telegraph line from, to quote accounts from the time, "The depredations of hostiles."
The native peoples understood that the telegraph outran their ponies. That it too was an enemy, as surely as the soldiers in the increasing number of camps and forts along its line. There are reports of the line being cut, of attacks being carried out by the Indian people against the whites who were invading their land. In response, more of the camps were built.
This one is in Dun glen canyon. Dun Glen, fair meadow, in the gaelic of the Scots and Irish who formed much of the military at the time. A beautiful canyon. They build these walls a hundred and forty years ago. Built them carefully of stacked rocks fitted and interlocked to make amazingly tough walls.
They went out on their patrols, fought their battles, and several from this camp were killed. Still, they had a lot of time between patrols and not much available for entertainment. At the time the area was very sparsely inhabited. So they looked around, started prospecting, and found silver and gold. Mustered out soldiers founded the little town of Dun Glen. they mined and they stayed, not as soldiers, but as citizens of the the town they founded. The abandoned fort they ignored.
Nature wasn't as kind. Gradually the elements have taken down the old fort. Over many decades the walls sloughed off until only this small bit of the original remains. A monument of sorts to another time and other battles.
Herpetologists have preached the value of snakes to any ecosystem for years. Since most of their audience have, at best, a strong aversion tosnakes their pronouncements fall on deaf ears. The snake may be a hard worker, reducing the numbers of pests around the place, but his efforts are under appreciated. If observed, a large rock usually is the snake's reward.
My grandmother fell into this larger group. Even perhaps, closer to the phobic end of the spectrum. She did not like snakes! Any found on her property were quickly and efficiently removed. If a rock wasn't handy, a shovel would do.
Ofcourse, the king of these despised beings was the rattlesnake. Grandma, like many of her generation, had spent a lot of her early life in the mining camps. There the only good rattlesnake was a dead rattlesnake. In fact this attitude encompassed all snakes, even the non-venomous ones. The miners knew that any snake bite could be fatal in those days before antibiotics.
This non herpetologist approved attitude carried down through the generations. Snakes were simply not on anybody's most favored species list. Including mine. One of my designated jobs was the snake killer.
It was done out of necessity. With a lot of younger siblings, the old mining camps simply had to be cleared of any dangers either I, or my cleanup partner, a huge golden lab named Rusty, could find. We were efficient. None of my younger brothers or sisters ever had a confrontation with a snake, rattlesnake or otherwise.
Eventually times changed and my family moved into civilization leaving the mining camps. At the same time, with my grandmother's help, I entered the University of Nevada. No more old mining camps, no more snake patrols.
I had time for a couple of weeks with my family before Grandma came down to collect me. She'd lined up a summer job that was to start almost immediately.
We left early in the morning. There was much hugging and some teasing, and a few tears under all of the uproar. At last we were on our way.
I'm not sure why she did. Maybe to give me a little time to collect myself. She turned up a dirt road. She stopped at a turn around and we got out of her old Chevy.
Desert mornings are amazing There is the smell of allthe aromatic plants brought to the peak of their bouquet by the dew. And the dazzling clarity of the morning light spreading across the desert floor, overtaking and erasing night's last
I was so immersed in what I was seeing, the smells, the soft touch of a morning breeze that I didn't see him until it was almost too late. I put my foot down and jumped back all in the same motion. The enemy coiled on a large flat stone, his angular head pointed toward the rising sun. He didn't rattle. He didn't move. He stayed on his rock looking at the light.
My old snake patrol instincts took over. I backed up, bent down, and picked up a large rock. Before I could use it my grandmother grabbed my arm.
"Look!" She said, "Really look!"
I did. Slowly my arm lowered. The rock dropped unnoticed out of my hand. Coiled on that stone was one of the most beautiful creatures I've ever seen. Down his sides were pastel pink and green stripes. Along his back the dark patterns that mark his kind. He was unbelievably beautiful, that snake laying on his rock enjoying the light of a perfect desert morning.
We stood there admiring him for awhile then quietly turned away.
We got in the car and coasted silently down the hill for a mile before Grandma turned the ignition. Out of respect. You don't start up a car in a church.
Beautiful and very delicate yellow flowers. All opened at the same time. Not something you'd want to pick for a bouquet, there are a lot of thorns on those stems! Worse than a rose. Some day a plant breeder may decide to work on this plant a little bit and turn this beauty into something more domesticated. Until that time, wait for them to bloom, take your pictures, then pull them up. They are, after all, a weed!