-Journal entry of Israel S.P. Lord, emigrant on the Applegate-Lassen Trail, 1849
Looking at maps of Nevada’s Winnemucca District—an 11-million-acre northwestern portion of the state comprising all of Humboldt and Pershing counties, as well as parts of counties Washoe, Lyon and Churchill—one might assume that much of it is empty space, a simply immense vista of basin and range topography largely uninhabited except for cows, antelope and cheatgrass, and one would generally be correct. Centers of human settlement are few and far between, and often modest in size and homely in mien. Winnemucca, population 7,800, is Humboldt County’s seat and the district’s largest city, home to its sole Wal-Mart. Lovelock, some 70 miles southwest, has 1,800 residents. McDermitt, near the Oregon border, has 500. Orovada has 150; Denio, 110. Gerlach, self-proclaimed “Center of the known Universe,” has less than 250. It’s entirely possible that, of the 460,000 cattle lowing about Nevada these days, those roaming in the ranch-heavy Winnemucca District outnumber its human occupants ten to one.
From its tectonic conception some 17 million years ago out of a Miocene sea, through its volcanic beginnings and seismic coming-of-age continuing up to the present, Nevada has seen populations of various life forms come and go. Borne out by the fossil record is its once-abundant marine faunae; these lithified trilobites, ammonites, ichthyosaurs and armored fishes plied an equatorial benthos before Nevada and much of the West Coast was thrust up from the depths. Now their bones and calcareous housings are tied up in limestone formations across the state, mute testament to a wetter, warmer world.
Fast-forward to the Pleistocene, around 14,000 years ago, and the scene is much changed: intermittent ice ages bring glaciers down across the northern half of the state, carving canyons and gulches that fill with runoff to impressive effect. Lake Lahontan, one of North America’s largest lakes during this epoch, covered a concatenated 9,000 square miles at its zenith, all but drowning Nevada. A boat navigating its waters could have gone 250 miles from its north end to its southern shore, and 180 miles east to west. Huge stands of sequoia grew along its banks. Mammoths thrived in the colder millennia; giant camels, bison, and tiny, three-toed horses such as Mesohippus flourished later, during the glacial recessions. Not long after the glaciers disappeared, the climate went for a 2,000-year warming binge, shrinking lakes, stopping rivers, and drying springs until, by about 10,000 years ago, all the Pleistocene megafauna had disappeared from Nevada. It was around this time, interestingly, that humans arrived to the basin.
Prehistoric peoples dwelled on Nevada’s lakeshores as the last Ice Age ended, their advent (coincidentally) ushering in an almost unbroken period of warm, dry atmospheric conditions that reached present-day levels around 7,500 years ago. The descendants of these early Nevadans are the numerous tribes of the Great Basin: the Paiutes, Goshutes, Shoshones, Washos, and others. They formed itinerant bands, chasing game and forage through the seasons, never settling for long. They trapped jackrabbits, gathered pine nuts, caught fish, hunted waterfowl and antelope with arrows. Among the Northern Paiute, distinct groups were named for the foods they procured most readily—hence there were Cattail Eaters, Trout Eaters, Ground-squirrel Eaters. They were hardy, resourceful people in an unforgiving land. These indigenous humans kept no census data, but European explorers of the 1840s estimated their numbers within the Great Basin to be between 7,000 and 10,000 strong. As more and more whites emigrated westward throughout the late 19th century and beyond, the native population was pushed to the peripheries of its former range, then unceremoniously pushed out. What remains are outer remnants, mere parcels of land, reduced to relicts like the once-mighty Lake Lahontan of their forbears.
Amazingly, Nevada today is one of the fastest-growing states, population-wise—urban expansion in Las Vegas alone moves at a rate of two acres per hour and shows no sign of slowing. It goes without saying that all of this growth occurs in major cities and their exurbs; no one is itching to colonize the Winnemucca District as prospectors once did during the gold rush era. As mines were emptied of their ore and shuttered, the boomtowns mostly emptied out. Some areas stayed empty in the first place, their aridity and remoteness holding little appeal to most folk. It is telling that the state map given out at most visitor centers here bears the slogan “Wide Open,” the most positive spin on “Mostly Empty” I’ve ever seen.