Scattter a few dozen stubby pencils onto a table. Turn each one in place so it points generally north or south. These are the mountain ranges of the
Great Basin. Tempt an ant to find a path westward through the pencils. The ant wanders this way and that, finding a route around the ends of the pencils. This is the meandering westerly route of the Humboldt River, nosing its way west around the ends of the ranges for 350 miles before pooling up in the Humboldt Sink, about 20 miles south of present Lovelock, Nevada. There it dies, swallowed up by thirsty ground and dry air.
The idea that a river could simply end in the desert was an astonishing notion for many emigrants. Hailing mostly from the rainy East and Midwest, these people knew how a proper river should behave. A river got bigger downstream, swelled by the contributions of its tributaries. The Humboldt does the opposite. The river flows west into progressively hotter, drier country. As its tributaries dry up, and as the ground and air continually rob it of water, the river gradually shrinks and becomes more murky and saline. “The stream,” Lewis Beers observed, “begins to grow smaller as fast as we descend . . . towards its mouth or rather towards the place where it runs itself into the ground.”