A mountain in Nevada (or was it Utah?) whose name we can’t remember. It was that kind of journey. The kind that never seems to end, no matter how small it looks on the map. Photo: Annette Laing, 2021.
Please note: This is the last of my daily emails from the road. I'll be posting most of them on the site instead, so watch this space! You can read the next post here. A.L.
I shouldn’t complain.
People who headed for the Gold Rush on the Hastings Route from Salt Lake City to California in 1849 were hot and miserable. They endured unimaginably long treks through vast and searing deserts for weeks, months, across valley after valley of numbing length and number.
My journey with HWSNBNOTI (He Who Shall Not Be Named on Facebook, pronounced Hoosen Benoti) was of a different order.
We had air conditioning. Crossing Independence Valley, as just one example of many, took us 10 minutes at 75 mph, while migrants walking alongside ox-drawn wagons at 3 mph would probably have taken at least five hours to cover the same ten miles, because oxen and people had to stop, rest, and eat.
But never mind them and their suffering.
Hoosen and I had no wifi or cell phone service for much of the journey.
So we and our Honda wagon took nine hours to get from Salt Lake City (which was two years old in 1849) to Reno (which didn’t exist in 1849). We stopped for food for the car (gas) and for ourselves: McDonalds. That tells you how bad things got.
The Gold Rushers imbibed barely drinkable water from the Humboldt River most of the way, which gradually turned into an alkali-infused slurry until the river finally vanished into the ground in an area called the Humboldt Sink. We inhaled barely drinkable syrupy Cokes until we began to worry about diabetes.
The migrants, miserable, hot, and angry, sometimes insulted or even attacked the native inhabitants. We tried very hard not to do that at McDonalds, so a point to us.
The migrants crossed the Forty Mile desert after the Humboldt Sink without water, hoping their animals wouldn’t die. We crossed the Forty Mile Desert hoping our wagon wouldn’t break down.
See? Same thing.
The Ruby Mountains, Nevada. The 1849 migrants got to enjoy sights like this while reminding themselves that gold lay at the end of their hellacious journey. We enjoyed sights like this while wondering when our wifi would come back. Photo: Annette Laing, 2021.
Illusions in the Desert (1): The Saltair
This is not a North African resort on the Mediterranean that just happens to have spoiled the view with its dumpsters. This is Saltair (get it? Salt air?) on the Great Salt Lake in Utah. When do you think it was built? Be careful: There are many illusions in the desert. Photo: Annette Laing, 2021
Once, in the era of New York’s Coney Island and England’s Blackpool, the peak era of cheap beachside getaways and amusements for ordinary folk around the turn of the last century, there was a pier on this beach, steamboats, and a hundred bathing machines, which were little huts where modest Victorians could change into swimwear.
To the joy of Salt Lake City’s residents, the Saltair resort was opened in 1893, thanks to electric light, and combined investment from the local railroad company, no surprise there, and, a little more surprisingly the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The Church wanted to draw its members away from other, ungodly and non-Mormon resorts being built on the Lake, and conservatives in Salt Lake City welcomed it, although there was criticism when the resort served coffee (contrary to Mormon doctrine) and opened on Sundays (ditto), which suggests that Saltair’s clientele was open to going to the competition if it didn’t get what it wanted.
Long story short: Saltair burned down in 1925 just as its fortunes ebbed when people in Salt Lake City decided to stay home and go see newfangled movies instead.
Investors rebuilt Saltair in 1929, right in time for the Great Depression. Two years later, by an amazing coincidence, much of it burned down again.
And then, because the Salt Lake isn’t a sea, it did something unexpected. It retreated, leaving the resort stranded far from the water. Saltair closed in 1941, and was only used for special events until the 1970s, when it burned down. Again.
The Saltair you see above was built in 1981. A few months after it was completed, the Great Salt Lake changed its mind, rose again, and flooded the new resort. It stayed flooded for years. When new investors started fixing the problem, the lake, which clearly has a sick sense of humor, receded again, leaving the resort high and dry.
Today, Saltair is a music venue. It seems to be doing fine. For now.
Illusions in the Desert (2): Lansford Hastings, His Route, and the Great Salt Desert
Lansford Hastings was an expert. A man you could trust. After all, he had recently written an actual bestselling book about traveling West, The Emigrants' Guide to Oregon and California (1845). The year after it was published to great acclaim, James Reed, an Irishman who was his way from Illinois to California, was delighted when a rider came toward his wagon train on the trail, and handed them a letter. It was from the famous author himself!
In his book, Hastings had suggested a great new route for people going to California, faster, shorter, and via the Great Salt Lake (Salt Lake City wasn’t there yet). He wrote:
The most direct path would be leave the Oregon route, about two hundred miles east of Fort Hall; thence bearing west-south west, to the Salt Lake; and thence continuing down to the bay of San Francisco."
Now, in his letter, delivered by riders he had hired to hand to all the migrants they could find, he invited them all to meet him at Fort Bridger (in present-day Wyoming) and he would personally guide them on his new route.
James Reed and his group were flattered and thrilled.
There was only one problem. Hastings’ NEW and IMPROVED route to California. which would take the migrants through the Wasatch Mountains and across the Great Salt Lake Basin?
Hastings had never actually done it himself.
This is a long story I don’t have time to tell now. But if I tell you that the Reed family was accompanied by, among others, the Donner family, you might already know the ending. Badly misled, they arrived too late to avoid the snows in the Sierra Nevada mountains as they crossed into California. Their story ended in horror and tragedy.
As for Lansford Hastings? He never paid the price for his lies. He was still the slick salesman when he died in 1870, while leading a group of former Confederates to settle in Brazil.
Is this just sensational trivia, rather than a meaningful story? Not to me it’s not. Beware slick celebs with abundant confidence, that’s what I take from it.
Bravely exploring the Great Salt Desert in Utah from the highway rest stop (parking area with loos) on the I-80 freeway.
The Donner-Reed Party and other migrants on the Hastings route thought that crossing the Great Salt Desert would be a snap. It turned out to be 80 miles of hell, with the oxen’s hooves sometimes breaking through the salt and getting hopelessly stuck in the water and clay below. I wonder if the guy in the pickup truck doing doughnuts on the salt behind me knows to avoid the gray areas? Shall I tell him? Noooo. I think not. Why spoil the fun?
Illusions in the Desert (3): Floating Island
Migrants crossing the desert reported seeing, as they traveled, a hill separate from its neighbors, and float before their very eyes.
And Hoosen and I saw it too, from the I-80.
Here’s how it started:
And here’s how it looked by the time we had almost passed it:
Photos: Annette Laing, 2021
Did the migrants freak out at this eerie sight? Of course they didn’t. They were educated Victorians, not medieval peasants, or people who spend too much time “researching” on the Internet.
They knew it was an optical illusion.
Sadly, most people who pass it by on the I-80, hurrying West to California, don’t notice Floating Island. Because they never heard of it.
But I have, thanks to history. And now, so have you.
Illusions in the Desert (4): Money
The desert between Salt Lake City and Reno is vast and full of mirages. Perhaps the greatest mirage of all? The casinos along the way, starting right on the Nevada state line at West Wendover, offering us riches. One look at their grand buildings should tell us where the money actually goes.
Guys, hope you are enjoying this account of the trip! I will continue to post about it on the website, but not all posts will be emailed to you. That way, I avoid overwhelming inboxes and getting in trouble with servers. That’s techspeak for “You can’t win, unless your name is Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos or something like that.” So if you want to hear more from me, just check in at Non-Boring History and do click on the little heart if you read and enjoy a post!