[an error occurred while processing this directive]


  Field Notes From
The Way West

<< Back to Feature Page

View Field Notes
From Author

John Mitchell

View Field Notes
From Photographer

Jim Richardson

Unfiltered for authenticity, these accounts have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

on the California trails

Field Notes From Photographer
Jim Richardson

Visit The Way West: Sights and Sounds of the California Trails
I was down in Thousand Springs Valley in northwestern Nevada, where the pioneers passed to get to the Humboldt River, when I saw a lot of smoke ahead of me.

I realized a wildfire was coming straight at me. It filled the sky and stretched half a mile wide in front. Within a minute or two, a Bureau of Land Management ranger drove up and called it in to the firefighters. But for a good 45 minutes we were out there alone with this prairie fire.

I noticed that the California Trail actually bent off the main road and wandered off straight into the fire. What would it have been like for these travelers to have been out there with children, livestock, horses, and wagons and this fire coming at them. We have vehicles that go 60 mph (96 kph); theirs went 5 mph (8 kph) at best. What a terrifying experience it would have been!

For me, being out there alone with this kind of ephemeral thing was pretty spectacular.
Places to eat out there were really few and far between. Finding places to stay was equally difficult. At some of the motels I stayed in, you really expected to see Rod Serling come around the corner. All of the pioneers’ diaries related the loss of cattle along the trail and the sickening stench of their decaying bodies, so I wanted to depict that with a photograph of a dead cow or horse or, at least, some bleached bones. But I never found anything in the desert.

Out along the trail in western Wyoming, I did come across the carcass of a cow that was pretty well decomposed. The coyotes and the vermin had already gotten to it, but the rib cage was still laying there. So I decided that this was as good as it gets.

I stuck on a camera attachment called a right-angle finder, which allows you to look down and see what the camera sees, like a periscope. Then I pried one of the ribs apart and pushed the camera down into the cow’s body to take the picture from the inside out. It didn’t smell too bad; I grew up on a farm.

2000 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved. Privacy Policy       Advertising Opportunities       Masthead

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE HOME Contact Us Forums Subscribe [an error occurred while processing this directive]