‘There just isn’t anything out in the desert’

barren desert sand forms a steep hill with slippery slopes on either side
What people imagine the Nevada desert looks like.
a barbed-wire fence fades into the horizon atop sandy desert hills covered with pine trees and brush.
What the Nevada desert actually looks like.

I often have heard people comment after a long drive through the Nevada desert, “What a desolate place. There just isn’t anything out there.”

I just shake my head when I hear that comment and think to myself, Did you not see the coyotes, the deer and the antelope? Didn’t you see the bald eagles, badgers, sage hen, wild donkeys, bighorn sheep, buzzards, jackrabbits, mustangs, bobcats, mountain lions or desert foxes? Didn’t you see any tarantulas the size of a child’s hand or desert tortoises cross the road in front of your car? Didn’t you notice the Indian petroglyphs on the rock outcroppings as you passed by? Didn’t you notice the horizontal lines on the hills that mark the shorelines of ancient Lake Lahontan? Didn’t you notice the vegetation change before your eyes as you passed from the low deserts to the mountain passes and actually traversed several climate zones within the confines of this Great Basin?

Why didn’t you stop along the road at one of the many mountain summits and pick a few of the delicious pine nuts from the unique single-leaf pinion trees that grow there? Try cutting open a cactus pear from the southern deserts and taste the delicious sweet fruit inside. Didn’t you notice the tufa formations standing in the desert that could have been formed only underwater when the desert was once a vast, inland sea?

Why did you not venture off the main highway to see one of the countless ghost towns where people had dreams of wealth and fortune, only to move on again when the ore ran out so many years ago? Didn’t you realize when you visited the Comstock that you were in the area where the wealth was mined to help the Union win the Civil War? Did you not know that this was one of the few places where there was so much gold and silver mined from these deserts to justify establishment of a United States Mint? Didn’t you look in the rearview mirror as you left Las Vegas to get a glimpse of the largest hotels in the world in the fastest-growing city in the country? As you passed by Yucca Flats north of town, did you realize that was the valley where the giant mushrooms grew — nuclear mushrooms, that is? Didn’t you look off toward the north as you passed through Carlin to see the largest gold mine in the world?

Didn’t you ever stop along the road and reach down to pick up a purple pumpkinseed bottle once thrown out the window of a dusty stagecoach? Didn’t you stop for a few minutes to walk out among the blooming cactus and wildflowers, to see the weathered rocks covered with desert varnish, to feel how sharp the needles were on a Joshua tree, or to watch a bluebelly lizard doing pushups on a flat rock? Try taking a casual stroll through the sagebrush or cactus and marvel at the colorful variety of desert pebbles scattered on the ground. Among these are gemstones of many kinds and bits of fossilized bone, petrified wood and an occasional arrowhead. I’ve even found chunks of ancient coral near Dayton and Fernley.

The deserts of the Great Basin are capable of telling us a remarkable story. The geology of the region tells of volcanic activity, violent earthquake upheavals, times when the desert was under the ocean, when there was forests of redwood trees, as evidenced by huge petrified tree trunks, sea shell fossils on the ridge tops, periods of glaciations, and every climatic cycle imaginable. Mankind arrived during the Holocene or very late in the Pleistocene. The climate and landscape were similar in some ways, yet different from what one sees here today. Many of the plants and animals were what we have here now, but there were some remnants of Late Pleistocene animals to be hunted, such as the mammoth, horse and camel.

Pay more attention when you are out there in the desert. One day you may pass by Area 51 and be abducted by aliens, never to be seen again. Perhaps only then will you realize how wrong you were to say, “There just isn’t anything out there.”

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About Dennis Cassinelli

Dennis Cassinelli is a Nevada author, historian and outdoorsman. He’s written extensively about American Indian culture and Comstock history. His book, Preserving Traces of the Great Basin Indians, contains up-close photographs and detailed pen-and-ink drawings of American Indian stone artifacts. It also contains a fold-out chronology chart showing projectile points across a 12,000-year time scale. The book is a must-have for every enthusiast of Great Basin archaeology. Dennis’s website is DennisCassinelli.com.