1 trail center wy. elko, Nevada
Taking Highway 80 east from Elko, an off-ramp at exit 292 leads to the California Trail Interpretive Center. The location of the Center is particularly poignant to the history it represents. The California Trail was a network of trails, cutoffs and passes that lead people west to California. From 1841–1869, over a quarter million people crossed the country with hopes of obtaining wealth, land, and freedom. What was then the Truckee Route of the Trail is now Highway 80. From the Center’s courtyard, the viewshed includes the highway set against a landscape that was once considered formidable. Vehicles now easily move across it, with the impact of the surrounding mountain ranges barely recognizable through their windows.
In the Center’s plaza, you can look through a staged covered wagon and catch passing semis. Trails follow rivers, and roads pave over trails. These lines of migration get traced and retraced over centuries. Without the challenges of facing the Great Basin desert or the Sierra Nevada mountains, transcontinental mobility is different. There are few reminders of risk and even fewer feats of pride in its formidability. The view through the wagon’s bonnet onto the highway condenses time in a way that only seems possible via the stage of a museum— a place where artifacts get pushed up against the present.
Inside the museum is a wealth of information and exhibits. For a native Nevadan, the histories are familiar ones that have been encountered from elementary school on. It’s all so ubiquitous, that it’s almost irrelevant. What rises above the cries of mines and Manifest Destiny are the exhibits point a finger at groups that the history of the West has glossed over, Native Americans, African Americans, Chinese and women. From the selection of books in the gift store to the dioramas, there clearly is a concerted effort made to remind visitors that more than just white males endured hardship in hopes of a better life. This tone is set even before entering the museum. At the entrance to the plaza is a sculpture of a Native American woman carrying a basket in her hands and a child on her back. She quietly conveys that the women, the mothers and the native tribes as whole communities deserve a larger chapter in this history.
From the plaza to the exhibit, the museum is a celebration of perseverance and struggle, but that celebration is wrapped in a veneer. All of the corners are squared up and the edges polished. The sophistication of the exhibits benefits the visitors by offering multi-sensory and engaging information. What is lost is the idiosyncratic nature of a space that has come together over generations. The Center is a clean summary of historical facts that lack a human touch. It is a place for learning and not necessarily discovery. There is no room for the visitor to make inferences, catch the seams or fill in the blanks. Some of the allure of small town museums is that they promote and evoke exploration. They force the visitor to piece together a narrative, using logic, lore or research. There are spaces in between the recorded and the inferred.