On a recent hunting/camping trip to Humboldt and Elko counties, my son, John, and I had a remarkable closeup experience with a group of the elusive pronghorn antelope abundant in the area. It is rare to approach very close to these beautiful animals, so this was a special treat to see them and their activities up close.
After camping for two days on the shore of Willow Creek reservoir in Elko County, we decided to return home, since the deer habitat in the area was in such poor condition due to recent fires which had devastated the area. We were traveling south between Midas and Golconda through a portion of the range that had been turned to scorched earth along the east side of the highway. On the west side there was the yellow grass from BLM revegetation operations.
During our trip through the mountains and desert country, we had seen many groups of from one to thirty or more pronghorn antelope running in the distance. It seems they always see us long before we see them, since their eyesight is so remarkable.
Suddenly, a small group of three antelope does dashed across the highway directly in front of us. They immediately stopped and looked back across the road where they had left two fawns behind. We stopped the truck with the camper to get a look at the animals. We noticed that the two fawns were still behind the barbed wire fence alongside the highway. Pronghorn antelope do not jump over fences like deer do, but rather, they prefer to crawl under the bottom wire of the fence.
Crawling under the wire of a fence was obviously not a skill the fawns had yet learned, since they just paced nervously back and forth waiting for the does to come back to rescue them. Amazingly, the does ignored us, parked just a few feet away and dashed back across the highway to rescue the fawns. After a few minutes of encouragement from the mature does, the fawns figured out they had to crawl under the wire and join the does.
The tiny heard then galloped back across the highway and took off through the tall grass.
The need to rescue the fawns overpowered any fear the does may have had of us parked in the highway just a few feet away. Their maternal instinct saved the tiny baby antelope from abandonment. We can be sure the fawns will know what to do the next time they need to cross a fence. The BLM requires that all fences in antelope habitat have a bottom wire high enough for the antelope to scurry under.
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.”
Dennis’s annual Gold Hill Hotel lecture is scheduled for April 17! This year, the topic will be “Transportation in the Comstock Days.”
Dennis has been giving lectures at the Gold Hill Hotel for more than a decade, covering such topics as Great Basin Indian artifacts, Nevada archaeology and Comstock history. Dinner is served at 5 p.m., and the lecture begins at 7:30 p.m. Also, Dennis’s books will be available for purchase and for signing at the event. Hope to see you there!
WHAT: Transportation in the Comstock Days, a lecture and book-signing by Dennis Cassinelli
WHERE: Gold Hill Hotel, 1540 Main St., Virginia City, NV.
WHEN: Tuesday, April 17. Dinner begins at 5 p.m.; lecture begins at 7:30 p.m.
COST: $15 dinner and lecture; $5 lecture only
DETAILS: To make reservations, call the Gold Hill Hotel at 775-847-0111.