"Emigrant Trails West" is a guidebook to the ghostly remnants of the routes taken 150 years ago by pioneers across the western United States.
It is published by Trails West, Inc., a non-profit historical organization of volunteers who spend their weekends and vacations locating, marking and preserving the California Trail and its many overland branches that emigrants used to reach California.
This book, "Emigrant Trails West: A Guide to the California Trail from the Raft River to the Humboldt Sink and the Greenhorn Cutoff" ($24.95), is the first in an updated series that will eventually cover all the major emigrant trails leading to Northern California in the 1840s and 1850s. The route followed in this guidebook runs across the state of Nevada.
One of the volunteers who assisted on this project is Alison Portello, Davis Enterprise photographer.
"The weekend of April 25th I went on a mapping trip with a group of Trails West people," she said. "We were working on the Truckee Route east of Truckee Meadows (present day Reno). The mapping is done using GPS readings at certain known sites, then using (pioneer) diary quotes that describe the route, looking for swales, artifacts, rust on rocks from wagon wheels between the known areas.
"A great deal of time is spent by volunteers researching and mapping between the marking trips. For this particular trip we used quotes from 24 diaries. In other words, many hours are spent by volunteers researching the trail before the marking trips take place," Portello said.
Trails West has been designating the location of the California Trail and its branches with permanent markers since 1969. There are more than 500 markers installed in Idaho, Nevada and California. This guide includes historical commentary at many marker locations, simplifies driving instructions (the route generally parallels Interstate 80 much of the way across Nevada), adds trips that take the traveler off the main driving routes, and increases the number of photographs and maps with more trail details.
"I got involved because I had relatives that came across the California Trail," said Portello. "I got one of the old Trails West guides and thought it would be interesting to take photos. I started going on trips to erect markers and worked on this new revised guide by taking photos."
Someone taking an unhurried car trip across Nevada can see a lot of the California Trail, but you have to be willing to take your time and look.
"We include meticulously written directions on how to find our markers," she said. "And at each marker we include diary quotes from immigrant diaries. But some of the areas require access by four-wheel drive," Portello added.
"In most of the areas you'll see telephone poles and other signs of civilization, but there's still enough wild country for you to imagine what it was like for those early pioneers. The dust kicked up from the wagons would have come at you like waves...you can imagine what they endured.
"To me it's beautiful country that I would never have otherwise seen. It is so interesting to go out with the goal of finding the route the immigrants traveled, where they camped," she added.
This guide stops short of the Sierra Nevada crossing. It ends, in fact, in the Humboldt Sink, which was one of the emigrants' most despised areas on the westward journey.
This 40-mile desert was so inhospitable that many travelers preferred to cover the route at night. Bernard J. Reid wrote in September of 1849:
"The reveille sounded at midnight, the moon just up. All ready and off a little after 1 o'clock, our course bearing south of west. In two or three miles the plain became a bare desert, looking like an old brick yard, but white, almost like a winter snow scene. In some places the surface is like low heaps of fresh ashes in which one sinks to the ankle. No sign of vegetation in sight, except here and there a bunch of coarse grass or a small cluster of greasewood.
"The odor given out from the ground is like that of fresh cinders at a glass factory. The mountains in the distance dimly visible in the pale moonlight seemed scarcely real. At length day dawned and a little after sunrise we turned off to the left of the trail and camped at the foot of several wide marshes and pools of water terminating on a bank of ashy earth. This we understand to be the sink of the Humboldt ...."
During the Gold Rush years of 1849 to 1854, as many as 200,000 emigrants rolled in wagons, rode or walked along this route to the diggings in California.
The next guide will cover the Applegate/Lassen Trail that enters Northern California. Portello has taken most of the photos for that guidebook, which may be out in a year.
To order a copy of the guidebook, send a check for $24.95 plus $4 for shipping to Trails West, Inc., P.O. Box 12045, Reno, NV 89510. The Trails West website is www.emigranttrailswest.org.
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