A rocky pursuit for the elusive SUV boulder 

The elusive SUV boulder, so named because … well, it looks like an SUV. And it’s a boulder.

The rock hunter stalks his quarry with a cool, levelheaded calm. He looks completely at peace. His steps are quick and effortless. In a single, fluid motion, he scampers down a hillside and hunkers alongside a scraggly brush, his eyes squinted against the sun. Beads of sweat dot his forehead. His arms appear chiseled from granite, his leathery skin bronzed. He peels back his dry, cracked lips, sucking in a quick breath and savoring the fresh, outside air.

Then, he lights a cigarette.

At this moment, the rock hunter looks intent and menacing. The stones scattered around him lie petrified by his presence.

But this hunter’s not interested in mere pebbles. Too easy. His prey is larger, and bulkier. He’s in this game for the sport, and there’s no sport in plucking marble-sized rocks from the ground. No, he’s seeking out a far bigger prize – one that will bring him fame, awards and money. This hunter is stalking the elusive SUV boulder.

Once thought to be extinct, the SUV boulder inhabits the far reaches of the desolate Great Basin desert. Its numbers are small, and few people have reported seeing them. Many of the purported sightings have later proved to be hoaxes.

But our hunter seeks the real thing. Armed with his trusty rock hammer, which is holstered in his belt, he rises from his spot and strides across the terrain. The heat is brutal and unforgiving. A lone buzzard swoops in circles overhead. The hunter raises an eyebrow, his face steely, and scary. A lizard scurries under a rock, as if frightened by the hunter’s sinister gaze.

The flats soon give way to clumps of dense sagebrush. A single, lonely flower sprouts from the dry, ragged earth. It’s a bright-red Indian paintbrush, which offers a speckle of color against the swaths of gray brush.

The hunter kicks at the flower, uprooting it. Its roots wave like tendrils in the breeze, grasping for a hold that’s no longer there.

The hunter crushes the flower’s petals with the heel of his boot, a wicked snigger escaping his parched lips. He should definitely consider chapstick, but he’s much too tough for that. Especially as he mercilessly grinds the flower’s petals into the sand.

A herd of rocks lies ahead. The hunter can see it. They’re way off in the distance – at least a dozen. They’re not SUV rocks – SUV rocks don’t travel in herds – but they’re beautiful specimens of cherry-red jasper. The hunter moves forward, stealthily.

But the rocks are alert. They raise their heads, sensing a predatory presence. The larger ones instinctively encircle the herd. They’re all fine, beautiful specimens. And because they spend so much of their time rolling, these stones have gathered no moss.

The hunter pauses. He knows the rocks can sense his presence, and he doesn’t want them to scatter. He stands and stares, his palm shielding his eyes. Ever so slowly, he runs his fingers along the handle of his rock hammer.

A moment passes. And another. Then, one of the jasper rocks turns, signaling to the others to start rolling.

And away they go, spreading like startled deer. The hunter unholsters his rock hammer and starts running. He sets his sights on the largest rock – a buck. Though not as valued as the SUV boulder, a chunk of jasper can be broken up and put into a tumbler to create smooth, glittering gems. The rock hunter can then sell them for 25 cents apiece in a Virginia City souvenir shop.

The rocks are rolling faster, barreling toward the edge of a steep canyon. If they can make the canyon, they can escape the hunter. So they roll even faster, tumbling over stones and brush.

The hunter grabs his hammer and throws it like a tomahawk. It grazes the rock’s shoulder and stabs into the ground, protruding like a wayward projectile. The jasper rocks sail into the canyon Thelma-and-Louise-style, bouncing down the cliffs and colliding with one another in the narrow valley below. A few are chipped and bruised, but otherwise, they’re unhurt – and they’ve all gotten away.

The hunter has been eluded, and he knows it. He’s explored this terrain for years, but he forgot about the valley. And that was his undoing. He should have known that provided with such a convenient escape route, the rocks would get away.

The rock hunter has lost some of his cool, but not his swagger. He pauses to catch his breath, then saunters forward to collect his rock hammer. Its cold, hard steel glimmers in the afternoon sun.

The hunter continues his search for the elusive SUV boulder. The sun hangs high in the sky, scalding the forbidding landscape. The hunter passes the bleached remains of a fellow desert wanderer. Perhaps he was a hapless rock hunter who ended up losing his marbles.

The SUV boulder is out there. The hunter is sure of it. He’s spent his whole life pursuing the creature, but he’s never laid his eyes on one. It’s the only specimen he doesn’t have in his yard. The hunter doesn’t want to die without first attaining the ultimate trophy.

The winds whisper across the desert, stirring up the dust. The sun sinks lower in the late-afternoon sky. Another day is passing. Another day with no SUV boulder. Another day of wretched, agonizing failure.

The hunter sits upon a rock outcropping to rest. He gulps from his canteen. His boots, trousers, shirt – and even the roof of his mouth – are all coated with a fine, powdery dust. He leans back his head, pulling his hat low to shade his eyes. The heat can drive a man insane; make him do things he might later regret … like forgetting to put rinse aid in the dishwasher so that his glasses come out all spotty.

As twilight approaches, the hunter gets up to leave. His camp is not too far. He’ll spend the evening cooking beans and dreaming about that prized SUV boulder.

Then later, in his tent, the flap half-open to let out the farts, the hunter will drift off to a deep and restful sleep. He’ll dream about the SUV boulder, that sacred trophy that has eluded him for so long.

And in his dream he’ll be wandering, crossing the rugged miles in boots worn thin from time, as he searches for that holy grail of boulders, leaving no stone unturned.

Allen Coyle is Dennis Cassinelli’s grandson and the author of two books, which are available on Amazon. He’s also the webmaster for denniscassinelli.com.

Memories of growing up on a ranch in Sparks 

a small, white, one-room, old-fashioned schoolhouse with a sign that says "Glendale School"
The Glendale School in Sparks, Nevada. 1864-1958

I was born in Reno and grew up on a ranch in Sparks, Nevada, on Glendale Road where Baldini’s Casino is now located.

Our ranch was bordered on the south by the Truckee River and on the north by Glendale Road. My grandfather, Pete, and his three sons, Raymond, Chester and Bob, operated the ranch. Raymond was my father and we all worked together raising hogs, cattle, potatoes, corn, garlic and onions. My dad drove a dump truck every day to the Reno Army Air Base to pick up a load of swill to feed our hogs. One year, the hogs caught hog cholera and all of them died. All of us kids who lived on the ranch in those days had their own horses.

Two times in the 1950s, the Truckee River flooded and removed layers of topsoil from the fields along the river. Each time, I went down along the river to see the damage. I discovered the floods had uncovered many arrowheads, manos and metates for me to find. This became the beginning of the artifact collection I later donated to museums in Stewart and Gardnerville. Archaeologists later did a study of the area they named the Glendale site.

Just northwest across Glendale Road from our ranch was the Nevada State Mental Hospital, then known as the “asylum.” In those days, the facility had a small farm, butcher shop and a dairy for hospital use. The patients were not allowed to drive a motor vehicle, so they still used horse-drawn wagons to haul hay from our ranch to their dairy across Glendale Road.

One day, as a wagon was leaving our ranch, the driver stopped at my grandmother’s house for a drink of water, leaving the team unattended. The horses took off and headed back to the dairy with the load of hay. As they left our ranch at the end of our lane, the wagon tipped over in the neighbor’s yard across the street dumping the load of hay in the yard. The horses broke loose and ran back to the dairy.

I worked on the survey crew for the Nevada Department of Transportation in Sparks staking out the concrete columns for the elevated freeway over John Asquaga’s Nugget in the early 1960s. Sparks had a nice park called Deer Park, where we often went swimming and picnicking. One of our school events was Jacks Carnival where we marched in a parade in costume.

One year, we were let out of school early to go to the town bandstand to see President Harry Truman speak. Not being much of a political person, I walked back to the ranch instead. I was originally supposed to attend the 1864 one-room Glendale School, but my mother insisted I go to the school she attended, the Robert Mitchel School in Sparks.

a plaque affixed to the outside of an old-fashioned, one-room schoolhouse
State Historic Marker Number 169 tells the story of the Glendale School. Click here for a larger image and to read the text.

While I was still in high school, my family leased the old Stead ranch in Spanish Springs Valley for several years. I asked schoolmates if they wanted to work to earn a few bucks. We picked them up at the Block S in Sparks with a cattle truck and took them out to work weeding onions in Spanish Springs Valley. My uncle, Chester, stood at the edge of the onion field at the end of each day with a cowboy hat full of silver dollars. As we passed by, he handed each one of us five silver dollars for the eight hours of work we did.

I was familiar with silver dollars, since my mother was a blackjack dealer and brought many home from her tip money. She gave me one each week to pay for hot lunch at school. When she gave me one with a Carson City mint mark, I went without lunch that week and kept the dollar.

When it came time to pick potatoes, we hired the students from the Stewart Indian School to come out with busloads of students to work in the potato fields. Other farmers did the same.

Every year my family hired a crop duster with an airplane to come and dust the fields with insecticide for bugs. One year, my uncle, Bob, and I were watching the plane circle back and forth spraying the fields. Suddenly, we saw the plane hit a tree behind my house and crash in the road. Bob and I ran as fast as we could to help the pilot get out of the wrecked airplane. Fortunately, he was shaken up but not seriously injured.

My family bought a prisoner of war barracks building from the Reno Army Air Base and converted it into an apartment building on Glendale Road. When Mary and I got married, we rented an apartment from my uncle as our first home together.

The ‘loneliest road in America’? Not so fast

Nevada author Dennis Cassinelli explores the desert landscape near Grimes Point, Nevada
Exploring the sprawling desert landscape near Grimes Point, Nevada. Contrary to what some people may claim, there is a lot to see and appreciate along the Highway 50 corridor through Nevada.

In July 1986, Life magazine declared Nevada’s Highway 50 the “Loneliest Road in America,” claiming there were no points of interest along the route and warning readers not to risk traveling it unless they were confident of their survival skills.

Thirty-five years later, Travel Nevada continues to shine a light on and celebrate Highway 50 and its gateway to ghost towns, historic mining communities, state parks, recreational opportunities, and wide-open spaces.

I have personally traveled the full length of Nevada’s Highway 50 many times while working for the Nevada Department of Transportation for many years. In addition, my family and I have traveled to various destinations on Highway 50 on many occasions.

I take exception to the claim that “there were no points of interest along the route.” To illustrate my position, I will start with the west end of the route in Carson City, where the old Carson City Mint is located. This is where I found a hoard of more than 900 Carson City coin dies buried at the mint since the 1800s. The V&T Railroad had a spur at the mint where gold and silver was brought to be minted into coins. The old V&T depot still stands in Carson City.

Next, moving east at Mound House, is the brothel district and the location of the Mound House Depot for the V&T Railroad and the beginning the Carson and Colorado Railroad whose depot in Dayton recently burned down.

Moving on toward Dayton we come to the Pony Express Station in the historic downtown area, one of the best-preserved of the Nevada Pony Express Stations. Dayton is where gold was first discovered in 1849 at the end of Gold Canyon where it reaches the Carson River.

Just past Dayton is the Dayton State Park. North of Dayton is the town of Sutro and the portal of the Sutro Tunnel that still drains water from the Comstock mines. Plans are under way to stabilize and restore the Sutro tunnel to make it a tourist attraction where many artifacts from the Comstock mines are on display. 

Highway 50 Alternate forks off to Fernley, a gateway for people traveling to the annual Burning Man gathering.

Highway 50 then enters the Great American Desert that was dreaded so much by the early emigrants. Just before reaching Fallon, the road passes Ragtown, along the Carson River. This was where emigrants stopped for water and rest after crossing the 40-mile desert. Fallon is famous for its auto mall, the annual cantaloupe festival, corn mazes and being the county seat of Churchill County.

Beyond Fallon lies Sand Mountain where people drive their dune buggies, the ruins of the Sand Springs Pony Express Station and the Grimes Point archaeological area. Grimes Point has acres of boulders covered with ancient petroglyphs. It is also the location of Hidden Cave and Spirit Cave that was the basis for my book, Legends of Spirit Cave.

At the junction of Highway 50 and the road to Gabbs is the Middlegate Station. My NDOT crew and I dined on their famous Monster Burgers on more than one occasion at Middlegate. The remains of several pony express stations, including the one in Dayton, can be seen along the Highway 50 corridor.

Next on the route comes Austin, famous for a tall stone building called Stokes Castle. Austin, settled in 1862, was the mother of central Nevada mining towns and has 11 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The next town on the route is Eureka, with the restored 1880 Eureka Opera House and the Eureka Sentinel Newspaper Museum. Eureka is the county seat of Eureka County.

The next town along the route is Ely, county seat of White Pine County. Ely is known for a huge open pit mine at Ruth west of town where millions of tons of copper ore was removed over many years. One of the main attractions in Ely is the Nevada Northern Railway Museum. The Nevada Northern Railroad still operates as a tourist attraction. Ely also has the White Pine County Golf Course. Just southeast of Ely, is Baker, gateway to the Great Basin National Park.

As you can see, the Highway 50 Route across Nevada is filled with places of historical importance and I have barely scratched the surface. When traveling the route, get out of the car and take a walk alongside the highway. You may see wildflowers, Indian Paintbrush, arrowheads, gem stones, quartz crystals, lizards doing pushups on flat rocks and all sorts of wildlife. There is more to Highway 50 than getting from one place to another. Having been there many times, I have never felt lonely on Highway 50.