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Kazakhstan resident reflects fondly on his autumn travels in Northern Nevada.
Photo: Vitaliy Shuptar (all)
It was a serious enterprise, at the commencement of winter, to undertake the traverse of such a region…All knew that strange country was to be explored, and dangers and hardships to be encountered; but no one blenched at the prospect. On the contrary, courage and confidence animated the whole party.
John C. Fremont, narrative of his exploration of Oregon and Northern California, 1843-44
I step out of the plane after it lands at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport, and the hot air hits my face. This, coupled with beautiful scenery—vast and sometimes hilly yellowish valleys with rather high mountains to their west—reminds me of places at the other end of the world. This feeling deepens with the smell of wormwood, which is as characteristic of Nevada as it is of my homeland. Perhaps I love the steppes of central Kazakhstan, where I come from, too much…since I get this pleasant sensation of “feeling at home” whenever I find myself in a similar climate.
It’s quite pleasant to feel at home when you are very far from it. It makes me think, except for the wish to find a new home, what guided those pioneers and explorers who set out on their journeys to conquer America’s Wild West?
In today’s America you can do whatever you want while in a car: You can order your food in a fast-food café or watch a movie just to begin with. You can withdraw money in a cash machine, or even live your life in a mobile home also known as RV. The “drive-through principle” operates here with no failure. Besides, this phrase may have various meanings—it can also be understood in the way that many people prefer to literally drive across America, from one ocean to another, just like the first settlers did. But it happens nowadays—when the amount of cars is off the charts and makes you think about the development of alternative means of transportation. On the contrary, at the time when people had to explore the expanses of the continent, they didn’t have this luxury. At those times a pair of good boots and a good horse (sometimes also a good gun) were worth their weight in gold.
Wilbur D. May, whose museum at Rancho San Rafael Regional Park is one of the most interesting sights in Reno, is an example of a person whose life was full of adventure. Adventures were peculiar to the residents of the American West, where everything had always bore traces of the gold or silver rush as well as the romantic appeal of discovery.
May, by the way, could have been a prototype for Indiana Jones. And this impression is evident even more after you begin to learn about his life. A hat and a whip (since he’s a rancher), a lot of trophies from all over the world (including archaeological and hunting ones), an honorable military past, and adventures, adventures, adventures. But May had been born by the time when most of the United Stated (including Nevada) were marked on the maps, and that is why he could only realize his adventures beyond the bounds of his homeland.
Of course May had his predecessors—they were the people who must have predetermined the increased adventurism of Nevada’s residents (in May’s day, just 20 percent of the state’s residents are citizens by birth; the remaining 80 were a result of the never-ending stream of settlers which didn’t seem to exhaust). It seems like after having read such stories about pioneers little Wilbur began dreaming about his own travels. One of the good role models for him could have been a man called Kit Carson, whose whole life was concentrated around that set consisting of boots, a horse, and a gun.
Following the Path of Kit Carson
In 1859, with the discovery of silver and gold at the Comstock Lode, began the large-scale deposit development that turned into the real boom in this area. But there were the exploring expeditions by John Fremont that preceded it. Carson participated in those as a guide. He was a frontiersman, as they used to call it at that time. He was of Irish-Scottish origin, a peasant by birth, who spent most of his life in the saddle, discovering new lands, hunting, and, as was common for those times, engaged in military activities.
In winter 1843, the expedition led by Carson came to the valley of the river which headed in the Sierra Nevada and got lost somewhere on the expanses of deserted Great Basin. Later this river would be named after Carson, just like the city standing on it that is now the capital of the State of Nevada. It is a general belief that the city’s destiny was predetermined by its geographical position—between Virginia City with its silver reserves and the Sierra Nevada, rich in lumber, which is so important for the field development. It also predetermined the destiny of the forests, the death of which the Territorial Enterprise newspaper reported at the end of the 19th century.
Today’s Carson City is like a museum under the open sky, where the majority of buildings have been preserved in their original state: the Capitol and U.S. Mint buildings, rail depot, the Governor’s Mansion, and even the old jail. Perhaps that is why it isn’t so difficult to imagine, how, let’s say, Territorial Secretary Orion Clemens (who was the brother of Samuel Clemens, also known as Mark Twain) walked down these streets on his way to work. It isn’t hard to picture Twain himself, who was “born” as a writer under his well-known pseudonym not far from here in Virginia City as he worked for the Territorial Enterprise.
If yet you decide to visit the Nevada State Railroad Museum, situated in the southern part of the city, then the feeling of traveling back in time will become even more real since the majority of the museum’s exhibits bring us back to the end of the 19th century.
On the Banks of the Truckee River
The Truckee River flows through downtown Reno, where numerous casinos and hotels are located, the biggest of their kind in the Northern Nevada. Making its way from Pyramid Lake to Lake Tahoe along the Truckee, Fremont’s expedition passed these places where at that time there was literally nothing. A little later, in 1859, the bridge across the Truckee was built in order to provide the necessary connection between Virginia City and the road going further to California. This bridge was nothing more than a business engagement (one could drive through for a fee, later there appeared usual road infrastructure, consisting of a hotel, restaurants etc.) that laid the foundation of the city to be. In the following years, Reno became an important transportation hub where such important throughways of the time like the Union Pacific Railroad and Virginia and Truckee Railroad converged.
Reno could be considered a mini version of Las Vegas (even though, after looking at the 20- and 30-storied buildings housing fashionable hotels and casinos, you don’t have the heart to say that it’s “mini”). Everything here is on a grand scale. Gambling was legalized in Nevada in 1931 and could do nothing but further the city’s development. Within a short period of time here appeared Harrah’s, Cal Neva, Fitzgeralds, and a lot of other gambling houses.
Be that as it may, but the fact remains – Las Vegas took the palm from Reno in the late 50’s of the last century. On the other hand, Las Vegas never had its own Lake Tahoe or the Sierra Nevada mountains, nor had it the romantic appeal of gold and silver rush of the old times. Perhaps that is why Reno hasn’t wasted away in the shadow of its southern neighbor and has been an attractive travel destination.
Lake District poetry
In the middle of the 19th century, there existed a trend in English poetry that was called “Lake school,” Wordsworth, Coleridge, and other poets of that ilk got this collective name because of living and writing in the so-called Lake District in northwest England. But I suppose that they could have created even better poems if it was Lake Tahoe that was their muse and inspiration.
Today it is not a problem to get to the Tahoe lakeside from Reno. The distance is a mere trifle; it won’t take you more than an hour to get there. But in 1844, when Fremont and Carson followed this route, their trip took much longer due to the absence of roads and especially because it was a winter undertaking.
The Truckee River is remarkable, for it is the only river that flows out of the legendary Lake Tahoe that is known around the world for its beauty. Along the Truckee initially went the Interstate-80 highway, going then through the Sierra Nevada mountains up to San Francisco. There was a time when exploration of these lands was connected with the building of the first transcontinental railroad, also known as the Pacific Railroad. Of course, the old way isn’t used anymore, but you can, however, see it upon passing I- 80, since the highway and railroad follow practically the same route. This same route (even though with a few deviations) once followed Fremont and Carson.
The Washoe Indians had used Lake Tahoe for hundreds of years as a sacred place, where tribal meetings were held in summer, and it was unlikely that they would share the information about its location with the pioneers. That’s why Fremont’s discovery (it seems like the expedition found it due to a lucky circumstance while searching for the legendary river of Buenaventura that turned to be a legend only, which was proved by this expedition) came as a complete surprise.
However, it is a general belief that Fremont was one of the first Europeans to have seen Tahoe. According to his expedition diaries, it happened on February 14, 1844.
It’s funny to assume that, taking into consideration the date that this event took place, this meeting was meant to become love at first sight. It’s easy to believe even today, when the lake’s shores are a real paradise. Mountain slopes, yacht berths, cycling roads, sightseeing platforms, and campgrounds—all this is present on the Tahoe lakeside, just like the wonderful scenery with its dazzling beauty that amazes you to the innermost of your heart.
I think that after all the difficulties of the trip Fremont and Carson finally got to the Tahoe lakeside and saw its mirror-like water surface, they could only have one thought—“it was worth it.” And further to the west from the lake was California—one more point in the long journey of the pioneers of America.
* * *
The trip of Fremont and Carson was just a preface to even more stirring events. Later on there was the gold rush of California and the silver rush of Nevada. Virginia City was founded, whereas Sacramento developed into a prosperous city. Afterwards the settlers of Iowa laid the famous Truckee Trail, and the Pacific Railroad was built. After that, the gambling industry, shimmering in the neon light, came to Nevada. But it all happened much later after the expedition led by Carson had widened the borders of the world that people knew.
Vitaliy Shuptar (above) participated in the 2011 Legislative Fellows Program, which provides young professionals direct exposure to the U.S. political process. Shuptar works for the Avalon Historico-Geographical Society & Public Foundation in Kazakhstan.