It has been more than 50 years since I took my first hunting trip into the vast, desert country of northwestern Nevada. This is the area of northern Washoe County that includes the Black Rock Desert, Soldier Meadows and the dry expanse of Massacre Lake. A few miles closer to the California border lies the slender marsh called New Year Lake. For thousands of years, this region had been inhabited only by hunting and gathering bands of wandering Indian tribes. Then, in December 1843, the expedition led by John C. Fremont arrived searching for the legendary Buenaventura River and the elusive Mary’s Lake.
It was a discouraged little band of explorers on New Year’s Eve 1843 who wished each other “luck.” For days, Fremont’s band of half-frozen men had been sure it was nearing Mary’s Lake. Now, it was wading in the snow and salt grass of Soldier Meadows, and Mary’s Lake still was unfound. To make matters worse, the hooves of the animals were so worn and cut by rocks, many of them could barely stagger along.
Five nights before, Kit Carson’s horse had been stolen by the Indians. The next day, the party had surprised an Indian family in wickiups, captured the squaw and questioned her. So terrified had she been by her first glimpse of white men, she had closed her eyes to ward off the sight, and screamed. Eventually, she calmed down and spoke in a Snake dialect, but had little news or information to give them.
This day, the band had wandered down the magnificent gorges of High Rock Canyon, a “strip of grass underfoot … a strip of sky above,” almost a crack in the towering rock above. Spirits soared. High Rock Creek was running full, and the lush grass, willow groves and the slope of the land made them confident the canyon would lead them to Mary’s Lake. The steep rock walls echoed their shouts and calls.
Suddenly, the colorful canyon had ended, flaring out into a small valley, floored by an alkali lake (High Rock Lake) and rimmed with tall sagebrush. Fremont realized this was no “Mary’s Lake,” and sent scouts out, combing the sloping hillsides and probing Little High Rock Canyon to the right. Finally, a scout reported an ancient Indian trail over the brow of the hills to the left, and told of a deep pothole filled with sweet water in the sandstone.
Beyond each hill always lay the possibility of finding the elusive Mary’s Lake. But beyond this hill lay only another of the thousands of gently rolling, sage-covered valleys of the Great Basin Desert. Bitterly disappointed, the shambling line of men and animals moved slowly down the long slope into Soldier Meadows.
In the chilly late afternoon, they reached the bottom of the valley at a junction of small streams. The streams were tightly frozen and had to be cut to water the stock. Here would be a cold camp for their first New Year’s Eve in what would become Nevada. Captain Fremont logged another wasted day in the futile search for Mary’s Lake. Even the grass was salty and unpalatable.
By now, Fremont was beginning to realize why this great area had been so studiously avoided by the Spaniards, Mexicans, mountain men and others. These vast desert valleys and barren wastes seemed to fill him with uneasiness and foreboding. He noted the “country was singularly unfavorable to travel.” His notes seem more and more concerned with survival, and less with the legendary Mary’s Lake and Buenaventura River he was seeking. New Year’s Eve was but a sample of what was yet to come.
Fremont and his expedition never did find the mythical lake and river they had set out to find. Later on, however, he did discover other treasures, including Pyramid Lake, the Truckee River and Lake Tahoe. These explorers truly were the pathfinders for this part of the American West, despite the discouragement they felt on New Year’s Eve of 1843.