The Donner Party expected the Salt Desert to be forty miles wide, a journey of two days and one night. They loaded their wagons with as much water as they could carry, cut and stored grass for their livestock, and set off into the desert in 90-degree August heat. Their goal: Pilot Peak, a distant low mountain with a spring at its base.
(Right: My photo of Pilot Peak looming on the western edge of the Salt Desert.)
To their horror, the party found the distance to be eighty miles wide, a journey of several days and nights. The loss of wagons and animals was devastating.
Virginia Reed later described the desert as “a dreary, desolate, alkali waste; not a living thing could be seen; it seemed as though the hand of death had been laid upon the country.” She also claimed she and her family once saw a spooky mirage of themselves far across the desert, duplicating their every movement.
As I drove through the desert toward Pilot Peak via Interstate 80 in what is now Nevada, I could easily imagine the helpless terror Virginia must have felt as mile after mile, the sun got hotter, the water supply got lower, and the mountain seemed no closer.
(Abandoned Reed-Donner wagons on the Salt Desert floor: 1920s photograph.)