Travels in the American Southwest

Grave Cleaning & Cave Exploring

Up early, as usual, as Saturday dawned. Though it was light, sunrise was hours away as the Sand Mountain camping area is in the valley between the Sand Dunes to the west and the Sand Springs Mountain range to the east. Fired up the charcoal grill to cook the provisions which would carry me through the week.

Had all the doors of the minivan open as the breeze gently blew. Heard a thump, but since I didn't want the chicken and beef to burn, I promptly forgot it. Finished cooking a week's worth of provisions, bagged them in individual size servings and tossed them on ice. Put the hot coals in the previous night's campfire, then headed to the water buffalette to get some water to drown them. Rounded the back of the van when two things became apparent: 1. I had parked on an incline, the driver's side higher than the passenger's. 2. The thump I'd conveniently forgotten about was the water buffalette rolling off the shotgun seat landing on the sandy ground. The buffalette is a food-grade rubber, cone-shaped piece of military surplus. It holds 1,000 liters (roughly 25 gallons). It also weighs a bit over 200 pounds when filled with water. And it's sitting on the ground. I bent over to pick it up and return it to its proper place on the front seat. As I started to lift, my back shot a quick message to the brain consisting of "This idiot wants me to do what?" I slowly backed away from the buffalette. I fall back on old training. "Problem? If it's not life-threatening, brew a cup of tea", which is exactly what I did! Earl Gray with honey. As I surveyed the prostrate buffalette while sipping the hot drink, I ran a number of scenarios through my mind. I remembered the rough Archimedes quote about "Give me a lever and I'll move the earth." Hmm, a ramp is a type of lever. Click! Grabbed a wooden pallet and rug. Rested the pallet against the doorsill, tossed the rug over it and proceeded to roll the buffalette to the top of the pallet. From there, it was a snap to shove it back into the passenger's seat, this time fastening it securely it with the seat belt.

Loaded up the van and drove down the access road to US50. Stopped at the remnants of Cold Springs, one of the many Pony Express stations. An interpretive trail guides you through the ruins. As I pulled onto US50, passed by "The World's Loneliest Telephone". I'm pleased to report that since my visit in 2000, the phone (which had suffered many gunshots from testosterone laden yahoos) has been replaced and is operating condition.

A couple of miles to the west, I pulled off US50. One hundred yards north of the highway was my goal - The LeBeau grave. During my last visit, I gazed sadly at the toys previous visitors had left. Many were faded and broken having suffered through countless dust storms, drenchings from thunder showers and the pounding ultraviolet rays of the sun. I saw articles of clothing and stuffed animals which had become stiff and tattered in the alkali soil. I felt the grave should be cleaned, but felt funny removing the items only to dump them unceremoniously in a trash can. This year, I was prepared. Gently I removed the scraps of cloth and the broken toys, placing them carefully in a cardboard box. Merely faded but unbroken toys were left. The box and its contents would be disposed of respectfully in the upcoming week. (For more on the LeBeau Grave)

I continued west, headed for the Churchill County Museum. This is the starting point for tours of Hidden Cave offered only on the second anf fourth Saturdays of the month. I toured the surprisingly large museum which chronicles the region's history. From years ago to decades ago to centuries ago to  millennia ago, the museum has exhibits to pique the interest of most anyone. I tried my hand at grinding maize into meal. After a couple of minutes of grinding, I had new-found admiration for Native American women who did this daily for survival. About twenty-five to thirty other visitors joined me as we watched a short video on the history of the area with emphasis on Hidden Cave and its archeological treasure trove. We all hopped in our cars to caravan to the cave. Passing the boundary of the Naval Air Station, I could see fighter jets taxiing out to the runway for a morning flight into a clear blue sky. The scream of jet engines could be heard despite the van's windows being rolled up and the stereo blasting out the hits of July, 1967 - The Summer of Love.

As we gathered in the parking lot after a mile of dirt road, we watched the great cloud of dust we had stirred up move slowly west under guidance of the prevailing wind. Our guide was Dave of the Carson City BLM office. The tour began on a fairly easy trail. Dave pointed out petroglyphs explaining that the patina on the rocks making the glyphs possible was the result of the interaction of manganese and water over eons of time. Older abstract petroglyphs, such as holes pecked into the rock, are three to five thousand years old. 'Glyphs depicting lizards and animals (representative petroglyphs) are of much more recent origin, perhaps one thousand years ago. We stopped at a shallow cave on the hill. Dave explained that 15,000 years ago, the giant inland Lake Lahontan was 8,700 square miles in area. Where we stood was some 500 feet below the lake's surface. Of this, we are certain. Tufa (calcium carbonate) lined the shallow cave's wall. It was produced when hot spring's water combined with the cooler lake water. The calcium carbonate precipitates forming tufa. A series of giant "steps" seen on the surrounding hillside give further proof of a shoreline which continued to shrink as the lake got smaller and smaller due to changes in the region's climate. We continued our climb to the Hidden Cave. The cave was re-discovered in 1939. Being a cave, it housed a number of bats and bat guano makes a fine fertilizer. So this archeological site was at first simply a place to get high quality guano. It's reported that the guano removal was difficult because of "all the indian stuff". When a local Fallon resident heard this, she collected the uncovered artifacts. Today, these can be seen in the Churchill County Museum, Nevada State Museum and the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. Due to the isolated location, the guano harvesting ended after a short life and it wasn't until 1955 that the first archeological dig began. Digs began again in 1980 and the history of the cave became apparent. The excavations dated the origins of the cave back to about 16,000 BCE when the wave action of the shrinking Lake Lahontan created it. There are two layers of sediment during which habitation of the cave occurred, the first wave of habitation ended some 3,700 years ago. Relics such as many atlatls (a spear-thrower used during the Archaic Period around 2,000 BCE) were uncovered. After a roughly 2,000 year vacancy, the cave again was used around 1,700 years ago. Caches containing coprolite (dried fecal matter) were discovered as well as tools, presumably used to harvest marsh grasses and reeds. Studies of the coprolite provided much information on the users of the cave. It gave clues as to diet and general health of the inhabitants. Hormones present in the coprolite indicates that it was mostly women who relieved themselves in the cave. Why this was done is a subject of conjecture, however one theory which has gained adherents is the "Second Harvest". (If you have a weak stomach, I'd suggest you skip to the end of the paragraph. Since many seeds are not digested, they pass through the digestive tract. The seeds are then gathered in a "Second Harvest". When starvation threatens, the source of the food becomes of little importance.)
While viewing the archeological excavations, I was struck by what looked like a 1/2" horizontal chalk line. Turns out that the line is ash from the Mount Mazama volcanic pyroclastic eruption 7,700 years ago. Today, we know the remains of the eruption as Crater Lake in Oregon.

By noon, the tour was over and I was back in the van headed for Fallon. Stocked up on dry ice and popsicles because I was heading out to the Black Rock Desert where I and a forecasted 25,000 others were to construct and inhabit the fifth largest city in Nevada over the next week. Yep, I was off to Black Rock City, home of the annual Burning Man festival.

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