Down in the Sink

On the Humboldt Sink, where the water comes to an end. Here it either rises into the sky or seeps into the earth. 

View of the Humboldt Sink from the southeast. Courtesy of photographer Famartin via Wikipedia Commons

Water has been the theme of life lately. More specifically, lots of it! In various forms too: rain, snow, frozen rain, floodwater, ice. Not to complain, I am loving this winter’s latest explosions. Any inconvenience is more than made up for by the good it does for all of us and the world we share with so many other living things. Tonight though, I’m thinking about a place where the water ends. Specifically, the Humboldt Sink. It has always been a place to rush by, the part of I-80 from Lovelock until you crest the hill and start arrive at the Fallon cut-off. A sort of blip in the map. But as I start to learn more about the Great Basin it occurs to me that sinks, even more so than mountain peaks or lush meadows, are the defining features of our part of the world.

A sink is a distinctive geographic feature; a basin from which no water escapes. Rather than flowing into some other basin (like an ocean), the water that flows into a sink does not flow out. It only leaves by evaporation or penetration (i.e., sinking into the groundwater). The Humboldt Sink is the end of the Humboldt River.

One Saturday we set out to explore the Humboldt Sink a bit, along with Lovelock Cave. The cave is an amazing piece of the human record of the Great Basin, a place that was occupied for over 4,000 years! After the cave we drove down the road and just walked out toward the sink. While we didn’t make it as far as the actual playa bed, just walking among the greasewood-dotted sand dunes,  swales and salt grass flats was striking.

This was also the beginning of the dreaded Forty Mile Desert, perhaps the most terror-inspiring and horrific place on the California Trail. Travelers were no fan of the place,

“In place of a great rent in the earth, into which the waters of the rivers plunged with a terrible roar (as pictured in our imagination), there was found a mud lake ten miles long and four or five miles wide, a veritable sea of slime, a ‘slough of despond,’ an ocean of ooze, a bottomless bed of alkaline poison, which emitted a nauseous odor and presented the appearance of utter desolation. ” —Reuben Cole Shaw, 1849

“Even the very wagons seem to know that we are off today for the great adventure—in sand, volcanic ash, alkali, furnace heat, and the stench of putrid flesh—We crossed along the edge of an immense baked plain with the fetid stinking slough for a guide, although the wreckage along the way almost paved our route…. It must have been here that one emigrant said he counted a dead animal every 106 feet.”

It was also an important place for Native Americans, and as such they often came into contact with and conflict with the newcomers. I highly recommend reading Across Nevada, a pamphlet put out in 2012 by the National Park Service from which the top quote is taken. It’s definitely gone into the library. The bottom, unacknowledged, one is from The WPA Guide to Nevada (already in the library).

It is a sink, and walking along in its sand dunes we often started to disappear a bit, giving us an even deeper feeling of walking into a place older somehow than everything around it. A place where more has disappeared than has remained. And, as described by John McPhee in Basin and Range, where a new ocean will one day appear:

“Death Valley. Walker Lake. Carson Sink.” An Exxon map of the western United States is spread open on the seat between us. He runs his finger from Death Valley to Carson Sink and on northward to cross the interstate at Lovelock. “The ocean will open here,” he repeats. “Or in the Bonneville Basin. I think here.” (p. 138 of his collected Annals of the Former World)

I don’t know if this is the most current geology, but this was what most caught my imagination when I read this fascinating book and remains for me a striking image, a metaphor even for the ability of reality to be transformed by the passage of time. That the place that I had driven by hundreds of times, where I walked with Renee and Coco on a calm and cool early spring day, where emigrants had cursed and fought, where Native Americans had seen the beginning of the end of their life ways with the arrival of bands of newcomers with terrible weapons and new diseases, that this place will become an ocean. We come across a perfectly molted snake skin and stop to examine its contours. One day it will open and where we are will be swallowed by a vast expanse of cresting ocean. We walk on, it’s easy to lose yourself in the vast plain until you lift your eyes to the ringing mountains.

The End of the Road at Massacre Lakes (3 of 3)

This is the 3rd installment for this post, read the first here and the second here. And now there is a fourth follow up here

In Winnemucca yesterday, Renee and I stopped at the Humboldt County Library. It is a pretty special place in my memory and it’s always a pleasure to visit there, both for nostalgia and to see artist, and friend, Megan Berner’s show from her Black Rock Desert Artist in Residency (but more on that later …) There was another purpose to this stop, however, it was to visit the library’s Nevada Room, where I guessed that I would find Effie Mona Mack’s 1936 book Nevada: A History of the State from Earliest Times through the Civil War, which contains another account of the events at Massacre Lake.

Mack was said to be, according to Wikipedia, “the only person to receive a Doctorate in the history of Nevada,” which seems pretty unlikely, but she was a professor at UNR and the precursor to UNLV. Among other books, she wrote The Indian Massacre of 1911 about “The last Indian battle of the West,” the murder of Basque stock men in Little High Rock Canyon by a Native American extended family led by the man most famously known as Shoshone Mike, and their pursuit and eventual (mostly) deaths at the hands of a Winnemucca posse (See Frank Bergon’s excellent novel Shoshone Mike on this). Mack’s Shoshone Mike book (I think the first) was very pro-posse and anti–Native American, so I didn’t really expect a balanced account of the Massacre Lakes events, but still its the last source to track down and I was curious to see her take. Here is Mack’s:

Massacre Lake was named for a fearful slaughter of emigrants which took place near there in the summer of 1850, a tragedy concerning which little is known. It seems, however, that this train was a particularly large one composed of several companies. The party had been bothered by the Indians on the Humboldt Trail, and several red men had been killed. Finally the party decided to make a united drive against the Indians, a fatal mistake. Although the Indians were driven back of the train and the white forces returned to their main encampment, the natives were not beaten. Almost at once, they gained on the white train, and attacked the camp when it was not prepared to defend itself. The men of the train finally gained the victory, but not until forty of them had been killed in defense of their wives and children. They were all buried in a common and unmarked grave. Every precaution was taken to obliterate its location lest the Indians disinter and desecrate the bodies.

Despite its biased language, there is an interesting detail in this this telling—first, direct provocation, the party “bothered” by Indians, had killed “several red men.” I don’t really think that her account here of the natives attacking the train is necessarily that likely. A train “composed” of several parties, and with well more than 40 men and the firepower that that entailed, would probably have been a pretty formidable force for less well-equipped natives to attack. Also, if the wagon train was attacked, then why would only “men” have died. All of the accounts stress this, and I would think in confused battle at the train, some women and children would have been at the very least caught in the crossfire, which doesn’t seem to be the case.

I think the account I shared in my last post is more likely. A force of men probably thought they would drive off the natives, attacked, and then, too late or too overextended, were overrun. The remainder of the party, barricaded in the wagon train, then would have emerged after the battle to bury the dead in their unmarked mass grave.

All of the sources I’ve examined, of course, have been written by the “victors,” and I would love to be able to look at the same story told from the other side. But (although if anyone reading this knows of anything else, please let me know) it is likely that not much else exists and it’s time for me to close this chapter anyway.

What is clear is that the Massacre Lakes name carries the weight of tragedy. These places that I find so idyllic, beautiful, peaceful are often illusions that hide stories of pain, suffering, violent death on all sides. (Although in the long run, and in contrast to this story, more for the Native Americans.) I am happy to focus on beauty and harmony, but it’s also important to acknowledge all that has gone on before and to try, even if only in the memory and the imagination, to honor it.

What Happened at Massacre Lakes? (1 of 3)

Looking east-ish from the dune tops toward Dr. Seuss’s farmstead.

One of the more striking places I’ve been lately has been Massacre Lakes in northern Washoe County with the Middle Lake’s Dr. Seuss–feeling old ranch site, obsidian strewn dunes, alabaster lake beds, and enormously moving sky. We barely even scratched the surface of the place on this first, a little fearful of rain, visit, but I can’t wait to be back.

Obsidian, obsidian, everywhere. From the top of the dune it caught sunlight and looked like broken glass strewn everywhere


Nice little obsidian rock


There is plenty of evidence of human intervention here


Another view of Dr. Seuss’s farmstead, check out @dannvdan on instagram for some more from this striking place!

But there is a thing, that name. Not exactly the kind of the name that says, “Hey, happy things happened here!” What did happen at Massacre Lakes? Well, first a little background from Wikipedia. The Massacre Lakes are a part of Long Valley, a closed, no water flows out, basin (endorheic is the technical term from Wikipedia). The lakes themselves extend into the ridge of the lava flows to the east toward the Sheldon Wildlife Refuge.

How did this striking place become Massacre Lakes? Well, you might guess. From Nevada Place Names: A Geographical Dictionary by Helen S. Carlson (Why don’t I own this book? Although this entry luckily included in the Google Books preview, page 164):

“A large and well-equipped wagon train was attacked near here in 1850 by Indians of the High Rock Canyon country. Forty men of the emigrant party were killed in the battle and interred in a common grave.”

So there you have it. Somewhere nearby there is a mass grave (I think if human history has taught us anything, one thing you can expect near a massacre site is a mass grave). But knowing more raises questions. Why was the train particularly “well-equipped”? How is it that exactly “40” “men” were killed. How many survivors were there? How many native casualties? What are the sources? (They of course are given, but the citation page isn’t in the Google Books preview so that will have to wait until I get to the library.) If it were a “massacre” then why does the source say “battle”?

Some of these things are surely just lost in the past, carried away by the persistent and prevalent wind, but don’t we owe it to ourselves to learn what we can?

* Continue reading here.