I wish California has sunk into the ocean before I had ever heard of it” (pg 251)

Here is another Version of They Were Tougher than We Are: Hard Road West by Keith Meldahl (2007)

Hard Road West is subtitled, “History and Geology along the Gold Rush Trail” and that’s an apt description.  The book is a unique treatment of the emigrant experience because although it talks about the history and the emigrants’ travel experience, it also talks about the geology of the route the travelers traveled en route to California.

In books about the emigrant experience it is the quotes of the emigrants that make the best reading because they bring to the reader the personal experience of the human element. Hard Road West has lots of good quotes though the “library’ of quotes is nowhere near as lavish as in other books like Emigrant Trails or Plains Across.

If you like geology, the ancient history of the planet, and the more modern history of Manifest Destiny and the Western migration, then you will like this exploration of the geology along the emigrant route.  Mr. Meldahl does not just talk about the structures of the earth along the route, he also goes into the ancient history of how the structures were formed.

Geologically you will learn about the “exhumation” of the Rockies which used to be buried and were uncovered over millennia by rivers.  You learn about granite, “Walk on granite, and you walk on rock that formed perhaps 10 or more miles underground. An astonishing fact, but no more so than what has to happen next. For you to touch granite, a stunning amount of geologic work must be done.  The granite must be uplifted from miles down, where it formed, and the intervening rock overhead removed.  This is why you find granite in the uplifted cores of so many mountains….  The granite decompresses as erosion scrapes away the overlying rock.  The release of pressure produces distinct expansion cracks called joins.  Joints in granite often come in sets of concentric, curving planes.  The broken rock peels away from these cracks like the layers of an onion…” (pg 99) Although he was talking about the Rockies here, the Sierra, their fractured and exfoliating granite work the same way.

To illustrate both the modern emigrant history and the ancient geologic history, there are maps and nice illustrative pictures both of the geology and of the emigrant experience.

The book became more interesting the closer to California and Donner Summit the route got.  The emigrant experience got much harder the closer to California they got too as these quotes show.  

The Humboldt River in Nevada
“The Humboldt River, the most miserable river on earth” (pg 214) is the title of one chapter prefaced with an emigrant’s quote, “Perhaps the Devil himself having cast his eyes over the world concluded to try his hand at making a river.  He made it in the night and laid it down so crooked and ragged that just at break of day when he stopped to look back at it, he got ashamed of himself and ran it into the ground (the Humboldt disappears into the Nevada desert rather than ending in a lake or the ocean). 

The emigrants had to walk along the 350 mile length of the Humboldt at the hottest time of year.  It’s hard to imagine was we fly along I-80 in air conditioned comfort.

That geography caused misery.  “I see at least a dozen men daily with their packs on their backs and the number is constantly increasing.”  They had lost their wagons and animals.  “We have been no little troubled today with the starving emigrants begging for provisions.  There is some that is tetotelly out;… God only [k]nows what they are to do.”  (pg 221)  

“The whole environment as far as the eye could reach was simply an abomination of desolation…More than half the wells [emigrants had dug along the route] were unavailable as they were filled with the carcasses of cattle which had perished in trying to get water.  To add to the natural horrors of the scene, about the wells were scattered the bodies of cattle, horses, and mules which had died here from overwork, hunger, and thirst; broken and abandoned wagons, boxes, bundles of clothing, guns, harness, or yokes,…”

More humorously another emigrant said of the Humboldt, “Farewell to thee! thou Stinking turbid stream /Amid who water frogs and Serpents gleam/Thou putrid mass of filth farewell forever./For her again I’ll tempt my fortunes never.” (pg 214)

Still another said, “Meanest and muddiest, filthiest stream, most cordially I hate you;/Meaner and muddier still you seem since the first day I met you./ Your namesake better was no doubt, a truth, the scriptures tell./Her seven devils were cast out, but yours are in you still.”

And then the Desert
From the miserable Humboldt, on to the “worst desert you ever saw.”  (pg 229) “Fortunately you couldn’t lose your way because “the route was clearly marked by dead and dying animals, and by abandoned wagons and their disgorged contents.”  The desert crossing was hard not just because it was a desert and hot and dry but because the emigrants were almost at their lowest points.  They were stressed beyond belief having been traveling for months and more than a thousand miles.  Their food was almost gone and the animals almost totally spent.  They had just finished the Humboldt’s 350 miles of “heat, dust, and foul water.”  There was just the promise of California a few weeks away.

“From one extremity of this desert to the other, the road was white with bones o oxen and horses.  It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that we could have walked the forty miles an set our feet on a bone at every step!  The desert was one prodigious graveyard.  And the log chains, wagon tires, and rotting wrecks of vehicles were almost as thick as the bones…”  Mark Twain in Roughing It quoted in Hard Road West.

The Truckee Dunes
And If the desert were not enough of a test, then came miles of sand dunes.  “The suffering that unfolded in the Truckee Dunes scorched every memory.”  It was “lined with dead cattle, horses and mules with piles of provision burned and whole wagons left for want of cattle to pull them though.”  “The dust flew in clouds, and we plodded wearily on, stopping every few minutes to bestow a half a dozen blows on our poor tired animals…some of them reeling as they went.”  “Countless animals sank down in the sand and  never got up.  Exhausted and whipped beyond caring, they lay with glazed and puzzled eyes, …The stench of decomposing flesh rose in appalling clouds.  California-bound emigrants were no strangers to animal suffering and death – but never on a scale like this.”  (pg 239)

Then deliverance, “If ever I saw heaven, I saw it then [the Truckee River]…Skidding down the final dunes, the emigrants came at last to the river. ‘It is wonderful to see cattle rush into the water…O how delicious! I know it was to me.’”  “Towering cottonwoods line the banks, catching the wind with a sigh and casting a corridor of cool shade through summer’s heat.  These were the first tall, shady trees most emigrants had seen since the Green River some 800 miles back.”

And Finally the Sierra
Arrival at the Truckee River was just a short respite.  If the sand dunes were not enough, now they were confronted with the Sierra.  “Rolling up the escarpment ‘was exactly like marching up to some immense wall built directly across our path.’ The view, though intimidating, was incomparably grand.   The ragged teeth of the range, flossed by Ice Age glaciers and whitened by eternal snows, soared magnificently overhead. …”one of the grandest and most sublimely picturesque Seenories [sic] that I ever beheld.”  “We never tire of looking at the great mountains we are soon to climb over.”

The emigrant experience through their quotes develops the human story.  Mr. Meldahl make the experience richer with the geographic commentary. He explains that the horrible Nevada desert is caused by the rain shadow of the Sierra which now confronted the emigrants.

The Sierra is a “mere babe among world mountains.” which began to rise about 5 million years ago although there is argument about that. There may have been some Sierra some 50 million years ago but lava flows from what is now the eastern Sierra, show the entire range cannot be that old.

The book ends with gold in California which is why most of the emigrants came.