“There’s cotton thread ‘n’ needles for the folks way out yonder
A shovel for a miner who left his home to wander
Some rheumatism pills for the settlers in the hills
Get along mule, get along.”
-Tennessee Ernie Ford, “Mule Train” (recorded in 1949)
It all started with the spring. Whatever declension of fault-line or contortion of rock served to debouch that cool, miraculous torrent from the hillside, untold ages ago, that’s what transformed the place from useless to oasis. There is no denying the appeal of perennial water in the desert. The place’s greenness attests to that: thriving aspens and willows, the wild rose and wild iris, the monkeyflowers, goldenrod, and bog mallow, all crowding the spring’s channel. The dozens of resident bird species attest to that. Pygmy rabbits too, and badgers, mule deer, pronghorn, bighorn sheep. So do the knapped arrow points scattered about, the ancient rock-stacked hunting blinds and smoke-blacked caves, the piled bones of repasts long past. All unimpeachable evidence that this spot—known cartographically as Stevens Camp, coordinates 41º 29′ 24.92″ N, 119º 29′ 29.42″ W—is a treasured spot indeed.
Heading toward the north end of High Rock Canyon—after its steep roan walls fall away and its craggy ledges smooth out into the rolling gray-green hills of sagebrush country—one finds the route opening up wide onto a spring-fed meadow. The central wash (one imagines a stream coursing along in less droughty times), lined with wild rye and lupines, leads straight uphill to the spot. There is, today, a three-room cabin with piped-in spring water, an outhouse, some picnic tables, a horse corral and a fire ring. A runnel runs through the property, cool and gurgling. Tent sites are found just west, under the aspen grove. The spot affords far-reaching views to the south and east, of canyons and piedmont and purple-hazed peaks beyond. Within minutes—without an extraordinary show of effort—one grasps the appeal.
The first whites to see this site were probably John Charles Frémont and company, passing through in December 1843 during their second exploration of the area. Many more would follow in the next six years, as men like Jesse Applegate, Levi Scott and David Goff pioneered overland routes to Oregon and California that drew westering emigrants by the thousands. By late 1849, as the gold rush slowed to a trickle, fewer came to pass the spring. That year, one such emigrant, a J. Goldsborough Bruff, mentioned it in his journal:
“I walked up to examine the spring, following its meandering streamlet up. The ascent was considerable, and about 400 yds. from the road. Tall grass and willows, with small cotton-wood, marked the line of this rill; the granitic blocks were picturesquely piled about. When I reached the Mountain Spring I was delighted: A pool, at the base of a large rock, circular margin of pebble-stones, pebbly bottom, and the clearest, coolest, and sweetest water I ever drank. The beautiful reservoir was supplied by a large fountain gushing from a fissure in the large block above it, and delightfully shaded by a surrounding grove of willows and poplars.”
The early 1860s saw cattle arrive to the spring and its meadow, and the site would change hands from drover to drover for the next century at least. Various structures were erected through the years to house these buckaroos and their stock; one cabin burned down, others were dismantled and rebuilt. Sometime during this interval the spring took on an appellation—named after a Stevens family in nearby Surprise Valley, supposedly—and the surrounding property became known as Stevens Camp.
In the 1950s the property was owned by musician and entertainer Ernest L. Ford, who called himself Tennessee Ernie Ford and became somewhat famous for his country, gospel and pop recordings of that era. Best known for his rendering of the coal miner’s lament, “Sixteen Tons”, which in 1955 spent ten weeks atop the country music charts and eight weeks atop the pop charts, Ford constructed much of the cabin occupying the site today.
After more than a hundred years as a ranching homestead, Stevens Camp found itself subject to a governmental land swap. In 1975 the Bureau of Land Management acquired the property from White Pine Ranch and shortly thereafter opened it to public use on a first-come, first-serve basis. Free of charge. The only rules? Clean up after oneself. Pack out all trash. Maximum stay of 14 days. Respect the place as a privilege of the commons.
The site’s become a desert mecca of sorts. Pilgrims arrive from far and wide, often returning regularly throughout their lives, bringing first-timers into the fold. Most of them leave their mark in some fashion—such as signing the log book—and come away changed, often for the better. Hunters, trappers, off-roaders, bikers, horse riders, honeymooners, emigrant descendants, birders, Burners, Boy Scouts, BLMers, volunteers, adventurers, researchers, escapists, poets: the appeal is practically universal. People come and people go, and the place, remembered—current incarnation notwithstanding—stays with them.