by James Ray Deaton 7/5/16
My annual summertime boonie-bouncing Jeep trip into the more empty Western places found me on the Applegate Trail through High Rock Canyon in northwest Nevada. Most of an old pioneer road, the Applegate Trail, is still there pretty much as the pioneers traveled it in the 1800’s — remote and rocky, dry hot and dusty, basin and range, white alkali flats, big wind, little water, rattlesnakes, antelope, foxes, big cats (only their tracks seen), bighorn sheep (unseen), ticks galore, California quail, sage grouse, jackrabbits aplenty and wild horses. Surrounded everywhere by tall sage, rabbitbrush and far horizons. It’s hard on human beings, boot leather, the unprepared and wheels and vehicles of any kind (whether pulled by oxen or powered by internal combustion).
The trail was forged by the Applegate brothers, Levi Scott and others in 1846 as an alternate, more southern (supposedly safer) route into Oregon from Nevada into California, then on up to the Willamette Valley. The Lassen Trail later branched off the Applegate into north-central California and for a year or two was the most popular (but not best) pioneer route into California and the Gold Country. The Applegate branches off northwest from the old California Trail near the present-day town of Imlay, Nevada. The route went past Antelope Springs, up and over Antelope Summit then back down to Rabbit Hole Spring (a water supply that made the route possible for the 19th century travelers), across the Black Rock Desert, through Fly Canyon, High Rock Canyon, Modoc Country, then on to Oregon and some very difficult trail sections through the Siskiyou Mountains, Umpqua Canyon and on to the Promised Lands of Willamette Valley.
“Fifty-Four Forty or Fight” was still in play and plenty of restless Americans from Back East saw economic opportunity, a little nationalistic duty, Manifest Destiny and plain good adventure in an overland trek to this new and wide-open country. There was no government subsidy, relocation stipend or hazardous duty pay to incentivize the move. Men, women and families struck out West for the chance of a better life with no guaranteed outcome or social safety net if things didn’t work out. Although the emigrants traveled in groups with rules, government and customs, “rugged individualism” was not a derisive epithet, but an expected and appreciated personality trait.
It’s not the same, but you can still get at least a sense of what the 19th century pioneers experienced on the trail to California and Oregon. It passes through some of the most remote, pristine and stark natural landscapes in the lower 48. You can bounce along all day on the road and not pass another vehicle. You can stop for a remote natural hot pool soak in Soldier Meadows. You can walk (or tumble) down the Fly Canyon “wagon slide” where pioneers had to lock the wheels with chain and lower their wagons down with rope because of the rocky steepness of the trail.
Up the hill a ways from Antelope Springs in a cluster of desert bush and grass you can find Susan Coon’s gravesite, one of the few trail graves with its original headstone remaining. Susan Coon died after childbirth in August 1860. The child, Robert Coon, survived and was taken on to California. Fellow pioneer Frank Dunn, a stonecutter traveling with the group, spent the night of her death carving the original headstone from native rock so it could be placed on the grave before travel resumed the next day. Robert Coon grew up and became a rancher in the Dayton district of Butte County, Calif.
An Oct. 7, 1931 article in the Chico (Calif.) Enterprise tells how, years later, Susan Coon’s grandson, her now-elderly daughter (“Mrs. Martha E. Lewis, 78, of Dayton” and other relatives, some who had been on the trail with Susan as children, were finally able to locate her gravesite.
“Actual discovery of the grave was made by Lewis while other members of the party were inspecting the ground near Little Antelope Spring,” the article reads. “The women who had been in the immigrant train when Mrs. Coon died recognized the place of the burial immediately when they arrived there Sunday and an intensive search soon revealed the lonely grave, although it had been 71 years since they had seen the spot.”
Even after 170 years you can walk through the sage along the actual wagon route and still see the faint twin track indentations their wheels wore into the earth. In a rock-bedded section of the High Rock Canyon there are twin grooves in the road, about 4 feet apart, where the iron bands of wagon wheels wore tracks into the rock. Pioneer names and dates chiseled into the rock face and written with axel grease onto rock can still be seen. The soaring rhyolite and basalt cliffs of High Rock Canyon seem to close in at dusk— beautiful and a little scary at the same time. An orange-red full moon coming into preternaturally huge view will stop all campsite preparation while you stop and stare, dumbfounded. (How do it do that?)
“It was a singular place to travel through” said Pathfinder John C. Fremont who traveled through High Rock Canyon in late 1843 with his scout Kit Carson. “Shut up in the earth, a sort of chasm, the little strip of grass under our feet, the rough walls of bare rock on either hand, and the narrow strip of sky above.”
Bad road and remote camping are the touchstones of a good Nevada Jeep Trip. If you want to get a sense of the trials and toils the pioneers experienced when they traveled westward in the course of empire and an unknown future — the Applegate Trail through Nevada is a great place to start.
James Ray Deaton, one of six known conservatives living in Berkeley, Calif., is a graduate of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
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